Religiosity and belief in conspiracies

By February 12, 2023Religion, Society

Researchers have noted the similarities between religion and features of conspiracy theories, but the nature of this overlap has been uncertain. Some have suggested that the two beliefs fulfil similar psychological needs, such as a sense of belonging, a sense of control and a sense of being ‘in the know’. Others suggest that the beliefs share cognitive styles, with both beliefs suggesting there is more to the world than is visible and that invisible forces are at play and that they both offer “anomalies as explanatory starting points.” Both tend to have similar political orientations. However, it has been unclear what these parallels mean empirically for their relationship. They could either serve as surrogates or as complements for each other1.

There are two theory-driven possibilities for this relationship. If conspiracy theories and religions serve as surrogates for each other by fulfilling similar psychological needs, the two beliefs should be negatively correlated. However, if conspiracy beliefs and religious beliefs stem from the same values and cognition, this would indicate a positive correlation that might be diminished—for example—by controlling for shared political ideologies. One study approached this question with a meta-analysis (N=10,242), of large Christian-dominated datasets from Germany, Poland and the United States (N=12,612), and a preregistered U.S. study (N=500). The results indicate that the correlations between religiosity and conspiracy theory endorsement were positive, and political orientation shared large parts of this covariance. They concluded that similarities in the explanatory style and ideologies seem to be central for the relation between intrinsic religiosity and endorsing conspiracy theories, and that psychological needs only play a minor role2.

There are huge number of conspiracy theories (CTs) and they vary widely in popularity, the intensity with which they are believed, and their effects on individual and collective behaviour. An integrated account of CTs needs to explain how they come to appeal to potential believers, how they spread from one person to the next, and how they motivate collective action.

One study summarises these aspects under the labels ‘stick’, ‘spread’, and ‘action’. They propose the quasi-religious hypothesis for CTs. Firstly, they use the cognitive science of religion*  to describe the content of CTs that explain how they come to stick: CTs are quasi-religious representations in that their contents, forms and functions parallel those found in beliefs of institutionalised religions. However, they lack many of the institutional features of organised religions. Secondly, they use social representations theory**  to explain how CTs spread as devices for making sense of sudden events that threaten existing worldviews: CTs allow laypersons to interpret such events by relating them to ‘common sense’, thereby defusing some of the anxiety that those events generate. Thirdly, they use frame theory***  to explain how some, but not all CTs mobilise collective counter-conspiracy action by identifying a target and by proposing credible and concrete rationales for action3.

Relating CTs to common sense brings to mind something my father, ever the wise counsel, told me decades ago: ‘common sense is not that common’. Of the people I know, many are religious people and many are not. Among those are a few conspiracy theorists, and although it is a relatively small sample size, all but one of them is religious.

*Cognitive Science of Religion: Cognitive science of religion brings theories from the cognitive sciences to bear on why religious thought and action is so common in humans and why religious phenomena take on the features that they do. Topics receiving consideration include how ordinary cognitive structures inform and constrain the transmission of religious ideas, why people believe in gods, why religious rituals and prayers tend to have the forms that they do, why afterlife beliefs are so common, and how human memory systems influence socio-political features in religious systems4.

**Social Representations Theory: The concept of social representations was developed as a social psychological approach articulating individual thinking and feeling with collective interaction and communication. Social Representations are conceived as symbolic forms that come about through interpersonal and media communication. They are the ways individuals think, interact with others, and shape social objects in their interaction with the local world5.

***Frame Theory: A frame is a central organizing idea for making sense of relevant events and suggesting what is at issue. The rhetorical power of a frame comes from its function to heighten the salience of some aspects of reality over others. Facts take on meaning through a frame that organises them and gives them coherence, making some facts more noticeable than others. Frames provide interpretive cues. They are composed of key concepts, metaphors, images, and symbols to structure transmission of meaning. In social science, the idea of a “frame” originated in the 1950s to describe how preconceptions influence the way people interpret and assess a given situation. More recently, it described how people think and make judgments from within a constellation of consistent narratives that help them process information6.




  • Laurie Pullman says:

    If you are raised to not only believe nonsense but to believe that believing nonsense is a virtue, you will have no trouble believing other nonsense as well. I gained this insight oh-deary-me years ago while dating a self described “young christian”. The way her friends jumped from one loony idea to the next on a nearly weekly basis was hilarious.

