Field of Science

A dose of religion numbs pain

Paul Sims blogging over at New Humanist is pretty scathing about a new study which takes a look at the effect of religious belief on pain. The researchers zapped a dozen atheists and a dozen Catholics while asking them to look at an image of the Virgin Mary or a control image, and found that the Catholics felt less pain when reminded of their favourite demigod. The dial-a-quote Rt Rev Tom Wright, who can't tell the difference between science and his arse, is delighted:
The findings were welcomed by the Anglican Bishop of Durham, the Rt Rev Tom Wright who said: ‘The practice of faith should, and in many cases does, alter the person you are. ‘It can affect the patterns of your brain and your emotions. So it comes as no surprise to me that this experiment has reached such conclusions.’
But this conclusion isn't news. In fact, it's already well-known that religious fervour can dull your pain. Never mind the scientific studies (of which there are plenty), you only need watch Shi-ites whipping themselves during Ashura, or Filipinos nailing themselves to crosses for Easter, to know that.

What this study is actually about is rather more interesting, because it uses brain scans to look at which parts of the brain are responsible for the effect. It turns out that the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPFC) - shown in the little graphic above - is the bit that lights up in the Catholics who felt less pain as a result of their Madonna-induced rapture. Because the RVLPFC is known to play a role in the reassessment of the emotional evaluation of experiences, the researchers propose that the religious state leads to a reassessment of the pain, giving it new more positive meaning and so making it less, well, painful.

No doubt that's true. But before any religious believers, like the Right Reverend Wright, get too excited about the wonders of religious belief, it should be pointed out that the RVLPFC is in fact the bit of the brain that drives your response to any kind of placebo - including, for example, your common-or-garden sugar pills. Back in 2004, Lieberman et al showed that a sham medical procedure (not a sugar pill in this case but a non-inflated rectal balloon) reduced the pain felt by sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome by activating the RVLPFC. They commented:
These results suggest that placebos may operate, in part, by increasing thoughts about the affective aspects of the pain (i.e., ‘‘I believe I am going to be less bothered by pain now’’) associated with increased activity in RVLPFC.
In other words, as far as pain relief goes, you can substitute the mystery of the trinity with a good old-fashioned sugar pill and some kind words from the GP. They work the same way.

ResearchBlogging.org
K Wiech, M Farias, G Kahane, N Shackel, W Tiede, I Tracey (2008). An fMRI study measuring analgesia enhanced by religion as a belief system Pain DOI: 10.1016/j.pain.2008.07.030

M Lieberman (2004). The neural correlates of placebo effects: a disruption account NeuroImage, 22 (1), 447-455 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2004.01.037

More on the Reiss resignation

This week's Science Magazine carries a summary of the 'Reiss resignation' controversy by BHA Science Group member Dan Clery - head over to our Yahoo group for a discussion on that one.

Harry Kroto, one of the authors of a letter to the Royal Society demanding that Reiss resign as Director of Education, has explained his reasoning today in a commentary in The Guardian. Basically, he is fundamentally against the idea of a religious individual having an influential position in the Royal Society (or other scientific bodies), because anybody who holds religious beliefs must necessarily hold a world view that conflicts at some level with the scientific world view:
Unfortunately Reiss, who is, apparently, a very nice guy, was in the wrong job. He, together with all religious people – whether they like it or not, whether they accept it or not – fall at the first hurdle of the main requirement for honest scientific discussion because they accept unfound dogma as having fundamental significance – note that I did not say value (positive or negative).
It is, he says, an issue of intellectual integrity. Now, of course he is right on that level. If you hold a religious belief then you have a belief that is fundamentally in contradiction to the scientific method. But the problem is this: why stop with religious beliefs? We all of us - including atheists - hold beliefs that are outside the scientific world view. Although holding nothing but rational beliefs that can be justified by dispassionate review of the evidence is a great aspiration, nobody actually achieves that in practice.

