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Social change – uncertainty – religiosity: Psychological perspectives on the role of religiosity in changing societies


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The rapid and profound change that today’s societies are undergoing confronts many young people with new biographical uncertainties that create a considerable psychological burden and can jeopardize successful development. In this chapter, we ask what role religiosity may play in dealing with such biographical uncertainties. Linking recent theorizing on social change and on religiosity, we propose that people often turn to religion in times of heightened uncertainty. This is because religiosity can reduce uncertainties and buffer their negative psychosocial consequences. We discuss nascent evidence from diverse strands of research that support these ideas, covering experimental laboratory studies and cross-national surveys. Although this evidence suggests that religiosity contributes to positive development vis-à-vis biographical uncertainties, we also review evidence indicating that these psychological benefits of religiosity come at a cost, from higher closed-mindedness to religious fundamentalism. Finally, we identify questions that warrant further research and discuss implications of this burgeoning research area for a public policy aimed at promoting positive development.
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Chapter 3.3
Social change – uncertainty –
Psychological perspectives on the role of religiosity in
changing societies
Clemens M. Lechner* and Rainer K.
The rapid and profound change that today’s societies are undergoing
confronts many young people with new biographical uncertainties that
create a considerable psychological burden and can jeopardize successful
development. In this chapter, we ask what role religiosity may play in
dealing with such biographical uncertainties. Linking recent theorizing
on social change and on religiosity, we propose that people often turn to
religion in times of heightened uncertainty. This is because religiosity can
reduce uncertainties and buffer their negative psychosocial consequences.
We discuss nascent evidence from diverse strands of research that support
these ideas, covering experimental laboratory studies and cross-national
surveys. Although this evidence suggests that religiosity contributes to
positive development vis-à-vis biographical uncertainties, we also review
evidence indicating that these psychological benets of religiosity come at a
cost, from higher closed-mindedness to religious fundamentalism. Finally,
we identify questions that warrant further research and discuss implications
of this burgeoning research area for a public policy aimed at promoting
positive development.
* Some parts of this chapter are based on the rst author’s doctoral dissertation at the
Center for Applied Developmental Science (CADS) in Jena.
** Acknowledgements: This work has been funded by the PATHWAYS fellowship scheme
(sponsored by the Jacob’s Foundation).
Social change – uncertainty – religiosity
‘What men really want is not knowledge but certainty.
Bertrand Russell
At the beginning of the 21st century, religion continues to play an important
role in the lives of most people worldwide. Largely defying the forecasts
of seminal thinkers such as Karl Marx or Auguste Comte and modern-
day secularization theorists such as the early Peter Berger, the advent of
modernity has not brought about the demise of world religions. Far from
it. A recent Gallup World Poll estimates the percentage of people who state
that religion is important in their lives at 68 per cent, or 4.6 billion people
(Diener et al., 2011). Even in European nations, where secularization is
most apparent (Pickel, 2009), religion still occupies a prominent, albeit
contested, place in the public sphere.
The abiding importance of religion has left some analysts puzzled
(Inzlicht et al., 2011; Sedikides, 2010). Should not religious institutions have
crumbled and religious beliefs have faded more rapidly as modernization
progresses? Why are some nations such as Brazil or Russia witnessing signs
of growing religious vitality (Evans and Northmore-Ball, 2012)? What
accounts for the rise of orthodoxy and fundamentalism in some nations
(Herriot, 2007)?
One answer to these questions may lie in the psychological functions
of religion. A functionalist approach is, by necessity, reductionist. Rather
than delving into the varieties of religious life, it simply asks what benets
religiosity may confer to individuals and social groups and attempts
to explain religion’s evolution and persistence in terms of these benets
(Sedikides, 2010).
In this chapter, we argue from a functionalist perspective that religion
continues to be a vital force in many modern societies partly because it helps
people deal with a key feature of modernity: biographical uncertainty. We
forward three propositions linking research on social change and research
on religiosity through the concept of biographical uncertainty. Essentially,
we argue that social change gives rise to new biographical uncertainties in
people’s lives. Religiosity, in turn, is a psychological and cultural system
that can reduce such uncertainties and buffer their negative psychosocial
consequences, thus helping people successfully navigate their lives in modern
societies that are rife with uncertainties. At the same time, these potential
benets come at a cost: the same aspects of religiosity that can foster
positive development by reducing biographical uncertainties bear the risk
Clemens M. Lechner and Rainer K. Silbereisen
of maladaptive outcomes at both the individual and the group level, from
higher closed-mindedness to religious fundamentalism (Saroglou, 2012).
Theoretical perspectives on social change and religiosity
Social change: A source of biographical uncertainties
Although societies are obviously never static, some have argued that the
contemporary economic, political and social change of today’s societies
is unprecedented in its global scope and swift pace (Rosa, 2013). While
social theorists disagree over which aspects of this accelerated change are
most pervasive and signicant, there is considerable agreement regarding
its prime consequence: it confronts people even those living in afuent
societies – with new forms of ambiguity, insecurity and uncertainty. In fact,
quite a number of social theorists hold that chronic, and perhaps growing,
uncertainty is a key feature of modernity per se.
