Religiosity and Trust: Evidence from the United States

Abstract

Background

Trust is one of the key driving forces behind human action and an important factor in shaping human interaction. Trust can improve economic growth, political and civic involvement, democratic stability, and subjective well-being. Yet, trust has been in decline for the last 60 years in the U.S.

Purpose

This article tests the effect of several indicators of religiosity, including an index for both social and individual religiosity, on trust. Common religious doctrine instructs followers to place their trust solely in God, and can therefore be interpreted as a determinant of generalized trust. Thus, the purpose of this paper is to find out whether religious people are more likely to be distrustful of others and whether they are more likely to be misanthropic.

Methods

We use the US General Social Survey (GSS, 1972–2018, \(\hbox {n} > 10\hbox {k}\)), a large, recurring, and nationally-representative sample of U.S. adults. Using the GSS, we investigate the relationship between religiosity and trust (interpersonal and generalized) in a well-controlled model using OLS regressions. We examine both the effects of social religiosity (e.g. church attendance, membership at religious organization), and individual religiosity (e.g. belief in God, feeling of closeness to God, prayer), on trust and on misanthropy. Several additional robustness tests were conducted.

Results

The findings demonstrate that while social religiosity or belonging (services attendance, church membership) predicts more trust, individual religiosity or believing (prayer, closeness and belief in God) predicts lower trust. Likewise, social religiosity lowers misanthropy, while individual religiosity promotes it. Furthermore, we show that it is important to consider individual and social religiosity simultaneously because they correlate and have opposite effects–this is an intriguing and not entirely obvious finding as most people would expect that religiosity in general, has a positive effect on trust.

Conclusions and Implications

Our results indicate that religiosity is a substantial determinant of social trust and of misanthropy. The divergent results based on whether religiosity is social or individual in character is a new conceptual approach towards religiosity not previously undertaken in the literature. Ingroup favoritism and outgroup derogation theory explains our findings—connecting with God disrupts connection with humans.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We will use term “trust” instead of generalized or interpersonal trust for simplicity.

  2. 2.

    This refers to people who have a general hatred, distrust, or contempt for the human species.

  3. 3.

    Defined as Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Muslim.

  4. 4.

    In Welch et al. (2007), religiosity was measured by activity in religious congregations, belief in absolute morality, frequency of prayer, and belief in the sinfulness of human nature.

  5. 5.

    The conceptualization of intrinsic and extrinsic religiosity can be traced back to Allport (1950)’ study of mature and immature religions, while the empirical measurement of the constructs were established by Wilson (1960) and Feagin (1964). Over the years, many criticism was leveled against the I–E framework (Hunt and Morton 1971; Hoge 1972; Kirkpatrick and Hood 1990), particularly the lack of conceptual clarity in the definitions, as well as the factorial structure, reliability, and construct validity of the I and E scales. Thus, we heed to Kirkpatrick and Hood (1990) suggestion that researchers should “pursue more promising methodological and theoretical directions” (p. 443), and simply classify social religiosity to refer to religious rituals and practices performed in fellowship with others, and individual religiosity to refer to one’s personal belief and practices performed by one’s self. We discuss these definitions in more detail in the next section.

  6. 6.

    Smith (1997) has made a related suggestion: church attendance should reduce misanthropy and “fundamentalist beliefs, which emphasize the sinful nature of humans and a stern and authoritarian God” should increase misanthropy.

  7. 7.

    We are grateful to an anonymous reviewer of an earlier version of this study for this suggestion.

  8. 8.

    At least in relatively religiously homogeneous society such as the U.S.

  9. 9.

    We did some additional robustness tests and divided the dataset by decades to control for possible changes in society over time as it relates to religion. The results mostly concur to our main findings. See the “Appendix” for more details.

  10. 10.

    The supplemental material will be made available to readers in a Gitlab repository upon publication.

  11. 11.

    We are grateful to an anonymous reviewer of an earlier version of this study for this suggestion.

  12. 12.

    See the “Appendix” for the regression results.

  13. 13.

    This may be specially advantageous under exceptionally adverse conditions, such as during war times or terminal illnesses, where dependency or trust in others is limited—when one faces eminent death, trust in God becomes more beneficial than reliance on people.

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Appendix

Appendix

See Table 5.

Table 5 Variables description.

Nonlinearity

See Tables 6 and 7.

Table 6 OLS regressions of trust (nonlinearity). Beta (fully standardized) coefficients reported.
Table 7 OLS regressions of misanthropy (nonlinearity). Beta (fully standardized) coefficients reported.

Interaction Terms—Differences Across Denominations

In order to see whether the differences across faiths (i.e. denominations or belonging) in how religiosity affects trust and/or misanthropy, we ran additional models and tested for the interaction effects between belonging and denomination (protestant and catholic). As shown in Fig. 4 and Table 8, the effect of belonging was only significant for Catholics who attend church more than once a week, we did not find any other significant interactions (Fig. 4, Table 8).

Fig. 4
figure4

Predicted Margins of Interaction terms from full models: Trust, 95% CI

Table 8 OLS regressions of trust and misanthropy index. Beta (fully standardized) coefficients reported.

Results by Decades

We ameliorate to some degree the problem of pooling over time by employing year dummies in our main analyses, but to run additional robustness test we re-ran everything separated by the 1980s, then 1990s, and 2000s/2010s. The analyses do not go back to the 1970s, since the prayer question started only in 1983. The results mostly concur—for the 1990s, once full controls are included, the main independent variables lose significance. This could be a reflection of different conditions across time.

1980s

See Fig. 5, Tables 9 and 10.

Fig. 5
figure5

Predicted values from full models A2dec5 and B2dec5 by decade: 1980s, 95% CI. See tables below

Table 9 OLS regressions of trust for the 1980s. Beta (fully standardized) coefficients reported.
Table 10 OLS regressions of misanthropy index for the 1980s. Beta (fully standardized) coefficients reported.

1990s

See Fig. 6, Tables 11 and 12.

Fig. 6
figure6

Predicted values from full models A3dec5 and B3dec5 by decade: 1990s, 95% CI. See tables below

Table 11 OLS regressions of trust for the 1990s. Beta (fully standardized) coefficients reported.
Table 12 OLS regressions of misanthropy index for the 1990s. Beta (fully standardized) coefficients reported.

2000–2010s

See Fig. 7, Tables 13 and 14.

Fig. 7
figure7

Predicted values from full models A4dec5 and B4dec5 by decade: 2000s-2010s, 95% CI. See tables below

Table 13 OLS regressions of trust for the 2000s and 2010s. Beta (fully standardized) coefficients reported.
Table 14 OLS regressions of misanthropy index for the 2000s and 2010s. Beta (fully standardized) coefficients reported.

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Valente, R.R., Okulicz-Kozaryn, A. Religiosity and Trust: Evidence from the United States. Rev Relig Res (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13644-020-00437-8

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Keywords

  • Faith
  • Misanthropy
  • Religion
  • Trust
  • U.S. General Social Survey (GSS)