Menus Subscribe Search
happy-science-girl

(PHOTO: AVAVA/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Facing Adversity, Some Find Solace in Science

• May 30, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: AVAVA/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research suggests that, for some secular people, a belief in science plays a similar psychological role as faith does for religious people.

When feeling stress, or faced with existential angst, there are benefits to being a believer. A comprehensive way of making sense of the world, and our place in it, can provide consolation when it’s needed most.

For many people, of course, that belief system is religious faith. But new research suggests others have found a different source of solace: science.

“Our findings suggest that belief in science may help non-religious people deal with adverse conditions,” reports a research team led by University of Oxford psychologist Miguel Farias. “Despite their different methods, both science and religion offer powerful explanations of the world,” the researchers write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, “which may work at an intuitive level to provide comfort and assurance.”

As Farias and his colleagues note, many studies have shown the psychological benefits of religious faith, while others suggest that such secular belief systems as humanism, or even faith in human progress, can play a similar role as a source of meaning and motivation.

They hypothesized that the same needs could be met through a “belief in science,” which they describe as seeing science “as a superior, even exclusive, guide to reality, and as possessing a unique and central value.” But would people with that conviction lean on it in tough situations, as the devout do with religious faith?

Those who had thought about their own deaths reported a “significantly greater belief in science” than those who had not.

Two experiments suggest the answer is “yes.” The first featured 100 rowers, accomplished amateur athletes who take part in international competitions. Half were surveyed less than an hour before competing in a regatta; the others were questioned at a training session.

All answered the questions “How much stress do you feel at this moment?” and “How religious do you consider yourself to be?” In addition, they filled out a 10-item belief-in-science survey, in which they rated their agreement with such statements as “The scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge” and “We can only rationally believe in what is scientifically provable.”

The results: Among members of this group, which “reported a very low degree of religious commitment,” those in the high-stress group—that is, those about to enter a competition—reported a greater belief in science. This suggests such a belief “may help secular individuals to cope with stress,” the researchers write.

The second experiment, featuring 60 students and staff members from two British universities, addressed whether thoughts of one’s own mortality would boost belief in science. Half of the participants were assigned to write about the thoughts and feelings aroused by considering their own death. The others wrote about experiencing dental pain. All then took the belief-in-science questionnaire, along with questions measuring their religiosity and spirituality. Their answers showed that, once again, this was a largely secular group.

The key result: Those who had thought about their own deaths reported a “significantly greater belief in science” than those who had not.

Farias and his colleagues are careful to distinguish between “belief in science” and what they call “scientific determinism,” which they define as “the extent to which people believe that their behavior is shaped and determined by nature, genes, and the environment, as opposed to their own volition.” Thinking about mortality did not change participants’ views regarding that belief system.

This suggests the consolation they received arose from their belief in the value of scientific inquiry as a way of obtaining knowledge, rather than an endorsement of any specific set of beliefs that may emerge from that process.

These results are somewhat surprising, in that science—unlike both religion and secular humanism—isn’t automatically associated with optimism or faith in a better future.

Nevertheless, the researchers conclude, “merely believing in the superiority of science as a method of making sense of the universe may be sufficient” to play a comforting role in difficult times.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 2 • 4:00 PM

Professors’ Pet Peeves

Ten things to avoid in your classrooms this year.


September 2 • 2:00 PM

Music Lessons Enhance Brain Function in Disadvantaged Kids

Children from poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles who took regular music lessons for two years were able to distinguish similar speech sounds faster than their peers.


September 2 • 12:00 PM

California Passes a Bill to Protect Workers in the Rapidly Growing Temp Staffing Industry

The bill will hold companies accountable for labor abuses by temp agencies and subcontractors they use.


September 2 • 10:00 AM

SWAT Pranks and SWAT Mistakes

The proliferation of risky police raids over the decades.


September 2 • 9:12 AM

Conference Call: The Graphic Novel


September 2 • 8:00 AM

Why We’re Not Holding State Legislators Accountable

The way we vote means that the political fortunes of state legislators hinge on events outside of their state and their control.


September 2 • 7:00 AM

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.


September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.