Religious uncertainty correlates with greater fear of sin

Snake and SinReligious people often struggle with uncertainty. They may attend church on a regular basis, read their sacred texts, and pray daily, yet they may still have nagging doubts about their religion. Such religious uncertainty may have an unexpected side-effect: an increased fear of sin. Thomas Fergus and Wade Rowatt (both of Baylor University) found that greater uncertainty about one’s religion indeed correlates with a greater fear of sin and its consequences.

More precisely, uncertainty, or rather the intolerance of uncertainty, from a psychological point of view forms the core of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Put another way, OCD leads to a need to have control and such a need makes uncertainty intolerable. In terms of religion, “scrupulosity” is a type of religious or moral OCD that occurs when a person fears sin for no reason.

With this connection between uncertainty and sin in mind, Fergus and Rowatt wanted to investigate how uncertainly affects fear of sin and fear of God. To do this, they recruited adults from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Since atheism may muddle their statistics, they removed all those who did not believe in a higher power, leaving 120 participants. These participants would then go through a four phase survey. First, they would complete the General Religiousness Scale (GRS) which consists of four questions (How religious do you consider yourself to be? How often do you attend religious services? How often do you read the Bible, Koran, Torah or other sacred book? About how often do you pray or meditate outside of religious services?).

Next, the survey would randomly sort participants in one of two groups. One group would answer open-ended questions about insecurity and the other group would instead answer about their emotions. After that, the survey would again randomly assign participants to one of two conditions: a God-prime condition and a neutral-prime condition (the exact priming task was to unscramble words – the God-prime condition had religious words). Finally, all participants completed a modified version of the revised Modified Penn Inventory of Scrupulosity (PIOS) and the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS). The PIOS assesses scrupulous fears (namely, fear of sin and fear of God), and the PANAS measures to what extent respondents are feeling a given emotion (for example, distress).

As expected, answering questions about insecurity and being primed by God concepts each correlated with scrupulous fears, in particular the fear of sinning. The researchers believe this correlation can be interpreted in one of two ways. It may be that God priming led people to think of religion, which when combined with uncertainty resulted in religious doubt and thus scrupulous fears. Alternatively, God priming led to “supernatural monitoring,” the belief that a higher being watches one’s every move, which in turn raised concerns about morality and thus scrupulous fears. That said, the researchers rightly raise warnings about such inferences: “It is important to note that the effect related to fears of God approached statistical significance in this study and thus no firm conclusions regarding the specificity of the effects to fears of sin should be drawn at this time. Moreover, although the manipulations did not increase negative affect, we did not assess anxiety or obsessive-compulsive symptoms and thus are unable to conclude that the combination of uncertainty salience and reflecting on God uniquely impacted scrupulous fears.”

Moving to a practical level, the researchers suggest that increasing tolerance for uncertainty could serve as a therapy strategy for dealing with scrupulous fears. However, given all of the unknowns regarding the correlation and the relatively low statistical significance, such suggestions can only be uncertain.

For more, see “Uncertainty, god, and scrupulosity: Uncertainty salience and priming god concepts interact to cause greater fears of sin” in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychology.