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Here's a brain-scanning study with a difference. Most such tudies try to work out which parts of the brain are activated when people have religious thoughts. This new one looks at whether religious people have more or fewer nerve cells in different parts of their brains.It's by the team lead by Jordan Grafman that published a study earlier in the year on brain activation. This latest study uses data from the same brain scans.Basically, the deal is that they boiled their subjects' religious beliefs down to four factors:Intimacy of relationship with God, including praying and religious participation.Religiosity of upbringingPragmatism (which covers the sorts of ideas that the non-religious would agree with)Fear of God’s angerThen they looked at the thickness of the cerebral cortex, and measured which bits were thicker (or thinner) in subjects that endorsed each of these beliefs.The idea is that the thicker bits have more neurones, which means that they work harder. If you know what those regions that have more neurones do, then you can start to figure out what religion (and non-religion) actually is, at least in terms of brain processing.The first factor, intimacy with god, was greater in people who had more neurones in an area of the brain that deals with interpersonal relationships.Now, that's interesting stuff because it shows that people who have a prediliction for feeling intimate with God (praying to god, going to church) may essentially be highly social. The God thing is just an extension of that into the supernatural.The other interesting thing to ponder, according to the researchers, is that this same bit of the brain is also associated with mental disorders. People with a lot of neurones in this area are at risk of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and people with few neurones are at risk of schizophrenia.Here's what they conclude from that:We speculate that the range of RMTG volumes can be viewed as a spectrum, in which high RMTG volume is associated with stereotyped and ritualistic behavior, high-normal volume is associated with religious behavior (which, we should note, is by definition ritualistic), low-normal volume is associated with non-religiosity, and pathologically low volume is associated with schizophrenia (in which disorganized behavior and aberrant religiosity, with blurred boundaries between the self and God, may occur).The other interesting factor was number 3 - the 'non-religious' factor. This was associated with a part of the brain involved in switching to different perspectives. That suggests that people who are more able to take different perspectives may take a more skeptical, worldly attitude.Finally, factor 4, fear of god, was associated with fewer neurones in a region associated with empathy and the ability to figure out what's going on in other people's minds. It also helps with using memories to deal with current situations. The researchers suggest that people deficient in this region may fear god essentially because they don't feel confident that they know what god is going to do next.Now, this is all correlational stuff. It doesn't tell us whether people are born this way, or if these regions of the brain expand (or contract) as a result of life experiences.Factor 2, religious upbringing, hit a blank. You could take this to mean that having a religious upbringing does not change your brain in any detectable way. But it might simply be that the bits it changes are the same bits that are associated with religious beliefs.The researchers draw two overall conclusions from this. Firstly, this is more evidence that there is no special bit of the brain for 'religion'. Rather, religion taps into neural pathways that evolved for other reasons:This implies that religious beliefs and behavior emerged not as sui generis evolutionary adaptations, but as an extension (some would say ‘‘by product’’) of social cognition and behavior.Secondly, the type of god a religious person believes in is a consequence of their underlying neural makeup:...the current study suggests that evolution of certain areas that advanced understanding and empathy towards our fellow human beings (such as BA 7, 11 and 21) may, at the same time, have allowed for a relationship with a perceived supernatural agent (God) based on intimacy rather than fear.In other words, it seems that the way a religious person conceives of their god is a reflection of their own ingrained personality.___________________________________________________________________Kapogiannis D, Barbey AK, Su M, Krueger F, & Grafman J (2009). Neuroanatomical variability of religiosity. PloS one, 4 (9) PMID: 19784372 This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.
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The Dutch press is reporting a new study with an international perspective on what drives church attendance (the authors are Stijn Ruiter, senior researcher at the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement, and Frank van Tubergen, a professor of sociology in Utrecht).
What they set out to do was to compare the major theories on what causes religion, using data from the World Values Survey and other sources. Broadly speaking, you can summarize these theories like this:... Read more »
Stijn Ruiter, & Frank van Tubergen. (2009) Religious Attendance in Cross-National Perspective: A Multilevel Analysis of 60 Countries. American Journal of Sociology. info:/
You might have seen the recent study which found that the subtle smell of Windex (a brand of window cleaner) makes people more charitable. Time magazine, for one, carried a report - which got up the nose of a writer on the GetReligion blog. Here's the offending paragraph:
Nevertheless, both morality researchers and olfactory scientists agree that people do strongly associate physical cleanliness with purity of conscience. It is the notion at the heart of adages like “cleanliness is next to godliness” and evidenced by the widespread use of cleansing ceremonies to wash away sins in various religions around the world. (Truth be told, that practice is merely an extrapolation of an evolutionary strategy to avoid disease.)... Read more »
Schnall S, Benton J, & Harvey S. (2008) With a clean conscience: cleanliness reduces the severity of moral judgments. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 19(12), 1219-22. PMID: 19121126
An earlier post looked at the connection in the USA between religion and a high teen pregnancy rate. High fertility and religion often goes together, and whenever this topic comes up the immediate question is: will the religious inexorably 'out-breed' the nonreligious?The answer to that rather depends on how religion (or lack of it) is transmitted through the generations. Luckily enough, there's just been a very nice study on this by Vern Bengston, Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California.Bengston and colleagues analysed data from the Longitudinal Study of Generations, which has been following over 3000 Californians for over 30 years. They now have over 4 generations in their database.In 1971, the first year of the study, they surveyed three generations: grandparents (generation 1), parents (generation 2), and children (generation 3). In the paper, they also looked at data from 2001, by which time generation 2 had become grandparents, generation 3 had become parents, and a new generation, generation 4, had arrived on the scene (generation1 seem to have disappeared !).Over that time, religious affiliation plummeted. In 1971, only 5% of generation 2 (parents) said they were unaffiliated. By 2001, 33% of this same generation were unaffiliated. In generation 4, the non-affiliated rate was 37%.But what about religious beliefs? In each survey, they asked people how religoius they were (on a 1-4 scale), and also a number of questions related to how traditional/literal their religious views were.The results are shown in the first figure (you can click on it for a bigger version). The symbols on the left represent the various generations in 1971, and on the right the generations in 2001. Lines connect generations that appear in both surveys.On the whole, people who were surveyed both times haven't changed much. Mothers and fathers in 1971 are less religious in 2000, and daughters (but less so sons) are more religious.But the major difference is generational. Grandparents in 2000 are less religious than grandparents in 1971. Parents now are less religious than parents then. And the new generation (generation4) is least religious of all.Now, they don't give any information on how many children the religious