Field of Science

Religion requires imagination

Why are so many humans religious? Some evolutionary psychologists (like Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Liverpool) have argued that it evolved, possibly via group-level selection, as a way of increasing reproductive fitness by promoting co-operation. Other, like Dawkins, argue that it's an evolutionarily neutral by-product of brain functions that evolved for other purposes.

At a conference last September Maurice Bloch, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, has taken an archaeological perspective and made a strong argument for the by-product theory (the proceedings of the conference have just been published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B - so it's bona fide news, OK!).
Bloch challenges the popular notion that religion evolved and spread because it promoted social bonding, as has been argued by some anthropologists.

Instead, he argues that first, we had to evolve the necessary brain architecture to imagine things and beings that don't physically exist, and the possibility that people somehow live on after they've died. (ABC News)
Basically, Bloch's idea is that once humans developed the power to imagine others in 'transcendental roles', it transformed the nature of human society - and brought religion along with it. Renfrew et al, in their commentary, say:
The transcendental social element requires the ability to identify and interact with each other not in terms of how people appear to the senses at any particular moment but as if they were something else: astronomers, magicians, priests or transcendental beings. According to Bloch, it is in those transcendental roles where the fundamental difference between human and, for instance, chimpanzee sociability lies. Moreover, the fundamental operation that underpins and makes possible this transcendental element of human sociality and by extension the phenomenon of religion is the capacity for imagination. Thus, it is only through understanding the neurological evidence for the development of this capacity and of its social implications that we will account for religious-like phenomena.
Once this is in place, the extension to imaginary roles of dead people and gods is inevitable:
"The transcendental network can, with no problem, include the dead, ancestors and gods, as well as living role holders and members of essentialised groups," writes Bloch. "Ancestors and gods are compatible with living elders or members of nations because all are equally mysterious invisible, in other words transcendental." (ABC News)
This is why, according to Bloch, "religion is nothing special but is central":
Bloch argues that religion is only one manifestation of this unique ability to form bonds with non-existent or distant people or value-systems.

"Religious-like phenomena in general are an inseparable part of a key adaptation unique to modern humans, and this is the capacity to imagine other worlds, an adaptation that I argue is the very foundation of the sociality of modern human society."

"Once we realise this omnipresence of the imaginary in the everyday, nothing special is left to explain concerning religion," he says. (New Scientist)
It's not likely to be a full explanation - it seems likely that a theory of mind is also required to imagine the existence of supernatural agents.
Chris Frith of University College London, a co-organiser of a "Sapient Mind" meeting in Cambridge last September, thinks Bloch is right, but that "theory of mind" – the ability to recognise that other people or creatures exist, and think for themselves – might be as important as evolution of imagination.

"As soon as you have theory of mind, you have the possibility of deceiving others, or being deceived," he says. This, in turn, generates a sense of fairness and unfairness, which could lead to moral codes and the possibility of an unseen "enforcer" - God – who can see and punish all wrong-doers. (New Scientist)
But the basic conclusion remains - religion need not serve any useful function to have evolved. It could just be a by-product of our power to imagine.

Interview with Marc Hauser on Point of Inquiry

Point of Inquiry (the Podcast from the Center for Inquiry) has an interview with Marc Hauser, Cognitive Evolution Laboratory, Harvard University and author of Moral Minds. From the synopsis:
In this interview with D.J. Grothe, Marc Hauser expounds his theory that morality has biological origins while challenging the common view that morality comes from God. He compares the human capacity for morality with Noam Chomsky's notion of a universal grammar, arguing that there is a "morality module" in the brain. He explains how his theory accounts for differences in morality across cultures, and discusses how morality could have evolved and what genetic benefit it might have afforded. He also explores the implications of his theory for the legal system, and for cultural institutions like religion and the family.
The crux of Hauser's argument is that there is a moral grammar, similar to Chomsky's universal grammar. Although morality is culturally dependent, all cultures share certain building blocks that are biologically derived.

Most of this is covered in his book, but he has some interesting new evidence from data gathered from the Moral Sense Test. For example, they've found that harm that is directly done as a means to a greater good is worse than harm that is a foreseen consequence of an action done for the greater good. In the case of the classic trolley test, pushing a fat guy onto a railway to stop an oncoming train killing 5 others (a direct action) is worse than pulling a lever that diverts the train away from the 5 others to hit a fat guy (a foreseen consequence). This seems to hold across cultures, education levels, religiosity etc.

