Behold in your mind's eye the following image: You are aboard an airplane, bound for some international destination. Your plane is taxiing on the runway when the pilot announces he is ready for take-off. In the seat to your right is a woman. She crosses herself, and you notice she keeps a bible on her lap. As the plane speeds down the runway, she whispers a prayer. All at once the wheels lift off the tarmac, and she breathes a sigh of relief, stowing her bible in front of her.

If you're like most people, you have no problem figuring out why the woman in the example was praying. In high-stress situations, people often use religion as a calming mechanism. But does this mechanism function solely for religious reasons, or does it speak more generally about belief — perhaps even in the belief in science?

"Recent research has provided evidence for this view, showing that religious belief can compensate for lack of control, alleviate anxiety, and relieve stress," reports a new study from Oxford University's experimental psychology department. "What remains unclear, however, is whether these compensatory effects of religious belief are driven by its supernatural or transcendent content, or whether these effects instead stem from belief more generally," namely, a belief in science.

The researchers' methodology was simple and straightforward. The team used 100 regatta rowers as subjects for their study. One group had an important regatta race within the hour (high-stress), while the other rowers were doing some light training (low-stress). The team asked each rower on a scale of 1-7 how stressed they felt, with 1 being not at all and 7 being very much. They also asked them to complete a survey of their scientific beliefs — a 10-Item Belief in Science Scale — and one questionnaire assessing their religiosity (also 1-7).

Unsurprisingly, the rowers about to compete in a race reported feeling more stressed than those in the training session. What struck the researchers, however, was the marked difference in the rowers' beliefs in science across both groups: as predicted, those in the high-stress group placed greater faith in science than those in the low-stress group.

"We acknowledge that alternative explanations for increased belief in science in the high-stress condition are also possible," the report stated. "For example, rowers about to compete (vs. rowers in training) may have been more motivated to consider their scientific-based training regimen or equipment. However, we also note that training regimes and equipment may, in fact, be more salient during training sessions (which usually revolve around such regimens and equipment)."

The department's study has far-reaching implications for why people appeal to their faith in times of stress. It makes no judgment, in other words, as to the validity of science over religion, but penetrates more deeply into our desire to comfort ourselves by believing greater forces are in control.

"That modern secular individuals are prone to cling on to beliefs about science, in the same way that their ancestors turned to the gods, carries no judgment on the value of science as a method but simply highlights the human motivation to believe," which likely explains the faith an atheist puts in the laws of physics during his plane's take-off even if there is no bible in his lap.

Source: Farias M, Newheiser AK, Kahane G, de Toledo Z. Scientific faith: Belief in science increases in the face of stress and existential anxiety. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2013.