Individualization theorists, such as Beck and Beck-Gernsheim
(2002), Giddens (1991) and Baumann (2007) contend that the increasing
freedom of choice in today’s societies comes at the cost of new uncertainties.
Increasingly emancipated from traditional institutions and social structures,
people are free to make life choices of their own. This freedom, however, is
also an obligation; people can, and must, construct their own identity under
conditions of omnipresent and ever-changing risks. Endemic biographical
uncertainty is thus seen as the downside of growing individual freedom
of choice.
Mills and Blossfeld (2003), investigating the impact of globalization
on career and family, have argued that globalization entails uncertainties on
the structural level, but also on the level of the individual. People in many
nations face increasingly precarious employment conditions and career
prospects (Kalleberg, 2009). Occupational uncertainty often spills over to
family life, leading many people to delay or forgo union formation and
fertility decisions (see Lyons-Amos, this volume). It is particularly young
people who are exposed to the uncertainties emanating from globalization.
Studying the individual-level consequences of social change, Pinquart
and Silbereisen (2004) and Tomasik and Silbereisen (this volume) have
argued that individually perceived uncertainties concerning important
age-normative developmental goals and tasks, such as career development
or family formation, are the psychologically effective individual-level
manifestation of macro-level societal trends such as globalization or
individualization. Their model holds that such uncertainties are perceived as
stressful and act as new demands that require a regulatory response by the
individual (see Tomasik and Silbereisen, this volume). A high load of such
Social change – uncertainty – religiosity
uncertainties may overtax individuals’ adaptive capacities and complicate
the resolution of important developmental tasks.
Thus, the idea that people today face new uncertainties features
prominently in contemporary accounts of social change. The specic
forms of uncertainties are obviously quite diverse. In this chapter, we
will conveniently summarize them under the umbrella term biographical
uncertainties. Broadly speaking, biographical uncertainties can be clustered
into uncertainties concerning the self (i.e. uncertainty related to personal
values, identity, beliefs or life goals)and uncertainties concerning external
life circumstances (e.g. job insecurity, ambivalence concerning family
formation). There is a common denominator (Hirsh et al., 2012; van den
Bos, 2009): uncertainty is an aversive psychological state that engenders
anxious arousal and impedes goal-directed action by jeopardizing
assessments of the status quo, formation of desired ends and the selection
of appropriate means. Hence, biographical uncertainty is a developmentally
relevant stressor that threatens psychological adaptation and the resolution
of developmental tasks (Tomasik and Silbereisen, this volume) and that
motivates people to take action in order to resolve it (Hirsh et al., 2012).
Next, we outline how religion might help in dealing with such biographical
Is religiosity a resource in dealing with biographical uncertainties?
Following Appleby’s (2000: 8–9) work, we conceive of religion as a social
institution that rests on four pillars: 1) a creed dening its beliefs about
the origin, meaning and purpose of life, 2) a cult encompassing rituals and
rites of passage, 3) a code of conduct dening moral norms and values
and 4) a confessional community of like-minded believers providing a
structure of both social support and sanctions. Religiosity is religion’s
psychological counterpart, comprising four corresponding dimensions
(Saroglou, 2011): 1) believing (accepting theological messages), 2) bonding
(self-transcendent experiences, such as through rituals that bond believers
with the transcendent), 3) behaving (adhering to religious moral norms and
codes of conduct) and 4) belonging (identifying with and partaking in a
religious community). What unies these four dimensions and sets them
apart from other psychological phenomena is that they organize around
what people perceive as the sacred be it a deity, the supernatural or an
ultimate truth (Pargament et al., 2005).
Psychology has long remained fairly mute about religious issues
(Sedikides, 2010). This has changed. In the past decade, several new
theoretical approaches and a mounting number of empirical studies have
Clemens M. Lechner and Rainer K. Silbereisen
begun to ll the long-standing void. This new scholarship often invokes
basic cognitive mechanisms (e.g. a hyper-active agency-detection system)
or intergroup solidarity and prosociality to explain the evolution and
persistence of religion (for a review, see Beit-Hallahmi, 2015). However,
the notion of religion as a response and antidote to uncertainty also features
prominently among current accounts of religion, especially when it comes
to explaining individual or cultural differences in religiosity. Such accounts
consider religiosity as evolving from people’s need for existential certainty
and a sense of meaning and control. Religion, so the argument goes, evolved
to reduce feelings of anxiety that stem from humans’ awareness not only of
their mortality, but also of their powerlessness against nature’s vicissitudes
and the countless other forms of uncertainties characterizing human
existence. Uncertainty is seen as a key motive for individuals to seek solace
and comfort in religion. Variations of this idea gure prominently in current
accounts of religiosity.
