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Covers the causes and effects of religion and non-belief, with a focus on psychology and social science.

Tom Rees
307 posts

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  • February 4, 2016
  • 10:06 AM

A sense of mystery results from the brain failing to shut down flights of fancy

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

People who have a mystical experience might describe it as being “touched by some higher or greater truth or power“, or as “experiences felt or experienced beyond the realms of ordinary consciousness”. Psychologists define them as a breakdown in the usual sense of time or space, or of the difference between the self and the [Read More...]... Read more »

Cristofori, I., Bulbulia, J., Shaver, J., Wilson, M., Krueger, F., & Grafman, J. (2016) Neural correlates of mystical experience. Neuropsychologia, 212-220. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2015.11.021  

  • January 27, 2016
  • 04:29 PM

Religion linked to reduced levels of stress hormones in young American Blacks

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

Compared with Whites, Black Americans have  high levels of an important stress hormone called cortisol circulating in their bloodstream. No-one really knows why this is, but the differences remain even after you take into account social and psychological factors. It seems likely that simply being black exposes you to a cumulative effect of increased lifetime [Read More...]... Read more »

Assari, S., Moghani Lankarani, M., Malekahmadi, M., Caldwell, C., & Zimmerman, M. (2015) Baseline Religion Involvement Predicts Subsequent Salivary Cortisol Levels Among Male But not Female Black Youth. International Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, 13(4). DOI: 10.5812/ijem.31790  

  • January 11, 2016
  • 05:11 PM

Kids in atheist families are more altruistic! The study is sound, but what does it mean?

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

You may have seen the buzz around a recent study which found that kids in atheist families are more altruistic than kids in religious families. Like any study that reinforces preconceptions of a vocal group, it was social media gold dust. I want to take a critical look at it and some of the objections [Read More...]... Read more »

  • January 6, 2016
  • 05:04 PM

Reminding people of mortality makes them more religious? Not if you use magnets to mess with their brains!

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

By using a carefully calibrated magnetic field, you can change the patterns of brain activity. It should come as no surprise, then, that you can actually change the intensity of religious beliefs in this way, at least temporarily. For example, a recent study found that activating the brain’s parietal lobe (the bit near the top [Read More...]... Read more »

Holbrook, C., Izuma, K., Deblieck, C., Fessler, D., & Iacoboni, M. (2015) Neuromodulation of Group Prejudice and Religious Belief. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsv107  

  • December 22, 2015
  • 02:21 PM

The God-serving bias: thank God if you live, but don’t blame God if you die

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

Bad things happen to good people. On the face of this, this causes problems for belief systems that insist on some kind of cosmic karma – the idea that there is a supernatural overseer who metes out punishments to the bad and rewards the good. Theologians turn to several different rationales and justifications to explain [Read More...]... Read more »

Riggio, H., Uhalt, J., & Matthies, B. (2014) Unanswered Prayers: Religiosity and the God-Serving Bias. The Journal of Social Psychology, 154(6), 491-514. DOI: 10.1080/00224545.2014.953024  

  • December 18, 2015
  • 06:12 PM

A world by design – even atheists intuitively think the natural world has a designer

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

Research over the past few years has shown that many people intuitively think that things in the natural world exist for some ulterior purpose – almost as if they had been designed that way. We have a tendency to agree with statements such as ‘water condenses to moisten the air’, or ‘the sun shines in [Read More...]... Read more »

  • December 18, 2015
  • 01:11 PM

Whether religious people are more healthy depends upon the social context

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

One of the accepted truisms of religious research is that religious people tend to be healthier than the non-religious. Over the years I’ve seen many studies looking into this but haven’t blogged about any since 2012 because, well, they’re all a bit boring. One of the problems is that almost all the research is done [Read More...]... Read more »

  • December 3, 2015
  • 10:09 AM

Conspiracy theories flourish when people feel like things are slipping out of control

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

You young ‘uns may not remember the dark days of 1999, when the imminent arrival of the millennium was met with a fair degree of fear and trepidation. And it wasn’t just your usual end-times hysteria. There was actually some real concern that a software bug – the infamous Y2K bug – a could cause [Read More...]... Read more »

  • November 13, 2015
  • 04:24 PM

Make people uncertain then remind them about God, and they become more fearful of sin

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

There’s plenty of research about suggesting that feeling uncertain can increase the strength of belief in god in different ways. But what’s not clear is whether belief in god reduces the ill effects of uncertainty, or is a response to it. One theory is that a belief in God provides a kind of reassurance, which [Read More...]... Read more »

  • November 10, 2015
  • 05:00 PM

Atheist kids are more altruisitic! The study is sound, but what does it mean?

