A new study suggests that science performs the same function in some people's lives as faith does in the lives of religious believers. According to Science magazine, individuals placed under stress turned to science as a means of coping with feelings of stress and anxiety in a study which was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.


Scientists in the study questioned members of competitive rowing teams and recruited 100 of them, mostly in their 20s, who said that they lacked strong religious beliefs. The rowers were divided into two groups, one set of whom were about to race in a regatta, and a second group facing a much less stressful competition.

Group members were then asked whether they agree or disagree with statements like, "We can only rationally believe in what is scientifically provable," and "All the tasks human beings face are soluble by science," and "The scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge."

Athletes who were preparing to compete were, predictably, under more stress than athletes who were under less pressure. In addition, they were statistically more likely to express a strong belief in scientific principles, 15 percent more than their less stressed counterparts.

In a second experiment, researchers asked faculty and staff of two large British universities -- who also professed that they held no strong religious beliefs -- to write about one of two topics; their own death and their experiences with dental pain.

In questionnaires completed after the writing sessions, the subjects asked to contemplate their own mortality, like the stressed rowers, were 15 percent more likely to express strong agreement with scientific principles.

Scientific thinking and religious thinking derive from very different bases, said the study's authors. Science is based in "analytical thinking, rational inquiry and an objective weighing of evidence." Religious thought is "founded on intuition, inner experience, and a valuing of historical revelation." Both, however, help people make sense of the world around them and gives them a sense of belonging.

"In stressful situations people are likely to turn to whatever worldviews and beliefs are most meaningful to them," study co-author and Yale University psychologist Anna-Kaisa Newheiser told Science.

The study reported that "modern secular individuals are prone to cling on to beliefs about science, in the same way that their ancestors turned to the gods." The purpose of the paper, said researchers, is not to validate science over faith or vice versa, but rather to explore "the human motivation to believe."

[image of scientist in the lab via Shutterstock.com]