Field of Science

It's no surprise that the universe is habitable

It's not unusual to hear the argument from incredulity ('here's something that's really weird, therefore god exists'), but it is rare that you hear it coming from a Professor of Philosophy. But that's exactly what Prof Robin Collins, at the evangelical Messiah College in Pennsylvania, is doing over at Science and Religion Today (and on the PBS series Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God).

His basic idea is that the universe is finely tuned to be hospitable for life. Since we don't have a particularly good explanation yet for exactly why the universe turned out the way it did, this counts as evidence for the existence of god!

Here's an excerpt:
I believe we can say that the fine-tuning of the universe provides significant evidence in support of divine creation over this hypothesis. The reason for this can be articulated in terms of what is often called the "likelihood principle," but which I call the “surprise principle.” Roughly, this principle states that whenever a body of evidence is much more surprising under one hypothesis than another, it counts as evidence in favor of the hypothesis under which it is least surprising.

... it could be argued, given the fine-tuning, that the existence of a life-permitting universe is very surprising under the brute fact hypothesis, but not under theism. Therefore, by the surprise principle, fine-tuning provides significant evidence in favor of theism over the brute fact hypothesis. Nonetheless, it does not prove theism is true, or even show it is the best explanation of the universe. So faith—understood as a special mode of knowing similar to our ethical intuitions—still plays an essential role in belief in God, but the fine-tuning offers significant confirming evidence for this belief. In any case, the fine-tuning evidence offers a significant challenge to those who claim that the findings of science undercut belief in God.
Well I have some news for Prof Collins. It isn't a surprise that the universe we live in is suitable for people to live in - in fact it's bleeding obvious! If the universe was not habitable, then we wouldn't be able to live in it, and we wouldn't be able to sit around pontificating on its origin.

This, of course, is the 'anthropic principle', and as explanations go it's almost - but not quite - as unsatisfactory as the 'god hypothesis'. But it's perfectly plausible and, no matter how many potential universes there are out there, it's entirely unsurprising that the one we're is, like the little bear's porridge, just right.

But here's another flaw in Prof Collins' argument. It's an argument from ignorance - otherwise known as the 'god of the gaps' approach. It presumes that our current understanding is complete and entire, and that anything we don't understand counts as evidence for the existence of god.

In fact, Fred Adams of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor has recently shown that all this talk of the universe being fine-tuned is based on a false, simplistic premise. Here's how the New Scientist reported it:
Claims of fine-tuning have generally been based on what happens when you vary a single characteristic of the universe, say the strength of gravity, while holding all others constant. That, says Adams, is too artificial a scenario to tell you anything about whether there are other universes that can support life. "The right way to do the problem is to start from scratch," he says. "You have to turn all the knobs and find out what happens."

Adams selected a range of possible values for each of these constants, then put them into a computer model that created a multitude of universes, or a virtual "multiverse". Each universe within the multiverse used different values for the three constants and was subject to slightly different laws of physics.

About a quarter of the resulting universes turned out to be populated by energy-generating stars. "You can change alpha or the gravitational constant by a factor of 100 and stars still form," Adams says, suggesting that stars can exist in universes in which at least some fundamental constants are wildly different than in our universe.

And though some universes were filled with things we might not usually think of as stars - radiating black holes or bodies formed of dark matter - they all gave out enough energy to power some form of life, and lasted long enough for life to evolve.

Adams reckons his results, which will be published in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics, suggest that the "specialness" of our universe could well be an illusion. And this is only the very beginning of what can be probed to undermine the idea that our universe is fine-tuned for life. There are plenty more constants and processes that can be tinkered with, he says.

Adams's approach is "extremely interesting", says Michael Murphy of Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. "I've long had a suspicion that this talk of fine-tuning needs constant questioning and re-examination," he says. "It's sometimes hard to recognise that living somewhere else in a different way might be just as easy."

And Adams isn't the only one working along these lines. Stephen Hawking and Thomas Hertog (of Denis Diderot University, Paris) have recently proposed an interpretation of string theory that cuts down the apparent improbability of our 'inflationary' universe by recognizing that the probability estimate needs to be weighted by volume of the universe.

Now, of course the god theory doesn't actually predict that the universe is improbable - because the god theory doesn't actually predict anything at all. So proving that the universe isn't improbable won't count as evidence against the existence of god - at least the religious won't be persuaded. But at least it will reduce the numbers of specious 'god of the gaps' arguments by one!

How religion makes people vote right-wing

Apparently there's some sort of election going on over in the US, so here's a topical question: why is it that religion encourages the poor to vote for right-wing parties? By 'right wing' here I mean 'fiscally conservative' - the sorts of parties that are against government social welfare programmes. Now, there are all sorts of arguments for and against wealth redistribution, which I'm not going to get into. But the fact remains - and it's one that's relevant to understanding the US elections - that the poor are more likely to vote for fiscal conservatives (and so against their direct economic interests) if they are also religious.

It's not a small issue, either. In the wealthy democracies, religiosity and church attendance is a better predictor of voting choice than is either income or social class. In fact, whereas income is an important decider for the non-religious, religious people tend to vote the same way whatever their income, according to an analysis published earlier this year:
Whether we use pooled data from the Eurobarometer (various years) since 1970 or a larger sample of wealthy countries from the 1990s covered by the World Values Survey, we find that the effect of income on vote choice is barely discernable among those who attend church every week, whereas it is quite large among those who never go to church. Moreover, the impressive relationship between church attendance and voting against the parties of the left is driven disproportionately by the poor. (de la O & Rodden, 2008)
So here's a quick run-down of the reasons that have been put forward for why the religious are more likely to vote for fiscal conservatives.

Issue bundling

The typical answer is issue bundling. This is the idea that right wing parties are both religiously and fiscally conservative, and that the religious poor prioritise religious beliefs over their financial interests. This effect is particularly strong in so-called 'majoritarian' democracies, like the USA and Britain, where the structure of the voting system tends to lead to a very small number of political parties. In countries with proportional representation, like most of mainland Europe, there are more parties in parliament to choose from. So voters are more likely to find one that matches their particular collection of beliefs (both economic and social).

de la O and Rodden found exactly that happening in their analysis of voting behaviour:
In the United States, the Republicans adopt positions to the right of the Democrats on both issue dimensions, and voters with morally liberal but economically conservative preferences (or vice versa) are forced to choose which preference dimension is more important to them. But faced with the menu of choices available in the Netherlands, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries, for example, voters need not choose one preference dimension on which to base their vote. Our data analysis reveals that liberal parties sometimes offer a choice for morally moderate but economically conservative voters, and Christian democratic parties appeal to voters with right-leaning preferences on moral issues but relatively centrist preferences on economic issues. (de la O & Rodden, 2008)
They also found that the poor are more likely to have conservative moral views. So part of the reason that the poor vote right wing is that their conservative morality drives them to do it. This is why adding Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket was a way to increase the party's attractiveness to the poor.

