Are there ties between belief in conspiracy theories and religiosity?

An article in PsyPost titled “People who endorse conspiracy theories tend to be more religious, and this may be due to ideological overlap”
People who endorse conspiracy theories tend to be more religious, and this may be due to ideological overlap
discusses a possible link between beliefs in certain types of conspiracy theories and religiosity due to ideological ties between the two. They link to a recent study in the Political Psychology journal here:
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/pops.12822
The abstract of that study states that “The results indicate that the correlations between religiosity and conspiracy theory endorsement were positive, and political orientation shared large parts of this covariance. Correlations of religiosity with the more need-related conspiracy mentality differed between countries. We conclude that similarities in the explanatory style and ideologies seem to be central for the relation between intrinsic religiosity and endorsing conspiracy theories, but psychological needs only play a minor role.”
I have to say that I have long suspected such a link, but kept it to myself due to lack of evidence. This study isn’t conclusive, but I would say that it does point in the direction concluded in the PsyPost article.
What say you?

Sorry, don’t have links, but the people I have known who believed in assorted conspiracies not only had strong religious beliefs, but they were also what could be considered on the fringe - extreme fundamentalism, that kind of thing.

I think it was more a function of ignorance, or denial (one person I’m thinking of has a master’s degree!) than religiosity in itself.

I have long thought there is such a nexus. I come down on the side of cognitive styles.

If you can find your way to believing in, without evidence, a talking snake or a virgin birth, it’s not a huge leap to go for climate change denial or voter fraud or or or or.

The other aspect religion and conspiracy theories share is that the conclusion has already been reached before “evidence” for the conclusion is offered. Cherry-picking at its finest.

The text of the Bible has almost nothing to do with modern, American Christian theology. If you can buy what they’re selling while looking at the actual text, you’re ready to buy most anything.

There is, and it’s mainly because it’s very difficult to get people to believe far-fetched sounding things in the Bible (for instance) while not believing other far-fetched things that are wrong, such as QAnon, Covid vaccine hoaxes, flat-earthism, etc. That requires a surgical level of hair-splitting discernment that many are simply incapable of.

How do you tell someone to believe the splitting of the Red Sea, the resurrection of the dead, and a bit of fish and bread being multiplied to feed thousands, but also prevent them from believing that JFK Jr is still alive, that China is putting troops in Canada to invade the USA with, or that a military force is going to keep Trump in power as president by coup? It’s tantamount to telling a sniper that he should shoot his rifle in the air but only make the bullet go 6,900 feet but not 7,000.

But, being a conspiracy theorist involves not just believing but also rejecting: rejecting what science, or the authorities, or the mainstream media, or the conventional wisdom, tells you (e.g. that the earth is round; that Covid vaccines are safe and effective; that human beings really did land on the moon, etc.). So I would expect belief in conspiracy theories to appeal to the same sort of people as the more extreme or fringe religious beliefs (as @nearwildheaven said).

Also a number of Chrisitan denominations emphasize that their followers will be persecuted for their beliefs and that a measure of their virtue is the ability to maintain their beliefs in spite of the persecution. This has obvious implications when a conspiarcist is confronted by evidence contradicting their belief since retaining their beliefs despite the challenge becomes an issue of morality.

I do believe or suspect a few conspiracies current and in history. Conspiracy does exist. There are laws that you can be convicted of conspiring. I am also an atheist. I dismiss many conspiracy theories on the same grounds I dismiss many portions of religions. But I do not completely dismiss the value of religion. Many folks seem to have trouble drawing the line of viability and or truth of many things. It is a very murky psychological area. I recall reading a chapter in a book called Brocha’s Brain. After a head trauma, a man became a pathological believer. He would quickly develop a strong belief in almost anything.

I agree with this statement. I also think a lot of conspiracy wackos think they understand science (e.g. flat-Earthers, climate-change deniers, anti-vaxxers, contrails, etc.), when obviously they don’t. Most religious people I know believe the Bible, Quran, etc. is the truth, and don’t buy the sketchy science stuff on the internet.