The implication is, for example, that active euthanasia is more likely to conflict with the built-in 'moral compass' than is passive euthanasia. Hauser's keen to strees that this moral grammar can be over-ridden in specific circumstances - people can learn to behave differently - but that there are implications for, say policy makers, as regards which policies the electorate are likely to stomach.

Because this is the Center for Enquiry doing the interview, there's also lots else in there of interest for humanists, including some nice stuff on the difference between religion and science, what the implications are for the notion that religion is the source of moral behaviour (short answer: it isn't), and what does this all mean for the notion of free will and culpability.

There's also a link to to an article from a couple of years ago in Free Inquiry by Marc Hauser and Peter Singer, Morality Without Religion, the gist of which is that you don't need science to show you that religion isn't necessary to be good.

Too much religion is bad for your wealth

Conservative Protestants (AKA fundamentalists) in the US are poorer, on average, than the rest of the population. Lisa Keister, Professor of Sociology at Duke University, has delved into the stats to find out why. Handily, she's also dug up some titbits about humanists as well.

Turns out that part of the difference can be explained by the effects of their religion on their ability to earn. Conservative Protestants:
  • Are poorly educated. This is because their beliefs don't fit with mainstream education, and so they home school instead. They also 'follow advice from church leaders who discourage attendance at secular colleges and universities' (again, to stop their children from being exposed to alternative ideas).
  • Have more children, and younger. Early reproduction further limits the opportunities for education and career development, and also means they have less to invest. Interestingly, wealth increases in families with one or two children (because it motivates people to invest for the future) but decreases with more.
  • Have stay-at-home mums. They are more likely to be single-earner households, especially when the children are young.
These factors account for some - but not all - of the relative poverty of the Conservative Protestants. Just what it is that accounts for the rest of the difference is unknown, but Prof Keister shows that they have a range of beliefs that might explain it. They think that money is the root of all evil, and that wealth prevents you from knowing god. They claim to give more away in charity, and they also think that their god will provide - and so there's no need to save for retirement or a rainy day.

So much for the fundamentalists. What about the rest of us? Well, compared with mainstream Protestants and Catholics, Jews accumulate wealth faster and end up richer. But people with other religion or with no religion (that's us Humanists!) well, they're about the same.

Religious leaders are fond of lecturing us on the perils of secularism - in particular that it brings with it materialism and selfish greed. This study is yet more evidence that they're wrong. For better or worse, Humanists have similar material values to 'normal' Catholics and Protestants.

Keister, L. (2008). Conservative Protestants and Wealth: How Religion Perpetuates Asset Poverty. American Journal of Sociology, 113(5), 1237-1271. DOI: 10.1086/525506

Did disease stop science developing outside Europe?

Why did the scientific revolution occur in Europe, and not somewhere else? It's tempting to think that there was something different about the culture of Medieval Europe that set the foundations for the remarkable transformations of the Renaissance - and indeed this is what most historians of science tend to assume (i.e. they don't subscribe to the 'accidental' view of history).

Christians sometimes claim that Christianity somehow underpins the world view that lead to the enlightenment, although these claims often lack adequate cross-cultural context and some are clearly flawed. Another possibility is that the individualism that is characteristic of European culture may have created a environment in which dogma may be more effectively challenged. The map shows one measure of individualism (The Hofstede Index) - Europe is high in individualism, whereas China and the Middle East are lower.

According to Toby Huff, Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, it was the "dominating influence of the extended kin group" that acted as a brake on learning and intellectual development in the Islamic world. He writes:
... the particularism of the extended kin group appears to have had a pervasive influence that worked against the development of scholarly guilds or any other autonomous groups - professional, legal, or corporate - which could sustain scientific inquiry and protect it from outside attack. In fact, the traditional, pre-Islamic extended family pattern was reinforced by Islamic law in that it does not recognize corporate personalities, which is why cities and universities and other legally autonomous entities did not evolve there. (Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science, p81)
But this just begs the question: why is individualism higher in Europe than in the rest of the Old World? A new paper just out suggests that it was a cultural response to the threat of communicable disease (see ref below). Where disease levels are high, they propose, groups of people may band together and be more likely to reject outsiders.

