New research sheds light on why being religious is positively associated with perceiving meaning in one’s life. While religiousness is associated with a sense of social significance, the findings provide evidence that what is more important is that religiousness is associated with a sense of cosmic significance. The research has been published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
“I have found that religious people will often claim that, if their religious beliefs weren’t true, then life would be meaningless. As someone who studies meaning in life, this makes me curious,” said researcher Michael Prinzing, a PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“What is it about religious faith that makes life feel meaningful? Psychologists who have studied the link between religiousness and perceived meaning in life have tried to explain it by pointing to the ways in which religions bring people into communities. These communities provide social support and a sense of purpose and significance, which make life feel meaningful.”
“However, I didn’t think that religious people themselves would offer that kind of explanation,” Prinzing explained. “When I talk with religious people about why their faith makes them think that life is meaningful, I have found that they tend to say things like this: ‘If God didn’t exist, then we would be just a cosmic accident. We would be mere specks of dust in the vast cosmic void, and there would be no significance to anything we do.’ That is a very different kind of explanation. In this paper, the idea was to test these two explanations: the academic psychologist’s explanation and the layperson’s explanation.”
The researchers conducted a series to studies to examine whether “social mattering” or “cosmic mattering” was more important in explaining the relationship between religion and meaning in life.
Their first study examined longitudinal data from 227 individuals who had participated in an experiment on the effects of meditation practices. Every night, the participants responded to questions such as “I had a sense of meaning and purpose in life,” “I felt God’s presence,” and “In the past 24 hours, how much did you feel socially integrated or ‘on the same page’ with others?” Once every four months, the participants also completed assessments of intrinsic religiousness, participation in public religious activities, participation in solitary religious practices, perceived meaning in life, and social integration.
Prinzing and his colleagues found, as expected, that more religious participants tended to find their lives to be more meaningful compared to less religious participants. In addition, the results indicated that “the times when a person is more religious tend to also be times when they feel a greater sense of meaning in their life.”
The relationship between religiousness and perceived meaning in life was partially explained by social integration. But the researchers found that social integration only accounted for less than a third of the association.
The second study examined cross-sectional data from 1,501 individuals who participated in The Baylor Religion Survey, which included assessments of religiosity, meaning in life, and social mattering. Participants responded to survey items such as “How often do you attend religious services at a place of worship,” “I have discovered a satisfying life purpose,” and “How important do you feel you are to other people?”
The assessments used in The Baylor Religion Survey, however, “were either not standard, validated measures or were abbreviated versions of such measures,” the researchers said. So, for Study 3, the researchers surveyed 489 adults from across the United States using scientifically-verified versions of the assessments.
Prinzing and his colleagues found that the pattern of results was identical across both studies. Namely, social mattering partially explained the relationship between religiousness and perceived meaning in life. But, again, it only accounted for a small proportion of the relationship — about 25%.
In their fourth study, the researchers sought to conduct a direct test of their hypothesis by measuring both perceived social mattering and perceived cosmic mattering. Three hundred and one participants completed an assessment of religiousness and meaning in life. They also indicated the extent to which they agreed with statements such as “My life matters to other people” and “My life matters in the grand scheme of the universe.”
Prinzing and his colleagues found that heightened religiousness was associated with heightened social mattering and heightened cosmic mattering, which in turn was linked to heightened meaning in life. But cosmic mattering accounted for a much larger proportion of the relationship between religiousness and meaning in life than social mattering. The researchers replicated the findings with another study of 654 participants.
“The primary takeaway is that both explanations for the link between religiousness and perceived meaning are correct, but the ‘cosmic mattering hypothesis’ plays the larger part. Religious faith appears to make life feel meaningful primarily because it appears to give people the sense that they matter even in the grand scheme of the universe,” Prinzing told PsyPost.
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“Since these studies were not randomized experiments, we must be careful not to jump too quickly to conclusions about causation,” Prinzing said. “Clearly, it is not possible to randomly assign study participants to differing levels of religiousness. Though, future research could test whether priming people with religious ideas leads to changes in perceived meaning in life, and whether this effect is explained by changes in perceived social vs. cosmic mattering.”
“Another limitation arises from the fact that the religious participants in our studies were almost entirely adherents of Abrahamic monotheisms (Christianity, Judaism, Islam),” he added. “It may be that things look very different among people from other religious traditions. Similarly, non-religiousness comes in many forms. There may be important differences, say, between people who left religion and people who have never been religious. Future research might explore these nuances.”
The study, “More Than a Momentary Blip in the Universe? Investigating the Link Between Religiousness and Perceived Meaning in Life“, was authored by Michael Prinzing, Patty Van Cappellen, and Barbara L. Fredrickson.