This fascinating concept could help us better understand why belief in God is so widespread

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Psychology research published in the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior provides new clues as to why some individuals believe in a god while others do not.

The two-part study of 316 Americans found that religious “credibility-enhancing displays” (CREDs) were positively linked to the belief in God and religiosity.

In the study, the survey assessing “credibility-enhancing displays” included questions such as: “To what extent did your caregiver(s) act fairly to others because their religion taught them so?”, “To what extent did your caregiver(s) live a religiously pure life?” and “To what extent did your caregiver(s) avoid harming others because their religion taught them so?”

Individuals who were exposed to more of these religious CREDs tended to have a higher certainty in the existence of God. Conversely, those exposed less religious CREDs tended to have a higher certainty in the non-existence of God.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Dr. Jonathan Lanman of Queen’s University Belfast. Read his explanation of the research below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Lanman: I became interested in explaining who becomes a theist and who becomes a non-theist in 2007 when I noticed a rather odd juxtaposition. On the one hand, the previous decade had seen the rapid development of the cognitive science of religion, a field aiming to explain the existence and persistence of religious belief via cognitive universals.  On the other hand, that same decade had seen a surge in both popular atheist publications (such as Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion) and the memberships of atheist and humanist groups around the world.

If everyone had the universal cognitive mechanisms that drive religious belief, then why would we be seeing such a growth in atheism? I could only suspect that while cognitive universals make religious beliefs possible, they do not deterministically determine beliefs in all individuals and that other factors are necessary to explain who ends up a theist and who doesn’t.

I also wasn’t satisfied with the most well-supported theory on offer, the existential security hypothesis, which holds that nations with high levels of personal and social security produce many more nontheists.  The sociological connection seemed correct to me but the psychological assumption that a need for comfort in the face of insecurity explains religious belief struck me as implausible.  Religious ideas in highly insecure places are often far from comforting (think witchcraft beliefs and angry forest spirits).   Meanwhile, it’s in the affluent West where we’ve transitioned to such comforting ideas as New Age fulfillment and hell-less Christianity.  Also, while there’s a lot of evidence for motivated reasoning in psychology, there’s little evidence to suggest that we move from a state of unbelief in some entity to a state of belief simply because it would be comforting if that entity existed.

Existential security mattered, I thought, but had to be connected to theism and nontheism in some other way.  I thought that I found that other way when I came across Joe Henrich’s notion of Credibility Enhancing Displays and their role in affecting our beliefs.  If the CREDs hypothesis is correct, then we no longer need the assumption about people the world over coming to believe in supernatural agents because of a need for comfort.  Instead, we can recognize the abundant evidence suggesting that feelings of threat and insecurity increase our commitments to social groups (including religions) and our actions demonstrating such commitments.  In other words, feeling threatened and insecure increases the number and intensity of the religious CREDs people perform, which, in turn, allows for the successful transmission of religious beliefs to new generations.  High levels of existential security mean lower levels of CRED performance and, so I hypothesized, increased secularization.

In short, I became interested in CREDs because I saw them as potentially being a crucial causal element in explaining differing rates of secularization around the world.

What should the average person take away from your study?

I think this is one of those studies where a great many people will say that the conclusion is obvious. We have such sayings as ‘practice what you preach,’ ‘walking the walk,’ and ‘actions speak louder than words’ for good reasons.  I think most people get the idea that matching your words with your actions will make you more persuasive.   This study provides firmer quantitative evidence that this is indeed the case for theistic belief in the United States.

What might be new is just how important those actions are in comparison to words.  In our studies, when we put both our measure of general religious socialization (the talking the talk) and our measure of CREDs (the walking the walk) into regression models, the CREDs measure held all of the predictive power.  Actions matter more than words, but the evidence here suggests they matter dramatically more in convincing cultural learners of the existence of God.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

This study was only done in the United States, so we don’t know how widespread the CREDs effect is.  Recently though, Aiyana Willard and Lubomír Cingl have replicated the CREDs effect in Slovakia and the Czech Republic and Hugh Turpin has replicated it in the Republic of Ireland.  That’s still only a small sample of cultural environments, however.

Another major caveat is that our studies relied on retrospective self-reports about the actions of one’s parents during one’s upbringing. Such retrospective reports can be affected by a number of other things. To really be justified in making causal claims about CREDs, we’ll need more experimental research.  Initial experiments on CREDs are promising, but we have a ways to go.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The claim that exposure to CREDs is a major determining factor of who ends up a theist and who ends up a nontheist is a probabilistic claim, not a deterministic one.  Some people will get exposed to high levels of CREDs and reject theism while others will get minimal exposure and embrace it.   Further, there are certainly other factors that influence who ends up a theist and who doesn’t besides CREDs exposure, such as differences in particular cognitive biases and moral evaluations of specific religious traditions.

The study, “Religious actions speak louder than words: exposure to credibility-enhancing displays predicts theism“, was also co-authored by Michael D. Buhrmester.