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

Tom Rees
279 posts

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  • February 25, 2015
  • 09:46 PM

Is belief in moral progress a substitute for religion?

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

There’s a well studied phenomenon called Terror Management Theory which basically says that, when people are reminded of their own death, their beliefs change in certain predictable ways.  People cling more strongly to beliefs that make the future seem more controllable and comfortable – and that includes turning to religion (see: Religion, Patriotism and Death). [Read More...]... Read more »

Rutjens, B., van Harreveld, F., van der Pligt, J., van Elk, M., & Pyszczynski, T. (2014) A march to a better world? Religiosity and the existential function of belief in social-moral progress. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 1-33. DOI: 10.1080/10508619.2014.990345  

  • February 24, 2015
  • 10:15 PM

Most supernatural beliefs are about avoiding harm, not bringing benefit

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

A survey of supernatural beliefs across cultures around the world has found that beliefs involving hazards and harms were about 50% more common than beliefs about benefits, opportunities and other good things. Daniel Fessler, at the University of California, and colleagues searched a representative dataset of 60 cultures held at the Human Relations Area Files [Read More...]... Read more »

  • February 2, 2015
  • 09:22 PM

Wealth and enlightenment in the Ancient World

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

The period between the 5th and the 3rd century BCE was a fertile time for the world’s religions. In India, Buddhism and Jainism began to take hold. In China, Confucianism and Daoism likewise attracted mass appeal. And Europe saw the golden age of Greek philosophy. What these movements have in common is that they all [Read More...]... Read more »

  • January 26, 2015
  • 09:54 PM

Why are American Atheists Disagreeable and Unconscientious?

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

There’s a popular model of personality that splits it into five components: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. And it’s well known that, while atheists tend to score high on openness, they tend to get low scores on conscientiousness and agreeableness. Back in 2010, Vincent Saroglou and colleagues assembled data from all the [Read More...]... Read more »

Gebauer, J., Bleidorn, W., Gosling, S., Rentfrow, P., Lamb, M., & Potter, J. (2014) Cross-cultural variations in Big Five relationships with religiosity: A sociocultural motives perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 107(6), 1064-1091. DOI: 10.1037/a0037683  

  • January 6, 2015
  • 07:00 AM

Can religion reduce crime?

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

Studying links between religious belief and crime is notoriously difficult. On a crude level, people in prisons in the USA are more likely to be religious than the general population. Of course, there are any number of confounding factors that could be at play here. So you need to look over time to have any [Read More...]... Read more »

  • January 1, 2015
  • 11:56 AM

Why are unfalsifiable beliefs so attractive?

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

Recently, Dr. John Wentworth, professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argued that regardless of future advances, science will likely never discover whether the supernatural exists. He said,”almost always, our research raises more questions than it answers, therefore the question of God’s existence just isn’t scientifically testable.” If you are religious, how does [Read More...]... Read more »

  • November 28, 2014
  • 11:50 AM

When you think about spirits, do you see ghosts?

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

Humans are finely honed for spotting intentional agents in our environment. Meaning that if you hear a rustling, or see a branch move, you’re instantly on the alert in case it is another person (this effect is has a name: ‘hyperactive agency detection’). You can see why evolution would have favoured that. Better safe than [Read More...]

... Read more »

van Elk, M., Rutjens, B., van der Pligt, J., & van Harreveld, F. (2014) Priming of supernatural agent concepts and agency detection. Religion, Brain , 1-30. DOI: 10.1080/2153599X.2014.933444  

  • November 19, 2014
  • 03:43 PM

Religious and paranormal believers are high in empathy – but confused about how the world works

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

There’s a strand of thought that says that belief in the supernatural is founded upon a misunderstanding of how the world works (see: You either believe in it all, or you don’t). On the other hand, there’s another perspective that says the cognitive problem is with the atheists. Belief in gods, according to this school [Read More...]

... Read more »

  • November 13, 2014
  • 05:28 PM

Hard times, tough gods

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

Almost all cultures have some kind of supernatural beliefs. But it may surprise you to know that belief in moralising supernatural beings, who care about whether mortals do good or bad, are far from universal. That’s fascinating, and it begs the question: “why?”. Why do some cultures bother to believe spirits who watch over us [Read More...]

... Read more »

Botero CA, Gardner B, Kirby KR, Bulbulia J, Gavin MC, & Gray RD. (2014) The ecology of religious beliefs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. PMID: 25385605  

  • November 7, 2014
  • 04:50 PM

It hurts! Atheists and Christians don’t feel each others pain, but with a twist.

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

For many people, their religion is like a badge of social identity. You feel an affinity with people who share a religion – not surprising given that you will share many cultural and social touch points. But will you feel their pain? If shown a picture of a Christian grimacing, will you mentally flinch? What about [Read More...]

... Read more »

  • October 20, 2014
  • 05:53 PM

Religion matters more than education when it comes to creationist beliefs

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

The USA is a conundrum when it comes to creationist beliefs. While the US comes about average in high-school science education results, staggering numbers of American adults are not only creationists but young earth creationists – believing that the earth is a mere 6,000 years old. Now, there’s quite a lot of research to suggest [Read More...]

... Read more »

  • October 14, 2014
  • 06:30 PM

Are religious pictures more powerful than words?

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

Subliminal priming is a classic way to study how religion might affect attitudes and behaviour. But previous studies have had mixed results – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In the last post, I described a study which found that using words to prime Muslims had little effect, but subtly playing the call to prayer [Read More...]

... Read more »

  • September 25, 2014
  • 05:26 PM

Hearing the Islamic Call to Prayer encourages Muslims to cheat less

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

People placed in religious environments tend to act more morally – but what, exactly, triggers this behavioural shift? There’s been a few recent studies which I think are really interesting, because they begin to reveal the importance of culture. In the first set of studies, Mark Aveyard at the (American University of Sharjah, United Arab [Read More...]

... Read more »

  • September 2, 2014
  • 05:39 PM

Supernatural believers see minds at work behind random patterns

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

“Theory of Mind” is the term used to describe the mental ability to put yourself inside the mind of someone else – to imagine what it is that they are thinking. Recently, there’s been some evidence that people who do not have a strong theory of mind are more likely to be atheists. For example, [Read More...]

... Read more »

  • August 15, 2014
  • 05:20 PM

Children with a religious upbringing have difficulty telling fantasy from reality

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

There’s a long-standing debate over whether we humans are naturally predisposed to believe in the supernatural, or whether it’s learned. Well, here’s a study that shows the importance of young children’s environment in determining credulity. The basic set-up was simple. Kathleen Corriveau (Boston University) and colleagues recruited 33 kindergarten kids in the USA (that’s 5-6 [Read More...]

... Read more »

  • August 3, 2014
  • 05:25 PM

What are the religious disgusted by?

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

Religious people often seem to have strong taboos. Think of any religion, and there is usually some proscribed activities or objects, and an emphasis on purity. Maybe religion is connected to a heightened sense of disgust? Uri Berger and David Anaki, at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, were looking to see how one questionnaire often used [Read More...]

... Read more »

  • July 6, 2014
  • 04:24 PM

What does the latest research say on religion decreasing the risk of suicide?

by Tom Rees in Epiphenom

And so to this thorny topic again! This time with a batch of new studies – but what light do they shed on this complicated topic? First up is a straightforward analysis of data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) in the USA (Evan Kleiman and Richard Liu at George [Read More...]

... Read more »

  • 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 »

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