In social psychology, the uncertainty–identity account of religiosity
(Hogg et al., 2010) starts from the premise that people are motivated to
reduce uncomfortable feelings of self-uncertainty. Self-uncertainty can
emanate from numerous sources, including societal (e.g. economic crises)
and more personal ones, such as major life events and transitions (e.g.
unemployment, divorce). Under heightened self-uncertainty, people display
a tendency to identify with highly entitative groups (i.e. homogeneous
groups with a clear structure, clear boundaries, and common goals) in order
to counter the stressful feeling of self-uncertainty. Religions are a prime
example of identity-dening social groups with enormous power to reduce
self-uncertainty among adherents. Their all-encompassing ideological
systems not only impart a sense of meaning and purpose to existence, but
also prescribe moral choices, sacred observances, codes of conduct and rites
of passage, all of which can foster a sense of certainty. Similarly, Ysseldyk
et al. (2010) have emphasized that religious identication is unmatched
in its ability to lend epistemological and ontological certainty by offering
a distinctive sacred worldview and eternal group membership. These
approaches thus explain the evolution and persistence of religiosity by the
cognitive and emotional value that religious belonging offers.
From a control-theoretical standpoint, Kay, Gaucher et al. (2010)
have argued that the belief in a controlling God and religions as cultural
systems harbouring this belief partly originate from people’s desire to
preserve beliefs in an orderly, controllable world. Faith in an omnipresent
and omnipotent deity counters the emotionally uncomfortable experience
of perceiving the world as uncertain, random and chaotic. According to
Social change – uncertainty – religiosity
these authors, people turn to religion to regain feelings of control, especially
when personal or external sources of control are threatened. In other words,
religious conviction is a defensive source of compensatory control recruited
especially when feelings of control are undermined.
Finally, insecurity theory (Norris and Inglehart, 2004), rooted
in sociology, maintains that individuals turn to religion when beset by
insecurities because religion offers them emotional benets in dealing
with these insecurities (in psychology, this is sometimes referred to as the
uncertainty hypothesis; Barber, 2011). Aiming to explain cross-national
variations in the level of religiosity, this theory mainly considers objective
chronic insecurities in external life circumstances (e.g. poverty, income
inequality) as factors driving the formation of religious beliefs. According
to insecurity theory, a person’s religiosity is predominantly affected by
insecurities during the formative childhood and adolescent years, such that
current cross-national differences in religiousness can be traced to past
socialization conditions of living generations.
Synthesis: Religiosity in changing societies
Taken together, recent theorizing holds that social change gives rise to
new biographical uncertainties. Moreover, several accounts of religiosity
hold that religiosity can reduce uncertainties and buffer their negative
psychosocial consequences. These accounts differ in focus, with some
primarily addressing uncertainties concerning the self and others mainly
addressing uncertainties concerning external life circumstances; they also
differ in their preferred methodologies (e.g. experimental research vs. large-
scale surveys). Yet, they converge in predicting that conditions of heightened
uncertainty will lead to increases in religiosity.
This leads us to three propositions (Fig. 3.3.1) that serve as guideposts
to our subsequent review of the empirical evidence. Proposition 1 is that
social upheavals that create biographical uncertainty will typically lead to
increases in religiosity. Under heightened uncertainty, many people turn
to religion because it offers them a means of dealing with uncertainty.
This will be apparent both at the individual and at the group level and on
different time-scales (e.g. as individual responses to momentary uncertainty
and as long-term effects of uncertain life circumstances on country-level
As a means of coping with uncertainty, religiosity takes on two
roles that concern the epistemic and the affective dimension of uncertainty
(van den Bos, 2009). Proposition 2 stipulates that religiosity can reduce
or resolve uncertainties, making people feel more certain about themselves
Clemens M. Lechner and Rainer K. Silbereisen
and the world. Proposition 3 holds that religiosity can buffer the affective
consequences of uncertainties, making people feel less anxious or distressed
about being uncertain.
Figure 3.3.1: Three propositions linking biographical uncertainties to religiosity and
psychosocial adaptation
These propositions guide our review of the diverse and scattered empirical
evidence. Rather than being exhaustive, this review focuses on selected
studies that we deem most pertinent to each proposition. We refer the
reader to more extensive treatments where possible.
Empirical evidence on the uncertainty–religiosity nexus
Proposition 1: Religiosity increases in response to biographical
Evidence for the proposition that religiosity increases in response to
biographical uncertainty comes from two lines of research. The rst asks how
uncertain or insecure external life circumstances relate to levels of religiosity
and is based on large-scale cross-national studies. In their inuential volume
on religion and politics, Norris and Inglehart (2004) observed strong
correlations of religious practice with indicators of insecurity, such as the
Human Development Index and income inequality, in the World Values
Survey. Extending these ndings, Barber (2011) showed with data from 137
countries that disbelief in God was higher in more economically developed
countries (i.e. lower percentage of the workforce employed in agriculture,
higher percentage of young people enrolled in tertiary education) and in
countries offering higher income security (i.e. lower Gini coefcient and
larger welfare state). He argued that as existential security increases,
disbelief in God increases because faith is no longer needed to cope with
feelings of uncertainty. In a later study using Gallup Poll data from 114
countries, Barber (2013) replicated these ndings with religious belief as the
Social change – uncertainty – religiosity
dependent variable. Similarly, Immerzeel and van Tubergen (2013) found
that higher levels of economic (e.g. unemployment, social welfare spending)
and existential (e.g. spousal loss, threat of terrorism) insecurities, both
past and present and measured both at the individual and contextual level,
related to higher church-attendance rates and subjective religiosity across
26 European countries.
Although these studies suggest that uncertain external life
circumstances motivate people to turn to religion, they cannot establish
causality beyond doubt. This is the strength of the second line of research.