In practice, scientists often behave irrationally. In practice, religious believers often do great science, and have as good an understanding of the scientific method as many atheists. It's true that religion is one of the greatest enemies of science, but that does not mean that all individuals who happen to be religious are. Reiss' views on creationism and science education are balanced and sensible. You don't have to be an atheist to be an exponent of the scientific method.

An evangelical on "Modern Science Writing"

OK so Karl Giberson is not your average evangelical Christian. He's a science writer and the author of a book titled "Saving Darwin: how to be a Christian and believe in evolution" (lousy title - evolution is something you can believe, but not believe in - but it's the thought that counts!).

Giberson has recently reviewed "The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing", an anthology of leading science writing edited by Richard Dawkins. And he has some very interesting things to say.

He starts by contrasting the communication skills of scientists and theologians, and finding that the theologians come up short. Surprising, perhaps, given the ruthless and highly polished PR of evangelical Christians. But he's talking about academic theologians, rather than your fire and brimstone telly evangelists.

He's also taken by surprise by the fact that "arch-villain Richard Dawkins", who writes a little introduction to each piece in the book, is not in fact obsessed by religion.
Dawkins wrote brief introductions to all 84 pieces, but not once did he take advantage of the many opportunities to sneer at religion. Several excerpts in the anthology bring to life great discoveries relating to evolution and big bang cosmology—discoveries that that have been strongly resisted by fundamentalists. But Dawkins introduces them as a part of the grand adventure of science, not the inevitable displacement of traditional religious views on origins. Russell Stannard, a Christian physicist who has been very critical of Dawkins, could have been introduced with a potshot, but all we get is a sense that Dawkins thinks that Stannard's "Uncle Albert" series is a delightful way to wrestle with the complex and counterintuitive ideas of relativity.
There's some other interesting perspectives in there too. Some of which you'll like, some will rankle ("Though he would hate the description, this Dawkins reveals something of the nature of his Creator"). But well worth a read if you want an insight into how the other side thinks.

Time for Science and Reason

Watch. Enjoy. Share!

Fish fingers

Pan­der­ich­thys is a large mudskipper-like fish that frolicked on the estuaries of Latvia some 385-million years ago. When it was first discovered, it posed a puzzle to the conventional theory that fingers developed from fin radials. That's because, although it was clearly a transitional fish in many ways, it seemed to lack primitive finger bones.

But a new CT analysis has fixed that, revealing the missing bones buried deep within the fossil. So, another link in the evolutionary chain filled in.

OK not terribly exciting. But a good excuse for a lame pun :)

Scientists to do daft study on near death experiences

Big fanfare a few days ago: The Human Consciousness Project kicked off. This is a major initiative with some big sponsors looking to turn a scientific eye onto the brain-consciousness problem.

Their first project: the AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) study, looking at brain function and conscious experiences during near-death experiences. They're trying to match up reported experiences during near-death with brain activity - ultimately to try to figure out at what point the 'mind' dies. Now this is fascinating stuff, and a really interesting topic. From the news announcement, it all looks very sensible. Sadly, the guy running it, Dr Sam Parnia, has some loopy ideas about the mind. Here's what they're going to do:

During AWARE, investigators will place images strategically in hospital bays, such that they will only be visible by looking down from the ceiling and nowhere else.

If after 36 months, hundreds of patients report being "out of body" yet no one can report seeing the images, then we must consider these reports to be nothing more than illusions. (BBC)

Say what??? They have a major, multinational study, and they're going to use the opportunity to see whether minds really can fly off from the body somehow and go zooming around looking at things (How? With ghost eyes?). In other words, (and heis explicit about this in his keynote lecture), it's clear that Parnia is a subscriber to old-fashioned Cartesian dualism. This is really daft - these days not even theologians accept that crude concept of the mind.

This is not to say that the conventional wisdom that the mind is a straight product of brain cell activity (a concept that glories in the name of 'monism') is without challengers in the modern world. The key problem, as Susan Greenfield points out, is trying to figure out how "the water of the bump and grind of boring old brain cells somehow translated into this special wine of consciousness".