But this begs another question: why, if the electoral system forces issue bundling, do conservative moral values and conservative fiscal values get bundled together? It's clear that religion tends to promote conservative morals, but does it also have the effect of encouraging fiscal conservatism?

Belief in a just world

Did the people at the top of the income heap get there by hard work and talent, or is there a hefty dose of luck involved - being in the right place at the right time and having the right parents, for example? Obviously there is quite a range of views on this topic, but what's clear is that those who believe in a 'just world' - that you get what you deserve - are also opposed to government welfare.

Some religions encourage the belief that god will reward hard work and effort - the 'Protestant Work Ethic' is a classic example. Roland Bénabou has looked into this, and put it like this:
... a belief that there is a hereafter in which rewards and punishments will be determined according to effort and industriousness (or lack thereof) during one’s lifetime. The alternative view is that there is most likely no afterlife, or that if there is one, its rewards are determined according to criteria unrelated to industriousness, or even antithetical to material success: vows of poverty and asceticism, good deeds towards others, scrupulous observance of rituals, contemplation, the “extinction of desires”, etc.
Bénabou created an agent-based model of the social causes of a belief in a just world, and why it varies from one society to another. Using this model, they show that religious beliefs can swing attitudes towards a society that favours low government redistribution.
Therefore, under appropriate conditions, we can again expect two equilibria:
  1. A high-religiosity / “Protestant work ethic” equilibrium, accompanied by high effort and low redistribution.
  2. An equilibrium characterized by a greater predominance of agnosticism, or of religions that do not stress industriousness and worldly achievements, accompanied by the reverse pattern of labor supply and redistributive policy.
Religion privatises social welfare

One of the notable things about religious charitable giving is that a large chunk of it goes directly to co-religionists (so-called 'within-group' giving). This differs according to religion - so 90% of the money that Mormons give to charity goes to other Mormons, and 80% of evangelical Christian charity goes to other evangelical Christians (Chen & Lind). At the other end of the scale are Catholics, at 50%, and Jews, at 40%.

Now here's the interesting thing. The negative relationship between religiosity and support for welfare state is strongest for those religions that have high 'within-group' giving. In other words, financial support from co-religionists reduces the need to governmental social programmes.

Chen & Lind also show that this effect is actually reversed for members of a state church - they tend to be in favour of state welfare:
The relationship between fiscal and social attitudes is reversed for members of the state church: religious intensity predicts welfare support when government spending can assist members of state churches.
God: your invisible friend

As well as the real-world social support, religion can help you through the bad time psychologically. There's evidence to support this too. Andrew Clark (at the Paris School of Economics) has shown that both Catholics and Protestants suffer less psychological harm from being unemployed. Perhaps this is because they have faith that their god will provide. If you have a magical friend in the sky who will make everything all right, then you why would you want the government to take care of you?

A. L. De La O, J. A. Rodden (2008). Does Religion Distract the Poor?: Income and Issue Voting Around the World Comparative Political Studies, 41 (4-5), 437-476 DOI: 10.1177/0010414007313114

Roland Benabou. "Belief in a Just World and Redistributive Politics" Quarterly Journal of Economics, 121.2 (2006): 699-746.

Daniel Chen, Jo Lind. Religion, Welfare Politics, and Church-State Separation. Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Vol 42, No. 1, 2007

Andrew Clark. Deliver us from Evil: Religion as Insurance. Working paper. 2005

Being closer to god linked to more depression

Religion is supposed to be good for your mental health. People who have a good dose of religion tend to be happier, for example. And earlier this year researchers including Joanna Maselko (at Temple University in Philadelphia) reported that women who stop going to religious services are three times as likely to suffer generalised anxiety disorder or drug/alcohol abuse as are women who keep up their attendance (men, on the other hand, are actually less likely to suffer depression if they stop going to church). But is it actually religion that helps you to keep happy, or is it having an extended network of friends who are there for you in time of need?

Now Maselko is back with another study where she and her colleagues dig a little deeper into this issue. They assessed nearly a thousand New Englanders as part of a study, begun in the 1960s, that is following these people from cradle to grave (the New England Family Study). What they've found is that, as expected, those people who attended church regularly had a lower lifetime history of depression (by 30% in this case). However, when they asked the subjects to rate their relationship to god (using the religious well being scale), those who rated themselves closer to god had suffered 50% more depression in the past.

Now, they controlled for other factors when they did this analysis, so it seems likely that this relationship is real. But what it doesn't tell you is which comes first - do high levels of religiosity lead to depression, or do depressed people convince themselves that they feel close to god? What's interesting is that people with high levels of existential well being (a self-assessment of one's sense of life purpose and life satisfaction) had much less depression (by 70%). Maselko explains it like this:
"People with high levels of existential well-being tend to have a good base, which makes them very centered emotionally," said Maselko. "People who don't have those things are at greater risk for depression, and those same people might also turn to religion to cope." (Science Daily)
Clues in this direction were reported in another study earlier this year by Maria Norton and colleagues at the University of Utah. What they showed was that Mormons are at twice the risk of depression as non-Mormons, but that those Mormons who attend church regularly have their risk for depression returned to normal levels.

Maybe we should take these results with a pinch of salt. A review of 11 studies, published in 2003, found that on average high religious well-being was associated with a lower risk for depression (Smith et al). But it's not clear whether the studies adequately controlled for religious attendance (since the two are obviously related). And another recent study (this time in cancer patients) found that existential well being, but not religious well being, was linked to lower anxiety and depression (McCoubrie and Davies, 2006).

So what to make of all this? Well, my interpretation is this. People who go to church are less depressed, but people who are very religious are more depressed. So it seems that the best defence against depression is to get involved in a community activity, but take all this religion stuff with a pinch of salt.