To me it seems a specific type of religious thinking that does it more than anything. The commonality is denying scientific evidence. Not just saying there can be supernatural exceptions, but going into denial of science.

For example, we have religious people here, but not a whole lot who go the science denying extreme. And, we also don’t have many who believe in conspiracy theories.

I also think the move to individual revelation without some sort of scripture backing it up is heavily into this. All of the extermely heavily conspiracy-minded people I’ve ever known also seem to think either they or some dude they’ve talked to has special revelation from God. They also all seem to be obsessed with eschatology (end of the world stuff) and figuring out what the Bible flat out says can’t be figured out.

Sure, there’s still the aspect of thinking that there is a Satan who is out to trick believers—something most Christians believe in to some extent. But the ones who get deep into it, beyond a passing thought, seem to be far deeper. They already believe specific conspiracies of some sort–for religious reasons.

Hence why QAnon used religious imagery.

So just looking at study 1, the meta-study.

As far as I can understand they searched Google Scholar for papers about “religiosity and conspiracy”. They took the first 70 results and tossed all but 13 (18.5% of 70 is roughly 13) papers, due to irrelevance.

I have no idea what this means:

The meta-analysis was conducted separately for specific conspiracy beliefs and general conspiracy mindset scales by applying the meta package in R (Schwarzer, 2021). We used the inverse variance method, the Sidik-Jonkman estimator for τ2, Q-profile method for the confidence interval of τ2, and Fisher’s z-transformation of correlations.

By context I assume that’s how they combined diverse studies into a single correlation coefficient.

But ultimately there were 5 papers reporting correlations between specific conspiracies and religiosity, 5 papers reporting correlations between a conspiracy mindset and religiosity, and 3 papers reporting both. Some of these with multiple studies, so there are 18 total datapoints.

Correlations between religiosity and specific CTs (Study 1).

Correlations between religiosity and conspiracy mindset (Study 1).

Of course these studies used different questions and methods so I really don’t know whether it’s appropriate to put them all next to each other like that. In the case of specific conspiracy theories it may matter which theories are being asked about in which country, to which people. There are all sorts of potential caveats that get lost when you just put them all together like this. I took a look at the first few studies, I mean there’s room for debate on some of these conspiracy theories.

For example is a Turkish or Iranian citizen conspiracy minded to distrust their government? Or are they not conspiracy minded because they have no idea what Area 52 is or who killed JFK or MLK? And in the U.S., you have to add a mental note to the correlation between Americans’ religiosity and hesitation to COVID-19 vaccines, with the facts that Black Americans score high on religiosity and that there is actual history of the government injecting Blacks with viruses.

The Alper Study

Alper et al source here.

“In the current preregistered research, we recruited 1,088 Turkish participants
[…]
Participants were recruited via Facebook and Twitter in exchange for gift draws. […] The resulting sample consisted of 1,088 participants (790 females, 291 males, 7 responded as “other”; Mage = 31.02, SD = 39.43).
[…]
we developed a 2-item scale where participants were asked to report how much they agree (1 = strongly disagree, 7 = strongly agree) with the followings: “Coronavirus was developed and spread around the world by certain people for their own purposes” and “There is no intentional plan of a person or a group behind the spreading of coronavirus around the world” (reverse item).
[…]
We measured the general tendency to believe in conspiracy theories that are unrelated to COVID-19 by using the 15-item Generic Conspiracist Beliefs Scale (Brotherton, French, & Pickering, 2013).
[…]
At the end of the study, participants filled out a sociodemographic form including questions on […] religiosity (1 = not religious at all, 7 = very religious)”

