New research has found that a person’s belief in God is strengthened when considering “what might have been,” especially after a major life event that could have turned out badly.
The study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, also shows how believers come to perceive evidence for their religious conviction via deliberate and rational cognitive processes.
Lead investigator Dr. Anneke Buffone said she began her research on the subject after becoming “intrigued by the question of how people perceive God as an active, trustworthy, and giving influence in their everyday lives.”
“Why is it that the vast majority of Americans, and many people across the globe, perceive a divine or spiritual influence in their lives and are firm believers in God, even in our modern world where many mysteries of the past have been scientifically explained?” she said.
To examine these perceptions, the researchers focused on counterfactual thinking.
“Counterfactuals — imagining how life would be different if a given event had not occurred — seemed like a good candidate due to its effect of making inferred connections between events seem more meaningful, surprising, and ‘meant to be,'” Buffone said.
“We specifically explored how downward counterfactual thinking — thoughts about how life would be worse if an important life event had not occurred — may be a way in which believers come to perceive evidence for a God that is acting for their benefit.”
In the first study, 280 undergraduate students wrote an essay in which they described an important life event from their past, either positive or negative.
One-third of the students were then told to think about how life could be better, one-third were asked to imagine how life might be worse, and one-third were simply asked to describe the event in more detail.
Following this exercise, the students answered a series of questions related to their strength of religious beliefs, including faith, behavior, and how much they felt the influence of God.
“The results suggest that counterfactual thinking leads believers to the belief that the event did not occur by chance alone, and leads them to search for a source, in this case God, and this in turn leads to an increase in religious faith,” said Buffone.
The researchers said the effects were found to be strongest when people thought about the events in a downward counterfactual direction, that is, when they thought how life would be worse if an event had not occurred.
The second study involved 99 people who were not college students. They went through a similar essay and questionnaire process as the previous study. The results from the second study were consistent with those of the first study, according to the researchers.
The researchers note there are limits to the study.
“Some major religions do not believe in a deity at all or do not believe in just one deity, and it’s unclear whether counterfactual thinking’s effects on religious belief would differ between monotheistic and polytheistic religions as well as between different religions more generally,” Buffone said.
“Furthermore, individuals who believe that God frequently intervenes in human affairs likely will be more affected by downward counterfactual reflection than believers that think that God rarely — or never — intervenes.”
Buffone said she hopes that, ultimately, the research will help all people — believers and non-believers alike — to understand the cognitive processes involved in religious conviction.
“Religious conviction does not have to be grounded in blindly accepting dogma or scriptures, but can be deducted by logical reasoning processes as well,” she said. “From a scientific standpoint, this work helps explain how religious conviction can prevail despite a lack of concrete, physical evidence for religious claims.”