When feeling stress, or faced with existential angst, there are benefits to being a believer. A comprehensive way of making sense of the world, and our place in it, can provide consolation when it’s needed most.
For many people, of course, that belief system is religious faith. But new research suggests others have found a different source of solace: science.
“Our findings suggest that belief in science may help non-religious people deal with adverse conditions,” reports a research team led by University of Oxford psychologist Miguel Farias. “Despite their different methods, both science and religion offer powerful explanations of the world," the researchers write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, "which may work at an intuitive level to provide comfort and assurance.”
As Farias and his colleagues note, many studies have shown the psychological benefits of religious faith, while others suggest that such secular belief systems as humanism, or even faith in human progress, can play a similar role as a source of meaning and motivation.
They hypothesized that the same needs could be met through a “belief in science,” which they describe as seeing science “as a superior, even exclusive, guide to reality, and as possessing a unique and central value.” But would people with that conviction lean on it in tough situations, as the devout do with religious faith?
Those who had thought about their own deaths reported a “significantly greater belief in science” than those who had not.
Two experiments suggest the answer is "yes." The first featured 100 rowers, accomplished amateur athletes who take part in international competitions. Half were surveyed less than an hour before competing in a regatta; the others were questioned at a training session.
All answered the questions “How much stress do you feel at this moment?” and “How religious do you consider yourself to be?” In addition, they filled out a 10-item belief-in-science survey, in which they rated their agreement with such statements as “The scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge” and “We can only rationally believe in what is scientifically provable.”
The results: Among members of this group, which “reported a very low degree of religious commitment,” those in the high-stress group—that is, those about to enter a competition—reported a greater belief in science. This suggests such a belief “may help secular individuals to cope with stress,” the researchers write.
The second experiment, featuring 60 students and staff members from two British universities, addressed whether thoughts of one’s own mortality would boost belief in science. Half of the participants were assigned to write about the thoughts and feelings aroused by considering their own death. The others wrote about experiencing dental pain. All then took the belief-in-science questionnaire, along with questions measuring their religiosity and spirituality. Their answers showed that, once again, this was a largely secular group.
The key result: Those who had thought about their own deaths reported a “significantly greater belief in science” than those who had not.
Farias and his colleagues are careful to distinguish between “belief in science” and what they call “scientific determinism,” which they define as “the extent to which people believe that their behavior is shaped and determined by nature, genes, and the environment, as opposed to their own volition.” Thinking about mortality did not change participants’ views regarding that belief system.
This suggests the consolation they received arose from their belief in the value of scientific inquiry as a way of obtaining knowledge, rather than an endorsement of any specific set of beliefs that may emerge from that process.
These results are somewhat surprising, in that science—unlike both religion and secular humanism—isn’t automatically associated with optimism or faith in a better future.
Nevertheless, the researchers conclude, “merely believing in the superiority of science as a method of making sense of the universe may be sufficient” to play a comforting role in difficult times.