The philosopher David Chalmers leads the field on behalf of the modern-day dualists, arguing essentially that the mind is too weird to be explained as mere physical functioning. But Chalmers most emphatically does not support he idea that the mind and the brain can be physically separated.

Parnia points out that many people report out-of-body experiences near death, and argues that "surely they can't all be wrong"! But of course they can be! Many people are wrong about many things, especially recall. Why shouldn't we expect recall to be particularly bad after a near-death experience? Many people report an awful lot of strange experiences on drugs, but that doesn't mean they actually happen in reality. And that highlights a further problem with the dualist argument - if the mind is not a product of the brain, why is it that drugs which change brain chemistry can affect conscious thoughts?

In fact, out of body experiences are a classic example of monism, because they show how messing with someone's brain can seriously affect their mind. The 'out-of-body' sensation can be caused by brain damage and also by drugs. And last year two studies showed that similar experiences can be generated in the lab by confusing the body's visual and spatial sense.

Results from the AWARE study should be available in two-and-a-half years. Hopefully they will at least be the nail in the coffin of these kinds of supernatural beliefs. But I doubt it!

How to spot a religion

One of the many difficulties with studying religion is deciding what, exactly, religion is. Rather like Justice Potter's verdict on pornography, it's hard to define but "I know it when I see it".

In a book just out, two anthropologists from the US have suggested that religion is best identified by behaviour, rather than speculating about the supernatural beliefs of adherents (The Supernatural and Natural Selection: the Evolution of Religion).

The press release quotes them as saying:
"Instead of studying religion by trying to measure unidentifiable beliefs in the supernatural, we looked at identifiable and observable behavior - the behavior of people communicating acceptance of supernatural claims," said Craig T. Palmer, associate professor of anthropology in the MU College of Arts and Science. "We noticed that communicating acceptance of a supernatural claim tends to promote cooperative social relationships. This communication demonstrates a willingness to accept, without skepticism, the influence of the speaker in a way similar to a child's acceptance of the influence of a parent."
Now this is interesting in light of modelling studies which suggest that the only way religion can evolve is if communicating 'unverifiable statements' acts as a marker of a useful trait (see Green beards maybe made us religious ). What Palmer seems to suggest is that it's not making statements about unreality that indicates survival fitness, but rather the acceptance of them. Perhaps demonstrating that you are the trusting type, by believing what you are told without asking difficult questions, helped to build communities in the early days of human evolution.

Palmer's co-author, Lyle B. Steadman (emeritus professor of human evolution and social change at Arizona State University) makes another interesting observation:
"Almost every religion in the world, including all tribal religions, use family kinship terms such as father, mother, brother, sister and child for fellow members," Steadman said. "They do this to encourage the kind of behavior found normally in families - where the most intense social relationships occur. Once people realize that observing the behavior of people communicating acceptance of supernatural claims is how we actually identify religious behavior and religion, we can then propose explanations and hypotheses to account for why people have engaged in religious behavior in all known cultures."
Which supports the idea that the primary function of religion is to bind communities together. This, of course, is not a surprising conclusion. Emile Durkheim argued that the fundamental function of religion is social way back in 1912, after observing Australian Aborigines. And this in part explains the decline of religion in the modern world. Where we've found better ways of binding people into communities, the need for religion disappears.

Why creationists fear Darwin

Albert Mohler is a radio evangelist and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He's not happy with the CofE's support of Darwin. Not happy at all. Why? Because he recognizes that scientific understanding biology and evolution - and, let's face it, science in general - is a major reason that people turn away from the loopier religions.

Mohler has a pretty good understanding of the threat that Darwinism and rationalism poses to his world view. In a blog post today he writes:

Charles Darwin abandoned belief in God, and he himself traced this loss of faith to his theory of natural selection. He believed that his own doctrine of evolution was a direct contradiction to theism in general and to Christianity in particular.