Here, researchers probe the effects of experimentally manipulated
uncertainties on religiosity. For example, van den Bos and colleagues (2006)
experimentally induced personal uncertainty by making respondents think
deeply about personal uncertainties, which led participants to be more
protective of their religious beliefs and identity, as indicated by more
negative reactions to antireligious statements – especially in individuals for
whom religion was central to their self-denition. McGregor and colleagues
(2008) demonstrated that an academic uncertainty manipulation (i.e.
presenting the experimental group with highly difcult mathematical texts)
and a relationship uncertainty manipulation (i.e. having the experimental
group describe a relationship dilemma they were currently facing) increased
both normative religious beliefs and problematic zeal, such as support for
religious warfare. In another series of studies, Laurin et al. (2008) found
that people whose beliefs in personal control (i.e. a non-random world)
were threatened reported stronger beliefs in the existence of a controlling
God. Kay, Shepherd and colleagues (2010) found that faith in God increased
when other sources of external control were threatened in this case, the
belief in government stability. Experimental inductions of low governmental
stability entailed higher levels of belief in a controlling God and vice versa.
As the authors argued, religious beliefs are called upon when personal or
external control is threatened, whereby the need to counter uncertainty-
related anxious arousal is the governing mechanism.
In short, both cross-national studies addressing uncertainties in external
life circumstances and experimental studies manipulating uncertainty under
controlled laboratory conditions demonstrate that uncertainty is linked
to higher religiosity. This is consistent with the hypothesis that aspects of
social change that create new biographical uncertainties will motivate some
people to turn to religion in order to counter these uncertainties.
Clemens M. Lechner and Rainer K. Silbereisen
Proposition 2: Religiosity reduces biographical uncertainties
The above studies rest on the assumption that religion is recruited in
conditions of uncertainty because it can reduce and help to cope with
uncertainty. But does it? Somewhat surprisingly, few studies have explicitly
tested this assumption. These offer some, albeit scant, evidence in favor
of Proposition 2 that religiosity can help people reduce biographical
Recall the claim that social changes, such as the individualization
and pluralization of the life course, create new biographical uncertainties,
including uncertainty and ambivalence concerning one’s identity, values,
norms and life choices (Bauman, 2007). The idea that religiosity can counter
such self-related uncertainties and furnish a sense of coherence and stability
is frequently encountered in the literature (Saroglou, 2012). All world
religions offer an encompassing set of behavioural prescriptions to adhere
to, moral directives to follow and ideals to strive for that are grounded in
theological systems. Religious communities instill and continuously reafrm
these values and norms in their members (Smith, 2003). In the past years, a
growing body of studies, including several meta-analyses, have shown that
religiosity can indeed play a constructive role in the development of identity,
values, life goals and a sense of meaning and purpose, particularly in
adolescence (King and Roeser, 2009; Saroglou, 2012; Yonker et al., 2012).
Such ndings are consistent with the idea that religiosity reduces self-
related uncertainties. Yet, they lend only indirect support to proposition 2
because they do not explicitly measure social change-related biographical
uncertainties. Two of our own studies offer more direct evidence that
religiosity can in fact reduce biographical uncertainties created by profound
societal changes. In the rst study (Lechner et al., 2014), Polish adults who
identied more strongly with their religious faith and religious community
reported fewer perceived family-related uncertainties, such as doubts
regarding the stability of one’s partnership, ambivalence concerning fertility
decisions or ambiguity in intergenerational ties –uncertainties that reect
individualization and the pluralization of families. This protective effect
emerged even after controlling for a host of possible confounders and might
reect the normative orientation that religion (here: Polish Catholicism)
gives in family matters. In the second study (Lechner et al., 2013), Poles
who were more religious reported fewer uncertainties concerning their
career and work, such as increasing risk of job loss or fears of having to
work in atypical employment, which might partly be explained by their
faith in a benevolent God.
Social change – uncertainty – religiosity
These ndings are only correlational, but they suggest that the
normative orientation that religion provides can shield believers against
some of the most prevalent uncertainties in today’s societies. More research
is needed to determine which kinds of uncertainties religiosity may help
counter most effectively and which mechanisms govern these effects.
Proposition 3: Religiosity buffers the psychosocial consequences of
biographical uncertainties
The second way in which religiosity may help individuals cope with
biographical uncertainties is by buffering their negative effects on psychosocial
adaptation (proposition 3). In contrast to the second proposition, here the
focus is on whether religiosity reduces the consequences of uncertainties,
rather than the uncertainties themselves. Again, only few studies pertinent
to this proposition exist.
Indirect support for the proposition comes from neuroscientic
research examining the neural processes behind the salutary effect of religion
in dealing with uncertainties. Conceiving of religiosity as a motivated
process aimed at imbuing existence with meaning, order and control,
Inzlicht et al. (2011) linked variations in religiosity to differential patterns
of brain activity. Among highly religious individuals, they found reduced
reactivity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a cortical system in the
medial prefrontal cortex involved in the detection of uncertainty and in
the experience of anxiety and distress. Reduced ACC reactivity was linked
both to self-report measures of religiosity and to primed religious stimuli,
suggesting a causal effect of religiosity on ACC reactivity. The authors
concluded that religious conviction has a palliative, anxiolytic function,
protecting people against anxiety and distress when facing uncertainty.