What they did was create a composite measure of the prevalence of nine pathogens that are detrimental to human reproductive fitness (leishmanias, trypanosomes, malaria, schistosomes, filariae, leprosy, dengue, typhus and tuberculosis). They then correlated this with a variety of measures of individualism in countries and regions around the world (including the Hofstede Index). For all of them, the correlation was highly significant, with around 50% of the variation in individualism explained by historical pathogen prevalence.

The potential impact on learning and free thinking was not lost on the authors, who conclude:
Pathogen prevalence ... may predict cross-cultural differences in practices pertaining to learning and education: where pathogens are prevalent, cultures are likely to encourage modes of learning that emphasize imitation and emulation of prestige in-group members (whereas in less pathogenic environments, there may be greater encouragement for individual experimentation and trial-and-error learning).
The rise of science in the Europe is a complex phenomenon, and no single explanation is likely to suffice. But, with a demonstration of a link between disease burden and cultural attitudes, at least one more piece of the jigsaw seems to have fallen in to place.

Fincher, C.L., Thornhill, R., Murray, D.R., Schaller, M. (2008). Pathogen prevalence predicts human cross-cultural variability in individualism/collectivism. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, -1(-1), -1--1. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2008.0094

Open Access PDF

Diana's kidney makes French woman speak English

Last week the Daily Mail gave us the shocking news that organ donors also donate their soul. And today they've followed up with a case report, just in case there were any doubters out there. This time, it's Princess Diana's kidney...

The evidence? Well, the lady in question got her kidney just two days after Diana died (there are about 4 kidney transplants every day in France). And she's roughly the same age and also female (which does improve the chances of the graft taking). Of course, there are a few minor problems. But to avoid them getting in the way of a good story, the Mail has buried them at the end of the article:
... the Paris-based Organ Procurement Organisation believes it unlikely that her kidney was used in a transplant so far from the capital.

A spokesman said: "Organs made available in Paris would go to locals because at any one time there are something like 1,000 people in Paris waiting for kidney transplants."

A spokeswoman for La Pitie Salpetriere Hospital said she did not know if Diana's organs were removed but added: "We have no record of Diana being involved in any form of kidney transplant.

"Because of bioethical laws and other considerations, it would have been impossible for this type of transplant to have taken place in a French hospital involving a British citizen, particularly when that person was the Princess of Wales."
Despite the fact that there is no way that this woman received Diana's kidney, strange things started to happen:
...she says something strange happened following her operation - she found herself peppering her conversation with English phrases.

"I found myself speaking English to my friends, something I don't normally do because I have no reason to," she says. "I cannot explain why I did this."
Well I can. It's a classic case of autosuggestion. It began with paramedic implanting the idea in her mind. And then it was reinforced by her own ruminations:
"On the way there a paramedic joked with me about the kidney coming from Princess Diana. He said I was going to receive Royal blood," Francoise told The Mail on Sunday.

"His words did make me think, though. I, like many others, was affected by Diana's death. She was a person I admired and at the time she was very much on my mind. I also think the timing was too much of a coincidence. Also the Princess had roughly the same build as me."

The Mail, of course, has another theory. They reckon it's down to cellular memory, and bring up the same 'experts' as last week. But today they have another, one Professor Candace Pert (who has a book and a lecture, and some self-help CDs she'd like to sell you). Needless to say, there's no evidence to support Prof Pert's theories. Ten years ago, she did publish a review article with her theories of Psychosomatic Networks - the idea that mental states and physical function interact. That's not implausible. In fact, there's good evidence for some kinds of interactions (although not the kinds that Prof Pert would like to believe).

But evidence for the idea that transplants carry with them the memories of the donor? There is not a thing. It's pseudoscientific hokum.


Busson M, Benoit G. Is matching for sex and age beneficial to kidney graft survival? Clinical Transplantation 1997; vol. 11, no1, pp. 15-18

Pert CB, Dreher HE, Ruff MR. The psychosomatic network: foundations of mind-body medicine. Altern Ther Health Med. 1998 Jul;4(4):30-41.