    I’ve since had it confirmed talking to an ex-evangelical. Smart fella but he admits his leaving “the church” was because of personal crisis not because he worked out their nonsense was nonsense – that came later, once he was outside. He’s still prone to latching onto nonsense (he’s terrified of COVID and the vaccine, for example) but can actually talk stuff through now.

    The insight I got from him was how frightened they are. They live in fear, all the time. That much agrees with the multiple studies that show self described conservatives, which is highly correlated with religiosity (Christ! Is that even a word? My spellchecker thinks so…), have a more active flight or fight response than the general population and are more likely to react with disgust or fear to unfamiliar situations. Cause or effect? I don’t know.

    • admin says:

      It is commonly said that religion arrived when the first conman met the first sucker; however that is not quite true. Based on my limited reading, religion was an attempt to explain the natural world as much was a mystery. With the advent of science those supernatural explanations were needed less and less. Religion tried to move away from the supernatural explanations of natural phenomena by stating that it was not about explaining the world but telling people how to live. Given the current crop of so-called Christians, that hasn’t been much of a success. However, despite this attempted shift there are still people who adhere to the ‘god of the gaps’ attempts to explain the ever decreasing gaps in the scientific understanding of the natural world. Although not known for their foresight, they can see those gaps getting fewer and smaller and therefore, their version of religion getting smaller and smaller in scope. This engenders fear of the future and coupled with the vastly increased rate of advance in technology and science, that only exacerbates the fear they feel. Even in my profession the rate of change has increased such that it is harder to keep up with the literature despite google and google scholar. I suspect this is in part because of digital technology increasing the rate at which new stuff comes out.

  • Jon says:

    The statistical validity and credibility in ‘2’ is way beyond my knowledge but I’m HIGHLY skeptical of correlations and metastudy analyses after reading a previously mentioned book on statistics, randomness, probability, correlation etc (Chancing It: The Laws of Chance and How They Can Work for You – Robert Matthews, see below). That book made me look at published papers and their conclusions in a different light – esp as far as the validity and significance of correlations is concerned.

    Anecdotally it appears that the propensity to believe in and/or embrace conspiracy theory (not to be confused with the promotion of conspiracies, which is mired in the unethical and immoral pursuit of wealth and power) is at the right/fascist end of the political spectrum. In the USA this MIGHT correlate to neo-conservatism in a VERY small number of people (who also nominate as “religious”), but beyond that my gut tells me that there are many more important factors involved. For example, education, intellect, wide reading, lack of analytical ability, personal situations in life etc.

    In short, I’m not convinced, and even if there is a credible correlation I’m skeptical that it’s a significant factor.

    • admin says:

      I have often thought about what else may be involved in such belief systems. I think the variables are so numerous that psychologists and others tend only to look at one correlation at a time and try to make sense of it. For instance, in a study which I wrote about years ago, it was determined that it wasn’t the wealthy that voted for Trump, as was initially suspected, but the uneducated. However, this was based on a statistical look at all counties in the US and showed that a lower average education in a county, indicated a likelihood that such a county voted for Trump. Despite this, a fair proportion of people in these same counties voted against Trump. Humans are complex organisms with complex psyches, and trying to understand them is difficult to say the least. I think, as you suggest, these are statistics and trying to make sense of such correlations is never straightforward. However, it is better than making assumptions without any, even statistical, evidence. Another difficulty stems from people’s propensity to assume that a correlation is causation and that a correlation coefficient, no matter how slight, indicates that all uneducated people voted for Trump.

  • Jon says:

    Having grown up in the Catholic world I think it’s quite erroneous to believe that “religious” people are all tarred with the same brush. Many if not most don’t actually believe the religious “nonsense” and the vast majority are as capable of reason, rational thought and analysis as the rest of the community. There are exceptions obviously, but these people are not representative and their views are strongly rejected by other moderate Catholics.

    Don’t know whether you saw it BA but this opinion piece on education is excellent imo.
    A huge rebuff for the Scots College Council chairman Reverend Glen Pather, who apparently doesn’t understand the point of non-religious education or at the very least thinks it’s relatively unimportant.

