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

Tom Rees
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  • December 23, 2011
  • 05:03 PM

Goodwill to all men?

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

This being the season of good will to all men (at least for those of us with a Christian heritage), it's time to bring a little harmony to the most tumultuous conflict of our times. Yes, I'm talking about the war between 'new' atheists and the religious.

When you see these folks slogging it out on the internet, one regular touch point is over whether religion causes wars - or at least makes them worse.

Of course, we can all cite wars in which the two sides have different religions, but often t........ Read more »

Kürşad Turan. (2011) Language and Religion: Different Salience for Different Aspects of Identity. International Journal of Business and Social Science, 2(8), 141-152. info:/

  • December 19, 2011
  • 05:00 PM

Religious nonsense is easier to understand than regular nonsense

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

There's a particular brain wave that gets triggered when you hear stuff that doesn't make sense.

It's called the N400, and it's triggered by sentences like "I like my coffee with cream and socks". Although each individual word makes sense, and although the grammar is fine, the semantics is screwy - the meaning of those words is pretty unexpected.

Sabela Fondevila and a team from the University of Madrid wanted to find out if religious stories had the same effect. Religious stories typical ha........ Read more »

Fondevila, S., Martín-Loeches, M., Jiménez-Ortega, L., Casado, P., Sel, A., Fernández-Hernández, A., & Sommer, W. (2011) The sacred and the absurd—an electrophysiological study of counterintuitive ideas (at sentence level). Social Neuroscience, 1-13. DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2011.641228  

  • December 14, 2011
  • 04:51 PM

Dope smokers are more spiritual than boozers

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom


What's your poison? Based on some new data from a Czech study, your preferences could speak a lot about your spiritual beliefs.

For the study Radmilla Lorencova, at the University of Pardubice in the Czech Republic, interviewed 155 men and women from universities, some kind of club in Prague, and residents of a housing estate.

This being the Czech republic, half of them (74) were atheists, while 24 were conventionally religious and the remaining 57 are described as being "sympathize........ Read more »

  • December 10, 2011
  • 03:32 PM

Moderate believers might benefit from less, not more religion

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

I always enjoy analyses of religion done by people whose main research focus lies in other fields. They tend to have quite a refreshing take.

So here's a study written by three outsiders. You probably already know Dan Ariely, the author of Predictably Irrational (and if you don't, well then get out and read the book this moment!). The lead is Daniel Mochon, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Freeman School of Business at Tulane University, and the other is Michael Norton, an Associate Pr........ Read more »

Mochon, D., Norton, M., & Ariely, D. (2010) Who Benefits from Religion?. Social Indicators Research, 101(1), 1-15. DOI: 10.1007/s11205-010-9637-0  

  • December 1, 2011
  • 03:30 PM

Why do the religious give to charity: learning from Taiwan

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

It seems likely that religious people in the West give more to charity - in the narrow sense of financial donations, at least (see Atheists are generous - they just don't give to charity for more details).

But what is it about religion that has this effect? Is it that the fear of being watched makes people behave nicer. Perhaps it's that religious teachings simply encourage charity. Or maybe it's being in a religious congregation and having someone demand that you hand over cash.

One way to di........ Read more »

Su, H., Chou, T., & Osborne, P. (2011) When Financial Information Meets Religion: Charitable-giving Behavior in Taiwan. Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, 39(8), 1009-1019. DOI: 10.2224/sbp.2011.39.8.1009  

  • November 26, 2011
  • 03:25 PM

Atheists and rapists: you just can't trust 'em

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

Atheists are a pretty disliked bunch of people in North America. Most atheists will be aware of polling data that puts them at the bottom of the loathing pile.

Question is, what's driving that loathing? Will Gervais (University of British Columbia, Canada), who's previously published some fascinating research into this topic, is back with some more research (co-authored by another couple of names familiar to this blog: Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan).