Further support stems from studies testing whether religiosity
reduces the negative consequences of uncertain external life circumstances
on psychosocial adaptation. Such stress-buffering effects might arise from
the emotional comfort derived from faith in a benevolent deity and the
social support received in church communities. For example, studies have
shown that religiosity – variously measured – buffers the adverse effects of
chronic nancial hardship (Bradshaw and Ellison, 2010) and unemployment
(Lechner and Leopold, 2015), two stressors of growing prevalence not least
since the Great Recession. In the latter study, respondents from the German
Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) who attended religious services at least once
a week showed smaller initial drops in life satisfaction after becoming
unemployed than those who attended less frequently or never. Moreover,
they were the only group showing signs of adaptation to unemployment;
Clemens M. Lechner and Rainer K. Silbereisen
in fact, after three consecutive years in unemployment, weekly religious
attendees reached pre-event levels of life satisfaction. In another recent
study using data from over 130,000 respondents from six rounds of the
European Social Survey, we (Lechner and Weingarten, submitted) found
that higher religiousness buffered the impact of contextual unemployment
– dened as yearly unemployment rates at the level of 91 European regions
on subjective well-being, above and beyond its buffering effects against
individual unemployment. Because contextual unemployment is a stressor
that mainly operates by inducing uncertainty, these ndings yield evidence
in favor of proposition 3.
Yet the most direct tests of proposition 3 come from two of our other
studies that explicitly measured social change-related uncertainties. In the
rst, (Lechner et al., 2013), religious attendance and subjective religiosity
attenuated the association between perceived work-related uncertainties
(e.g. fears of job loss) and depressive symptoms (but not life satisfaction).
In the second study (Lechner et al., 2014), however, religiosity exacerbated,
rather than buffered, the association between family-related uncertainties
and psychological distress. This shows that religion is no panacea for
uncertainty. It likely occurs because family-related uncertainties conict
with religiously cherished family values and norms; religious adherents who
have internalized these values and norms may perceive such discrepancies
as an additional psychological burden.
Religion can do little to solve the objective condition of unemployment
and the structural causes underlying economic uncertainties, of course, and
the classic Marxist line of thinking would even accuse religion of being
an ‘opiate’ – soothing people and driving them into passivity when in fact
they should do their best to improve their objective situation and stand up
to injustices. Yet, however one may judge this, the well-being benets of
religiosity in relation to economic uncertainties are now well established.
Moreover, a recent study of ours (Lechner et al., 2015) hints that religiosity’s
role in coping with uncertainty is not necessarily a palliative one, as the
Marxist line of thinking and most current accounts of the uncertainty-
religiosity linkage assume (Inzlicht et al., 2011). In said study, we found that
religiosity can promote both goal engagement (i.e. investing time and effort,
overcoming obstacles) and goal disengagement (i.e. protecting self-esteem
and motivational resources against failure experiences, distancing from
unattainable goals) in coping with perceived work-related uncertainties
but under different conditions. Especially when the objective opportunities
in the social ecology for goal engagement were poor (i.e. in regions with
unfavorable economic conditions), religiosity facilitated disengagement
Social change – uncertainty – religiosity
from futile struggles with work-related goals. By contrast, religiosity
fostered engagement with goals especially when regional economic
opportunities were good. This suggests that religiosity can serve different
ends: on the one hand, it provides psychological and social resources that
fuel goal engagement, and this is advantageous especially under favorable
conditions. On the other, it provides ‘palliative’ mental content (solace and
comfort) and alternative goals (e.g. deepening one’s relationship with God)
that facilitate disengagement from work-related goals when they are being
thwarted by unfavorable economic conditions.
Together, these studies provide indications that religiosity can buffer
the negative psychosocial consequences of biographical uncertainties. Yet,
they are still small in number and largely based on correlational data,
allowing for no denitive conclusions concerning proposition 3. Moreover,
the stress-exacerbating effects in Lechner et al. (2014) hint that religiosity
may not be universally benecial, a nding that we will now discuss in
more detail.
The dark side of religious uncertainty reduction
So far, we have focused on possible salutary effects of religiosity. These
are, however, only half of the story. Several authors have highlighted the
ambivalence of religiosity in terms of its psychological and social consequences
(Hogg et al., 2010; Pargament, 2002; Pargament and Park, 1995; Saroglou,
2012; Ysseldyk et al., 2010). Along this line, one of the abovementioned
studies from our group already hinted that religiosity can exacerbate the
effects of some perceived uncertainties on psychological adaptation if these
uncertainties conict with religiously cherished values and norms (Lechner et
al., 2014). Others have argued that religious uncertainty reduction generally
comes at the cost of higher closed-mindedness (Saroglou, 2012). Closed-
mindedness refers to a syndrome of less openness, autonomy, parochial
attitudes and identity foreclosure. Saroglou (2012) has argued that, despite
its constructive role for some aspects of adolescent development, religiosity
may impede other socially valued aspects of optimal development – such as
openness, autonomy, critical thinking and exibility.
