Study: Religious people more likely to believe in conspiracy theories

In the current issue of American Journal of Political Science (October 2014), two researchers from the University of Chicago, J. Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood, published a study titled, “Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion.” The pair used data from four surveys from Cooperative Congressional Election Studies that asked respondents to respond to statements about their beliefs in various conspiracy theories. I have provided the statements below:

The U.S. invasion of Iraq was not part of a campaign to fight terrorism, but was driven by oil companies and Jews in the U.S. and Israel (Iraq War)

Certain U.S. government officials planned the attacks of September 11, 2001, because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East (Truther)

President Barack Obama was not really born in the United States and does not have an authentic Hawaiian birth certificate (Birther)

The current financial crisis was secretly orchestrated by a small group of Wall Street bankers to extend the power of the Federal Reserve and further their control of the world’s economy (Financial Crisis)

Vapor trails left by aircraft are actually chemical agents deliberately sprayed in a clandestine program directed by government officials (Chem Trails)

Billionaire George Soros is behind a hidden plot to destabilize the American government, take control of the media, and put the world under his control (Soros)

The U.S. government is mandating the switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs because such lights make people more obedient and easier to control (CFLB)

The results are striking: 55% of those surveyed in the US agree with at least one of these statements. In other words, over half of Americans believe in a conspiracy theory, even when insufficient evidence to support that belief exists. The researchers then use a host of variables to determine conspiracism predictors. These suggest something rather interesting about certain religious people.

The main factor in question suggests:

a propensity to attribute the source of unexplained or extraordinary events to unseen, intentional forces (Shermer 1997). In psychological studies, this tendency is often found in supernatural, paranormal, or religious beliefs (Boyer 2001; Norenzayan and Hansen 2006; Tobacyk and Milford 1983).

In other words, religious Americans who believe in supernatural causes for certain events are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Just because they can’t see the malevolent forces at play behind a conspiracism event doesn’t mean those forces are absent. They sum it up nicely in the concluding remarks:

Not only does half of the American population agree with at least one conspiracy from a short list of conspiracy theories offered, but also large portions of the population exhibit a strong dispositional inclination toward believing that unseen, intentional forces exist and that history is driven by a Manichean struggle between good and evil, particularly in the high proportion of Americans who believe we are living in biblical “end times.”

This is not to say merely that religious people are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. The study and its sources suggest a natural psychological phenomenon that is responsible for both beliefs in supernatural agencies as well as unseen actors behind major events. In other words, instead of the two being causally linked, the two are linked by a shared cause, an evolutionary predisposition to draw any conclusion we can in order to protect ourselves from danger. The researchers put it this way:

We suggest this predisposition originates in a highly adaptive and unconscious cognitive bias to draw causal connections between seemingly related phenomena (Cottrell, Winer, and Smith 1996; Michotte 1963) and to presume predators are behind unknown or novel stimuli (Barrett 2004; Kassin, Fein, and Markus 2007).

Religious people, especially those who reject unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, however, should take solace in fact that this study only suggests a correlation between certain factors (including religious beliefs) and beliefs in conspiracy theories. This study does not imply that if you believe in god you must also believe George W. Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks. And furthermore, atheists are by no means immune from believing conspiracy theories. Belief in god is not a necessary variable to believe in conspiracy theories.

Of course, I am curious. Do you believe in god? Do you believe in any of the above (or other) conspiracy theories?

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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9 Responses to Study: Religious people more likely to believe in conspiracy theories

  1. thinktasium says:

    Because Satan is the ultimate conspirator. Satan has conspired with every credible evolutionary biologist in the world to try and convince people to doubt the biblical creation in Genesis.

  2. BlkAmAth says:

    Well color me SHOCKED….

  3. charles says:

    It’s like there’s a sort of Pascal’s Wager going on in the mind (assume agency because what have you got to lose?), and betting on “agency” had a survival advantage in the distant past. The paranoid were more likely to survive.

  4. okay, my only thought is DUH!

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  6. Pingback: Why It’s Never a Good Idea to Engage Conspiracy Theorists | The Atheist Papers

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