Darwin argued that belief in miracles was insane and that the Christian doctrine of hell is immoral. In his Autobiography he wrote, "I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my father, brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine."

There are several points to observe here. First, Darwin clearly expressed confidence that Christianity is not true, and that we should be thankful for this fact. Second, Darwin, unlike some modern reformers of hell, understood that "the plain language of the text," that is, the Bible, points to hell as everlasting punishment. Third, Darwin simply would not believe in a God who would send his relatives and friends to hell -- period.

But, by the time Darwin wrote his Autobiography, he had already abandoned belief in any personal deity. As Janet Browne of the British Society for the History of Science and University College, London, explains: "Living out or himself the archetypal Victorian crisis of faith, Darwin perhaps recognized that he had lost the last vestiges of faith when he discovered that biology provided him with the answers he most desired. In the end, in his autobiography, he asserted that religious belief was little more than inherited instinct, akin to a monkey's fear of a snake."


And that, bottom line, is why creationists fear and reject Darwinism. They recognize that it is fatal to their faith.

Michael Reiss resigns from Royal Society

Michael Reiss, the Royal Society's Director of Education who caused a stir recently by seeming to promote the teaching of creationism, has resigned today.

Today, the society’s officers decided that he would have to go to protect its reputation, and Professor Reiss agreed to step down.

It said in a statement: “Some of Professor Michael Reiss’s recent comments, on the issue of creationism in schools, while speaking as the Royal Society’s director of education, were open to misinterpretation. While it was not his intention, this has led to damage to the Society’s reputation.

I guess the bottom line is this: if you are going to speak on a controversial topic behalf of the Royal Society, you had better be pretty darned clear in what you say.

There certainly has been quite a widespread and active movement among leading scientists to get rid of him. According to the New Scientist:
Nobel prize winner Richard Roberts at the New England Biolabs in Ipswich, Massachusetts, has written a letter to Royal Society president, Martin Rees, supported by fellow Nobel laureates John Sulston and Harry Kroto, demanding "that Professor Reiss step down, or be asked to step down, as soon as possible".

"We gather Professor Reiss is a clergyman, which in itself is very worrisome," the letter says. "Who on earth thought that he would be an appropriate Director of Education, who could be expected to answer questions about the differences between science and religion in a scientific, reasoned way?"

CofE to Darwin: sorry about all the name calling, can we be friends?

Apparently, the Church of England is going to officially apologize tomorrow for all the abuse it heaped on Darwin and his theory of natural selection a couple of centuries ago. According to the Daily Mail:
An article to be posted on the Church’s website will say: ‘Charles Darwin, 200 years from your birth [in 1809], the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still.
Andrew Darwin, one of his grandsons, points out that it's all a bit late, really:
‘Why bother?’ he said. ‘When an apology is made after 200 years, it’s not so much to right a wrong, but to make the person or organisation making the apology feel better.’
Anne Widdecome's also in a lather. She's fed up with apologizing for the beastly behaviour of her ancestors. Why can't these down-trodden wimps just get over it? Says she:
‘We’ve already apologised for slavery and for the Crusades. When is it all going to stop? It’s insane and makes the Church of England look ridiculous.’
But actually, there is a point to the church's apology, because it's an important gesture aimed squarely at creationists. And it comes as part of a package. According to the Telegraph, the Church will also be launch a website "to honour Darwin and his hypothesis". It'll make interesting reading, I'm sure!

Update: website now up http://www.cofe.anglican.org/darwin

Did Christianity give birth to science?

There's an argument often made by apologists for Christianity that modern science somehow owes it's birth to religion. Just such a debate has popped up over on the New Humanism website between the philosopher AC Grayling and the sociologist Steven Fuller - with Fuller (a well-known defender of 'Intelligent Design' creationism) playing the role of religious apologist. As common in these sorts of debates, Fuller takes as read a couple of observations that are commonly assumed by the religious, but are really nothing more than reverse logic.