This 15-item test, before Turkish translation, asks (source),

Beliefs About the World
There is often debate about whether or not the public is told the whole truth about various important issues. This brief survey is designed to assess your beliefs about some of these subjects. Please indicate the degree to which you believe each statement is likely to be true on the following scale: Definitely not true; Probably not true; Not sure/cannot decide; Probably true; Definitely true

  1. The government is involved in the murder of innocent citizens and/or well-known public figures, and keeps this a secret
  2. The power held by heads of state is second to that of small unknown groups who really control world politics
  3. Secret organizations communicate with extraterrestrials, but keep this fact from the public
  4. The spread of certain viruses and/or diseases is the result of the deliberate, concealed efforts of some organization
  5. Groups of scientists manipulate, fabricate, or suppress evidence in order to deceive the public
  6. The government permits or perpetrates acts of terrorism on its own soil, disguising its involvement
  7. A small, secret group of people is responsible for making all major world decisions, such as going to war
  8. Evidence of alien contact is being concealed from the public
  9. Technology with mind-control capacities is used on people without their knowledge
  10. New and advanced technology which would harm current industry is being suppressed
  11. The government uses people as patsies to hide its involvement in criminal activity
  12. Certain significant events have been the result of the activity of a small group who secretly manipulate world events
  13. Some UFO sightings and rumors are planned or staged in order to distract the public from real alien contact
  14. Experiments involving new drugs or technologies are routinely carried out on the public without their knowledge or consent
  15. A lot of important information is deliberately concealed from the public out of self-interest

The religiosity test was written (in Turkish): “Kendinizi ne kadar dindar tanımlıyorsunuz?” which Google says means “How religious do you describe yourself?”

Religiosity was correlated with belief in a COVID-19 conspiracy at r=0.231, p<0.01.

Religiosity was correlated with generic conspiracist beliefs about the world at r=-0.005, p=0.877.

The Atari Study

Atari study source here.

“The sample consisted of 544 individuals (52.6% male, 37.5% female, 9.9% preferred not to report). All participants were recruited from the general population from public places in Tehran, Iran. Participants ranged in age from 15 to 75 ( M = 32.5, SD = 9.8 years). Two-hundred and thirty participants (42.3%) were unmarried and 299 participants (55%) were married. Fifteen participants chose not to disclose their marital status. In terms of highest education qualification, 31 participants (5.7%) reported some high school education, 104 participants (19.1%) reported having a high school diploma, 121 participants (22.2%) reported an associate’s degree, 191 participants (35.1%) reported a bachelor’s degree, 81 participants (14.9%) reported a postgraduate degree, and 8 participants (1.5%) reported a doctoral degree. Eight participants did not report their highest educational qualification.”

They seemed to use three questionnaires to measure conspiracy minded thinking. One, the “BCTI”, is given as these 15 questions, responses of 1 (completely false) to 9 (completely true):

  1. A powerful and secretive group, known as New World Order, is planning to eventually rule the world through an autonomous world government, which would replace sovereign government.
  2. SARS (a respiratory virus whose outbreak in 2003 affected thousands of individuals) was produced under laboratory conditions as a biological weapon.
  3. The US government had foreknowledge about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (in 1941), but allowed the attack to take place so as to be able to enter the Second World War.
  4. US agencies intentionally created the AIDS epidemic and administered it to Black and gay men in the 1970s.
  5. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (leader of the civil rights movement in the US, assassinated in 1968), was the result of an organized conspiracy by US government agencies such as CIA and FBI.
  6. The Apollo moon landings (i.e., landing the first humans on the Moon by NASA in 1960s) never happened and were staged in a Hollywood film studio.
  7. Area 51 in Nevada, US, is a secretive military base that contains hidden alien spacecraft and/or alien bodies.
  8. The US government allowed the 9/11 attacks to take place so that it would have an excuse to achieve foreign (e.g., wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) and domestic (e.g., attacks on civil liberties) goals that had been determined prior to the attacks.
  9. The assassination of John F. Kennedy (American President, in office from 1961 until his assassination in 1963) was not committed by the lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, but was rather a detailed, organized conspiracy to kill the US President.
  10. In July 1947, the US military recovered the wreckage of an alien craft from Roswell, New Mexico, and covered up the fact.
  11. The death of Princess Diana (a member of the British royal family) was not an accident, but rather an organized assassination by members of the British royal family who disliked her.
  12. The Oklahoma City bombers (in 1995), Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, did not act alone, but rather received assistance from neo-Nazi groups.
  13. The Coca Cola company intentionally changed to an inferior formula with the intent of driving up demand for their classic product, later reintroducing it for their financial gain.
  14. Special interest groups are suppressing, or have suppressed in the past, technologies that could provide energy at reduced cost or reduced pollution output.
  15. Government agencies in the UK are involved in the distribution of illegal drugs to ethnic minorities.