J. Maselko, S. E. Gilman, S. Buka (2008). Religious service attendance and spiritual well-being are differentially associated with risk of major depression Psychological Medicine DOI: 10.1017/S0033291708004418

Norton et al. Church Attendance and New Episodes of Major Depression in a Community Study of Older Adults: The Cache County Study. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 63:P129-P137 (2008)

Timothy B. Smith, Michael E. McCullough, Justin Poll (2003). Religiousness and depression: Evidence for a main effect and the moderating influence of stressful life events. Psychological Bulletin, 129 (4), 614-636 DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.129.4.614

Rachel C. McCoubrie, Andrew N. Davies (2006). Is there a correlation between spirituality and anxiety and depression in patients with advanced cancer? Supportive Care in Cancer, 14 (4), 379-385 DOI: 10.1007/s00520-005-0892-6

Shariff replies - the prosocial effects of religion

The recent review in Science on the prosocial effects of religion (Religious situations, but not beliefs, help foster trust) left me with a couple of questions. So I wrote to Azim Shariff, one of the two co-authors, and put them to him. Here's my questions and his response:

Q. The first one is about the causal mechanism of religious priming in generating prosocial behaviour. In your review, you link this to the 'unseen observer' effect – the idea that people behave better if they think they are being watched. However, if this was the case then surely you would not expect secular primes to work as well as religious primes, and religious primes to work as well in non-believers as in believers. Perhaps the mechanism is more straightforward – perhaps simply subliminally reminding people that they ought to be good has the effect of prompting better behaviour?
A. With regards to the mechanism acting behind the priming-generosity effect, the issue that you raise is one that we've thought about quite a bit. First, there's no necessary reason to think that both primes worked through exactly the same mechanism.Though that study in particular cannot distinguish between the two mechanisms that you suggest, the reason we've discussed the watcher hypothesis with reference to the religious primes is because it is consistent with a lot of the other studies that try to address the same phenomenon. We mention a few of these in the Science paper. The second reason is that suggesting that religion just prompts people to think that they ought to be good kinda begs the question. There needs to be some mechanism that explains the link between religion and good behavior that was found. Our suggestion, which we attempt to support in the Science paper, is that the development of these large, omniscient and morally involved deities was that mechanism. That's also why in the original 2007 paper that emerged from those studies, we gave the religion prime finding so much primacy over that of the secular prime. To me, it's not that surprising that reminding people of these institutions that are meant to enforce prosocial behaviour, makes them prosocial. With the religious priming, there's another step to it, and that implicit connection between religion and good behavior is, I think, or particular interest.
Q. The second relates to the connection between prosocial behaviour and costly signalling. If religion increases trust not as a result of beliefs but rather as a consequence of environmental prompts, then how do behaviours linked to beliefs indicate trustworthiness?
A. The costly signalling stuff, I admit, is probably the least supported aspect of the theory. The reason we included it at all was because it is a necessary part of the argument (it should exist), and it enjoys some support the one investigation that Sosis and Bressler published about how the number of costly requirements predicted the longevity of religious communes. But more research needs to be done on that topic before we can claim to fully understand it. With reference to your specific question, my own theory is that the costly signaling works in two ways. In one case, there are a number of greetings and outward signals of religiosity that people use to both activate people's religious prosocial tendencies, and to confirm that they are among those who should benefit from them. Thus, the (potential) cooperation partner acts as the environmental prompt. There some research to support this with charity solicitation work done in Israel where the researchers varied whether or not the solicitor was wearing a Kippah. The second way I think costly signalling works is, if there is enough saturation of your religion among your community, cooperation occurs whenever religion is activated (typically quite frequently), but non-religious people, that is, those who are visibly not costly signalling, become red flagged. So everyone is assumed to be a godfearing cooperation partner until proven otherwise. This is an idea that we're starting to look at more in the lab - the atheist stigma. It seems that it is indeed driven more by moral distrust, than anything else. I do eventually want to look more into how religious people tend to 'sniff out' these freethinking freeriders. There's a whole bunch of interesting anecdotes on the topic, so I think it makes for an exciting new avenue of research.

Boyer on the evolution of religion

Just a quick heads up - tomorrow's Nature will carry an article by Pascal Boyer (at Washington University, and author of the 2001 book Religion Explained). The PDF is up on his website: Religion: Bound to believe?

In it, Boyer reviews some of the key cognitive biases that lead to religious beliefs. For example, our tendency to form 'social' bonds with inanimate or imaginary entities, the ritualization of cleanliness and, importantly, our 'coalitional' psychology:
This coalitional psychology is involved in the dynamics of public religious commitment. When people proclaim their adherence to a particular faith, they subscribe to claims for which there is no evidence, and that would be taken as obviously wrong or ridiculous in other religious groups. This signals a willingness to embrace the group’s particular norm for no other reason than that it is, precisely, the group’s norm.
Boyer thinks that the 'byproduct' explanation of religion is the most probable, based on the current evidence:
So is religion an adaptation or a byproduct of our evolution? Perhaps one day we will find compelling evidence that a capacity for religious thoughts, rather than ‘religion’ in the modern form of socio-political institutions, contributed to fitness in ancestral times. For the time being, the data support a more modest conclusion: religious thoughts seem to be an emergent property of our standard cognitive capacities.
He concludes:
The findings emerging from this cognitive evolutionary approach challenge two central tenets of most established religions. First, the notion that their particular creed differs from all other (supposedly misguided) faiths; second, that it is only because of extraordinary events or the actual presence of supernatural agents that religious ideas have taken shape. On the contrary, we now know that all versions of religion are based on very similar tacit assumptions, and that all it takes to imagine supernatural agents are normal human minds processing information in the most natural way. Knowing, even accepting these conclusions is unlikely to undermine religious commitment. Some form of religious thinking seems to be the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems. By contrast, disbelief is generally the result of deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions — hardly the easiest ideology to propagate.

Dualism in the news

That old chestnut of mind-body dualism - the freaky idea that our minds can somehow continue to exist after our brain has been destroyed - has been cropping up a bit recently in the media. Here's a snapshot.

Never say die: why we can't imagine death

First up is a great article in Scientific American by Jesse Bering, currently at the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queens University, Belfast. Bering's article covers some of the recent research by him and others that's starting to show that we've got a built-in predisposition to be dualist - we just can't help ourselves. That's not just the religious and believers in the supernatural - under clever questioning, many atheists also reveal that they succumb to the same kind of illusions.

The evidence shows that children are born as natural dualists, and learn to shake off dualist thinking as they get older. But culture - particularly religious environments - can stunt that development:
In support of the idea that culture influences our natural tendency to deny the death of the mind, Harvard University psychologist Paul Harris and researcher Marta Giménez of the National University of Distance Education in Spain showed that when the wording in interviews is tweaked to include medical or scientific terms, psychological-continuity reasoning decreases. In this 2005 study published in the Journal of Cognition and Culture, seven- to 11-year-old children in Madrid who heard a story about a priest telling a child that his grandmother “is with God” were more likely to attribute ongoing mental states to the decedent than were those who heard the identical story but instead about a doctor saying a grandfather was “dead and buried.”
So why do we have this built dualism? Bering is a leading exponent of what he calls the "simulation-constraint" hypothesis - the idea that we simply can't wrap our heads round the idea of non-consciousness because, by definition, it's something that we can never experience. Piled up on this is the idea of 'person permanence', the intuition we all have that people continue to exist even when we can't see them (when they leave the room, for example). He goes into much more depth on this in his 2006 paper The folk psychology of souls.

The soul? It may all be in your mind

Next up is an interview with Paul Bloom, a psychologist from Yale University and the author of a widely-cited article in Atlantic Monthly back in 2005, Is God an Accident?

Bloom points out some of the evidence against dualism:
Q. We know this from brain scans that look at parts of the brain lighting up in response to different [stimuli] - you can watch people think about a topic and watch parts of their brain light up?

