Cookies on this website
We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Continue' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

A faith in the explanatory and revealing power of science increases in the face of stress or anxiety, a study by Oxford University psychologists suggests.

The researchers argue that a ‘belief in science’ may help non-religious people deal with adversity by offering comfort and reassurance, as has been reported previously for religious belief.

‘We found that being in a more stressful or anxiety-inducing situation increased participants’ “belief in science”,’ says Dr Miguel Farias, who led the study in the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University. ‘This belief in science we looked at says nothing of the legitimacy of science itself. Rather we were interested in the values individuals hold about science.’

He explains: ‘While most people accept science as a reliable source of knowledge about the world, some may hold science as a superior method for gathering knowledge, the only way to explain the world, or as having some unique and fundamental value in itself. This is a view of science that some atheists endorse.’

As well as stressing that investigating a belief in science carries no judgement on the value of science as a method, the researchers point out that drawing a parallel between the psychological benefits of religious faith and belief in science doesn’t necessarily mean that scientific practice and religion are also similar in their basis.

Instead, the researchers suggest that their findings may highlight a basic human motivation to believe.

‘It’s not just believing in God that is important for gaining these psychological benefits, it is belief in general,’ says Dr Farias. ‘It may be that we as humans are just prone to have belief, and even atheists will hold non-supernatural beliefs that are reassuring and comforting.’

The researchers report their findings in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

There is evidence from previous studies that suggests religious belief helps individuals cope with stress and anxiety. The Oxford University group wondered if this was specific to religious belief, or was a more general function of holding belief.

The researchers developed a scale measuring a ‘belief in science’ in which people are asked how much they agree or disagree with a series of 10 statements, including:

  • ‘Science tells us everything there is to know about what reality consists of.’
  • ‘All the tasks human beings face are soluble by science.’
  • ‘The scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge.’

This scale was used first with a group of 100 rowers, of whom 52 were about to compete in a rowing regatta and the other 48 were about to do a normal training session. Those about to row in competition would be expected to be at a higher stress level.

Those who were competing in the regatta returned scores showing greater belief in science than those in the training group. The difference was statistically significant.

Both groups of rowers reported a low degree of commitment to religion and as expected, those rowers about to compete did say they were experiencing more stress.

In a second experiment, a different set of 60 people were randomly assigned to two groups. One group was asked to write about the feelings aroused by thinking about their own death, while the other was asked to write about dental pain. A number of studies have used an exercise on thinking about your own death to induce a certain amount of ‘existential anxiety’.

The participants who had been asked to think about their own death scored higher in the belief in science scale.

The researchers say their findings are consistent with the idea that belief in science increases when secular individuals are placed in threatening situations. They go on to suggest that a belief in science may help non-religious people deal with adverse conditions.

Dr Farias acknowledges however that they have only shown this in one direction – that stress or anxiety increases belief in science. The researchers suggest other experiments should be done to examine whether affirming a belief in science might then reduce subsequent experience of stress or anxiety.

Similar stories

New reporting guidelines developed to improve AI in healthcare settings

New reporting guidelines, jointly published in Nature Medicine and the BMJ by Oxford researchers, will ensure that early studies on using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to treat real patients will give researchers the information needed to develop AI systems safely and effectively.

Major boost for Oxford’s mission to counter future pandemic threats

The Moh Family Foundation has given a substantial gift to support the work of Oxford University’s Pandemic Sciences Institute, greatly strengthening its ability to identify and counter future pandemic threats and ensure equitable access to treatments and vaccines around the world.

Three NHSBT research units launch at University of Oxford

The NIHR has awarded three new Blood and Transplant Research Units (BTRUs) to the University of Oxford.

Fourth COVID-19 vaccine dose provides stronger immunity boost than third dose, shows UK study

COVID-19 vaccines given as fourth doses in the UK offer excellent boosting immunity protection, according to the latest results from a nationwide NIHR-supported study.

COVID-19’s high blood clot risk

A recent study of patient health records found that around 1 in 100 people with COVID-19 had a venal or arterial thrombosis, with rates higher still among males, and particularly for those hospitalised.

Medical Sciences Division receives REF 2021 results

Today the UK Funding Bodies have published the outcomes of the recent national research assessment exercise, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021. REF is the UK-wide assessment of research in universities, and provides an expert evaluation of the quality of the research outputs, impact and environment at subject level in each university.