Evangelicals, Terror Management, and Worldview Defense

Regular readers have been following my ongoing research in social psychology and other disciplines that I am pursuing as a part of both a grant process, and my own personal interests. I have been a part of evangelicalism for years and have pursued and witnessed different approaches and theologies in relating to other religions. I am curious as to why such different understandings are involved, all of which appeal to Scripture in support of their positions. My engagement with social psychology brings insights into conversation with a theology of multi-faith engagement so that we might better understand the dynamics involved.

In my recent research I came across a fascinating aspect of study called the social psychology of religious worldview defense. In think this is a very important facet of understanding what’s going on with evangelicals. As a subculture we spend a lot of time defending our theologies and worldview via argument and apologetics. So this aspect of social psychology promises to enrich our understanding of ourselves as we defend our view of the world against rivals.

The social psychology of religious worldview defense is similar to another framework for analysis that I’ve encountered in years past. As I’ve mentioned before, I was involved in evangelical “countercult” ministry. This is an apologetic response to new religious movements that involves both doctrinal contrast and refutation as well as worldview critique. During this time I came across Douglas E. Cowan’s sociological research on the counter-cult that he was pursuing as he modified his PhD thesis on the subject to later be released as the book Bearing False Witness?: An Introduction to the Christian Countercult (Praeger, 2003). This book serves as a critique of the countercult, and it is based upon two main foundations: the sociology of knowledge and propaganda theory. As Cowan understands the countercult enterprise, it is involved with maintaining the social construction of an evangelical Christian worldview that is threatened by the presence of conflicting religious worldviews.

My latest research dovetails with the sociological approach taken by Cowan. I found several journal essays that touch on the social psychology of religious worldview defense. One of these, “On the Psychology of Religion: The Role of Personal Uncertainty in Religious Worldview Defense,” argued that concerns related to security and certainty are particularly important in our post-9/11 environment. The author’s, Kees van den Bos, Jitse van Ameijde, and Hein van Gorp, state that “it could be argued that a challenge for people living in the world after 9/11 is how to respond to critical statements about one’s own worldview.” In my view evangelicals are especially challenged in this area, even though we emphasize certainty in our theological beliefs. The reality may be that our emphasis on certainty helps us cover up an uncertainty that lies beneath. As van den Bos, van Ameijde, and van Gorp point out, “those high in uncertainty avoidance are more conservative, less tolerant of diversity, less open to new experiences and alternative lifestyles, want immigrants to be sent back to their countries of origin, and reject people from other races as their neighbors.” This would seem to apply to many conservative evangelicals.

An important factor in religious worldview defense comes by way of terror management theory and mortality salience. Terror management theory says that human beings navigate their fear of death through a “cultural anxiety buffer” that includes “a personalized version of a cultural worldview.” An article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP) titled “Terror Management and Aggression: Evidence That Mortality Salience Motivates Aggression Against Worldview-Threatening Others,” discusses this in ways that sound similar to Cowan’s sociological analysis discussed above. The article states that “[a]lthough treated by the individual as absolute reality, the cultural worldview is a fragile social construction in need of constant validation from others.” The presence of those with competing worldviews threatens the certainty one has in the validity of their own worldview, and this is exacerbated when we are reminded of our own mortality. This has been borne out in several experiments. In one such study by Jeff Greenberg and colleagues, detailed in another issue of JPSP, “mortality salience led Christian subjects to make more positive evaluations of fellow Christians and more negative evaluations of a Jew.” Some of the general discussion at the conclusion of Greenberg’s essay is important in understanding how this relates to evangelical multi-faith engagement:

These findings are generally supportive of terror management theory hypotheses. From this perspective, liking for others depends largely on the impact such persons have on one’s cultural anxiety-buffer. Others with similar worldviews are liked because they provide consensual validation for the individual’s own worldview. Others with dissimilar worldviews are disliked because they make salient the lack of consensus for the individual’s beliefs and thus threaten faith in those beliefs.

These findings are particularly helpful in our understanding of evangelical reactions to Muslims. Let’s consider them in concert with other insights from social psychology. In previous posts I’ve discussed evangelical moral foundations and our emphasis on purity and fears of contamination. Evangelicals want a purity of doctrinal thinking, and the teachings of other religions lead to concerns about false teachings and emotional reactions of heretical disgust. In another post I discussed integrated threat theory, and how some groups are perceived as symbolic threats when their ideas and values are seen in conflict with an in-group. In addition to heretical disgust and symbolic threats, terror management theory tells us that when we are reminded of death, we view our in-group members more positively, and out-group members more negatively. The constant reminders in the media of the possibility of death through terrorist attack serves as a form of mortality salience, and increases the negative feelings that evangelicals have about Muslims. Bringing various strands of social psychological insights together, evangelicals view adherents of other religions, Muslims in particular, as heretically disgusting, a symbolic threat to their worldview, both of which are made worse with reminders of death. In response we try to remove the threat by various means, including the derogation of the competing worldview and their adherents. With these insights in mind, prejudice against adherents of other worldviews like Islam can be understood in part as a way to protect our meaning system. Strategies that seek to address Islamophobia must account for these psychological realities.

But what about apologetics and the need to "give to everyone an answer" (1 Pet. 3:15)? I am not saying that these social psychological insights mean that all forms of apologetics and worldview defense are out of bounds. But it depends upon why and how we go about it. Are we doing so with "gentleness and respect" to commend the best of what following Jesus has to offer, or is it out of fear and disrespect as a form of worldview annihilation that functions as a means to alleviate our insecurities? These are crucial considerations for evangelicals in our post-9/11, post-Christendom, and pluralistic environment. 

John Morehead