How do you spell relief? R-E-L-I-G-I-O-N?

According to ScienceDaily, researchers are finding strong links between anxiety and religious extremism in individuals:

Across all studies, anxious conditions caused participants to become more eagerly engaged in their ideals and extreme in their religious convictions. In one study, mulling over a personal dilemma caused a general surge toward more idealistic personal goals. In another, struggling with a confusing mathematical passage caused a spike in radical religious extremes. In yet another, reflecting on relationship uncertainties caused the same religious zeal reaction.

I find this fascinating (and intuitively correct): religion is (among other things) an anxiety reduction device. And what motivational process causes this heightened religious response? Something researchers call “Reactive Approach Motivation”:  

A basic motivational process called Reactive Approach Motivation (RAM) is responsible, according to lead researcher Ian McGregor, Associate Professor in York’s Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health. “Approach motivation is a tenacious state in which people become ‘locked and loaded’ on whatever goal or ideal they are promoting. They feel powerful, and thoughts and feelings related to other issues recede,” he says.

In other words, when you are under stress religion empowers and focuses you for the task at hand (fighting the thing elevating your anxiety). Here’s a bit more:

Findings published last year in the journal Psychological Science by the same authors and collaborators at the University of Toronto found that strong religious beliefs are associated with low activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that becomes active in anxious predicaments.

“Taken together, the results of this research program suggest that bold but vulnerable people gravitate to idealistic and religious extremes for relief from anxiety,” McGregor says.

I suppose that this is the phenomenon that we are witnessing with Tea Partiers (which, in my view, are involved in a pseudo-religious cult movement). They’ve focused their anxiety on Barack Obama, and they’re “lock and loading” on the November 2010 congressional election. Their extremist ideology is giving them a heightened sense of control and confidence.

But my question is this: what happens when people activate their Reactive Approach Motivation (RAM) mechanism and yet fail to achieve their desired goals? Do they: (1) become paranoid; (2) become cognitively dissonant; (3) check-out of the larger society by retreating into the realm of the mind; (4) abandon politics for aesthetic projects; (5) become compliant; or (6) take up arms and become even more extreme?

And if they win do they start to perceive themselves as omnipotent?

All of the above?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to How do you spell relief? R-E-L-I-G-I-O-N?

  1. Interesting. I have discovered anxiety is one root of my periodic depressions, but I don’t think my religious life (past) would ever be called extreme.

  2. Vincent says:

    Religious Extremists
    Here are a few general characteristics of people who hold extremists’ views I found.
    1. They have a sense of absolutism: They have a distorted, non-constructive and irrational thought that the truth, moral or aesthetic values are absolute, universal, set and unchangeable. They do not believe in change and diversity and are usually very low in their tolerance level.
    2. They have a sense of righteousness: They usually think that they know the truth and no one else does. Their truth is very limited and based on outdated, contaminated and one-sided information. They usually don’t even have enough knowledge about their own religion and only know the surface part.
    3. They do confirmation bias: This is where one only brings in information that fits his thought process and dismisses anything else. Any other information, no matter how historically, scientifically and logically valid, will be disregarded.
    4. They have a sense of knowing an ultimate meaning: They have a sense of a black and white thinking where the white is a limited definition of how life “should” be for all of us. There is no flexibility, no adaptability and no objectivity. You are either into this small and specific white zone or you are “the other.”
    5. They dehumanize whoever does not fit their view: They put other people’s views inferior to theirs and dehumanize people whose views do not fit theirs. This gives them a sense that they have the right to kill, harm and destroy others. They also do the same to out-groups.
    6. They idealize historic figures or stories: Such people usually idealize some figures in their belief system and stories attached to the past and want to fit the present and the future into that idealization.
    7. They have an utter certainty that they are right: The objective mind of a rational person knows that at any time, there are so many things he does not know. But an extremist does not have such view and holds a distorted thought that he knows all the answers and has found the “truth” which is the only truth.
    8. They have a sense of unwillingness to compromise: For such individuals, there is only one way and that is what matches their definition of truth. They are not willing to find common grounds with other people and cannot find win-win positions.
    9. They have too much focus on the life after death: A religious extremist has too little focus on the importance of this life and what makes him feel fulfilled in it and is too attached to the concept of a “great” afterlife.
    10. They have many psychological defences: Such individuals have formed a number of psychological defences so none of their internal feelings would be challenged.

    In the end, targeting religious extremism is about targeting ideas more than individuals.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Interesting points, Vincent. Sorry I can’t say more right now, have to work tomorrow and I’m up way too late as it is. : )

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