participants had compared with the non-religious, but it's probably safe to assume that they had more.So, with each generation, the religious have more offspring. And yet their numbers decrease!This paradox is, of course, easily explained. Although there is a small genetic component that predisposes to agnosticism and atheism, they are in fact social phenomena. Irreligion is not inherited. It's learned.This can be seen most clearly with conservative religious beliefs. Twin studies consistently show that this is the component of religion with the largest genetic component. What's more, conservative Christians have the highest birth rates. Even so, conservative religious beliefs have collapsed with the passing of older generations.Religion, even conservative religion, is not a gene to be inherited, it's a meme to be transmitted.The study had another tidbit of information, and that's about how much influence grandparents have over their grandchildren's religiosity. The answer: not a lot.What we're looking at in this graph is the correlation between the religion of the grandparents and that of the grandchildren, after adjusting for the religion of the parents. So this is the direct effect of grandparents, not the indirect effect (via their children and then on to their grandchildren).In 2001, grandmothers had a little bit of influence over the religion of their granddaughters. That was particularly true for conservative religious beliefs.But nobody listened to their grandfathers, and grandsons didn't pay much attention to their grandmothers.What's surprising is how this has changed from 1971. I haven't done a graph for these data, but basically in 1971 grandparents influenced their grandchildrens church attendance, but less so their beliefs - and they had absolutely no effect over their conservative religious beliefs.In other words the role of grandparents in transmitting religion has changed completely in the past 30 years - more evidence that the nature of religion in society is changing.But there's a bigger message here, and that's the magnitude of the influence. Even when it comes to grandmothers and their granddaughter's religiousness, the strongest link, the effect is very weak.And what this means is that the transmission of religion can be very rapid. The world of our grandparents is already ancient history - at least as far as attitudes and beliefs go.____________________________________________________________________Bengtson, V., Copen, C., Putney, N., & Silverstein, M. (2009). A Longitudinal Study of the Intergenerational Transmission of Religion International Sociology, 24 (3), 325-345 DOI: 10.1177/0268580909102911This work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
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Bengtson, V., Copen, C., Putney, N., & Silverstein, M. (2009) A Longitudinal Study of the Intergenerational Transmission of Religion. International Sociology, 24(3), 325-345. DOI: 10.1177/0268580909102911
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Seale C. (2009) Hastening death in end-of-life care: A survey of doctors. Social science . PMID: 19837498
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Strayhorn JM, & Strayhorn JC. (2009) Religiosity and teen birth rate in the United States. Reproductive health, 14. PMID: 19761588
Probably the most famous thing that GK Chesterton never said was that:When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing - they believe in anything.Even if he never did say those words, the quote clearly strikes a chord with a lot of people. The meme has legs.But is it true? A lot of people these days are moving away from traditional religions into various kinds of 'New Age' beliefs. Are they really more delusional than the religious - and how do they compare to atheists, for that matter.This new study comes from Queensland, Australia. They've been following a bunch of kids since they were born in the early 80s. They were 21 years old at the last assessment - which is where these data are from.Basically, they just asked them two simple questions: "Do you believe in God?" (Yes/No/Unsure), and "Do you believe in a higher power?" (Yes/No/Unsure). This latter group they designated 'New Agers". They also asked them a standard battery of questions about delusional beliefs.The good news for atheists is that they scored lower for delusional beliefs than either the religious or the New Agers.The graph up top is not particularly easy to understand! So let me talk you through it. What it shows is the relative probability (compared to atheists) of agreeing with a delusional statement for the religious and the New Agers. The probabilities are more interesting than the raw data because they are adjusted for demographic differences between the two groups (including drug use).There were 21 statements in the test - I've pulled out all the ones where the religious were significantly worse than the atheists, plus a few more that were interesting.Overall, the New Agers were more delusional than the Religious. That was particularly true for belief in witchcraft and telepathy (not shown in the graph). But the New Agers were also more likely to think that people are not what they seem, that they are being persecuted, that electrical devices like computers can control their thoughts, and that their thoughts are 'echoed back'.But the religious, while scoring lower overall than the New Agers (although still worse than the atheists) have their own delusions. It's probably not surprising, given the nature of their religious upbringing (an even mix of Catholics and Protestants, with a smattering of other religions), that they're more likely to believe in an imminent apocalypse and also that they are wretched sinners. Neither of these strike me as particularly healthy beliefs.Bizarrely enough, however, they also are more likely to think that things in print and on TV have been written especially for them. And, although they score lower than the New Agers, they're more likely than atheists to think that their thoughts are echoed back to them.What to make of all this? Well, this is yet another cross-sectional study, so causality is hard to pin down. Some of the differences in beliefs (apocalypse, sinning, telepathy, witches) might well be a result of the different teachings.In other words, if you drop out of organised religion but are suitably delusional, then then you might well switch to a belief in witches or telepathy.But there probably is also some self selection going on. Religion struggles to be mainstream. If you're too wacky, you may find it hard to fit in - and so end up as part of the 'New Age'. But if you're not wacky enough, you simply transition to atheism.But what about the two delusions shared by the religious and New Agers? 'Thought echo' is a classic form of auditory hallucination in which you can hear your own thoughts being spoken back to you, either instantaneously or a moment or two later.Perhaps this is linked to the delusion that make people think the TV announcer is talking specially to them? Perhaps they're hearing their own thoughts in some way? Is this a pointer to a fundamental motivator for religious beliefs?Fans of Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind will be intrigued! (Thanks to David Holmes for reminding recently me of Jaynes' remarkable book)._______________________________________________________________________________________Aird, R., Scott, J., McGrath, J., Najman, J., & Al Mamun, A. (2009). Is the New Age phenomenon connected to delusion-like experiences? Analysis of survey data from Australia. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 1-17 DOI: 10.1080/13674670903131843This work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
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Aird, R., Scott, J., McGrath, J., Najman, J., & Al Mamun, A. (2009) Is the New Age phenomenon connected to delusion-like experiences? Analysis of survey data from Australia. Mental Health, Religion , 1-17. DOI: 10.1080/13674670903131843
