Science and Faith

People often turn to a higher power for reassurance in times of stress, but new research says that a belief in science may help the non-religious handle adversity in just the same way. 

Previous research has shown that faith in the divine helps the devout keep their spirits up and overcome some physical ailments, and researchers at the University of Oxford and Yale University wanted to determine if a belief in the scientific pursuit of knowledge offered the same comfort during high-anxiety situations. 

“While most people accept science as a reliable source of knowledge about the world, some may hold science as a superior method for gathering knowledge, the only way to explain the world, or as having some unique and fundamental value in itself,” lead study author Dr. Miguel Farias of Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology said in a press release. “This is a view of science that some atheists endorse.”

Testing the Belief in the Scientific Method

Using a scale they developed, researchers asked their subjects to rate statements like “Science tells us everything there is to know about what reality consists of,” and “All the tasks human beings face are soluble by science.” The researchers questioned 100 rowers, 52 who were about to enter a regatta competition and 48 who were on their way to regular training. 

Those about to compete—who reported that they were experiencing more stress—had significantly higher scores on the rating scale showing a greater belief in science. All those questioned reported a low affiliation with any religion.

In the next experiment, 60 different subjects were split into two groups: one to write on their feelings about their own death (producing existential anxiety) and the other to write about dental pain. Those who wrote about their own death also scored higher on the scale measuring their belief in science. 

“It's not just believing in God that is important for gaining these psychological benefits, it is belief in general,” Farias said. “It may be that we as humans are just prone to have belief, and even atheists will hold non-supernatural beliefs that are reassuring and comforting.” 

Farias has been researching spiritual and religious beliefs for more than 10 years. The claims he's made in his research have been questioned before, but bear in mind that these findings were published in a journal with experimental right in the name: The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

No matter what your beliefs are, science is the state of knowing, not believing. As famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has said, “The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.”

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