Firstly, science has its roots in a culture that was permeated by religion, and proto-scientists were commonly devout. Therefore, the argument goes, there is no inherent conflict between science and religion, and indeed religion provided the kickstart to science. Without religion, there would be no science.

Second (and this is an argument made by Christians, rather than the religious of other flavours), modern science arose in Europe. Since Europe of the time was predominantly Christian, there must be something especially conducive to science in Christianity.

Now it's easy enough to 'prove' both of these conjectures by appealing to quotes made by proto-scientists of the medieval period (and similarly to 'disprove' them by quoting their persecutors). But these arguments are rarely conclusive – usually all they demonstrate is that quote-mining can allow you to hold almost any opinion you care to take up.

The fundamental flaw in both arguments made by the apologists is that, like intelligent design, they have no explanatory power. Sure, proto-scientists were religious, by and large. But that is just circumstantial. You might as well argue that racism lead to religion! Furthermore, people have been religious for as far back as we can reach. Why did they only just recently become scientific? Similarly, Christianity was the dominant religion for a thousand years before science really got started. Why the hold up? Clearly something changed, but it wasn't the introduction of religion or Christianity.

What's more, the Christianity we see at the beginning of the renaissance and in modern times is not the only flavour that could exist. Christianity is a pretty malleable paradigm – you can push it a long way before it breaks. Arguably, the Christianity adopted by the intellectual leading lights of the early modern era was especially conducive to critical discussion. But in which direction did cause and effect operate? Did society sculpt the religion that suited it best - rather than society be sculpted by religion. Doesn't that seem rather more likely? After all, religion is clearly an invention of people.

In other words, there are cultural forces that led to the invention of the scientific world view. These forces were not Christianity, or religion. Rather, they shaped Christianity into a religion that could be compatible with a scientific world view. What were those forces?

There are a number of contenders. Toby Huff, author of The Rise of Early Modern Science, has produced one of the few truly cross-cultural analyses of the scientific revolution. He argues that it was the university, a uniquely European invention, that kick-started the tradition of scholarly debate that nurtured early science. And the reason Europe got universities was down to its legal system, which allowed the establishment of a 'corporation' as a legal entity. In Europe, students got a qualification not from the state, nor from an individual master, but rather from an independent institution. In the Islamic world, in contrast, traditions dating back to pre-islamic times fostered a tradition of independent scholars who handed out personal certificates of competency. In China, monolithic state control stifled philosophical enquiry (although technological invention, a distinctly different social construct, was encouraged).

Other factors may have played a role. A unique feature of Europe is the separation of Church and state, a relic of the Imperial origin of Christianity and the subsequent break up of the Roman Empire. This left a tension between the religious ruler in Rome and the temporal rulers at the heads of the various states - a tension that came to a head during the Investiture Controversy in the 12th Century. This contrasts with China, in which the State was the Church, and the Islamic world, which had not state machinery in the European sense.

And environmental factors might also have contributed. According to a study earlier this year, the lower incidence of transmissible disease in Europe may have made society more open and individualistic.

Whatever the reasons, it does not seem likely that Christian theology contributed in any significant way to science. Rather, the opposite seems more likely. That the open nature of European society gave birth to science and also sculpted Christianity into the religion that we in the West are familiar with today.

Science lessons should include creationism

So says Michael Reiss, Professor of Science Education at the University of London. Why should teachers want to do a crazy thing like that? Well, Prof Reiss reckons that a good argument is at the core of science. He points out that discussing creationism, if students raise the issue, could be wonderfully instructive:
... in certain classes, depending on the comfort of the teacher in dealing with such issues and the make-up of the student body, it can be appropriate to deal with the issue. If questions or issues about creationism and intelligent design arise during science lessons they can be used to illustrate a number of aspects of how science works.
And of course he's right, at least on that level. If a student challenges the teacher about creationism, it's crazy to argue that the response should be "It's not on the curriculum, so we can't discuss it". So crazy, in fact, that nobody is actually arguing that we should. A good teacher should use the opportunity to open up the discussion about the scientific method, why it is so powerful, and why supernatural beliefs like creationism just don't cut the mustard. It's not a novel idea. Just last week Susan Blackmore was arguing that challenging student's religious beliefs, and teaching science method rather than science fact, was at the heart of good science education.