This is a post about psychology, and about the how stress, anxiety and uncertainty might lead people to be more religious - and the consequence of that. What triggered it was a NY Times article featuring a recent study. Here's an excerpt:Dr. Proulx and Dr. Heine described having 20 college students read an absurd short story based on “The Country Doctor,” by Franz Kafka. The doctor of the title has to make a house call on a boy with a terrible toothache. He makes the journey and finds that the boy has no teeth at all. The horses who have pulled his carriage begin to act up; the boy’s family becomes annoyed; then the doctor discovers the boy has teeth after all. And so on. The story is urgent, vivid and nonsensical — Kafkaesque.After the story, the students studied a series of 45 strings of 6 to 9 letters, like “X, M, X, R, T, V.” They later took a test on the letter strings, choosing those they thought they had seen before from a list of 60 such strings. In fact the letters were related, in a very subtle way, with some more likely to appear before or after others. The test is a standard measure of what researchers call implicit learning: knowledge gained without awareness. The students had no idea what patterns their brain was sensing or how well they were performing.But perform they did. They chose about 30 percent more of the letter strings, and were almost twice as accurate in their choices, than a comparison group of 20 students who had read a different short story, a coherent one.“The fact that the group who read the absurd story identified more letter strings suggests that they were more motivated to look for patterns than the others,” Dr. Heine said. “And the fact that they were more accurate means, we think, that they’re forming new patterns they wouldn’t be able to form otherwise.”In other words, when you start to break down people's sense that they understand what's going on, they respond by turning up the 'gain' on pattern detection. Similar things have been seen in previous studies, except in these studies the gain detection is turned up so high that people see things that aren't there at all.For example, people who are made to feel like they are not in control tend to see patterns that aren't there. And people who are made to feel lonely are more likely to anthropomorphize (i.e. see pets and even gadgets as friends).The interesting thing is that the NY Times ties this study in with an earlier one by Michael Inzlicht, on how 'error-related negativity' (ERN) predicts academic performance. ERN describes a brain signal that's triggered when you make a mistake.The idea is that the bigger the ERN signal, the bigger the distress you get from things that don't make sense. Inzlicht showed that people with a big ERN response have better academic performance. They learn better.The implication is that creating uncertainty increases the ERN, and so improves your ability to detect patterns and learn from mistakes.Now, what the NY Times didn't pick up on is that Inzlicht published another study earlier this year (I blogged it here). This study showed that religious people have a low ERN.So uncertainty increases, and religion reduces, ERN. It looks like a feedback mechanism to keep levels of ERN under control by reducing the level of ambiguity and uncertainty in the world (by 'explaining away' mysteries) - at the cost (perhaps) of failing to pick up on real, but obscure patterns._________________________________________________________Proulx T, & Heine SJ (2009). Connections from Kafka: exposure to meaning threats improves implicit learning of an artificial grammar. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 20 (9), 1125-31 PMID: 19656338This work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
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Proulx T, & Heine SJ. (2009) Connections from Kafka: exposure to meaning threats improves implicit learning of an artificial grammar. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 20(9), 1125-31. PMID: 19656338
The last post was on religion and work ethic. So to follow up here's another new paper on a similar topic: religion and volunteering.Religious people do more voluntary work than non-religious people. According to a June 2009 Canadian report, the 15% people who go to Church every week make up 26% of the volunteer workforce.It's difficult to figure out exactly why this should be. Is it spiritual beliefs? The evidence I put up in my previous post, linking religious beliefs to a small increase in work ethic, might make lead you to think so. Religious people get an extra reward from volunteering (they usually believe they'll get some kind of bonus from their God): that makes it more attractive.But maybe it's cultural. Religious people tend to swim in a sea of 'volunteerism', so volunteering might simply be something that's expected of them by their peers. They also get more opportunities to volunteer, by virtue of being plugged into a ready-made volunteer network.In contrast, non-religious people might be excluded from volunteering because (especially in a religious society), many opportunities for volunteering come with a lot of religious baggage. That can be a turn-off for the non-religious.The new study, by Bianca Suanet and colleagues at VU University in the Netherlands, is interesting because it takes a fresh angle on the problem (VU University, by the way, has its historical roots as a Christian university).They looked at two samples of Dutch people, a set who were around 60 years old in 1992, and a set of people who turned 60 in around 2002. In other words, the second set of people was born 10 years later.They found that 43% of people who were 60 in 1992 did voluntary work, but this had dropped to 37% of those who were 60 in 2002. A small drop, but statistically significant.Next they looked at the factors that might explain the drop. Most had no effect: it didn't matter whether they were employed, had a father who was a church member, had a mother who did volunteer work, or had well educated parents.What did matter is their own level of education - highly educated people were 2.7 times more likely to volunteer than people with low education levels. That might be, of course, because highly educated people tend to also have high levels of self-motivation. But presumably the psychological characteristics of the cohorts were the same, which suggests that it's a direct effect of education on volunteerism.And the other factor that made a difference was religious involvement. People who had religious beliefs but didn't go to Church were not more likely to volunteer. But people who did go to Church were.For religious non-Christians and Catholics, the effect was impressive - they were over 2.5 times more likely to volunteer than the non-religious. But for practising Calvinists, the effect was dramatic - they were 4.7 times more likely to volunteer.Now, the actual effects of religion remain pretty small. Overall, they could explain only 16% of the variation among individuals. And religion is only a fraction of that (it's pretty hard to tell from the stats they present, but it probably explains about 5-10% of the variability). It's small, but it's there.So in light of this, there's one other fascinating fact that comes out from the study. It turns out that, after controlling for all the other factors (including the increase in their education levels and the loss of religious belief), the more recent set of 'oldies' were actually more likely to be volunteers.In other words, the decline in religion causes a negative hit on volunteering. That's made up for a bit by the increase in education. But there's something else going on that's increasing volunteering.And that something may well be cultural. To me, it seems likely that Dutch society is reinventing itself as religion becomes increasingly marginalised. Whereas religion and volunteering were once intimately connected, now volunteering is something for non-believers as well (incidentally, this is reflected in the constitution of VU University itself, which transformed itself in the 1960s from a religious university to a secular, state funded one).So a secular future may not mean a future without volunteers. And the good news from Canada is that this is probably the case.Canada, like other Western nations, has seen plummeting religious participation (Statistics Canada). And volunteering went down from 191 hours per person in 1987 to 149 hours in 1997 (here's the 1997 report). But the last report shows an uptick, with volunteer rates climbing to 166 hours in 2007.I think that the take-home from this is that religion probably does stimulate volunteering. But religion is not the only way to achieve this, and it's probably not the best, either._______________________________________________________________________________________Suanet, B., Broese van Groenou, M., & Braam, A. (2009). Changes in volunteering among young old in the Netherlands between 1992 and 2002: the impact of religion, age-norms, and intergenerational transmission European Journal of Ageing, 6 (3), 157-165 DOI: 10.1007/s10433-009-0119-7This work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