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

You may have seen the buzz around a recent study which found that atheist kids are more altruistic than religious kids. Like any study that reinforces preconceptions of a vocal group, it was social media gold dust. I want to take a critical look at it and some of the objections that have been raised [Read More...]... Read more »

  • November 5, 2015
  • 09:47 PM

Your good deeds are pleasing God? That might impress kids but it doesn’t impress adults!

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

The most magnificent charitable gesture can fall flat if it turns out that you just did it to get a promotion, or get some other kind of pay off. People don’t like it if they think they detect a hidden motive behind apparently charitable behaviour. Last year, research by University of Kentucky psychologist Will Gervais [Read More...]... Read more »

  • October 16, 2015
  • 11:44 AM

Subliminal religious prompts might not make people nicer after all

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

Back in 2007, right when I was starting this blog, a ground breaking study revealed an extra-ordinary finding. What the researchers had discovered was that just giving people subliminal reminders of religion was enough to make them be more generous in a something called the dictator game. The really extraordinary thing was that the same [Read More...]... Read more »

  • October 12, 2015
  • 09:51 PM

What do people think God is actually like?

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

The ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes once scathingly pointed out that people imagine god to be pretty much like themselves: But mortals suppose that gods are born, wear their own clothes and have a voice and body. Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black; Thracians that theirs are are blue-eyed and red-haired. Christian tend [Read More...]... Read more »

  • October 7, 2015
  • 12:50 PM

In a just world, how you act depends on who you think delivers justice

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

Many years ago I worked a couple of seasons as a porter on the now-defunct hovercraft service across the English Channel. One of the old hands used to tell me regularly that “what you lose on the swings, you make up on the roundabouts” – a phrase that’s stuck with me ever since. What he [Read More...]... Read more »

  • September 30, 2015
  • 09:40 PM

Does more education mean more, or less, religion? It depends whether you take intelligence into account.

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

It’s pretty well established now that there is a statistical connection between intelligence and non-belief. The effect is small, but it’s consistent and has been shown many times. Education, however, is a different matter. Some studies show that educated people are more religious, while others find they are less religious. Now there’s an obvious problem [Read More...]... Read more »

  • September 23, 2015
  • 02:12 PM

Ask students about religion, and they’ll tell you they drink less

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

Religious people tend to drink less than non-religious people. We know that because, well because when you ask them, that’s what they tell you. But here’s the thing. We know that what people tell interviewers can vary with the circumstances that they find themselves in. Indeed, it can vary quite a lot from reality. People [Read More...]... Read more »

Rodriguez, L., Neighbors, C., & Foster, D. (2014) Priming effects of self-reported drinking and religiosity. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 28(1), 1-9. DOI: 10.1037/a0031828  

  • September 10, 2015
  • 05:41 PM

Does belief that God is in control reduce support for government welfare?

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

There’s an enduring puzzle about religion and government, and it’s about what effect religions have on government welfare policies. That’s down to an intriguing observation: that more religious countries tend to have a weaker welfare state. Quite why this is so is a matter of dispute. After all, given religion’s association with altruism, you might [Read More...]... Read more »

  • September 9, 2015
  • 09:13 AM

Churchgoing has been on the decline for decades in Western nations: here’s why

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

It’s a fact that, in the West at least, fewer people are going to religious services than they used to a few decades ago. Countries do follow different trajectories – secularization happened first in the Protestant countries of Northern Europe and Australia, and more recently the Catholic countries of Europe. The Americas have fought the [Read More...]... Read more »

  • July 27, 2015
  • 05:36 PM

Distrust of atheists is widespread and pervasive: more evidence

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

A new opinion poll has some bad news for atheists. Some 40% of the US population would not consider voting for an atheist presidential candidate, regardless of their policies. That’s fewer than would vote for a gay or lesbian – or even (gasp!) a Muslim! It’s pretty much in accordance with a previous poll which showed that atheism is a bigger no-no for presidential candidates than homosexuality, extra-marital affairs, or drug use.... Read more »

  • July 22, 2015
  • 12:55 PM

That was weird – are you a mind reader? Thinking style affects how we interpret weird experiences.

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

Psychologists have identified that all of us have two kinds of thinking styles. There’s the slow, deep thinking style where you ponder things for a while before making a decision. And then there’s gut instinct – where you make a decision based on intuition. Some people tend to prefer one kind of thinking style over [Read More...]... Read more »

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