Religion and submission
- Published on 09 September 2011
- Written by Nicholas C. DiDonato
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Atheists frequently label religious believers “sheep:” in their view, religion acts as an opiate that causes people to follow authority blindly. They point out that authoritative texts, religious leaders, and/or deities exist in the majority of the world’s religions. Empirically investigating the truth of this stereotype, psychologists Patty van Cappellen, Olivier Corneille, Stéphanie Cols, and Vassilis Saroglou (all Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium) found that religion in and of itself does not correlate with submissive behavior, but that it appears to trigger submissiveness in individuals with submissive personalities.
Based on previous research, the authors knew of correlations between religiousness and submissiveness, but did not know if religion itself correlated with submissiveness or if religion merely brought out the already latent submissiveness in individuals. They decided to hypothesize that religiousness would play no direct role in submissiveness, and that religious priming would exploit the submissive tendencies of naturally submissive people.
To test their hypothesis, the researchers designed an experiment that first primed its subjects religiously and then provided them with an opportunity to conform. The priming consisted of flashing a string of letters on a computer screen and then asking the participant to categorize the string as a word or a non-word. The experimental group saw words such as heaven, miracle, spirituality, baptism, tradition, salvation, and faith, while the control group saw butter, hammer, ladder, news, diary, glue, handkerchief, and other non-religious words.
The submissiveness test that followed displayed a series of “a”s, ranging from 148 to 1156, for four seconds—not nearly enough time for anyone to calculate how many “a”s actually appeared onscreen. Once the time expired, the participant received three estimations for the number of “a”s, which they were told came from previous test takers. The participant could side with one of his or her peers, or submit an independent answer. The three estimations deviated from the true “a” count by 20%, 25%, and 30% respectively, leaving plenty of room for increased precision.
As a final measure, all the subjects completed surveys that measure submissiveness and religiousness. From the International Personality Item Pool, the authors employed the Dominance, Conformity, and Dependence subscales to gauge submissiveness. They evaluated religiousness by asking questions regarding the importance of God and religion in life.
The results backed up the authors’ prediction: indeed, religiously primed submissive persons conformed when they took the counting test. Religiousness did not directly correlate with conformity. As the authors put it, “…the conformity effect emerged independent from participants’ self-reported religiousness but depended on their dispositional submissiveness. Hence, the idea is not that religious people are more conformists or more susceptible to social influence. Rather, exposure to religious primes may activate among people characterized by personal submissiveness the tendency to comply and to conform to others.”
Naturally, as the authors themselves confess, counting “a”s is utterly devoid of religious and social meaning, and so a more interesting conformity effect may have altered the results. For example, if a religious authority suggested an answer to a theological question, then religiousness may have played a direct role. Obviously, this is pure speculation—the results just as easily could support the current findings of submissiveness playing the only relevant role.
Regardless of the study’s shortcomings, it still strongly suggests that religious people do not by default conform to the status quo. Religion may bring out the submissiveness of a submissive person, but it does not correlate with submissiveness and certainly does not cause submissiveness. At the same time, nothing here contravenes the well-known finding that religion enhances people’s willingness to socialize. Religion seems to provide the kinship of sheep without the sheep mentality.
For more, see “Beyond Mere Compliance to Authoritative Figures: Religious Priming Increases Conformity to Informational Influence Among Submissive People” in The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.