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Suanet, B., Broese van Groenou, M., & Braam, A. (2009) Changes in volunteering among young old in the Netherlands between 1992 and 2002: the impact of religion, age-norms, and intergenerational transmission. European Journal of Ageing, 6(3), 157-165. DOI: 10.1007/s10433-009-0119-7
At the start of the 20th Century, the sociologist Max Weber came up with a famous theory to explain why Northern Europe and North America were so prosperous: the Protestant Work Ethic.Basically, the idea was that a unique feature of Protestant Christianity is its emphasis on work as a duty to God. While other religions asked people to do things that were laborious and time consuming, only Protestantism (so the theory went) channelled that religious duty into productive work.It's important to take some time out here to understand what's meant by 'work ethic'. It certainly isn't simply productivity. The richest, most productive countries actually have the lowest work ethic.And a lack of 'work ethic' doesn't mean you're lazy or driven only by financial reward. In fact, educated people have a lower 'work ethic' than uneducated people. Clearly educated people aren't lazy - they work hard to get their qualifications and don't get paid to do it.So 'work ethic' is actually about working for no clear purpose - it's work for work's sake.Well, in the 100 years since there's been a lot of debate and no clear conclusion about whether Weber was right. But, in theory, it seems plausible. According to economists, people only do work if they are going to get some kind of reward. If you can convince them them that their reward will be 'magical' (some kind of spiritual reward in this life or the next) then you won't have to pay them as much.In modern economic terms, a Protestant would gain extra 'utility' from doing work, and so they would have additional motivation to work harder.But even if the idea did hold in the past, does it still work in the modern world? And if it does, how does it work in practice? A new paper by Hans Geser has taken a look.He scrutinized data from the Christians in the World Values Survey and found that, as far as work ethic goes, Protestantism probably isn't very much different from Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity.But he did find some interesting relationships with religion in general. Basically, people with stronger religious faith have a stronger work ethic. But other factors of religion - whether people took Church teaching seriously, whether they went to Church, or whether they prayed - seemed to have little or no effect.There was a surprise, however. Belief in an afterlife actually had a negative effect on work ethic.The effect of religion was small. Overall, only around 5% of the variation between people in work ethic is explained by religion. But Geser's analysis suggests that it's not due to religious teachings. And the promise of a reward in heaven actually has a negative effect.Which suggests that the reason religious people have a higher work ethic is that they expect to get a reward for it in this life, rather than the next.One last thing. The effect of religion, which is small even in poor countries, disappears in rich countries. That's not because the effects at an individual level get less. What happens is that the 'national average' intensity of religious faith has a cultural effect - increasing the work ethic of believers and non-believers.As countries get richer, their culture shifts from a religious to a secular one. And with that, the idea of working for the sake of work becomes marginalised. In rich countries, people work because they see a reason to do the work._______________________________________________________________________________________Hans Geser (2009). Work Values and Christian Religiosity: An Ambiguous Multidimensional Relationship Journal of Religion and Society, 11 (24)This work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
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Hans Geser. (2009) Work Values and Christian Religiosity: An Ambiguous Multidimensional Relationship. Journal of Religion and Society, 11(24). info:/
Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, has just published a second brain imaging study of religious belief.Harris and his colleagues were interested in two questions. Firstly, how does the brain process ideas of 'belief' and 'disbelief' - and does it differ when you are talking about religious beliefs or other kinds of beliefs.Secondly, which bits of the brain evaluate religious beliefs, and do they differ from the evaluation of non-religious beliefs.It was the usual neuroimaging deal: take some committed believers, and some committed non-believers, and fire some questions at them while scanning them. Broadly speaking, you put the subjects in two different mental states, and then subtract one from the other.The difference between the two is what shows up in the orange in the picture on the right. Those are the bits of the brain that are more active in one mental state relative to the other.What they found was that different bits of the brain light up when you evaluate a statement that you believe to be true compared with one that you believe to be false. And it really doesn't matter whether you are a believer or a non-believer, or whether the statement is a religious one or a non-religious one.What matters is whether you, personally, believe it to be true or false. In other words, there does seem to be anything special about religion here. A believer will evaluate a religious claim that "The God of the Bible is literally true" in the same way that non-believer will evaluate the statement "The biblical god is a myth". And they will both evaluate these in the same way as the statement "Santa Claus does not exist".But where the study did find a difference was for religious claims in general (whether or not they were believed to be true). That's what the image at the top of this post shows. It's the parts of the brains that light up when processing a religious claim, compared with a non-religious claim.So what does this prove? Well, part of the problem with these kinds of studies is that it doesn't show much. The brain's a complex, poorly understood organ, and each bit of the brain has been linked to several different functions.With that caveat, Harris reckons that evaluation of religious statements seem to be linked to emotions of disgust and pain:The contrast of religious stimuli minus nonreligious stimuli (see Fig. 2A, Table 3.) revealed greater signal in many regions, including the anterior insula and the ventral striatum. The anterior insula has been regularly linked to pain perception  and even to the perception of pain in others . This region is also widely believed to mediate negatively valenced feelings like disgust , .On the other hand, non-religious statements are linked to regions of the brain connected with memory and semantic evaluation:The opposite contrast, nonreligious minus religious statements, produced greater signal in left hemisphere networks, including the hippocampus, the parahippocampal gyrus, middle temporal gyrus, temporal pole, and retrosplenial cortex (see Fig. 2B, Table 4). It is well known that the hippocampus and the parahippocampal gyrus are involved in memory retrieval . The anterior temporal lobe is also engaged by semantic memory tasks If that's the case, then it would seem to support the idea that non-religious claims are decided by a logical evaluation, whereas religious claims are decided according to whether they disgust you or not.And a last little titbit. There was also a difference in how quickly the subjects evaluated the statements. The quickest response times were for the non-believers when evaluating religious claims they agreed with (i.e. "The biblical god is a myth"). In general, it's quicker to evaluate a 'true' statement than a false one. Could it be that 'Religion is false' is more true for nonbelievers that 'Religion is true' is for believers?_______________________________________________________________________________________Harris S, Kaplan JT, Curiel A, Bookheimer SY, Iacoboni M, & Cohen MS (2009). The neural correlates of religious and nonreligious belief. PloS one, 4 (10) PMID: 19794914This work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
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Harris S, Kaplan JT, Curiel A, Bookheimer SY, Iacoboni M, & Cohen MS. (2009) The neural correlates of religious and nonreligious belief. PloS one, 4(10). PMID: 19794914