A. That's the most modern demonstration. But the idea that thought is the result of the physical brain comes from work that's hundreds of years old. We've known that a blow to the head can affect your memory, your willpower, your conscience, your sense of right and wrong. We know that Alzheimer's, strokes, and diseases of the brain can profoundly affect your mental life. It's a tenuous view to say that the part of me that chooses right from wrong has no physical basis. If that were true, you wouldn't expect getting smashed on the head, alcohol, or heroin to affect your will and your knowledge of right and wrong.
But he goes on to make an overture of peace to the religiously minded:
Q. What are the implications of this dualism, and its limitations, for religion? Obviously, you're not suggesting theologians hold a going-out-of-business sale.

A. In fact, some theologians respond to this research with delight. According to many theological views, we have an inborn appreciation of God and souls. This is part of God's gift to us. There's nothing in my work that in any way should trouble anybody who's theologically inclined. Though often, they say a belief in a single God is natural, and that's probably wrong. Many more cultures believe in multiple gods.
This is a common argument among the scientifically literate religious, of course. The problem is that, as psychologists like Bering are increasingly showing, our dualism is not a design feature, but more of a design flaw - a by product of cognitive systems evolved for other purposes.

COGNITIVE SCIENCE: Arguing for Embodied Consciousness

This last one is via Science and Religion News, and is a review of a new book by Edward Slingerland, who made some controversial statements last year about whether morality can be scientific. But Slingerland is a convinced materialist. Science and Religion News has more on the book review, but here's a key excerpt.
Slingerland starts with Darwin and eventually follows Daniel Dennett so far as to agree that consciousness can be done full justice through third-person descriptions that require no mysterious, unaccounted-for, nonmaterial, first-person entity as substrate. Thus the famous "Mary," who intellectually knows everything there is to know about color despite having been sequestered for life in a color-free lab, will recognize red the first time she steps outside (4). And Thomas Nagel's famous bats don't know anything about bathood that we can't figure out for ourselves from observation (5). No first-person construct, no locus of consciousness, need be invoked.

Nice is sexy: altruism makes men more attractive

One of the remarkable things about humans is that they sometimes are nice to each other even when they don't expect any reward. And it's not just humans - marmosets are altruistic too. Figuring out why behaviour like this should evolve is a challenge.

There's a paper out by Tim Phillips, a newly minted PhD at the University of Nottingham. In it, he describes three studies that involved quizzing over 1000 men and women about what qualities they looked for in a sexual partner.

Participants in the studies were questioned about a range of qualities they look for in a mate, including examples of altruistic behaviour such as 'donates blood regularly' and 'volunteered to help out in a local hospital'. Women placed significantly greater importance on altruistic traits in all three studies.

Yet both sexes may consider altruistic traits when choosing a partner. One hundred and seventy couples were asked to rate how much they preferred altruistic traits in a mate and report their own level of altruistic behaviour. The strength of preference in one partner was found to correlate with the extent of altruistic behaviour typically displayed in the other, suggesting that altruistic traits may well be a factor both men and women take into account when choosing a partner.

Dr Phillips said: “For many years the standard explanation for altruistic behaviour towards non-relatives has been based on reciprocity and reputation — a version of 'you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours'. I believe we need to look elsewhere to understand the roots of human altruism. The expansion of the human brain would have greatly increased the cost of raising children so it would have been important for our ancestors to choose mates both willing and able to be good, long-term parents. Displays of altruism could well have provided accurate clues to this and genes linked to altruism would have been favoured as a result.” (Press release)

Now, this stands in stark contrast to research being done over the water by a PhD student at the University of New Mexico, Peter Jonason. He's found that male college students who exhibit the 'dark triad' of behaviour - the self obsession of narcissim, the callousness of psychopaths, and the deceitfullness of Machiavellianism - tended to have more partners (see New Scientist: Bad is good as a mating strategy). Once again it's not just humans that act like this - Peter Marler showed back in the 1980s that roosters will lie to chickens - pretending they have a tasty grub when in fact they have nothing - in an effort to improve their sexual odds.

So humans show two kinds of reproductive strategies. There are people who selectively choose mates that show altruistic behaviour, since these kinds of individuals will be most likely to provide the long term investment needed for human reproduction. And then there's the deceptive strategy.

The essential conclusions will surprise no-one, of course. But the devil is in the detail, and the implications are important for who we are. And we are who we are (sometimes nice, sometimes bad) because it's a successful reproductive strategy.


Phillips T, Barnard C, Ferguson E, Reader T. British Journal of Psychology, Volume 99, Number 4, November 2008 , pp. 555-572(18)

Who are the atheists?

Religious belief is on the decline in Britain. Increasing numbers of people are telling the pollsters either that they have no religious beliefs, or that religion is unimportant to them. Now, Prof Rich Lynn would argue that this is due to a new era of enlightenment, with ever more intelligent and rational people contemplating life's mysteries and deciding that the evidence suggests that all of this god stuff is a bit of a fairy tale (see previous post).

But according to David Voas, a demographer at Manchester University, in fact secular society in Britain is characterised by not by people who don't believe, or even by people who don't know, but rather by people who simply don't care. Voas says:
The dominant British attitude towards religion is not one of rejection or hostility. Many of those in the large middle group who are neither religious nor unreligious are willing to identify with a religion, are open to the existence of God or a higher power, may use the church for rites of passage, and might pray at least occasionally. What seems apparent, though, is that religion plays a very minor role (if any) in their lives.
Voas calls them the 'muddled middle', but I don’t think they’re really muddled. High falutin discussions about the existence of God are interesting to a minority, typically well educated. Everyone else has better things to do with their lives.
Exactly where one should draw the line distinguishing the secular from the rest is unclear. Many nominal adherents are failed agnostics: they used to have doubts, and now they just don't care. Arguably, most are secular for all practical purposes. If they are included, then at least half the British population could reasonably be regarded as secular.
So this is the picture of a secular society. It's not one in which religion has been abandoned as a result of some careful analysis of the evidence. It's one in which religion has simply become unnecessary.

Atheists are more intelligent, but does intelligence lead to atheism?

The Telegraph has picked up on a story (People with higher IQs are less likely to believe in God, according to a new study) that was actually broken by Times Higher Education back in June (High IQ turns academics into atheists). I checked the journal - Intelligence - but the paper (although accepted) is still not yet published. But there is a word version of it on the web, so we can take a look to see what it actually says.