Gervais' basic hypothesis is that prejudi........ Read more »

Gervais, W., Shariff, A., & Norenzayan, A. (2011) Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(6), 1189-1206. DOI: 10.1037/a0025882  

  • November 21, 2011
  • 04:27 PM

Religious diversity linked to unhappiness

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

Most people - certainly most atheists - would say that one of the biggest problems with religion is that conflict you get when religion divides people who share a particular part of the world. Of course, there are plenty of examples of conflicts where religion plays a role. However, there is surprisingly little statistical evidence either way.

Part of the problem is in trying to define religious diversity. The method most commonly used in sociological research was developed by Alberto Alesina........ Read more »

  • November 11, 2011
  • 03:17 PM

In the West, religious nations are more sexist

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

This post is number 57 (I'm guessing!) in our series on "religious countries are...", in which I run a correlation between the numbers of religious people in a country and some other national characteristic.

This time it's the turn of sexism. You might expect that religious countries are more sexist, and you'd be right (with one caveats - but I'll deal with that later).

The data come from Mark Brandt, a sociologist at DePaul University in Chicago. I compared this with the number of peo........ Read more »

  • November 7, 2011
  • 04:28 PM

What kind of insecurity turns Europeans on to religion?

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

As Europe staggers towards financial apocalypse, one question that's almost certainly not in the minds of Merkel, Sarkozy, and Papandreou is what effect all the turmoil will have on people's religious beliefs. After all, there's been a bunch of research linking anxiety and insecurity to heightened religious beliefs, and earlier this year there was more evidence linking religion to economic insecurity.

But a lot of these studies have been pretty broad brush. They look at average conditions and........ Read more »

  • November 1, 2011
  • 06:05 PM

Deliver us from temptation (and take care of everything else, too)

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

According to some new research, your ideas about gods can significantly affect your approach to life. Lead researcher Kristin Laurin (at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada) and colleagues Aaron Kay and Grinne M. Fitzsimons (Duke University) ran a series of priming studies, in which the subjects had to form sentences from scrambled sets of words or read a passage about god as part of a bigger study (so they didn't cotton on to the fact that they were being primed). By carefully choosin........ Read more »

Laurin, K., Kay, A., & Fitzsimons, G. (2011) Divergent effects of activating thoughts of god on self-regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. DOI: 10.1037/a0025971  

  • October 28, 2011
  • 05:43 PM

Europe's religious future

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

Eric Kaufmann is a demographer and author of the book "Shall the religious inherit the earth?" Back in 2009 he made some demographic projections for the US and concluded that, by 2050, immigration of religious people and their higher fertility will turn back the tide of secularisation (see Secularisation in the US will be swamped by religious fertility and immigration)

Now Kaufmann has taken a look at Europe. That's a bit more of a challenge because Europe is such a patchwork, so good, comprehe........ Read more »

  • October 17, 2011
  • 05:00 PM

In Toronto, Christian students are most likely to have unprotected sex

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

So, Christians aren't supposed to have sex before marriage (well depending on the variant of God they follow, of course). Just to be sure of it, they have an invisible policeman in the sky watching them at all times to make sure they don't deviate. On the other hand, Christian parents aren't so hot on teaching safe sex. Mash that up with university, when kids get let off the leash, and what happens? Well Trevor Hart at Ryerson University and a bunch of psychologists from the University of Toro........ Read more »

  • August 24, 2011
  • 05:44 PM

Banish your worries by surrendering to God

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

You may have seen, earlier this month, one of several news reports about how belief in God is great for reducing worries (e.g. here). Well no, that's not really what the study found - the study is actually a bit more precisely focussed than that and a bit more interesting for it.

The researchers, lead by David Rosmarin at Harvard Medical School, were interested in the idea that the  Middle-Eastern monotheisms place a great deal of focus on trusting God. Yet many believers don't trust their........ Read more »

Rosmarin, D., Pirutinsky, S., Auerbach, R., Björgvinsson, T., Bigda-Peyton, J., Andersson, G., Pargament, K., & Krumrei, E. (2011) Incorporating spiritual beliefs into a cognitive model of worry. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 67(7), 691-700. DOI: 10.1002/jclp.20798  

  • August 20, 2011
  • 05:37 PM

If religion makes you happy, why are people turning away from it?