High levels of closed-mindedness are characteristic of religious
fundamentalism. At the collective level, closed-mindedness is reected in a
tendency to derogate out-groups that do not share the same religious beliefs.
At its extreme, the dividing lines between religious worldviews can escalate
to religiously motivated violence, terrorism and warfare (for reviews,
see Ysseldyk et al., 2010; Hogg et al., 2010; Appleby, 2000). Countless
disheartening examples readily come to mind, the most recent being the
Clemens M. Lechner and Rainer K. Silbereisen
atrocities committed by Islamists in their militant struggle for an Islamic
state in Syria and Iraq.
What explains the apparent rise of religious fundamentalism? In their
uncertainty–identity account of religiosity, Hogg et al. (2010: 75) argued
that ‘[e]xtreme [religious] groups furnish members with an all-embracing,
rigidly dened, exclusive, and highly prescriptive social identity and sense of
self, a comforting sense of certainty in an uncertain world’. Several authors
indeed conceive of religious fundamentalism as a reaction to a modernity
which, because of widespread moral relativism and limitless choice
paired with widespread economic insecurity, is deeply unsettling for some
individuals (e.g. Herriot, 2007; Salzman, 2008). Somewhat paradoxically,
then, modernity may simultaneously be linked to increasing secularization
but at the same time provide fertile ground for fundamentalist worldviews
to take root because the strict and empirically irrefutable belief systems
espoused by religious fundamentalism are attractive for some people who
are overtaxed by modernity’s uncertainties (Ysseldyk et al., 2010).
There are indications that religious diversity does not preclude
religious fundamentalism, but may even make some people more likely to
endorse fundamentalist worldviews. Why is this? Owing to secularization
and pluralization, religious adherents in modern societies nd themselves in
a situation in which fewer fellow citizens share their religious worldviews
(Casanova, 2007). They encounter more people of religious faiths different
from their own, including a growing number of people who identify as
agnostics or atheists (Zuckerman, 2009). From the perspective of social
identity theory, this is a profound challenge to the plausibility and coherence
of religious worldviews (Seul, 1999; Ysseldyk et al., 2010). When communal
support for one’s religious worldview cannot be taken for granted and
even more so when the social environment is hostile to one’s religion, this
challenges believers’ religious identity. Such identity threats can not only
create considerable individual distress (Salzman, 2008; Ysseldyk et al.,
2010), but also elicit heightened in-group identication accompanied by
heightened prejudice against out groups (McGregor et al., 2008; Seul, 1999;
Ysseldyk et al., 2011). Thus, to the extent that religious diversity can lead
to identity threats among some religious groups, it may contain the seeds of
religious polarization and conict.
Although a more comprehensive discussion is beyond the scope of this
chapter, these considerations illustrate the ambivalence of religiosity: it may
promote resilience in times of uncertainty, but the ipside of the coin is that
religious uncertainty reduction might breed religious fundamentalism and
extremism. Indeed, fundamentalism and extremism appear to be driven by
Social change – uncertainty – religiosity
the same psychological needs and mechanisms as more socially acceptable
forms of religiosity. They are not qualitatively different phenomena but
simply an extreme form of religious uncertainty reduction (Hogg et al.,
2010; Saroglou, 2012; Ysseldyk et al., 2010).
Future research avenues
What does the literature reviewed in this chapter tell us about the role
of religiosity in dealing with biographical uncertainties in our changing
societies? Clearly, evidence is strongest as far as proposition 1 is concerned.
There is a robust and apparently causal link between conditions of
heightened uncertainty and higher religiosity. Evidence concerning the other
two propositions is less denitive. There are indications that more religious
people experience fewer biographical uncertainties, especially self-related
uncertainties: the normative orientation that religion provides can aid in
the constructionof identity, values and goals, thus reducing biographical
uncertainties. The psychosocial consequences of at least some forms of
biographical uncertainties also appear to be reduced among more religious
individuals, especially uncertainties in external life circumstances (e.g.
unemployment). Yet at times religiosity can instead exacerbate the negative
psychosocial consequences of other forms of uncertainty, especially when
these uncertainties conict with religiously cherished values and norms or
threaten one’s religious identity.
In our opinion, the available evidence is but a rst step toward
understanding how religiosity may help or hinder adaptive development
in today’s rapidly changing societies. To advance this knowledge, three
questions seem especially critical for future research to address.
First, little is known about the life-course dynamics of the linkage
between uncertainty and religiosity. Are there critical periods in life during
which uncertainties that people experience are particularly likely to make
them more religious? Adolescence and young adulthood may be sensitive
periods for the formation of religious belief (or non-belief) as well as
identity, values and life goals (e.g. Good and Willoughby, 2008; Norris
and Inglehart, 2004). Hence, adolescence and emerging adulthood may also
be a critical phase of development during which biographical uncertainty
may have its most pervasive effects on religiosity. Yet how long-lasting
are such effects? Do they involve an active process of choice or are they
a consequence of passive socialization? And do uncertainties experienced
later in life also have an impact on religiosity? Most extant studies are
not particularly informative in this regard. What is needed is a unifying
theoretical framework and new evidence concerning in what life stages
Clemens M. Lechner and Rainer K. Silbereisen
and on what time scales biographical uncertainty is most likely to shape
Second, more attention should be paid to distinguishing between
different types of biographical uncertainties. As we have seen, the specic
content of uncertainty matters in determining whether religiosity helps or
hinders successful coping with these uncertainties. Although here we chose
the umbrella term ‘biographical uncertainty’ in order to be as inclusive
as possible, a more ne-grained distinction between different types of
uncertainties will be necessary in future work. Moreover, as the evidence
presented in this chapter is largely limited to (mono)theistic religions and
based on samples of Christians from Western industrial nations, possible
differences between religious traditions and national contexts also deserve
more attention in future work.