Pessione F, et al. Organ donation and transplantation in France in 2006. Médecine/Science | Numéro Double Août Septembre 2007; Volume 23 n° 8.

New Scientist on evolution and religion

The New Scientist has a nice round-up of perspectives on the implications of evolution for religion, and whether science and religion are compatible. An excerpt:
So are religion and evolution incompatible? It depends who's judging. The idea that many religious people find most satisfactory – that a deity intervened in and directed the evolutionary process – cannot be disproved but is not supported by any evidence. The interpretations that are most compatible with what we know – that God did not intervene in evolution after creating the universe, or God is nature – are ones that many believers find unpalatable.
One of the links is to this thoughtful article in The Christian Century on the problems that evolution presents for Christians (and, by implication, Muslims and Jews) in particular:
On questions about evolution, the origin of life and the future of the planet, I look into the science box. On questions about God, salvation, theology and ethics, I turn to the religion box. While I think that the contents of the two boxes are compatible, I rarely try to work out the terms of their relationship.

Perhaps that's because the contents of the two boxes are, when mixed, still combustible. When theology faces off against the account of the world set forth by evolutionary biology, God's goodness and power and God's plans for the future seem to be called into question with new force.

For instance, knowledge of evolutionary history raises questions of theodicy in an especially disconcerting way. Evolution reveals a vast history of unfathomable waste, loss, extinction, suffering and death in the natural world. What has God been up to all these millennia? And what is God up to now? If we believe that God oversees creation, then God's way of doing it through evolution seems strange and even appalling.

Surely ethics is also located in the scientific box - at least, in so far as science can tell us why people behave the way they do, and how their behaviour will change if we change their environment.

Organ transplants with added soul

Via Archaeoporn comes this gem from the Daily Mail about a man who got a heart transplant and - allegedly - a little bit more into the bargain. Spookily enough, the dead man's soul was transplanted too.

How do we know? Well, the transplantee shot himself, despite previously seeming to be happy. And (cue eerie music) the donor "had also shot himself - in identical circumstances." Presumably he was not a heart recipient himself, although the Mail chooses not to get bogged down in pesky details.

But enough of this nonsense. The Mail assures us that...
...a few brave scientists have started claiming that our memories and characters are encoded not just in our brain, but throughout our entire body. Consciousness, they claim, is created by every living cell in the body acting in concert.
Only one of these brave souls is mentioned, one Professor Gary Schwartz at the University of Arizona. He turns out to be a bona fide Professor, albeit with an interesting research focus - his latest book is called The G.O.D. Hypothesis: How Science is Discovering God in Everything, Including Us. And his current project is something called The Veritas Research Program, which was "was created primarily to test the hypothesis that the consciousness (or personality or identity) of a person survives physical death."

Sounds interesting, no? Especially given that "Dr. Schwartz has published more than four hundred scientific papers". Somewhere in among them, you would think, there might be something that would support his claims.

So I checked PubMed, the bible of medical research publications. Turns out Dr Schwartz has indeed co-authored a lot of papers (198 rather than 400, but not bad). Twenty one of them were clinical trials.

Sadly, not a single of his clinical trials supports his claims about cellular memory and transplanting the soul. Oh well.

He did publish something 8 years ago that is a kind of preliminary stab at gathering evidence. In his 2000 paper, Changes in heart transplant recipients that parallel the personalities of their donors, he and Paul Pearsall spoke to 10 heart transplant recipients, and also to friends and relatives of the donors. From this, they tried to pull together anything that could be construed as a match. They report:
Two to 5 parallels per case were observed between changes following surgery and the histories of the donors. Parallels included changes in food, music, art, sexual, recreational, and career preferences, as well as specific instances of perceptions of names and sensory experiences related to the donors (e.g., one donor was killed by a gun shot to the face; the recipient had dreams of seeing hot flashes of light in his face).
In other words, this is classic confirmation bias. If you look at enough things, you will always find a 'co-incidental' match. The problem is, you need to take in to account all the possible 'co-incidences' that could have occurred but didn't.

There's an easy way to get round the problem of confirmation bias. First, you add in some controls - pairs of people who never had a heart transplant, but are otherwise similar to the people you're studying (age, gender etc). Then you anonymise the data and give them to an independent reviewer. If they can pair up the transplant donors and recipients, then you know you're on to something. Otherwise it's just balderdash.