There was a study in the New Scientist earlier this year linking what people look like with their personality (I blogged it a few weeks ago). It turned out that it was possible to spot the religious women in the sample from their faces alone.Now interpreting this was a little tricky, because the non-religious 'typical face' was smiling, and the religious one wasn't. Which suggests that, in the UK at least, you can spot religious people because they don't smile.But here's a new study, from the US this time, that gives a radically different slant. Laura Naumann (UCB) and colleagues got a group of students and took whole-body (clothed!) photographs, first unposed and then after asking hem to stand in a standard pose.They also assessed personality by asking the subjects to rate their own personality and also asking them to nominate three friends to rate them. This is the 'gold standard' of personality assessment – because often your friends are a better judge of your personality than you are.The also asked them whether they were religious, and their political orientation.Then they asked a second group of students to assess the subjects personality based on photos alone. Basically, individuals are pretty poor at judging personality. In the standardized pose, they were just about able to pick up on extraversion. In the unstandardized pose, there was a hint towards being able to spot the religious.Things got better when the researchers took a 'wisdom of crowds' approach. This uses a kind of democratic approach, averaging the individual estimates to see what the consensus opinion is. The crowd was able to pick out a religious person just over 60% of the time (you'd expect 50% by chance alone). It was a little bit easier to spot them in the unposed photos, but not much (62% vs 64% - small, but statistically significant).So, it seems that there is something about how the religious people looked that enabled the raters to pick them out. So the question is, what was that?Well, the researchers marked all the photos according to several criteria, and rated these against personality. On average, the religious people were more likely to be energetic, relaxed and, importantly, smiling.Yes, that's right, in this sample of US students, you can pick out the religious because they're smiling. In the UK sample (of New Scientist readers) they were less likely to be smiling.What's happening here? It could be an age effect, or it could be the different social status of religion in the USA and the UK. To be part of the mainstream in the USA means to be religious, whereas the opposite applies in the UK (for most people in the UK, religion is unimportant, even if they aren't exactly atheists).In the US, unlike the UK, being non-religious is linked to social exclusion.It's interesting to compare the characteristics of religious people in the sample with popular people. They're pretty similar. You can see from the graph that, like religious people, people with high self-esteem or who are likeable are more likely to smile and to look energetic and relaxed.Unlike popular people, though, religious people aren't more likely to look healthy, ordinary, or stand with their arms behind their backs. I'm not too sure what to make of these differences!Here's another interesting nugget from the study. The first graph show the actual, objective characteristics that are linked to religion and other traits. But their data also let them assess the extent to which their raters used these characteristics as cues.In other words they could compare what their observers thought characterized religious people, with what actually did. The results are shown in the second graph.The first thing to note is that the 'What people think' bar tends to be longer than the 'Actual' bar. What this means is that people think it's easier to spot religious people than it actually is.The other interesting thing is the discrepancies. The raters thought they could pick out the religious people by picking those who were healthy, ordinary and, most especially neat. But in fact the religious people weren't really any of these things.The curious thing is that the raters didn't expect religious people to look relaxed. Whereas, in fact, looking relaxed was a key attribute of the religious.So there you have it. They expected religious people to be neat, but in fact they were relaxed! Why should this be? I suspect it's simply because the raters didn't realise that, in their community, religious people are simply the popular people._______________________________________________________________________________________Naumann LP, Vazire S, Rentfrow PJ, & Gosling SD (2009). Personality Judgments Based on Physical Appearance. Personality and social psychology bulletin PMID: 19762717This work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
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Naumann LP, Vazire S, Rentfrow PJ, & Gosling SD. (2009) Personality Judgments Based on Physical Appearance. Personality and social psychology bulletin. PMID: 19762717
Here's an interesting graph. It's from a study comparing religious and secular communes in 19th century USA. Michael was talking about this study in the comments so I thought it would be nice to show the data and talk it through.It looks at how long each commune lasted, and compares it with the onerous commitments (everything from giving up certain kinds of food, to abstaining from sex, to cutting ties with the outside world) that each commune demanded from its members.There's two things to notice here. First, the religious communes lasted a lot longer than the secular ones. Second, the more 'costly requirements' imposed, the longer the commune lasted - but only for religious communes, not secular ones.What's going on here? Well, the idea is that the 'costly requirements' allow potential members to send a signal. If you are prepared to put up with all the arbitrary rules that make your life difficult, then that's good evidence that you really, really want to be part of the group. It's a classic 'costly signal'.So why doesn't it work for secular communes? Sosis argues that religious rituals are more powerful, because of the supernatural connection (p230):Thus, it appears that the relative success of religious communes is a result of religious rituals and constraints being imbued with sanctity, whereas the rituals and constraints of secular communes are not consecrated. As Rappaport (1971) stated, “to invest social conventions with sanctity is to hide their arbitrariness in a cloak of seeming necessity”I think that's part of the explanation. A costly commitment has to be justified if people are going to accept it as a price of group membership. For religious communes, it's fairly straightforward. You can argue it's what the god demands - and who can prove otherwise?For secular communes, there has to be a 'real world' justification. If you are going to ask people to hand over their possessions, you'd better have thought through your rationalization pretty well.You can see this in Sosis' data. 90% of secular communes have five or fewer costly commitments, whereas half of religious communes have six or more. Secularists simply aren't attracted to this kind of mentality. It's a tough sell.But I also think there's something else going on here. For people to join a group and stay in it, they have to get something out of it. Crucially, they have to get more out of it than they put in.For the religious, there's a lot to gain from being in a religious commune. Typically, they might feel that they'll be rewarded by their god in this life or the next. And, arguably, the stricter the group the more rewards they might feel they're going to get.For the secular, all rewards are solely in the material realm (I don't mean possessions, I mean rewards like being among friends you can trust). And the potential payoff from group membership has to be greater than the costs of membership.After all, that's the whole point of costly signalling. It acts to screen out people who aren't really committed to the group. For the secular, there just isn't very much point to being a commune member. It's a religious idea, which has been taken up by idealistic secularists only for them to see their vision fail._______________________________________________________________________________________Sosis, R., & Bressler, E. (2003). Cooperation and Commune Longevity: A Test of the Costly Signaling Theory of Religion Cross-Cultural Research, 37 (2), 211-239 DOI: 10.1177/1069397103037002003This work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
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Here's an interesting graph. It's from a study comparing religious and secular communes in 19th century USA. Michael was talking about this study in the comments so I thought it would be nice to show the data and talk it through.