Third, we need to learn more about individual differences in the
linkage between uncertainty and religiosity. Not all people are equally likely
to resort to religion in times of uncertainty, let alone to join orthodox or
fundamentalist groups. Moreover, not all people may benet from religiosity
in terms of developmental outcomes to the same extent. Little is known
about psychological (e.g. ambiguity tolerance) or socio-demographic factors
(e.g. education, social class, religious denomination) that may render some
people more likely than others to turn to religion for comfort in times of
uncertainty. Many features of the multi-layered social contexts in which
people are embedded – from the family to peer-groups (e.g. the amount
of social support provided to youth in times of heightened biographical
uncertainty) to the larger national culture (e.g. religious diversity, scope of
welfare states) – may also be of relevance. From a prevention perspective, a
deeper understanding of these factors might help in identifying individuals
who are at a heightened risk to develop problematic forms of religious faith
or join fundamentalist groups.
Policy implications
Religion is a contested issue. In many contemporary societies, there is a
sometimes erce debate about church–state relations, the place of religion
in public life and education or the rights of religious minorities. Modern
societies have to negotiate whether to grant absolute religious freedom
(versus imposing restrictions for certain expressions of religious belief),
whether there should be state support for religious institutions (versus a
strict separation of state and religion), whether religious education should
be part of ofcial school curricula (versus left to religious institutions
themselves) and many other issues. Religious organizations, in turn, take
Social change – uncertainty – religiosity
up an often contentious public voice in the political discourse – particularly
on so-called life issues such as abortion, divorce, gay marriage, euthanasia
and war (Casanova, 1994). Meanwhile, religious fundamentalism and
extremism continue to pose a threat to public security in many countries,
as most recently evinced by the violent struggle for an Islamic state in Syria
and Iraq by jihadist militants.
What can the research reviewed in this chapter add to this debate?
In our opinion, the key contribution of this nascent research agenda is in
revealing the ambivalent nature of religiosity. It is now clear that many
people turn to religion when beset by biographical uncertainties that can
arise from globalization, economic crises, individualization and other
trends of social change. We can also state with some condence that this
is because religion delivers a perhaps unique (Pargament et al., 2005)
combination of factors (creed, code, cult, community; Appleby, 2000)
that can reduce the experience of uncertainty and its adverse psychosocial
consequences. For many people, religion appears to be a safe haven that
can furnish a sense of certainty and security, promoting several aspects
of positive development (King and Roeser, 2009; Yonker et al., 2012).
Yet this certainty and coherence may come at the cost of higher closed-
mindedness (Saroglou, 2012) and exacerbate the negative consequences
of some uncertainties (Lechner et al., 2014). Unfortunately, widespread
societal uncertainty also seems to provide fertile ground for fundamentalist
enticements to thrive (Hogg et al., 2010; Salzman, 2008).
Hence, neither an apologetic, overly optimistic view of religiosity nor
the sweeping conclusion that religion is the root of all societal ills seems
justied. Rather, a more nuanced view is warranted that recognizes that
religiosity may have both adaptive and maladaptive consequences for
individuals and societies (Pargament, 2002). The main challenge for any
public policy related to religion, we believe, is to understand this ambivalent
nature of religiosity. Policies must balance the individual search for
meaning, purpose, value and certainty in religion with the collective need
for a peaceful coexistence of diverse faith traditions in today’s pluralistic
societies. Religion may wax and wane, it may change its appearance
and forms; but it will not disappear. If we are to preserve religiosity as a
potential resource for positive development while preventing faith groups
from turning to fundamentalism, we need to strike this balance. This alone
is a daunting task.
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... To further unpack the "black box" between social capital and health and linking social capital studies to socioeconomic inequality in health, we examined whether sense of control mediated the association between social capital and health and whether the mediating effect varied across income groups in China. China has experienced huge social change since the 1980s, and social change may lead to uncertainties in people's lives, making people feel a lack of control over life (Lechner and Silbereisen, 2017). Along with its social change, China is also characterized by great income inequality, featured by its high Gini coefficient fluctuating between 0.462 and 0.491 from 2003 to 2019 (Survey Office of the National Bureau of Statistics, 2020), a key driving of health inequality. ...