It's been 8 years since that paper was published. That's plenty of time for Dr Pearsall & Schwartz to do some valid science. But they've chosen not to (they do have books to write and lecture tours to conduct, after all...)

And as a postscript, what about the journalist who wrote the Daily Mail story, Dr Danny Penman? Turns out he has form, having published in 2006 (in the Daily Mail again) a similarly credulous article on spiritual healing. Andy Lewis at the Quackometer takes this one apart.

Pearsall P, Schwartz GE, Russek LG. Changes in heart transplant recipients that parallel the personalities of their donors. Integr Med 2000 Mar 21;2(2):65-72. doi:10.1016/S1096-2190(00)00013-5

Sham medicine works better if you care

The world is full of faith healers, and witch doctors with magical cures can be found in every society. The reason for this is at least partly because the treatment works. And the reason it works is down to the power of the placebo effect. If a patient believes the treatment will work, then sometimes it does (health warning: this works better for backache than it does for cancer...)

So here's the question: what is it about sham medicine that creates the effect? Is it the ritual and all the paraphernalia? Or is it a kind word and an understanding ear from the carer? A study in last week's BMJ breaks sham treatment into these two aspects to try to answer this (Kaptchuk et al, 2008).

What they did was take some patients (over 260) with irritable bowel syndrome (something that's known to respond well to placebo [ Patel et al, 2005]). A third of them were left on the waiting list (this was the control group). Another third was given fake acupuncture (using needles that retract into the shaft). The last third was given fake acupuncture and also an extended (45 minute) consultation with the practitioner, during which the practitioner did their utmost to act like the ideal doctor:
The interviewer incorporated at least five primary behaviours including: a warm, friendly manner; active listening (such as repeating patient’s words, asking for clarifications); empathy (such as saying "I can understand how difficult IBS must be for you"); 20 seconds of thoughtful silence while feeling the pulse or pondering the treatment plan; and communication of confidence and positive expectation ("I have had much positive experience treating IBS and look forward to demonstrating that acupuncture is a valuable treatment in this trial").
The results (shown in the figure) were striking. Even the patients left on the waiting list got a little better (as you might expect, since patients usually go to the doctor when their symptoms are at their worse, so with an episodic disease like IBS time will inevitably make them better).

But patients who had the sham acupuncture got better still. And those getting the warm fuzzies from the practitioner did best of all. In other words, to get the most from your sham medicine, you need both components. Plenty of ritual (the more expensive the better) and quality personal interaction combine for the best result.

But, for any faith healers reading this, probably the most important message is that it's the personal interaction that matters most. Kaptchuk et al write:
Placebo treatment with only limited interaction with practitioners was superior to staying on a waiting list with respect to only two of the four measures, suggesting that the supportive interaction with a practitioner is the most potent component of non-specific effects.
Kaptchuk, T.J., Kelley, J.M., Conboy, L.A., Davis, R.B., Kerr, C.E., Jacobson, E.E., Kirsch, I., Schyner, R.N., Nam, B.H., Nguyen, L.T., Park, M., Rivers, A.L., McManus, C., Kokkotou, E., Drossman, D.A., Goldman, P., Lembo, A.J. (2008). Components of placebo effect: randomised controlled trial in patients with irritable bowel syndrome. BMJ DOI: 10.1136/bmj.39524.439618.25

If religion makes you more honest...

...why is it that the most corrupt countries are also the most religious? An earlier post describes evidence that religious beliefs can affect honesty. Implanting subliminal religious messages, and making people feel like they are being watched by supernatural entity, both can act to make people behave more honestly.

But there is a lot more to religion than this, of course. And advocates of religion would have us believe that more religion equals a better, more honest society. This is a claim that can be tested - by looking at country differences in religious fervour and corruption.

In the graph, frequency of prayer (an average of how often people report praying, taken from the World Values Survey and International Social Survey) is plotted against the 2001 Corruption Perceptions Index. As you can see, there is in fact a weak (although very statistically significant) relationship between the two. The perhaps unexpected result is that the relationship is the opposite of what religious advocates would have us believe. As religious fervour in a country goes down, so does corruption. More religion equates to more corruption, not less.