It looks at how long each commune lasted, and compares it with the onerous commitments (everything from giving up certain kinds of food, to abstaining from sex, to cutting ties with the outside world) that each commune demanded from its members.... Read more »
In the last post, I reported on a study into whether religious people are more likely to support the Supreme Court to judge matters of right and wrong. Apparently they are. This is in line with the well-known fact that religious people are more likely to have authoritarian natures.But it doesn't necessarily follow that religious people are more likely to obey authorities if those authorities are religious. There's some good evidence of this from studies of physicians. The most recent has just been published in the journal Academic Medicine.The study lead was Farr Curlin, from the University of Chicago. Back in 2007 he published a survey which asked US physicians whether they are obliged to refer patients if the patients want a treatment to which they are entitled but which the physician objects to on personal ethical grounds. Abortion is a classic example.Now, the rules on this are in fact murky. But, as Bernard Dickens, Professor of Health Law and Policy at the University of Toronto, wrote in a paper earlier this year:The right to conscientious objection is founded on human rights to act according to individuals' religious and other conscience. Domestic and international human rights laws recognize such entitlements. Healthcare providers cannot be discriminated against, for instance in employment, on the basis of their beliefs. They are required, however, to be equally respectful of rights to conscience of patients and potential patients. They cannot invoke their human rights to violate the human rights of others. There are legal limits to conscientious objection. Laws in some jurisdictions unethically abuse religious conscience by granting excessive rights to refuse care. In general, healthcare providers owe duties of care to patients that may conflict with their refusal of care on grounds of conscience. The reconciliation of patients' rights to care and providers' rights of conscientious objection is in the duty of objectors in good faith to refer their patients to reasonably accessible providers who are known not to object.In other words, if s doctor refuses to provide a service on moral grounds, they have an obligation to refer.What Curlin found was widespread disagreement with this basic principle among the religious. Nearly half of all physicians with high 'intrinsic religiosity' rejected it, as did 40% of those who went to church twice a month or more. It was rejected by less than 20% of non-religious physicians.Scroll forward to 2009, and Curlin has done a follow up survey (again in the USA). This time, he specifically asked doctors whether they agreed or disagreed witht he statement "Sometimes physicians have a professional ethical obligation to provide medical services even if they personally believe it would be morally wrong to do so."The results probably aren't quite what you'd expect.For Christians versus atheists, there's a clear difference. Christians were more likely to reject the idea that they have a professional obligation to provide services they find immoral.But Hindus and Muslims were much more open to the idea. In fact they seem more open to the idea of professional obligations trumping personal reservations.Curlin explains these differences in two ways. Firstly, in cultural terms:The idea that physicians should never act against conscience follows from a long Western tradition, expressed in the maxim, “Let your conscience be your guide.” This tradition is rooted in part in Catholic moral theology, which says that an individual “must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself."To me, this doesn't seem very likely. The atheists in his survey probably have mostly a 'Christian culture' heritage. And yet they accept professional obligations.Curlin also found that immigrants are more likely to prioritise their professional obligations, and writes that:...this finding may indicate that immigrants make a special effort to accommodate and adapt to what they perceive to be the expectations of the host culture.It would be interesting to do this study in India, to see if the findings are different. But it might explain the atheists responses - as a minority group, they might be more inclined to see the value of having professional rules that apply to everyone.Alternatively, it might be that the ones who have the biggest problems with the rules are the Christians. After all, the rules tend to allow medical procedures that are anathema to some religious authorities.Atheists, on the other hand, have no rule book to follow except the commonly agreed standards of the society in which they live.____________________________________________________________________Curlin, F., Lawrence, R., Chin, M., & Lantos, J. (2007). Religion, Conscience, and Controversial Clinical Practices New England Journal of Medicine, 356 (6), 593-600 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMsa065316Lawrence RE, & Curlin FA (2009). Physicians' beliefs about conscience in medicine: a national survey. Academic medicine : journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges, 84 (9), 1276-82 PMID: 19707071This work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
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Lawrence RE, & Curlin FA. (2009) Physicians' beliefs about conscience in medicine: a national survey. Academic medicine : journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges, 84(9), 1276-82. PMID: 19707071
It's well known that religious people are more likely to be authoritarian than non-religious people. By 'authoritarian' I mean someone who's predisposed to follow the dictates of a strong leader and traditional, conventional values.But, in a secular society, this leads to a potential for conflict. How do religious people respond if the government authority contradicts religious authority? A new study suggests that it depends on how firm their moral convictions are.First off, let me just quote from the paper on the difference between religious and moral conviction:Theories in moral development suggest that people’s religious beliefs are based more on authorities, rules, etc., whereas people’s moral beliefs are comparatively authority independent (Nucci & Turiel, 1978; Turiel, 2002). Consistent with this idea, religious authorities or institutions determine what is permissible or impermissible and at least some of these determinations evaporate in the absence of authority or institutional support.Conversely, people’s moral imperatives hold even in the absence of authority or institutional support (Nucci & Turiel, 1978). Moreover, belief in God and a general high level of trust in religion load on the same factor structure as general trust in the state and average trust in the government to handle a host of specific issues (Proctor, 2006).In short, these results suggest that religiosity reflects a generalized willingness to trust authority, regardless of whether the authority is secular or religious.To look into this further, they looked into data they got from a survey of a cross-section of around 700 Americans. The topic was physician-assisted suicide, and they wanted to know firstly whether panel supported making it legal, and also whether they trusted the Supreme Court to make the right decision. To tease out the effects of the different factors, they used multiple regression.So what did they find. Well, basically, the more religious the person was, the more likely they were to agree that "I trust the Supreme Court to make the right decision about whether physician-assisted suicide should be allowed." However, people with strong moral convictions were less likely to trust the judgement of the Supreme Court.They also tested how fast people answered the question. Both strong religious and moral conviction resulted in faster response times. This seems to suggest that the effect here is visceral and emotional, rather than logical and considered.So much for their conclusions. Personally, I'm a bit dubious. Religious people might trust the Supreme Court to make the right decision simply because they expect the Supreme Court to agree with them.So this study leaves a lot unanswered. It's clear that religious people do tend to be authoritarian, but it is not at all clear that that translates into obedience to secular authorities in cases of conflict.In fact, there's some rather interesting evidence from the world of medicine that this is not at all the case! But that's a topic for the next post._______________________________________________________________________________________Wisneski, D., Lytle, B., & Skitka, L. (2009). Gut Reactions: Moral Conviction, Religiosity, and Trust in Authority Psychological Science, 20 (9), 1059-1063 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02406.xThis work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
