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Anxiety May Play a Role in How Religious Beliefs Are Formed, Study Reveals

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent study examining anxiety's role in processing supernaturally themed information found that anxious people were more likely to recall supernatural details.
  • Researchers believe these findings can potentially help us better understand how religious beliefs are formed.

We know that our emotions can influence our attachments and ability to process information. And anxiety is an emotion with great strength. While an attachment to religious belief is often considered a comfort and fulfillment of various human needs, there's still some mystery surrounding why we do it.

A recent study examined anxiety's role in processing supernaturally charged information and found that anxious individuals were more likely to recall supernatural beings. This, researchers say, can potentially help explain how religious beliefs are formed.

The Research

The study, published in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, analyzed the results of an online recall test taken by 972 participants. The test aimed to determine whether the ability to remember supernatural agents was stronger in anxious participants over non-anxious participants.

To make this determination, participants were presented a story that had characters with both natural and supernatural abilities, such as mind control, immortality or an ability to see the future. They were then unexpectedly asked to recall details of the story immediately after, as well as three weeks later.

To determine anxiety's role in recall, half of the participants were prompted to view distressing images accompanied with text about a related potential threat before either being told the story or being asked to recall details.

Researchers observed that participants who felt anxious were more likely to remember characters with supernatural abilities than characters without. The supernatural aspects of the stories were also better retained after three weeks.

"These effects suggest that anxiety should incline people to attend to and remember god concepts, which some cognitive scientists propose sow the seeds of religious belief and devotion," according to the researchers.

Thomas Swan, Lead researcher

Our study provided the first bit of detail and addressed the “scary gods” criticism by finding that anxious people accumulate supernatural ideas because they are scary.

— Thomas Swan, Lead researcher

Examining Comfort Theory

Research has been done in the past linking anxiety to religious belief, claiming faith provides comfort. However this "comfort theory" neglects the fact that gods can also punish their followers by flooding the earth or sending them to purgatory after death.

Alternatively, researchers of the the study in discussion suggest their findings provide insight into how anxiety draws attention to gods, how that relates to belief and why malevolent gods still maintain a following.

"Our study provided the first bit of detail and addressed the 'scary gods' criticism by finding that anxious people accumulate supernatural ideas because they are scary," says the study's lead researcher Thomas Swan. "While comfort theory may ultimately be correct, given that this scary representation is either short-lived or augmented in a believer's mind, our research suggests the process is initially discomforting."

Jaclyn Bauer, PhD

We like to believe that our higher power is loving and kind, so when something negative happens to us, it doesn't fit in our psyche. We are then filled with a contradiction and need to make sense of the split, and a malevolent god helps people make sense of negative events.

— Jaclyn Bauer, PhD

This would also help explain how believers keep the faith amid experiencing negative events. This connection can help an individual make sense of it all, says psychologist Jaclyn Bauer, PhD, founder and CEO of Virtue Supplements.

"We have all had some experience of loss, sadness, frustration and anxiety," Bauer says. "We like to believe that our higher power is loving and kind, so when something negative happens to us, it doesn't fit in our psyche. We are then filled with a contradiction and need to make sense of the split, and a malevolent god helps people make sense of negative events."

Similarly, belief can offer a sense of control when life may feel quite the opposite, says psychotherapist and author Annalise Oatman, LCSW.

"Being offered a system for understanding this vast, chaotic and unpredictable world offers a sense of control, mastery and efficacy," she says. "Religion taps into our emotions by responding directly to that universal human existential anxiety and longing to understand and master the environment."

Belief and Mental Health

Our emotional states affect how we process information. Swan suggests these findings can help us better understand how our own emotional states influence our attachments to supernatural or religious beliefs.

He points to examples like Harry Potter books, Marvel movies, and the Bible for reflecting on what you might've been feeling or going through upon first interacting with these materials.

"It is worth considering how our interests and beliefs have been shaped by these biases," Swan says. "It may be that feeling anxious made the supernatural content of these stimuli difficult to ignore. Once enthralled, belief or at least fandom may not have been far behind."

What This Means For You

Staying mindful of our emotional states, especially anxiety, when we're processing information can help us form healthy and positive attachments.

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  1. Swan T, Halberstadt J. Anxiety enhances recall of supernatural agentsInt J Psychol Relig. Published online April 12, 2021. doi:10.1080/10508619.2021.1898808