There's another interesting feature of this plot: it's that all the ex-communist nations tend to cluster together. They all tend to be both highly secular and highly corrupt. Corruption under communist rule was probably endemic (there are no good figures), but there is also evidence that, with the social and economic turmoil that followed, corruption increased still further (See Sandholtz & Taagepera, "Corruption, Culture, and Communism"):
Communism created structural incentives for engaging in corrupt behaviors, which became such a widespread fact of life that they became rooted in the culture in these societies ... The transitions toward democracy and market economies have not yet erased this culture of corruption. In addition, the process of privatization itself has opened myriad opportunities for corruption.
Within the group of post communist countries, there doesn't appear to be any relationship between religious fervour and corruption. Religious Poland, for example, is no more corrupt than secular Bulgaria or Czech republic. Post-communist countries are likely to be a special case, therefore, obscuring the underlying relationship. Excluding them from the graph (as shown on the right) shows a dramatic and strong relationship between religiosity and corruption.

This does not mean that religion causes corruption. A more likely explanation is that a common, third factor explains both. And the obvious explanation is wealth. Rich countries tend to be both irreligious and honest. Poor countries have endemic corruption and religion. Indeed, after controlling for GDP, the statistical relationship between corruption and religion disappears.

The question then remains as to how these factors fit together. Does low corruption stimulate economic growth, reducing poverty and so reducing the importance of religion in people's lives? Or does secularisation reduce corruption, thereby stimulating economic growth?

Sandholtz & Taagepera analyse the data and find that, for non-communist countries, both secularism and wealth play a role. Using factors derived from the World Values Survey, they find that a factor related to secularisation and a factor related to wealth (the the survival/self-expression dimension) both contribute to decreasing corruption, although the impact of the self-expression factor is about twice that of the secularisation factor.

The take home? Secularisation probably does decrease corruption. And it certainly doesn't increase it.

Sandholtz, W., Taagepera, R. (2005). Corruption, Culture, and Communism. International Review of Sociology, 15(1), 109-131. DOI: 10.1080/03906700500038678 Open access PDF

Religion can make you honest

ResearchBlogging.orgOne of the major claims made by advocates of religion is that it promotes good behaviour. Believers, so it is claimed, are nicer people - they are more generous and more honest, for example.

A number of studies support this hypothesis, at least on the surface. But many of these studies are weak because they are based on self report (i.e. what individuals say about themselves in questionnaires). Self-report is notoriously unreliable as a measure of what a person actually thinks. Not only do people sometimes not tell the truth, but frequently they don't actually know what's going on inside their own head (in other words, their beliefs about how they behave can differ quite a lot from how they actually behave). In his 2003 book The Psychology of Religion, Professor Bernard Spilka (Purdue University) concluded (p422):
In the end, although more religious people apparently tend to say that they are more honest than less religious persons, such findings seem to be contradicted by other research showing no relationship, or even a positive relationship between lie scale scores and religiosity. More importantly, there is not much evidence from studies of actual behavior to support the supposition that religious people are somehow more honest, or less likely to lie or cheat, than are their less religious or nonreligious peers. In view of the clear teachings of most faiths on such issues, we are left to ponder why religion does not have a significant impact in reducing cheating behavior.
There is, however, some more evidence that religious or superstitious beliefs can make people act more honestly, although by mechanisms that proponents of religion will find surprising (and probably won't like). For example, subconscious priming with religious messages can make you more honest, whether you believe in god or not (what's more, priming with non-religious but 'wholesome' messages has the same effect).

And there's some interesting evidence that a belief in the supernatural can make you more honest by convincing you that someone is watching you. Kevin Haley at UCLA has shown that, in an economic game (the anonymous dictator game), showing stylised eyespots on the computer monitor increases honesty (see refs for this and other papers below). In similar study but this time conducted in the 'real world', Melissa Bateson at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne has shown the same thing. In their study, coffee-drinkers in a university common room were asked to make a voluntary, anonymous contribution to the cost of milk. They found that, on the weeks when they pasted a pair of eyes above the 'honesty box', people contributed more (see fig). The scary eyes at the end seem to be particularly effective!

