Religion Reduces Anxiety — Sound Familiar?

“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress.  Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.  The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.”

— Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843)

Michael Inzlicht and Alexa Tullett recently published a study in Psychological Science confirming what Marx already knew — without conducting experiments or doing statistics — 167 years ago.  Freud (1927) also knew this and wrote about it in Future of an Illusion.

It is always nice, however, to have the somewhat obvious confirmed by a truly scientific study involving the usual guinea pigs (undergraduates) who were required to wear something like this:

While wearing their EEG hats, the undergrads took various psychological tests intended to gauge the effect of religiosity (belief in God) on anxiety inducing tasks.  What did Inzlich and Tullett learn?  Marx and Freud were right:

If thinking about religion leads people to react to their errors with less distress and defensiveness — an effect that occurs within a few hundreths of a second — in the long run, this effect may translate to religious people living their life with greater equanimity than nonreligious people, being better able to cope with the pressures of living in a sometimes hostile world.

In the short and intermediate run, Marx would probably assert that this effect may translate to religious people living their lives under the influence of a mind numbing supernatural opiate.

Because the details of the study have been covered nicely by Epiphenom, I won’t reiterate them.  The study also has been covered by several writers and journalists who have repeated something from it that is simply wrong.  Because this error is regularly repeated by various authors and has somehow become the received wisdom, I wish to address it again.  Here are the opening statements from the study:

The belief in a life after death, in a world beyond the grave, has been a hallmark of human thought for at least 100,000 years.  Archaeological remains of Neanderthal graves indicates that the Neanderthals buried their dead with tools, weapons, and clothing — presumably provisions the new life ahead (Joseph, 2000).  Neanderthals, it appears, developed proto-religious beliefs.  And these beliefs persist to this day.

These beliefs do not persist to this day.  Neanderthals became extinct approximately 25,000-30,000 years ago.  Whatever “proto-religious” beliefs Neanderthals may have had expired with them.  Moreover, Neanderthals are not humans.  We are talking about two different species:  Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis.  I realize, of course, that the authors want us to infer — by analogy — that humans during the same time period must have had the same or similar beliefs, but this is risky business.

In addition, we simply do not know whether humans believed, one hundred thousand years ago, in life after death and a world beyond the grave.  The authority cited by the authors in support of their opening statement comes from Dr. Rhawn Joseph, a neuroscientist and author of The Transmitter to God : The Limbic System, the Soul, and Spirituality (2000).  Joseph is not an archaeologist and my guess would be that he has never read the many articles on Neanderthal burials from ~100,000 years ago and the controversy surrounding such reports.

All this aside, the whole “Neanderthal burials equals proto-religious belief” hypothesis is weak.  I examined this often repeated assertion at length in Do Hominid Burials Indicate a Belief in Spirits or Souls?, a post I wish more people would read before repeating this canard.

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