So is Prof Reiss just tilting at windmills? Well, it's hard to say. Prof Reiss is also a minister in the Church of England, and some of the early news reports of his remarks (made earlier today at the British Association of Science Festival) suggested that he was asking for creationism to be taught alongside science as an 'alternative worldview'.

But the Daily Mail cleared that one up:

But Professor Reiss added: 'Some of my comments about the teaching of creationism have been misinterpreted as suggesting that creationism should be taught in science classes. Creationism has no scientific basis.

'However, when young people ask questions about creationism in science classes, teachers need to be able to explain to them why evolution and the Big Bang are scientific theories but they should also take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis.
But that still leaves open a rather more interesting question: should creationism be actively introduced as a topic of discussion in science classes? On the one hand, creationism is a fairly widely-held misconception, and it offers a textbook example of how supernatural, non scientific thinking can lead even reasonably intelligent people to completely and fundamentally misunderstand how the world works.

On the other hand, if you let creationism into the curriculum, even as a vehicle for challenging irrational ways of thinking about the world, it opens up an opportunity for the various crazy faith schools we've got springing up in this country to weasel out of their obligation to teach science.

World fails to end

Congratulations to the folks at CERN, who earlier today successfully sent protons on a full lap of the Large Hadron Collider. With a bit of luck, they'll get the LHC running on full power (and with two beams, so they can smash one into the other) sometime next year. And that, of course, is when the world will end. Something to look forward to!

One of the particles the LHC is designed to hunt for is the Higgs Boson, the so-called 'God Particle'. Sadly for atheists and theists alike, finding it won't solve that particular mystery. Apparently, Leon Ledermen, the Nobel-prize winner who gave the Higgs Boson its nickname, wanted to call the elusive beast the 'god-damned particle'. But his publisher suggested an alternative that might help drive book sales...

Just how dangerous is a concealed elbow?

About a year ago the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, introduced a new policy in UK hospitals requiring doctors and nurses working on hospital wards to be bare below the elbow. This was for hygiene regions - it was a response to public anxiety over the multi-antibiotic resistant 'superbugs'.

Now, this posed a problem for some orthodox Muslim women, who believe that their god wants them to keep their elbows and forearms covered. So there have been rumblings of discontent, culminating in the dismissal earlier this month of a radiographer from Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading.

What would probably surprise readers of the Daily Mail (and the armies of xenophobes in the blogosphere) is that the evidence that bare forearms reduces disease transmission is actually quite weak. In the September issue of the British Journal of Urology International, by Dr Adam Jones (a urologist at the Royal Berkshire Hospital), lays out the history of changing attitudes to surgeon clothing and infection.

One thing is not in dispute: poor clothing and hygiene standards leads to increased infection. But what about sleeves in particular? The honest answer is that we just don't know. Dr Jones says:
The evidence for the roles of ties, shirt cuffs, rings or watches in infection is hard to find and mostly in obscure medical journals. Indeed similar levels of bacterial contamination have been reported on doctors' stethoscopes and pens.
So where does this leave the debate? Eugene Volokh, over at the Volokh Conspiracy, has an refreshing perspective. He points out that one of the most powerful weapons against wacky religions like fundamentalist Islam is the empowerment of women. The very fact that these women are becoming doctors, and so gaining power and influence and control over their lives, will undermine the fundamentalism that causes them to insist on hiding behind layers of clothing.

In other words, tolerating this particular cultural peculiarity may be the best way to allow it to atrophy.

ResearchBlogging.orgAdam Jones (2008). Bare below the elbows: a brief history of surgeon attire and infection. BJU International, 102 (6), 665-666 DOI: 10.1111/j.1464-410X.2008.07713.x

Science is just another religion...