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Wisneski, D., Lytle, B., & Skitka, L. (2009) Gut Reactions: Moral Conviction, Religiosity, and Trust in Authority. Psychological Science, 20(9), 1059-1063. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02406.x
People who pray more are also often more grateful about, well, stuff. For instance, they're more likely to agree that "I have so much in life to be grateful for" (here's a Gratitude Scale, with six other similar questions).Here's the thing, though. Is it the prayer that makes people grateful, or is it just that people who are grateful are more likely to pray?It's a classic problem, and the only way to really sort it out is to do an 'interventional' study. That's one in which you take a group of people, put half on one 'treatment' and the other half on another, and see what happens.Studies like this are pretty rare in sociology, for practical reasons, but that's exactly what Nathaniel Lambert and colleagues from Florida State University have done.They took a group of about 100 students, almost all women and all of them in a current romantic relationship, and put them in four different groups. The first two groups were asked to pray daily, and the second two were asked to do a task unrelated to prayer. Here's the details of the groups:Pray daily for the well-being of your partnerPray daily (with no specific instructions)Report daily on their activities for the dayThink positive thoughts about their partnerThen they assessed all the participants for their level of gratitude. It seems (although the paper doesn't spell it out) that there weren't any statistically significant differences.So they lumped together the two 'prayer' groups and the two other groups. That has the effect of increasing the statistical power.Doing this comparison, they found a significant difference. Those students who were asked to pray daily did become more grateful.This is a great study simply because it is interventional. What's more, they controlled for 'social desirability' - the tendency for some people to tell you what they think you want to hear. So it's good evidence of genuine cause and effect. But there are a few problems with it that need to be remembered.Firstly, they excluded all the non-religious people - in other words all though who said they rarely or never prayed. That amounted to about 25% of potential participants. So this is a study of the effect of prayer in people who already see some benefit to it, but who just don't get around to it as often as they might.Second, the effect is pretty small - about 1.6 units on a scale that stretches up to 42. The effect might be statistically significant, but that's not the same as saying it's important (Olivier Morin has written about this recently over on ICCI blog). Without the authors putting the results into context of other factors that affect gratitude, it's hard to judge.And third, the after-the-fact lumping together of groups because they didn't see the result they expected is a little bit dodgy (although much worse goes on regularly, it has to be said).But despite these caveats, this is a good study. However, it leaves open the question of why prayer should increase gratitude. Mike McCullough, at the University of Miami, put forward some potential reasons in a 2002 paper:Most religions promote gratitude as a desirable attribute, so people may link religiosity to expressions of gratitude.Religious people tend to believe in a creator god. So when something good happens (or is seen, like a sunset), they may be more likely to respond with feelings of gratitude.Lastly, religious people tend to attribute good events, but not bad ones, to the actions of a god. So that may enhance their feelings of gratitude.To me, generalised gratitude seems like an odd concept. It seems to be tailor-made for the religious mindset. While I have plenty of things to feel glad about, I only have feelings of gratitude towards people.Religious people are naturally going to extend those feelings towards their god. So I guess we should not be too surprised that making religious people think more about their god also increases their sense of gratitude!_______________________________________________________________________________________Lambert, N., Fincham, F., Braithwaite, S., Graham, S., & Beach, S. (2009). Can prayer increase gratitude? Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 1 (3), 139-149 DOI: 10.1037/a0016731This work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
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Does this look like a religious woman to you? According to a study by Prof Richard Wiseman in the New Scientist in February this year (hey, I've only just read it, OK?), this is a typical face of a religious person in the UK.What they did was to ask readers to send in photos of themselves, along with a rating of their personality. They digitised the key features, and produced an average of each personality type. When other people were asked to guess the personality based on face alone, they were pretty accurate for religious women - 73% got it rate.There was lots of stuff in the article about why this might be (androgens or other genetic linkages, for example), but no mention of one blindingly obvious explanation.You see, the most striking difference between the 'religious' face and the 'non-religious' one is that the non-religious face is smiling.In fact, the same goes for all the pairs of female faces that the raters were able to identify correctly. The lucky face and the trustworthy face are both smiling.The raters couldn't get the male faces right. And sure enough, neither pair of male faces are smiling. It seems that it's the smile that gives the game away. In a letter in the 21 March issue, a reader points this out:Our brains seem to be hard-wired to interpret smiling positively. Nearly all of your data can be explained by it, yet the experiment does not control for smiles. Only the paired female images gave positive results, and those were the pairs that exhibited greater differences in their smiles. For example, both composite faces under the "Humorous?" heading are smiling to a similar extent, and there was no difference found between them. In the "Religious?" category, we might suppose that people would consider those who are religious to be more serious, and the image with the smaller smile is indeed chosen by the majority. Wiseman responds by conceding that smiling might explain 'some' of the results. But points out that religious people are supposed to be happier than the non-religious.This study doesn't show that you can identify religious people by the shape of their faces. But it does suggest that, in the UK at least, religious people are thought of as unsmiling.That would explain why the religious people didn't smile. They knew, of course, that the photograph was going to be linked to their personality traits. And that knowledge would undoubtedly change their behaviour.Interestingly, both religious and non-religious, and the raters, knew the rules of the game. Religious people in the UK aren't supposed to be smiley!_______________________________________________________________________________________This work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
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Rees, TJ. (2009) Is Personal Insecurity a Cause of Cross-National Differences in the Intensity of Religious Belief?. Journal of Religion and Society. DOI: http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2009/2009-17.html
