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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 2

How Science Mimics Faith

People may use trust in science as others use religious faith to cope with life's uncertainties



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Religion provides a sense of meaning and comfort for believers, and studies show that such beliefs intensify during threatening situations. Now research suggests that some people's faith in science may serve the same role.

Miguel Farias and other researchers at the University of Oxford and Yale University investigated whether it is belief in religion that is beneficial or in fact any belief about the world's order and our place in it. In two related experiments published in November 2013 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the scientists developed a scale to measure belief in science—the view that scientific inquiry offers a superior guide to reality. As expected, belief in science was inversely correlated with religious beliefs. Next the researchers assessed whether belief in science increased in threatening situations. The first experiment compared a group of rowers at a low-stress training session with a group of rowers just about to compete in a high-stress regatta. The second experiment manipulated some participants' existential anxiety by having them write about their thoughts and feelings regarding their own death. Participants reported greater belief in science in both threatening situations, just as subjects in past studies have displayed an increase in religiosity in similar scenarios.

“It is likely that some people use their ideas about science to make sense of the world and for emotional compensation in difficult situations in the same way that religious people use their supernatural beliefs,” Farias says. “Our findings suggest that it may be belief itself, regardless of its content, that helps people deal with adverse situations.”

This article was originally published with the title "Science as Faith."

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