Social capital was shown to be associated with health. However, less is known about the pathways of the association and whether the mediating effect of the pathways varies across different income groups. Using adults (≥18 years) data from the 2010 Chinese General Social Survey (N = 3265), we examined the mediating effect of sense of control between social capital and health and whether income groups moderated the mediating effect in China. Health and sense of control were factor scores. Social capital measurements included frequency of socializing, civic participation, trust, and reciprocity. We categorized equivalized household income into quintiles (Q1 (lowest income) to Q5 (highest income)). Multivariable linear regression models showed that frequency of socializing (β: 0.07; 95% CI: 0.04, 0.11), trust (β: 0.06; 95% CI: 0.02, 0.09), and reciprocity (β: 0.07; 95% CI: 0.03, 0.11) were positively associated with health. Moderated mediation analysis further showed that sense of control mediated the association between frequency of socializing and health in all income groups, with the mediating effect decreasing when income increased (β (95% CI) from Q1 to Q5: 0.026 (0.015, 0.040); 0.022 (0.012, 0.036); 0.018 (0.009, 0.030); 0.013 (0.005, 0.024); 0.008 (0.000, 0.018)). Moderated mediation analysis also showed the same patterns for the mediating effect of sense of control on the association between trust and health and reciprocity and health. Our study suggested that employing social capital to promote sense of control could not only be beneficial for people's health but also be helpful to narrow the health gap on the income gradient.
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This research used longitudinal data from the German SocioEconomic Panel Study (SOEP) to examine whether religious attendance buffers the impact of unemployment on life satisfaction. Fixed effects models following 5,446 individuals up to three years after the transition to unemployment yielded two central findings. First, higher frequency of religious attendance was associated with smaller drops in life satisfaction. Second, only those who attended religious services on a weekly basis adapted to unemployment. These results suggest that religious attendance on a weekly basis can mitigate the psychological impact of unemployment.
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The collapse of the Soviet Union ended a long period of state repression of religion, facilitating a possible religious revival in Russia. Despite evidence of increasing levels of Russian Orthodox identification in the 1990s, however, the debate over whether post-Soviet Russia is an exception to secularization trends elsewhere continues. We address this debate by examining trends in Orthodox identification and church attendance and their impact on conservative moral values, as well as the basis of religiosity in age cohorts, using a seven-wave national, stratified random sample survey covering 1993—2007. The analysis indicates continued growth in Orthodox self-identification, increased church attendance, and an increasingly strong association between religiosity and conservative morality over this time period. Moreover, signs of religious revival are most pronounced among the cohort of people who came to maturity after communism ended. The resurgence of Orthodoxy in Russia provides a robust exception to secularization trends in Western Europe.
The attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in the United States of September 11th, 2001 brought the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism to the world's attention.Sociological research has clearly demonstrated that fundamentalists are primarily reacting against modernity, and believe that they are fighting for the very survival of their faith against the secular enemy. But we understand very little about how and why people join fundamentalist movements and embrace a set of beliefs, values and norms of behaviour which are counter-cultural. This is essentially a question for social psychology, since it involves both social relations and individual selves.
Seminal nineteenth-century thinkers predicted that religion would gradually fade in importance with the emergence of industrial society. The belief that religion was dying became the conventional wisdom in the social sciences during most of the twentieth century. The traditional secularization thesis needs updating, however, religion has not disappeared and is unlikely to do so. Nevertheless, the concept of secularization captures an important part of what is going on. This book develops a theory of existential security. It demonstrates that the publics of virtually all advanced industrial societies have been moving toward more secular orientations during the past half century, but also that the world as a whole now has more people with traditional religious views than ever before. This second edition expands the theory and provides new and updated evidence from a broad perspective and in a wide range of countries. This confirms that religiosity persists most strongly among vulnerable populations, especially in poorer nations and in failed states. Conversely, a systematic erosion of religious practices, values, and beliefs has occurred among the more prosperous strata in rich nations.
Chapter 1 Introduction: Powerful Medicine Chapter 2 The Unfolding Response to the Sacred Chapter 3 Religion's Violent Accomplices Chapter 4 Violence as a Sacred Duty Chapter 5 Militants for Peace Chapter 6 Reconciliation and the Politics of Forgiveness Chapter 7 Religion and Conflict Transformation Chapter 8 Religious Human Rights and Interreligious Peace Building Chapter 9 Ambivalence as Opportunity
This study investigated how religiosity relates to goal engagement (i.e., investing time and effort; overcoming obstacles) and goal disengagement (i.e., protecting self-esteem and motivational resources against failure experiences; distancing from unattainable goals) in coping with perceived work-related uncertainties (e.g., growing risk of job loss) that arise from current social change. We hypothesised that religiosity not only expands individuals' capacities for both engagement and disengagement but also fosters an opportunity-congruent pattern of engagement and disengagement, promoting engagement especially under favourable opportunities for goal-striving in the social ecology and facilitating disengagement especially under unfavourable opportunities. Multilevel analyses in a sample of N = 2089 Polish adults aged 20–46 years partly supported these predictions. Religiosity was associated with higher goal engagement, especially under favourable economic opportunities for goal-striving in the social ecology (as measured by the regional net migration rate). For disengagement, the results were more mixed; religiosity was related to higher self-protection independently of the economic opportunity structure and predicted higher goal-distancing only under the most unfavourable opportunities. These results suggest that religiosity can promote different coping strategies under different conditions, fostering a pattern of opportunity-congruent engagement and, to some extent, disengagement that is likely to be adaptive.