The 5-question CMQ is this, with responses going 0 (certainly not) to 10 (certain):

  1. I think that many very important things happen in the world, which the public is never informed about
  2. I think that politicians usually do not tell us the true motives for their decisions
  3. I think that government agencies closely monitor all citizens
  4. I think that events which superficially seem to lack a connection are often the result of secret activities
  5. I think that there are secret organizations that greatly influence political decisions

The third questionnaire, the “GCBS”, had the same 15 questions as the above Alper study.

For religiosity,

“All participants completed the SRR on an 11-point scale ranging from 0 (indicating no religiosity) to 10 (indicating high level of religiosity)”

According to a footnote reference which I omitted in the above quote, the question actually asked (in Arabic) is “What is your level of religiosity in general?”, with the numbers 0 through 10 written horizontally on a line with equal intervals between each number, and instructions to circle their answer, and that 0 means minimum and 10 the maximum religiosity.

The authors of the meta study seem to have interpreted the r=0.15 correlation between religiosity and the BCTI questionnaire (multiple specific conspiracy theories) as a correlation between religiosity and specific conspiracy theories. The r=0.10 number pulled as a correlation between conspiracy mindset and religiosity seems to be based on the CMQ; but it seems to me r=-0.05 (not in the text of the article, but the bottom right cell in a supplementary table) would be more appropriate comparison to the Alper study since it used the exact same questionnaire.

The Bost Study

The Bost et al study appears to be paywalled.

The Douglas Studies

The Douglas et al paper is here.

There were two studies in this paper.

study 1

“Two hundred and two workers from Amazon’s Mechanical TurkTM were
recruited to complete an online questionnaire (102 women, 99 men, 1 transgender/rather
not say, Mage = 32.4, SD = 12.20). Of this sample, 78% were White/Caucasian, 7%
African American, 7% Asian, 5% Hispanic, 0.5% Pacific Islander and 2.5% Other. Fifty
one percent indicated that they had no religion or were atheist, 39% were Christian (e.g.,
Catholic, Baptist, Protestant, Methodist), 3% agnostic, 3% Jewish, 1% Muslim, 1%
Buddhist, 1% Hindu and 1% Other (including ‘spiritual’ and Wiccan). They were each
paid US $0.75.”

There were seven statements respondents were asked to rate their agreement with, with responses on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). The statements, designed to measure belief in specific conspiracy theories, come from a 2011 paper which is paywalled. We know two of the statements:

“Scientists are creating panic about climate change because it is in their interests to do so”
“The attack on the Twin Towers was not a terrorist action but a governmental plot”

Participants were also asked to rate their own religiosity on a scale of 1 to 4:

“[…] participants were asked to rate their religiosity (1 = not at all religious, 2 = somewhat religious, 3 = moderately religious, 4 = very religious). Note that this is a measure of the degree to which participants feel that they are religious (which may include religious practices and behaviors) rather than a measure of religious belief.”