And The Onion finally has the evidence to prove it! Apparently True Believers in the Theory of Evolution have been flocking to a courthouse in Tennessee, where a vision of Charles Darwin has appeared on the wall. One pilgrim captured the spirit and emotion particularly well:
"Forgive me, O Charles, for ever doubting your Divine Evolution. After seeing this miracle of limestone pigmentation with my own eyes, my faith in empirical reasoning will never again be tested."
Inevitably, there are sceptics:
"It's a stain on a wall, and nothing more," said the Rev. Clement McCoy, a professor at Oral Roberts University and prominent opponent of evolutionary theory
But if a miracle like this doesn't prove evolution, then what does?

Church-going makes Latino and Asian-American kids depressed

On the whole, within any given society those people who are members of religious groups are happier than people outside religious groups. A lot of studies on religion and happiness are done in the USA, where religion has a larger role in most people's lives than it does in Europe. But even in Europe religion = happiness for the average individual. This isn't true at a societal level, of course - religious countries tend to be poorer and so less happy than non-religious countries.

But nothing in life is ever that straightforward. There's a new study out on the effects of participating communal religious activities in adolescents in the USA (Press Release, full paper). The investigators, Richard Petts and Anne Joliff from Ohio State University, controlled for a number of demographic factors, like sex, socioeconomic status, same-sex attraction, grade in school, residential mobility, and self-esteem. What they found was that, as expected, white and black teens who participated in religion were happier on average than then their non-churchgoing colleagues. But for Asians religious participation had the opposite effect, leading to more depression. And for Latinos there was also a tendency for more depression, although the effect was smaller.

14% of whites and and 13% of Asians reported having no religious affiliation, and this group tended to be happier than other whites and Asians. The 9% of blacks and Latinos who had no religion were less happy than their peers.
Setting all other factors aside, the results suggest that participating in religion at high levels may be detrimental to some teens because of the tensions they face in balancing the conflicting ideals and customs of their religion with those of mainstream culture, said Richard Petts, co-author of the study, who did the work as a doctoral student in sociology at Ohio State University. (Press Release)
Well maybe. Or maybe they get exposed to particularly duff religions. Or maybe the causality is the reverse of what Petts assumes. Maybe depression tends to steer Whites and Blacks away from going to religious services, but has the opposite effect on Asian-Americans and Latinos!

The PsychCentral article does some great analysis of the paper if you read down the page. Bottom line is this: religion makes you happier if you fit in. People who don't fit in get excluded and made unhappy. Maybe atheist Asians are more likely to know other atheist Asians, so don't get so excluded.

Ramadan is here - but religion and science fail to blend

Ramadan began yesterday. Tradition dictates that the start of Ramadan is signalled by the first observation of the new moon of Ramadan month. As the Washington Post reports, the task of making the observation is assigned to numerous "official moon-sighting committees" in Egypt and elsewhere. Religion and Science Blend in a Centuries-Old Ritual, runs the Washington Post headline.

Well, not even close! The scientific reality is that we know exactly when that full moon will appear. There's no need to actually sit out with a telescope in an empty car park to wait for the moon to rise (telescopes were allowed by the Saudi clerics in 1982, anxious as ever to keep up with the latest technological developments). So it's a social event - science is an unwelcome party pooper!

In fact, the whole shindig could stand as a metaphor of the conflict between science and religion. You see, they don't only sit up on Sunday night, the night of the New Moon, but tradition also dictates that they sit up the night before too - even though these days we know there is no way that moon is going to appear!
"It's a matter of Islamic law we have to be here. But it's 100 percent sure we're not going to see it today," Faleh Mohammed, head of one of Egypt's government astronomy institute, told the al-Jazeera reporter. (Washington Post)
So we have bunch of guys (and yes, they are all men), sitting around in a car park trying to see something that they know isn't there... Yep, that sounds like what happens when you mix science and religion all right!