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

Tom Rees
273 posts

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  • 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...]

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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...]

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  • 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...]

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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...]

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  • 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...]

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  • 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...]

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  • 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...]

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  • 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...]

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  • 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...]

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  • 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...]

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  • 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...]

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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 »

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