Even more striking is the work of Jesse Bering at the University of Arkansas, who has shown that simply telling people that the lab is haunted will make test subjects more honest. The subjects were given a task to do, with the opportunity to cheat (they were told that the newly-developed computer program that administered the test sometimes malfunctioned and gave the answer ahead of time). Some were also informed that the study was dedicated to a recently dead grad student. And some of this group were further told by the experimenter (as a "casual but serious aside") that the ghost of this dead student had been seen around the lab. Sure enough, those who had been spooked were significantly less likely to cheat.

So it seems that there are good psychological reasons to expect that people exposed to religious concepts (exposure to ethical messaging, fear of being found out by the 'policeman in the sky') might be more honest. On the other hand, it's also true that people who are convinced that they are holders of moral truths are more likely to behave disreputably. Which may explain why empirical evidence that religious people really are more honest remains lacking.

A last thought. These studies are done in individuals within a society. But what happens if society as a whole becomes less religious? Does corruption and dishonesty increase, or decrease? This is an extremely important question for humanists, and one that is addressed in a follow up post.


Hood, R.W., Spilka, B., Hunsberger, B., & Gorsuch, R. L. (2003). The psychology of religion: An empirical approach. 2nd Edit., New York: Guilford.

Bateson, M., Nettle, D., Roberts, G. (2006). Cues of Being Watched Enhance Cooperation in a Real-World Setting. Biology Letters, 12, 412-414. PDF

Haley, K., & Fessler, D. (2005). Nobody’s Watching? Subtle Cues Affect Generosity in an Anonymous Economic Game. Evolution and Human Behavior, 26(3), 245-256.

Bering JM, et al. Reasoning about Dead Agents Reveals Possible Adaptive Trends. Human Nature, Winter 2005, Vol. 16, No. 4, pp. 360-381.

D'Souza aghast as he discovers many scientists don't believe in God

Dinesh D'Souza is a blogger, author and self publicist who wields his mighty stick against the scourge of atheism. In his latest missive, he has uncovered evidence that science teachers are promoting atheism. How so? Simply this: his favoured god (a Christian of the bible-thumping Protestant variety) is at odds with science and the empirical evidence. His god, for example, doesn't believe in evolution.

So far so tedious. But what makes this one more interesting is that he has unearthed some nice quotes from scientists on the incompatibility of science and religious beliefs about the origin of species:
Here is Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson in his widely-assigned book On Human Nature: "If humankind evolved by Darwinian natural selection, genetic chance and environmental necessity, not God, made the species."

Biologist Stephen Jay Gould writes in his essay in the book Darwin's Legacy: "No intervening spirit watches lovingly over the affairs of nature...whatever we think of God, his existence is not manifest in the products of nature."

Douglas Futuyma asserts in his textbook Evolutionary Biology: "By coupling undirected, purposeless variation to the blind, uncaring process of natural selection, Darwin made theological or spiritual explanations of the life processes superfluous."

Biologist William Provine writes, "Modern science directly implies that there are no inherent moral or ethical laws...We must conclude that when we die, we die, and that is the end of us." Evolution, Provine has also said, is the "greatest engine of atheism."

In his essay on "Darwin's Revolution" in the book Creative Evolution, Francisco Ayala credits Darwin with proving that life is "the result of a natural process...without any need to resort to a Creator."
For many people, the realisation that the god squad got it so wrong about something so fundamental as where we come from does turn them off religion. That's true. But it's also true that many religious people manage to accept the reality of evolution by natural selection and still retain their beliefs.

So teaching science to children may well turn them off religion. But that's hardly the fault of science. And it's certainly not a reason to stop teaching the evidence. D'Souza goes on to moan:
I suspect these quotations are merely the tip of the iceberg. Biologist Kenneth Miller--a star witness on behalf of evolution in recent court cases--writes in his book Finding Darwin's God that "a presumption of atheism or agnosticism is universal in academic life...The conventions of academic life, almost universally, revolve around the assumption that religious belief is something that people grow out of as they become educated."
Well that's true as well. Intelligent, well educated people are much less likely to believe in god. Another uncomfortable reality for people like D'Souza.

