Cognitive, cultural, and motivational influences on religious belief and disbelief

  • Gervais, Will (PI)

Grants and Contracts Details


While the vast majority of people believe in God (or gods), there are half a billion1 people who do not. At the same time, while research into the consequences of religion has flourished, comparatively little research explores the basic psychological factors that influence individual differences in religious belief and disbelief. Recently, my colleagues and I initiated lines of research focusing on four factors that are necessary for people to believe in a given God2. First, people must form intuitive representations of supernatural agents in general. Second, people must be motivated to treat some supernatural agents as real and important. Third, people tend to only believe in those agents supported by specific cultural learning inputs. Finally, people must maintain their belief over time. In this view, religious disbelief can arise from 1) individual differences in the cognitive tendencies that make God intuitively compelling3, 2) contexts in which the motivation to interact with God is satisfied in other ways4,5, 3) cultural milieus comparatively devoid of cues to believe in God6,7, or 4) situational or cognitive style factors that lead people to reflectively override their tendencies to believe in God8,9,10,11. Initial evidence supports each of these factors in isolation, and highlights a number of unresolved questions for future research. First, the degree to which each factor contributes to the global etiology of belief and disbelief is unknown. Second, little research explores interactions between these variables. For example, it is conceptually plausible that reflective routes to disbelief—though widely discussed in popular examinations of religion—are only prominent sources of disbelief in contexts in which the other pathways to belief are already satisfied. Third, it is unknown whether the different pathways result in different psychological profiles among categorically different sorts of believers and disbelievers. Finally, those four pathways are by no means comprehensive, and other factors plausibly contribute to belief and disbelief in God. Notably, emotion often shapes people’s beliefs about the world, and recent research finds even atheists and agnostics often report anger at God during trying life circumstances12. Emotional responses to life stressors may bring stronger belief in God for some, while leading others to reject God entirely. A comprehensive understanding of human nature requires an exploration of belief in God (or gods). However, a comprehensive understanding of religion must also account for the hundreds of millions of nonbelievers in the world. This proposal aims to apply the tools of experimental social psychology, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience to create an integrative model of the cognitive, cultural, and motivational determinants of religious belief and disbelief.
Effective start/end date4/1/144/30/17


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