Essentially the authors (chief among them Richard Lynn, who has some rather controversial views on race and intelligence) have put together a compilation of the very large number of studies that show, in one form or another, that intelligent people also tend to be less religious or less likely to believe in god. They can be summarized like this:
  • In a number of different Western societies, studies consistently find that high IQ correlates with low belief, as does high Psychometric g (the general factor in intelligence).
  • Elites (who are presumed to be more intelligent) are less likely to believe - and this is especially true of scientists.
  • As children grow up, they are less likely to agree with statements like “I believe there is a God” and “God means a lot to me”.
  • During the 20th century, religious belief has declined in western nations, coupled with an increase in IQ (the 'Flynn effect')
  • Nations with higher average IQ have higher numbers of atheists. I've plotted these data in the graph above. The data on atheism are from a book chapter by Phil Zuckermen (see ref below), and they are unashamedly based on a hodge-podge of data pulled from a variety of more-or-less reliable data. It's the only way to get data on atheism from so many countries.
These numbers are persuasive. The argument that atheists are, on average, more intelligent than believers seems to hold across a range of conditions. It's not as controversial as it sounds. The big, unanswered question is why? Lynn says this:
Many rationalists no doubt accept the argument advanced by Frazer (1922, p.712) in The Golden Bough that as civilisations developed “the keener minds came to reject the religious theory of nature as inadequate … religion, regarded as an explanation of nature, is replaced by science” (by “keener minds” Frazer presumably meant the more intelligent). Others have assumed implicitly or explicitly that more intelligent people are more prone to question irrational or unprovable religious dogmas. For instance, some sixty years ago Kuhlen and Arnold (1944) proposed that “greater intellectual maturity might be expected to increase scepticism in matters of religion”. Inglehart and Welzel (2005, p.27) suggest that in the pre-industrial world, humans have little control over nature, so "they seek to compensate their lack of physical control by appealing to the metaphysical powers that seem to control the world: worship is seen as a way to influence one's fate, and it is easier to accept one's helplessness if one knows the outcome is in the hands of an omnipotent being whose benevolence can be won by following rigid and predictable rules of contact…one reason for the decline in traditional religious beliefs in industrial societies is that an increasing sense of technological control over nature diminishes the need for reliance on supernatural powers".
In other words, if you are smarter, then you can figure out that all this god stuff is nonsense. An attractive argument if you are an atheist, and perhaps true to some extent - but on the other hand it is probably largely wrong.

For a start, look at the graph of IQ versus belief, and focus on nations with a mean IQ of around 100. In these nations, there's almost no correlation between IQ and belief. The apparent connection comes mostly from a gaggle of nations that are characterised by high levels of belief and low IQ. And, importantly, these are all low-income nations. We already know - and Lynn acknowledges - that increasing material wealth in Western Nations in the 20th century lead to increasing IQ. Does this have anything to do with it?

And what about within nations? Those data showing that individuals higher up the social scale have lower levels of belief? These people are not the same as individuals with lower IQ, since they have more control over their lives and are largely free from money and health worries.

And this is the elephant in the room. The thing that connects all these apparent correlations between religiosity and intelligence is a third factor. Something that is fundamentally important as a cause of religious belief, and something I bang on about on this blog quite frequently: that a secure life equals a life in which people can free themselves from religion. Zuckerman, the guy who put together the data on national rates of atheism that Flynn uses, explains it like this:
One leading theory comes from Norris and Inglehart (2004), who argue that in societies characterized by plentiful food distribution, excellent public healthcare, and widely accessible housing, religiosity wanes. Conversely, in societies where food and shelter are scarce and life is generally less secure, religious belief is strong. This is not a new theory (Thrower, 1999). For example, Karl Marx (1843) argued that people who suffer in oppressive social conditions are apt to turn to religion for comfort. Sigmund Freud’s (1927) central thesis was that belief in God served to comfort humans in the face of earthly pain, suffering, and death. However, Marx and Freud provided no data. Norris and Inglehart (2004) do.
Now, Lynn must've read this, so it's curious that he leaves it out as a potential explanation. But then, as I mentioned earlier, the guy has a controversial approach to evidence!

Richard Lynn, John Harvey, Helmuth Nyborg (2008). Average Intelligence Predicts Atheism Rates across 137 Nations. Intelligence, In press

Zuckerman, P. (2007). Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns. In M. Martin (Ed) The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Religion and abortion - the facts

Currently hot over at Reddit Atheism is an post from Austin Cline at About.Com Atheism: Abortions Highest Where Religion is Highest. Picking up on Monbiot's Guardian article, Austin cites the evidence that the abortion rate is lower in countries that are relatively secular (like Northern Europe), and higher in more religious places like Central and South America. The data are from a study that was featured in this blog last year (Abortion in the news - passions run high, facts take a backseat). Austin concludes that:
It's not secularism, secular ethics, or atheism which causes increases in abortion rates; instead, it's the heavy hand of puritanical, patriarchal religion in a society where women are gaining power, equality, and wealth.
Now, this is not a statistical analysis - which is something picked up in the comments on Austin's post. Also, the theory seems to break down with Eastern Europe, where the abortion rate is high despite a secular outlook. I've taken a closer look at the numbers, and they reveal an interesting picture!

International data on abortion come from a couple of studies by the Guttmacher Institute (Henshaw et al 1999, and Sedgh et al 2007). One important point is that the numbers include illegal abortions. This is important because the religious often push to make abortion illegal. Previous research (confirmed by the new data show that this has no effect on the overall rate of abortion, but does mean that abortions are done illegally rather than legally. The other thing to realise is that the data are only available for regions, not countries. This is because the researcher used a variety of techniques to estimate illegal (and sometime legal) abortion rates, based on at times patchy data.

For religiosity, I used a measure based on the frequency of prayer (actually the log of the mean frequency of prayer) derived from two sources - mostly from the 4th wave of the World Values Survey (2005) but supplemented by data from the International Social Survey.

So, on with the show! Firstly, what do the numbers actually say? Well, as you can see from the figure below, in most parts of the world the good news is that the abortion rate has dropped between 1995 and 2007. Most notably, there's been a massive drop in the abortion rate in Eastern Europe (which was extremely high in 1995). The exceptions to the general trend is Northern and Southern Africa, where there has been a slight increase.

How do these rates compare to religiosity? Well, for the 1995 data, the surprise is that there is absolutely no correlation whatsoever - this is shown in the figure below on the left. Why is this?

It's because of Eastern Europe, which has low religiosity and exceptionally high abortion rates. Removing Eastern Europe from the analysis (figure below) shows that the correlation is in fact quite strong. Regions where religion has a powerful hold do tend to have a higher abortion rate.

What about 2007? Well, here the correlation is significant, even with the inclusion of Eastern Europe. Overall, the correlation is around 23% - in other words, around one quarter of the variation in abortion rate can be explained by the variation in religiosity.

Now, this doesn't mean that religiosity causes abortion. One important confounding factor is wealth. Wealthier nations are both less religious and also have a lower abortion rate, and it's impossible to separate the two. Furthermore, it's possible (indeed likely) that other factors in society, and indeed abortion rates themselves, contribute to psychosocial stress - which is in itself a important driver of religiosity. In other words, rather than religion leading to abortion, it may be that abortion leads to religiosity.

