Study examines interplay of faith in religion, politics

Duke students disheartened by the midterm election results may soon renew their religious faith.

During times of uncertainty, people seek structure and become increasingly dedicated to religion or politics, according to a November study co-authored by Aaron Kay, an associate professor at the Fuqua School of Business.

“We showed that when your faith in an interventionist god gets shaken, you place more faith in government, [and] when your faith in government is shaken either by experimental manipulation or by an election, you’re more likely to put your faith in a controlling deity,” said co-author Adam Galinsky, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

In their paper titled “For God (or) Country: The Hydraulic Relation Between Government Instability and Belief in Religious Sources of Control,” the authors use the physical metaphor of a hydraulic system—in which force at one point is transferred to another by a fluid—to conceptualize the way people transfer beliefs from one institution to another.

Methodologically, researchers influenced the faith of Canadian and Malaysian subjects by having them read essays advocating for or against an interventionist god based on support from physicists. Researchers used a similar method to affect confidence in government, timing their studies to elections.

Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the article builds upon a body of research into general human agency.

“One of the central animating forces governing psychology is having a sense of agency over the predictable world,” Galinsky said. “When that sense of control is somehow violated or taken away, people go to a great level of mental gymnastics to try and preserve it, establishing patterns with things like conspiracy theories.”

This mental flexibility may be derived from the overlap in people’s perceptions of the two institutions. Religion and politics are not mutually exclusive, said Dean of the Chapel Sam Wells.

“I’m not sure I see politics and religion as such separate spheres where you either invest in one or invest in another,” Wells said. “Both involve the discernment of the best use of resources for the common good—either tax dollars or the Holy Spirit.”

One of the study’s implications is that religious extremism may be more prevalent in states perceived to have weak governments.

“Although there are undoubtedly multiple causes of religious belief, one cause may be that when people perceive their government as unstable, they turn to God or other religious deities to fulfill a need for order and control in their lives,” Kay said in an Oct. 27 press release.

This follows, said Dean Wells, because the implicit objectives of both politics and religion are the same.

“In some ways the political approaches that dominate American political life are rife with theologies, because theologies wrestle with what is fundamentally wrong with the world and what fundamentally makes it better.”


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