A large study published in the journal Political Psychology suggests that the link between conspiracy belief and religiosity is rooted in cognitive similarities between the two beliefs. The overall findings suggest that people with higher conspiracy belief also tend to be more religious, and this is likely driven by overlapping ideological and political worldviews.
Scholars have noted the similarities between religion and features of conspiracy theories, but the nature of this overlap is uncertain. Some researchers have suggested that the two beliefs fulfill similar psychological needs, such as morality, belonging, and sense of control. Others suggest that the beliefs share cognitive styles, with both alluding to invisible forces at play and offering “anomalies as explanatory starting points.”
“Several similarities have been noted between religiosity and conspiracy theory beliefs: Both suggest that there is more in the world than is visible, both promise to address similar needs like to understand the world, and both tend to speak to similar political orientations. But it was unclear what these parallels mean empirically for their relation. They could either serve as surrogates or as complements for each other,” explained study author Marius Frenken, a doctoral research assistant at the Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz.
Frenken and colleagues were motivated to consider which of these theories is most accurate, by exploring the correlation between belief in conspiracies and religiosity. If the two ideologies fulfill similar needs, a negative correlation should be found, since people would be expected to endorse one or the other. But if religiosity and conspiracy belief share cognitive features, a positive correlation should be found, since people who believe in one should be more likely to also believe in the other.
The researchers first conducted a meta-analysis of previous studies that reported relationships between conspiracy mindset and religiosity or specific conspiracy beliefs and religiosity. While most of the samples were based in the United States, the analysis also included non-Christian samples from Iran and Turkey. The findings revealed a significant positive correlation between religiosity and conspiracy mindset and a slightly stronger correlation between religiosity and the tendency to endorse specific conspiracy beliefs.
Next, the researchers conducted a series of follow-up studies. Data from two US samples revealed small to medium-sized positive correlations between religiosity and conspiracy mindset and religiosity and specific conspiracy beliefs. Notably, these effects decreased substantially when controlling for political beliefs, suggesting that the relationships between religiosity and conspiracy belief were largely driven by shared political ideologies.
“The relation between religiosity and the endorsement of conspiracy theories is politically laden,” Frenken told PsyPost. “Many conspiracy theories speak to the political right and religiosity is in many countries also more pronounced in the right political spectrum. These overlaps with political orientation could explain why religiosity and conspiracy beliefs are often positively associated.”
However, separate analyses of German and Polish datasets revealed negative correlations between religiosity and conspiracy mentality. But the Polish data revealed a positive relationship between religiosity and belief in specific conspiracy theories. Similar to the US sample, the strength of the relationship decreased and was no longer significant after controlling for political orientation.
The authors say the findings are largely in line with the hypothesis that religiosity and the endorsement of conspiracy theories share similar cognitive features. “The positive correlations suggest that similarities in the cognitive and explanatory style—like assuming hidden powers behind events—speak to the same persons and dominate the relation between conspiracy theory endorsement and religiosity,” Frenken and colleagues wrote in their study.
The results further suggest that this is especially true in the US, where religiosity and conspiracy belief seems to be particularly enmeshed with political belief. “We observed cultural differences regarding the role of religion,” Frenken told PsyPost. “While there is a general tendency to suspect sinister forces at play among religious people in the United States, this tendency is reduced for religiosity in the examined European countries.”
But “religiosity should not be confused with spirituality or supernatural beliefs as it is more institutionalized and rather a mainstream phenomenon,” Frenken noted. “Spirituality and supernatural beliefs are strongly correlated with conspiracy beliefs without any political overlaps.”
A limitation to the study was that it examined mainly Christian samples, and the results may not generalize to other religions. “And as always in correlational studies, the causal directions of the associations are subject to further research,” Frenken said.
The study, “On the Relation Between Religiosity and the Endorsement of Conspiracy Theories: The Role of Political Orientation”, was authored by Marius Frenken, Michał Bilewicz, and Roland Imhoff.