What then, should we make of the case of Eastern Europe? Well, it's likely that the abortion rate here is affected to a large degree by Russia and the former Soviet Union nations. In 1987, the Soviet Union introduced a law that made early-term abortion available to anyone with almost no barriers (no hospital appointment needed, for example). As access to family planning and contraception in the Soviet Union was poor, early-term abortion was used as a means of family planning, and as a result the abortion rate soared (Ketting, 2005).

So, what can we conclude from this? Yes, countries that are more religious do indeed have higher abortion rates, and it's probable that this is because when the religious get hold of the reins of power they introduce policies that lead to more abortion (usually highly dangerous illegal abortions). Why? Because the best way to reduce abortions is to reduce unwanted pregnancies. And the best way to do that is high quality sex eduction and easy access to contraception.

By the way, if you've made it this far and still think the post is worth sharing, why not head on over to the Reddit Atheism section and give the post a thumbs up. You can give it an 'up vote' by clicking on, um, the up arrow. Go on, you know it makes sense :)

Henshaw, Stanley K; Susheela Singh and Taylor Haas. “The incidence of abortion worldwide.” Int Fam Plan Perspect 1999; 25: S30–38.

Sedgh, Gilda, Stanley Henshaw, Susheela Singh, Elisabeth Åhman, Iqbal H Shah.
“Induced abortion: estimated rates and trends worldwide.” Lancet 2007;370: 1338–45.

Ketting, Evert. “Why do women still die of abortion in a country where abortion is legal? The case of the Russian Federation.” Entre Nous 2005 59;20.

Scientific errors in the Bible - an expert speaks

Don't you just love it when the religious point out the flaws in each others religions? Here's a Dr Zakir Naik, from the Islamic Research Foundation in Mumbai, pointing out a few of the howlers in Genesis.

Of course, Christians aren't just going to stand by and let that sort of nonsense go unanswered. "No," they declare, "the Koran is full of nonsense as well!". Gee, maybe they were both written by a bunch of prescientific pastoralists?

There are another 30 sections to that lecture debate, if you're keen.

Reasons to fear humanism: conservatives and liberals disagree

What if there were no gods? One major reason for adopting and maintaining religious belief is a fear of the what would happen if they were abandoned. To help understand why people maintain these beliefs, it's important to understand what these fears are. And that's exactly what a new study has done (McAdams and Albaugh, 2008).

What they did was recruit 128 devout Christians from around Chicago and scored them on their political ideology. Each was asked each to construct a 'life narrative', and they were then asked to imagine what their lives might have been like had they not embraced the faith they have.

For political conservatives, they feared that a life without faith would have been uncontrolled, with unrestrained sexual and aggressive urges, addictive behaviours, and human selfishness. In their narratives, they described:
incessant conflict and chaos, expressing strong apprehension regarding people's inability to control their impulses and the attendant breakdown of social relationships and societal institutions
Political liberals feared that without faith their life would be empty and barren, and devoid of emotional intensity. They described a world that was:
barren or lifeless, lacking in color and texture, an empty wasteland that would not sustain them
So religion caters for these two essentially antagonistic needs. This causes difficulties for religious groups, such as the Church of England, that attempt to represent all individuals in a society. But the results are not altogether surprising, given the differences in world views and psychology between conservatives and liberals. As Jonathan Haidt (psychologist at the University of Virginia) describes it:
conservatism is a partially heritable personality trait that predisposes some people to be cognitively inflexible, fond of hierarchy, and inordinately afraid of uncertainty, change, and death.
What this study underlines is that religious believers are not homogenous, and that their reasons for believing are connected to their wider beliefs about the world. To move to a world that in which faith is less prevalent, alternative political and societal mechanisms need to be found that can provide the reassurance that both conservatives an liberals need.

D MCADAMS, M ALBAUGH (2008). What if there were no God? Politically conservative and liberal Christians imagine their lives without faith Journal of Research in Personality DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2008.07.013

Religious situations, but not beliefs, help foster trust[Update: I fired a couple of questions to Shariff about this paper - you can read his response here]

In this week's Science Magazine there's a review of the prosocial effects of religion from an evolutionary perspective. It's pretty radical for a journal like Science to carry this kind of review, and a few the newspapers have picked up on it too - The Guardian (Religion helps foster trust, say psychologists) and the Daily Mail (Religious people are 'more helpful, honest and generous' say scientists), for example. Perhaps surprisingly, the newspapers get it broadly right. But there's some nuances there that really need to be clarified, and also what's not clear from the reports is that there is a wild leap of logic in the hypothesis presented in the review - a leap of faith, if you will. So, what does it actually say?

The authors are Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff, from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who have conducted some key studies in understanding religiosity (see this earlier blog post).

An important part of their review is exploding a few persistent myths about the actual effect religiosity has on proscocial behaviour. First off, it doesn't make you kinder or more empathic. Religion does not, in fact, stimulate people to help their fellow humans. As an example of this, they give the classic 1973 experiment in which students passed by a person appearing to be sick and in need of assistance. It was an anonymous set-up – as far as the students knew, no-one would ever know what they did. And religiosity had no effect on whether they offered help.

More evidence comes from a study on volunteering. When participants were lead to believe that they were unlikely to be called upon to do anything if they volunteered, then there was a big difference in favour of the religious. When participants were lead to believe they probably would be asked to actually do something, the difference disappeared. In other words, religion appears to increase your concern about how you appear to others, but doesn't make you any more altruistic.

Another thing: self-reports of religiosity are also no guide to actual behaviour. Religious people are more likely to claim that they are honest than non-religious people, but when you study them it turns out that there is no difference. This is largely because religious people are have convinced themselves that they are nice (they are religious, after all), and so that's what they'll tell you if asked:
Psychologists have long known that self-reports of socially desirable behaviors (such as charitability) may not be accurate, reflecting instead impression management or self-deception ... Supporting this hypothesis, psychological research summarizing many studies has found that measures of religiosity are positively associated with tests of socially desirable responding, a common human tendency to project an overly positive image of oneself in evaluative contexts.
The evidence for this comes from lab studies, such as that Norenzayan & Shariff's own work as well as the one by Randolph-Seng and Nielsen. In these lab studies, when unprompted by any cues, religious people are just as likely to cheat and play nasty as are the non-religious.

So what then does religion do that inspired those headlines? Norenzayan & Shariff reckon that the primary effect of religion is to foster trust within groups:
One possibility holds that the greater prosociality of the religious is driven by an empathic motive to ameliorate the condition of others. Alternatively, prosocial behavior could be driven by egoistic motives, such as projecting a prosocial image or avoiding guilt (failing to live up to one’s prosocial self-image). The preponderance of the evidence supports the latter explanation.
The evidence for this? Well, when you prime people with religious prompts, they behave more honestly. They argue on these grounds that religiosity equates to trust and that, if you can spot individuals who are religious, then that might be a really handy way of identifying people that you can trust.