Bruce Hood has a post up about the atheist bus ad controversy in the US state of Iowa (OK, it was a couple of weeks ago, but I've been away...). What caught my eye was a comment by Konrad:The thing that got me was the governor of the state saying that he found the ad disturbing. Clearly, people seem to treat religious adherence as symbolic of group identity so that they find the idea of atheists in their midst as threatening as that of enemy spies.The hostile reaction to what was a pretty innocuous ad certainly is extraordinary. But is group identify - and the distrust of non-group members, really the cause of it?Some intriguing hints come in a masters thesis by Will Gervais, a student at the University of British Columbia (I took it with me on vacation for some pool-side reading!). In it he describes a series of three experiments in anti-atheist prejudice among fellow students.The first was an implicit association task. What this found is that religious people have a fairly deep-seated conception of atheists as unpleasant and untrustworthy - but it was the lack of trust that came through strongest.The second explored the idea of trust further, by exploring how religiosity affects willingness to hire atheists.It turns out that it depends on the kind of job. Religious people were quite prepared to hire atheists for jobs that don't require require particularly trustworthy people. But they weren't prepared to hire atheists for high trust jobs.Religious people didn't show this bias when the jobs were split into those that do or do not require pleasant people, or when the jobs were split according to the required degree of intelligence.These two experiments show that the primary driver for religious hostility to atheists is specifically a lack of trust, rather than a belief that they're more generally unpleasant. But it doesn't explain why they have this level of distrust.It could be in-group favouritism. Trust is the classic victim of group divisions, and so if the religious see atheists as an alien group then you would expect them to be distrustful.However, Gervais argues that this might not be the whole story, for several reasons. Firstly, there was no evidence that atheists distrusted the religious, which you would expect if this were a standard case of distrust between groups.Also, it's not at all clear that 'atheists' are seen to be a group. Although the 'religious' are also highly diverse, by and large they all subscribe to some doctrine that defines them as group members (of one religion or another). Atheists, by definition, have no such common ground that make them an identifiable group.What's more, open atheists are a tiny minority in North America. Normally, between-group hostility is proportional to the size of the group. The hostility towards atheists seems to be, quite literally, out of all proportion.It might be that distrust of atheists is driven, or at least augmented, by fears that non-belief in a punishing god will lead atheists to behave dishonestly. That's certainly what a lot of evangelical Christians believe (and cognitive psychologists, for that matter).But what about the third experiment? Here's where it gets rather interesting. In the third experiment, Gervais gave the subjects one of three passages to read and react to - one on food, an excerpt from The God Delusion in which Dawkins argues that belief is nonsensical, and a passage detailing the increasing numbers of atheists in the USA in recent decades. This last passage included the crucial fact that at least 20% of Americans aged 18-25 are atheists.For the religious, reading that atheism was rather more common than they previously believed had a remarkable effect. It effectively abolished their distrust of atheists.To me, this result strongly suggests that distrust of atheists is mostly due to fear of 'others'. It suggests that the main reason for the distrust is that the subjects had not realised that many of their fellow students were, in fact, atheists.Once they learned that atheists were not a weird, alien group, but rather people just like them, they felt able to trust them. And I think this conclusion is supported by the experience of atheists in places like the UK, where overt atheism is much more prevalent and distrust of atheists is correspondingly lower.There are two lessons here. First, it suggest that theories that religion evolved as a tool to enforce in-group trust may be wrong.Second, it suggests that all those bus ads may well be serving a useful function, even if they're unlikely to convert anyone. If they normalise atheism, then they should also help to change the lot of atheists in the USA from social pariahs to trusted community members.By the way, if you're interested in group cohesion, you might be interested in an earlier post on The Hand Grenade Experiment._____________________________________________________________________________________This work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
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Rees, TJ. (2009) Is Personal Insecurity a Cause of Cross-National Differences in the Intensity of Religious Belief?. Journal of Religion and Society. DOI: http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2009/2009-17.html
One of the leading theories of why religion is so popular goes by the ominous name of 'Terror Management Theory'. Put simply, this is the idea that people turn to religion to ease their fear of death.Gareth Morris and Tina McAdie, of Huddersfield University in the UK, set out to test this idea in a group of mostly young people (a mix of Christians, Muslims, and the non-religious) recruited within the University.The study was simple, but the results were very interesting.While Christians did indeed have a lower death anxiety than the non-religious, Muslims did not. In fact, their death anxiety was markedly higher than both the other groups.When the participants were asked to explain why they felt the way they did about death, the reasons for the anxiety of Muslims became clear:[For Christians] themes of heaven and eternal life are prevalent, whereas for Muslims the afterlife may be something to fear (“I don't know if I have been a good Muslim and so go to heaven or hell”).In other words, the Christians in this group had low death anxiety because they mostly don't believe in hell!This focus on heaven, and disbelief in Hell, is very popular among Western Christians today. But it's a fairly recent development. For most of the history of Christianity, the fear of punishment in Hell was an ever-present and vivid theme.So it seems to me that the major difference between these two groups is not between Islam and Christianity but between traditional religious ideas and modern ones. So the question then is, why the change? How come Christianity in the West is steadily abandoning traditional concepts of Hell?The function of Hell is to reinforce social order by threatening punishment to wrongdoers who can't be brought to justice by normal societal mechanisms. As a strategy, it's not terribly successful. Medieval Europe is not renowned as an era of peace, justice and harmony.But perhaps in the absence of more effective social controls, promoting fear of hell is better than nothing. When better social controls are invented – such as in modern Europe – Hell is no longer needed.If Hell is no longer needed in modern Europe, then Heaven still is. People still die, and our basic, evolved instincts make us all fear of death. The prospect of heaven can reduce that fear – but only if you abandon the inconvenient concept of hell.As a result, modern Christianity, reacting to market demand, quietly drops the concept of hell, but retains the concept of heaven.So the 'Terror Management' explanation for religion might be a Western phenomenon, born from the recent innovation which holds that the afterlife offering only rewards, not punishment. In the past, the prospect of meeting their maker probably did not ease people's anxiety.What about the people with no religion? That's a pretty amorphous group. It's not clear how many of them believed in life after death. Life after death is one of the most common residual beliefs among the nominally religious (presumably because it helps to reduce death anxiety!). So it might be thatBut it would be interesting to see what level of death anxiety there is among committed atheists, rather than the non-religious. In theory, atheists should have low death anxiety since, to paraphrase Epicurus, what do you have to fear from non-existence? However, I wonder whether this cognitive rationalisation is enough to overcome the innate psychological instinct![I'm currently on vacation in France - this was posted by robots!]_______________________________________________________________________________________Morris, G., & McAdie, T. (2009). Are personality, well-being and death anxiety related to religious affiliation? Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 12 (2), 115-120 DOI: 10.1080/13674670802351856This work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
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Morris, G., & McAdie, T. (2009) Are personality, well-being and death anxiety related to religious affiliation?. Mental Health, Religion , 12(2), 115-120. DOI: 10.1080/13674670802351856
Rees, TJ. (2009) Is Personal Insecurity a Cause of Cross-National Differences in the Intensity of Religious Belief?. Journal of Religion and Society. DOI: http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2009/2009-17.html
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