The correlation between scores for the conspiracy questionnaire and religiosity was r=-0.09, p<0.10

study 2

“Three hundred and thirty workers from Amazon’s Mechanical TurkTM were recruited to complete an online questionnaire (170 women, 158 men, 2 transgender/rather not say, Mage = 35.45, SD = 13.05). Of this sample, 79.5% were White/Caucasian, 7% African American, 7% Asian, 3% Hispanic, 1% Native American, 0.5% Pacific Islander and 2% Other. Forty five per cent indicated that they were Christian (e.g., Catholic, Baptist, Protestant, Methodist), 42% had no religion or were atheist, 3.5% agnostic, 2.5% Jewish, 2% Buddhist, 1% Hindu and 4% Other (e.g., ‘spiritual’ and wiccan). They were each paid US $1 for their time.”

This time there were 17 statements for participants to rate their agreement with specific conspiracy theories on a scale of 1 to 7. The actual statements come from another paper which is paywalled. I cannot say for sure if the two example statements given in study 1 were used here.

Participants were also asked the same question on religiosity as in study 1:

“[…] participants were asked to rate their religiosity (1 = not at all religious, 2 = somewhat religious, 3 = moderately religious, 4 = very religious). Note that this is a measure of the degree to which participants feel that they are religious (which may include religious practices and behaviors) rather than a measure of religious belief.”

The correlation between scores for the conspiracy questionnaire and religiosity was r=0.19, p<0.01.

The Freeman Study

The Freeman et al. study can be read here.

“A non-probability online survey with 2501 adults in England, quota sampled to match the population for age, gender, income, and region.
[…]
An online survey with a quota sampled participant group was conducted by Lucid (https://luc.id/) from 4th May 2020 to the 11th May 2020. The quotas used were based upon UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) population estimate data. The quotas were for gender (males = 49.35%, females = 50.65%), age (<18 = 21.30%, 18–24 = 9.4%, 25–34 = 13.4%, 35–44 = 14.00%, 45–54 = 13.7%, 55–64 = 11.70%, 65–99 = 16.50%), region (South East = 16.33%, North West = 13.04%, East = 11.09%, West Midlands = 10.55%, South West = 9.94%, East Midlands = 8.58%, North East = 4.76%, London = 15.92%, Yorkshire and the Humber = 9.79%), and income (<£ 15 000 = 17.06%, 15 000–19 999 = 9.11%, 20 000–29 999 = 18.63%, 30 000–39 999 = 15.32%, 40 000–49 999 = 11.81%, 50 000–59 999 = 7.51%, 60 000–69 999 = 5.58%, 70 000–99 999 = 8.58%, 100 000–149 000 = 4.15%, 150 000 + = 2.25%).”

This Lucid survey company apparently did multiple online surveys through business partners.

“The advantage of using multiple survey sources is substantially less reliant on any particular demographic or segment of the population. Respondents will have been sourced from: ads and promotions across digital networks, search, word of mouth and membership referrals, social networks, online and mobile games, affiliate marketing, banner ads, offerwalls, TV and radio ads, and offline recruitment with mail campaigns. Participants have opted in to being a panel member for the supplier as well as providing informed consent to this particular survey. Individuals are not included if they have responded to all questions in the same way or have a completion time that is less than one-third of the median.”

The religiosity test:

“On seven-point scales, participants rated religiosity (0 = not all religious, 6 = strongly religious)”

They asked participants to rate their agreement with 42 statements related to COVID-19 conspiracies, including four that are official explanations, on “a five-point scale: do not agree (1), agree a little (2), agree moderately (3), agree a lot (4), agree completely (5)”.

The 42 statements can be found here: https://static.cambridge.org/binary/version/id/urn:cambridge.org:id:binary:20220211085437849-0470:S0033291720001890:S0033291720001890_tab2.png?pub-status=live

“The mean total specific coronavirus conspiracy score was 46.1, s.d. = 26.0 (minimum = 30, maximum = 150, 25th percentile = 30, 50th percentile = 32, 75th percentile = 48, 90th percentile = 91)”

Correlation between religiosity and belief in COVID-19 conspiracies was given at r=0.32, p<0.001. This was used by the meta study.