The big problem here, and one that they acknowledge, is that it's easy to fake it. It's easy to act religious and yet have no strong religious beliefs. And this is where the bizarre rituals demanded by religion come in. Perhaps these are so costly that it's simply not worth faking them. In fact, so the argument goes, those religions that demand the most costly rituals indicate the most trustworthy individuals. As evidence, they cite a study showing that religious communes in 19th century America survived for longer than secular ones, and what's more those religious communes that had the most arduous demands were the ones that lasted longest (Sosis and Bressler, 2003). What's more there was no relationship between behavioural commitment and longevity in the secular communes - although the strength of this conclusion is somewhat weakened by the fact that the secular communes generally required less commitment (they were less bonkers).

In other words, this is the green beard argument. Religious ritual isn't beneficial in itself, but it acts as a marker of trustworthy individuals. But really the problems with this line of argument are immense.

Firstly, the lab studies show that it isn't self belief about religiosity that drives pro-social behaviour, but religious primes in the environment. What's more, they show that secular primes work just as well as religious ones, and that religious primes work just as well for non-believers as they do for believers. It's not religiosity that triggers pro-social behaviour, but rather reminding people that they ought to be nice. So it's religious environments that can increase trust, not religious beliefs. And so behaviour that indicates your religious belief cannot be a marker of trustworthiness.

Then too, costly signals decrease the net benefit for freeloaders, but they decrease the net benefit for believers just as much. The only way the signal theory could work is if there is a some kind signal that freeloaders cannot fake. And anyone who's watched a telly evangelist in action knows that this simply is not true.

Nevertheless, the Sosis and Bressler study did show that there is something special about strict religions. But this study was looking at small communities which are inherently different from the wider world. The real-world implications are unclear.

So did religion develop as a way of increasing in-group trust? Well perhaps. But it only does so under a few restricted circumstances. The authors conclude:
The preponderance of the evidence points to religious prosociality being a bounded phenomenon. Religion’s association with prosociality is most evident when the situation calls for maintaining a favorable social reputation within the ingroup. When thoughts of morally concerned deities are cognitively salient, an objectively anonymous situation becomes nonanonymous and, therefore, reputationally relevant, or alternatively, such thoughts activate prosocial tendencies because
of a prior mental association. This could occur when such thoughts are induced experimentally or in naturalistic religious situations, such as when people attend religious services or engage in ritual performance. This explains why the religious situation is more important than the religious disposition in predicting prosocial behavior.
On a final note, they point out that although this effect may have had evolutionary advantages, the meaningfulness to the modern world is unclear. For example, they note that active members of modern secular organizations are at least as likely to donate to charity as active members of religious ones. And remember that secular primes had as much effect on honesty as religious ones...

And here's the real issue for humanists. The question is not whether religion leads to better individuals, but whether it leads to better societies. If religion fosters trust, then why is it that the countries with the lowest levels of religion also have the lowest levels of corruption? Maybe religion helped our neolithic ancestors to stick together in the face of adversity, but has pretty much outlived its usefulness now.


A. Norenzayan, A. F. Shariff (2008). The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality Science, 322 (5898), 58-62 DOI: 10.1126/science.1158757

Richard Sosis, Eric R. Bressler (2003). Cooperation and Commune Longevity: A Test of the Costly Signaling Theory of Religion Cross-Cultural Research, 37 (2), 211-239 DOI: 10.1177/1069397103037002003

British Atheist Blogs

A small but interesting bunch so far listed at British Atheist Blogs (including this one now). If you're British, Atheist, and keep a blog, then this one's for you!

Oh, and the Atheist Blog Aggregator has moved. While you're at it, don't forget to check out Planet Humanism.

Ig Nobel prize for Ariely

Back in March I blogged about a study showing that expensive magic is more effective. Well, what do you know - the authors have just been awarded the Ig Nobel prize for Medicine "for demonstrating that high-priced fake medicine is more effective than low-priced fake medicine"!

Over at, Dawkins comments:
Dan Ariely's finding that more expensive fake medicines work better than cheaper fake medicines is an extremely interesting result, which explains a lot about human gullibility more generally. When missionaries started invading Africa, Catholic baptisms were more popular than Protestant ones, because you had to pay. A similar effect is notorious in the world of art dealing. Ariely's finding is, in my opinion a very important piece of psychological research, which is of academic as well as practical interes

AP news reports it like this:
Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely won an Ig Nobel for his study that found more expensive fake medicines work better than cheaper fake medicines.

"When you expect something to happen, your brain makes it happen," Ariely said.

Ariely spent three years in a hospital after suffering third-degree burns over 70 percent of his body. He noticed some burn patients who woke in the night in extreme pain often went right back to sleep after being given a shot. A nurse confided to him the injections were often just saline solution.

He says his work has implications for the way drugs are marketed. People often think generic medicine is inferior. But gussy it up a bit, change the name, make it appear more expensive, and maybe it will work better, he said.

Atheists are generous, they just don't give to charity

Over at NCRegister, one Father Thomas Willams is busy telling us how selfish and greedy atheists are. In support, he's dug up the analyses that Arthur Brooks (Professor of Business and Government Policy at Syracuse University) did using data from the US Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey. Brooks showed that, after controlling for other factors, people in the US who profess a religion tend to give more to charity than those who don't.

On the face of it, these results are a slam dunk. Father Williams certainly thinks they are, and Christian commentators don't bother to dig further (the data were published in the house journal of the US Association of Christian Economists, after all!).

If you look at different countries around the world you'll find that there is, in fact, quite a strong correlation between religiosity and how wealth is shared out. But here's the interesting thing: the direction of the correlation is the opposite of what you would expect if religion did actually lead to more giving. Charity is a form of wealth redistribution from the rich to the poor. But if religion leads to greater charity, it does not appear to have any meaningful effect. So what's going on?

Well, one possibility is that atheists are just as altruistic as the religious - altruism is, after all, an inherently human attribute. Maybe they just don't do charity to the same extent.

A major demotivator for giving to charity is the presence of free riders. These are people who don't contribute, but who benefit anyway. If you give to a heart research charity, then everyone benefits whether they contribute or not. If you give to a charity for the homeless, then unless you give an enormous sum your donation will be a vanishingly small portion of the total. So there is a temptation to be a free-rider yourself. The free-rider effect occurs because the utility of charitable giving (i.e. the benefit that accrues to the donor from giving, compared with the benefit that would accrue from keeping the money) is low.

One way to get round this problem is to make giving non-anonymous. If you do this then the donor benefits because their social standing is increased. Two of the most substantial private donors in recent times, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, both benefited in this way from their donations. Both Buffet and Gates are non-religious. And it's interesting that non-religious doctors are just as likely to work with the needy as religious doctors. This is an environment in which the the donor and the recipient are directly connected - one human to another. And here religion (or lack of it) makes no difference.