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

Every now and then a study comes along that cuts with laser-like precision into one or two of the murky questions that haunt the sociology of religion. Just such a study has recently been done by Ed Diener, at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, and colleagues (earlier this year Diener published another great study on happiness and inequality in the USA).

What Diener et al wanted to know is simply this: why, if religion is supposed to make you happy, are people in the West leaving........ Read more »

  • August 16, 2011
  • 04:15 PM

Religious differences and murder

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

Most research into religion looks at how it influences attitudes towards co-religionists. But the flip side to religion is that it can also serve as a foundation for social divisions, in a similar way to ethnic and language barriers.

You might think this could increase social tensions, but new research by Don Soo Chon, at Auburn University at Montgomery, Alabama, suggests that this may not be the case. He looked at how the level of ethnic, linguistic, and religious fragmentation relates to hom........ Read more »

  • August 7, 2011
  • 05:05 PM

Do the rich use religion to keep the poor in their place?

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

In the previous post, I took a look at the fairly substantial weight of evidence linking religion to inequality, specifically income inequality, with religion. The most unequal countries also tend to be the most religious, even when you take into account a variety of other factors.

Why should this be? There are a number of theories. One is that unequal societies also tend to have a lot of other problems, and the stresses that these cause may turn people to religion.

Frederick Solt and colleagu........ Read more »

Solt, F., Habel, P., & Grant, J. (2011) Economic Inequality, Relative Power, and Religiosity*. Social Science Quarterly, 92(2), 447-465. DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2011.00777.x  

  • August 3, 2011
  • 04:49 PM

Well that settles it: income inequality really does go hand in hand with religion

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

Long-time readers of this blog will know that the link between inequality and religion has a particular fascination for me. In fact, the blog started while I was doing background research into a paper I wrote in 2009, on the link between income inequality and religion in countries around the world.

The idea was first put forward in rough form in an earlier book by Pippa Norris and Ronald Ingelhart. My paper took that a modest step further, by showing that income inequality really did seem to be........ Read more »

  • July 25, 2011
  • 05:10 PM

Why do more children die when Pentecostals are around?

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

The US has a persistently high infant mortality rate when compared with other wealthy nations. The reasons for this a partly understood - poverty is a major risk factor for childhood death, And it's believed that the high levels of income and racial stratification could be to blame. Problems with health are infrastructure are also thought to contribute.

But could culture be partly to blame? Quite possibly, and one way to find out is to see whether the dominant culture in a region is linked to h........ Read more »

  • July 21, 2011
  • 03:55 PM

We condemn more when we think we're being watched

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

In a nice new study, Pierrick Bourrat (at the University of Sydney) and colleagues have shown that people are more likely to judge others severely when they are given even subtle hints of being watched.

The set-up was simple. The subjects (recruited from the Campus Universitaire de Jussieu in Paris) had to read a tale of a minor misdeed - finding a wallet in the street and keeping the cash, or falsifying a resume - and then judge how morally wrong it was.

The twist was that half the subjects h........ Read more »

Bourra P, Baumard N, & McKay R. (2011) Surveillance Cues Enhance Moral Condemnation. Evolutionary Psychology, 9(2), 192-199. info:/

  • July 17, 2011
  • 04:30 PM

Risk averse Taiwanese are also more religious

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

The infamous 'Pascal's Wager' is still often trotted out as a supposedly rational basis for believing in god. While the flaws in that one are well known, it is still commonly believed that risk-averse people are more likely to be religious. Better to go to Church than run the risk of being fried in the hereafter, the supposition goes.

Actually, evidence that risk-averse people are more religious is  weaker than you might suppose. What's more, there's no reason to think that it applies in t........ Read more »

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