Correlation between religiosity and belief in general COVID-19 conspiracies was given at r=0.28, p<0.001.

Note that they did have participants fill out the Conspiracy Mindset Questionnaire, and so should be able to correlate religiosity with a general conspiracy mindset based on that, but I do not see the datapoint published.

~Max

IMHO you’ve hit on something important. I don’t think it’s far-fetched for people to believe in a God and an afterlife where good people go to heaven and all that sort of stuff. Believing in young earth creation, that there was literally a global flood, etc. is a different story. They don’t depend on the same psychological needs.

I agree. It seems to me that what they believe and what they reject isn’t based on evidence, but on what their leaders tell them to believe and what to reject. It’s the difference between people who want to believe something (in a benevolent God, in an afterlife where good people go to heaven, etc.) based on faith (since the evidence for those things isn’t there) vs. people who want to be told what to do and what to think by those who know better.

In other words, IMHO it’s the authoritarian mindset that causes belief in conspiracy theories and a certain type of religiosity. It has to do with how willing one is to ignore evidence, not how skilled one is at evaluating it.

Thanks for explaining what I believe about this myself.

And some of them may believe the most absurd things. For example, the woman I mentioned in the earlier post who has a master’s degree believes that it’s quite common for public school teachers to take girls to get abortions during the school day, without their parents’ knowledge or consent. Yeah, I’d like to know when and where something like that happened.

I’m glad. I look back and see that I was just writing off the cuff and could have been a lot more clear with a bit of editing.

Schizophrenia can involve conspiracy delusions or religiosity that reach the point of making the person non-functional. I have wondered if some of the genetics that predispose a person to schizophrenia, even if not activated to the point of causing the disease, could also lead to a person being susceptible to logic-defying beliefs in conspiracy theories or to religious beliefs beyond the mainstream in either intensity or theology. (The genes aren’t expressed enough to make them dysfunctional, but they have weird beliefs.)

She probably read about this

But as is often the case with right wing outrage, one example occurring one time gets transformed by the information bubble to be routine policy.

Here’s a good lecture from Stanford ( Dr. Robert Sapolsky) on exactly that topic:

As well as schizophrenia, there are also forms of epilepsy that are correlated with not just religiosity (often even having messianic feelings) and conspiracy theories.
Basically, under some kinds of epilepsy, whatever part of consciousness is responsible for determining if something is important frequently misfires. This feeling of many everyday things being important can give a person the impression of secret grand plans both of the supernatural and FBI kind.

In terms of the OP though, I just don’t see it as remotely surprising.
Religion requires you to suspend certain parts of critical thinking – let’s be generous and call this “faith”. Applying the same lack of rigor elsewhere leads to believing in all kinds of crap, with conspiracy theories being just one flavor.

I tend to feel the overlap is significantly smaller than a lot of non-religious skeptics would think. I feel that most religious people are not religious because they made a decision to reject secular beliefs; they’re religious because they grew up in an environment where religion was part of the mainstream belief. They accepted the religious beliefs that they saw the people around them believing.

This is not generally true of conspiracy theorists. These are people who have chosen to reject something that most of the people around them believe.

With both groups adhering to beliefs based on faith rather than evidence, there can be overlaps. I’m sure you have people, for example, who have mainstream religious beliefs alongside some conspiracy political beliefs. But I feel we should recognize these are belief systems based on two distinct principles and not two different aspects of the same principle.

My observation agrees with the one that it is correlated to extreme religious beliefs, and both these are correlated with lack of critical thinking skills. Once they get it into their minds that the earth is flat, say, and correlate this with the Bible being true which is at the core of their worldview, they are immune to evidence to the contrary. I’ve seen this in real life and on-line.
Those with moderate religious views seem to be able to hold these view and the real world in their minds at the same time.