The big booming voice inside you that says God exists

Blogging heads TV has a great discussion between Paul Bloom (Yale University, author of Descarte's Baby), and Joshua Knobe (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill): The big booming voice inside you that says God exists

The gist of their discussion is that religion is a biological accident. As a result of our evolutionary heritage, human beings are natural creationists and natural dualists. The evidence for this comes from studies in young children, who suffer promiscuous teleology (everything has a purpose, nothing just exists for its own purpose). So, for example, a child would say that a mountain is there for a purpose (it's for climbing, perhaps). The purpose of a lion might be that it gives you something to look at when you visit a zoo.

Bloom also makes the point that children as young as 12 months have an inherent belief that order can only be created by animated (intentional) objects, whereas disorder can come from animate or inanimate objects. In other words, we are programmed to attribute intentionality. As a result, creationism is intuitive, whereas natural selection is profoundly counter intuitive.

They also claim that children - even those of secular parents - are also programmed to assume that 'god made it'. But this I think reflects a cultural bias. These studies were done in the US, where almost everyone is religious (at least on the outside). I'm sure if they asked my children where the world came from, they would not say "God did it"!

They finish by concluding that, even in atheists, there is a 'loud booming voice' in your head pushing you to believe in god (when you look up at the night sky, for example). And they agree on this even they are both atheists themselves. Bloom says something to the effect that, even though the rational 2% of your mind is probably right, the other 98% is a relic from our evolutionary past. I disagree with them on this point also, and that they feel this way makes me suspect that they come from religious families. I suspect that people brought up in a secular or atheist environment seldom have a 'god exists' feeling. Feelings of awe and wonder, yes, but falling for the god delusion? I doubt it.

The whole program covers a range of other, related topics. Well worth digging in.

Is morality hardwired into us? (11:41)
Could we learn truly arbitrary moral rules? (05:04)
The big booming voice inside you that says God exists (12:12)
The mind-body dualism of children (10:07)
Do you need to have a body to get pissed off? (09:01)
The morality of killing gods and robots (06:46)

Using religion to treat mental illness

In this month's Southern Medical Journal (where else?), a new study into the efficacy of a prayer-based treatment for depression and anxiety-related 'mental disturbance' (the abstract isn't clear about what, exactly, was wrong with them - presumably they were mildly symptomatic and not clinically diagnosed as ill). The good news is that they got better.

It's a terrible study for several reasons. The participants were self-selected, not randomized to treatment. Worse, the comparator group was individuals who received no counselling at all. It's well known that simply giving some attention to people with mild symptoms of depression and anxiety can have a significant benefit. The interesting (and unanswered) question is whether prayer is better than (or even as good as) standard therapy.

This is a weakness common to most studies of the effects of religion on mental health. Religious affiliation brings with it a number of life changes that can help people with mild mental illness - most notably, membership of a support group. Because these studies are usually done in the US, they rarely consider the possibility of using non-religious means to the same end.

This particular study was also alarming because it used the "Steps to Freedom in Christ" treatment program. This is a program that actively encourages participants to believe in the presence of supernatural forces that dominate their life and to which blame for their problems can be ascribed. According to this analysis from the Christian counselling service Pathways Psychological Services, it encourages:
  • reality of the "Excluded Middle" (cf. Paul Hiebert, Trinity Evanglical Divinity School), which is the spiritual realm in which there is interaction between supernatural forces, both good and evil, and natural forces. The Western world tends to exclude this middle realm and sees the world as only naturalistic. It relegates the spiritual realm to a far off, distant heaven with no impact on daily life. Non-Western cultures, however, understand the spiritual realm to be on a par with, and even more influential than, the material realm.
  • presence of spiritual forces of darkness in the supernatural realm.
  • influence of spiritual forces of darkness on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
In other words, it attempts to treat vulnerable patients by inculcating delusional beliefs. Their problems are blamed on demonic intervention, and 'cure' is achieved by renouncing the devil.
In a FA both the Encourager and the client are alert for the demonic presenting as an internal voice inside the client’s mind revealing untruth. When the client reports its presence, the client is then asked to renounce the presence and send it away.
This doesn't seem very ethical to me, especially given that there are perfectly good reality-based counselling interventions available to help these patients.


Hurst et al. Faith-Based Intervention in Depression, Anxiety, and Other Mental Disturbances. South Med J. 2008 Mar 19 [Epub ahead of print]