    Here’s the key part:
    “Pather asked what kind of enduring skills should be instilled in students so they may ultimately thrive. Here I expected him to set out the school’s mission, for the coming year and into the future. One might reasonably expect the answer to contain elements of lifelong learning, a commitment to excellence and truth, humility, a respect for diversity, a pursuit of curiosity.

    There was none of that. After quoting from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the oft-quoted passage about love, Pather stated: “therefore love is more important than knowledge or abilities”. He went on to say: “all our good abilities are only of value in this life and will be of no use in eternity. Teaching others is good, but there will be a time when teachers, even Bible teachers, will be unnecessary. There will be a time when doctors will have no work, and all the good and meaningful jobs we pursue now would be pointless.” His conclusion: “So, the best way to ultimately prepare for the future, is to encounter the love of Christ.”

    Astonishing. The statement belongs in the Dark Ages an is redolent of religious officialdom’s attitudes two hundred years ago.

    • admin says:

      Yeah, as I said in an earlier comment reply, humans are complex animals. The only real tool we have to understand them is statistics and that is a pretty poor tool at that. I know I am biased in being an atheist and a scientist, but the most important thing we can do is educate people, not in the ways of verbal flatulence uttered by Pather, but in science, because humanity faces its greatest challenge in this century and beyond, which could make all the wars in the previous centuries look like tea parties by comparison. Pather’s drivel is just part of a continuing attempt to boost the bums on pews, as the current decline frightens them.

  • Jon says:

    Superb article from a researcher at the Au Catholic Uni in today’s SMH. A must read. Insightful, wise and knowing, a welcome respite from the extreme and reactionary garbage we’re getting from people looking to find offence in all manner of things, and to wreak punishment out of all proportion to the perceived slight.

    • admin says:

      Quite a good read, but one sentence made me laugh: “A self-confident religion takes criticism and doesn’t rush to demand retribution against its heretics.” There are many people in the past who have suffered at the hands of the catholic church for bogus reasons. I look forward to the day when being a catholic or a pentecostal will be looked upon much as a person who barracks for Collingwood rather than Carlton. This is one aspect of the decline of religion which seems to have upset may of the religious; the pervasiveness of ridicule.

      • JON says:

        Don’t think he was suggesting that any religion on earth actually does that (the history of Catholicism – presumably his faith – shows otherwise as he would be well aware), rather that they ought. Quite a progressive viewpoint and not one which would be supported in the Vatican cloisters or among hypocritical church conservatives (Pell etc) I imagine. It actually follows the teachings of Christ to “turn the other cheek”.

        • admin says:

          I realise that he wasn’t suggesting that it happens, but that it needs to. It is one of the ironies that ‘modern’ Christians seem to mostly ignore much of the stuff that Jesus is supposed to have said.

  • JON says:

    Really tragic news:

    No doubt Iles will find another lucrative job sticking his finger in imaginary dykes and poking his appendages into other people’s lives while ignoring large passages of the bible he claims to live by.

    • admin says:

      What a hoot! I suspected it would have been a vain hope that Iles would have been given the bum’s rush for his assertion that violence may be acceptable in the quest for christian political power, or for his Trump sycophancy, or for his bigotry; or his flirting with the far right; but no. It is because of the need for a change in strategy. Nowhere in that piece is it mentioned that religion is in decline world-wide, and that politicians dabbling with groups of religious nutters will be an electoral liability. What I also find funny is some nutter talking about “faith family and liberty”. These people always talk about freedom, but are most concerned with controlling people’s lives.

      • Jon says:

        Their obsession with sex and sexuality is as bewildering as it is revealing about their psyches and priorities. If they took one tenth of the time fighting poverty, violence, corruption, religious hypocrisy, lies, abuse and inequality etc etc etc, the world would be a better place.

        • admin says:

          Like you, I find their obsession with sex and sexuality completely mystifying. The christians are being exposed for their rampant hypocrisy in ignoring just about everything their supposed Jesus is reputed to have said. And they wonder why people are leaving churches in droves.

  • JON says:

    Excellent (brief) article on democracy and Christianity by a man whose reputation and ethics have always shone like a beacon.
    An extract to whet the apetite:
    “It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.” (Billy Graham)

    • admin says:

      It was a good read. As you say, his ethics have shone like a beacon, something that very few christians could be accused of these days.

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