Religion can help to counterbalance the free-rider effect. Those religions that include a reward in the afterlife increase the utility of charitable giving to believers, because it provides them with a personal benefit. So religious believers with an incentive to give, even when there are free-riders around.

For altruistic atheists, however,the free-rider effect is much more pertinent. One secular way to get around the free-rider effect is to make giving from rich to poor compulsory, rather than voluntary. In other words, they might prefer that wealth is redistributed via taxation and the welfare state, rather than by voluntary donations. For the religious, this would actually decrease utility because taxation would reduce their surplus cash and so reduce the potential for them to give to charity and reap supernatural rewards.

But is there any evidence that this is true? Well, if it was then you might expect that countries with a high proportion of atheists would have a larger welfare state. And indeed that is exactly what you see. Gill and Lundsgaarde have analysed a cross-section of countries, and found that those countries with more atheists also have higher state welfare spending.

So you see, it is not true to say that more atheists will lead to a selfish, dog-eat-dog society where the weak go to the wall. Atheists are every bit as caring as the religious. They just go about it in different ways.

A. Gill, E. Lundsgaarde (2004). State Welfare Spending and Religiosity: A Cross-National Analysis. Rationality and Society, 16 (4), 399-436 DOI: 10.1177/1043463104046694

A.C. Brooks (2004). Faith, Secularism and Charity. Faith & Economics, 43 (Spring), 1-8

What connects superstition, conspiracy theories, and seeing things that aren't there?

Short answer: they're all triggered by the sensation that events are running out of your control. Now, it isn't news that uncertainty and lack of control is linked to superstitious and magical thinking. The pioneering anthropologist Malinowski noted way back in 1925 that Trobriand Islanders who fished in deep waters (where they are exposed to sudden storms) are more superstitious than their fellows who fish in shallow waters:
It is most significant that in the lagoon fishing, where man can rely completely upon his knowledge and skill, magic does not exist, while in the open-sea fishing, full of danger and uncertainty, there is extensive magical ritual to secure safety and good results.
Examples in the modern world are countless - of investment bankers turning to astrology, and sports stars compulsively adopting magical rituals.

But the evidence is mostly observational (and often anecdotal), not experimental. If you make someone feel like they are out of control of events, will that actually make them more superstitious? Or is there something else going on? And what about other phenomena like seeing conspiracies at work when there are none, and seeing patterns in random noise.

New evidence from a study by Jennifer Whitson at the University of Texas and Adam Galinsky at Northwestern University, Illinois, tackles this problem. They did six different, but related, experiments with a common theme: they made some of their subjects feel like they did not have control over events. For example, in some experiments they gave the participants the task of identifying a 'concept' based on the symbols that they were shown over ten rounds. Half of them got sensible feedback that allowed them to figure it out. The other half unwittingly received random feedback - so none of it made sense to them. Other set-ups included asking participants to recall a time when they were either in control or had no control over events. And so on.

So what did they find? Well, the essence of it is that people manipulated so that they feel out of control are more likely to:
  • Identify objects in images of random noise where there are none.
  • See cause and effect in situations where two apparently unconnected events occur (such as, a man stamps his feet three times before going into a meeting and is successful in his pitch)
  • See conspiracies in situations which could be either conspiracy or happen stance.
  • And, most pertinently given the current situation in the global markets, see correlations in company data where there are none, and make dodgy financial investments as a result.
Putting all this together, it shows that an important cause of superstition and irrational thinking is placing people in environments where they feel out of control. The lesson for humanists is simple. If we want to create a society free from magical thoughts, then we need to empower people and give them control over their lives. As the authors say:
Despite their surface disparities, seeing figures in noise, forming illusory correlations, creating superstitious rituals, and perceiving conspiracy beliefs all represent the same underlying process: the identification of a coherent and meaningful interrelationship among a set of random or unrelated stimuli ... The current research offers insights into how illusory pattern perception driven by a lack of control may be overcome. When individuals were made to feel psychologically secure after lacking control, they were less prone to the perception of illusory patterns ... Collectively, the six experiments highlight the importance of having versus lacking control and hold promise for preventing futile pursuits born of the perception of illusory patterns.

J. A. Whitson, A. D. Galinsky (2008). Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception Science, 322 (5898), 115-117 DOI: 10.1126/science.1159845

Does anxiety lead to religiosity and conservative politics?

In the news is a study looking at innate anxiety and political attitudes. What they did was take 46 adults with strong political beliefs and then measured their reactions to sudden noises and threatening images. Those individuals who had the higher reactions to these (i.e. those who were more easily alarmed or made to feel anxious) also were more likely to favour defence spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War.

One thing they didn't test was religiosity. Yet it's interesting that political conservatism and religiosity are common bedfellows, and that one effect of religion is to reduce anxiety. But is there any evidence that people who are intrinsically anxious are more likely to turn to religion? Evidence from personality tests is equivocal, perhaps because once an anxious person adopts religion, their anxiety levels decrease - they are no longer 'anxious'.

But there is patchy evidence that making people anxious increases their religiosity. A study by Thomas Pyszczynski at the University of Colarado, in collaboration with Abdolhossein Abdollahi at the Islamic Azad University in Kerman, Iran, found that making college students more anxious made them more likely to support religious martydom. And making people more lonely can strengthen their beliefs in the supernatural. What's more, Halman and Draulans found that, across European countries, high religiosity was correlated with greater enthusiasm for defence spending.

But the only study I can find to look at intrinsic, biological anxiety as a cause of religiosity is one by Jackson and Francis in 2004. They looked at a biological basis of anxiety, the Behavioural Inhibition System, as well as the Behavioural Activation System (which is the basis of impulsivity), in 400 Australian university students. The BIS and the BAS were measured using a personality questionnaire, and they also measured the students' attitudes to religion.

They found that high anxiety (high BIS) was more common in students who felt religion to be more important. It wasn't directly related to behaviour, however. Their study showed that behaviour was not directly affected by biological anxiety or impulsivity, but that these biological traits affected attitudes, which in turn drove behaviour.

So it seems plausible that a predisposition to anxiety may underly both religiosity and conservative religious values. It's a bit tendentious though, based on available evidence. More research required, as they say!

D. R. Oxley, K. B. Smith, J. R. Alford, M. V. Hibbing, J. L. Miller, M. Scalora, P. K. Hatemi, J. R. Hibbing (2008). Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits Science, 321 (5896), 1667-1670 DOI: 10.1126/science.1157627

Loek Halman, Veerle Draulans (2006). How secular is Europe? The British Journal of Sociology, 57 (2), 263-288 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-4446.2006.00109.x

C JACKSON, L FRANCIS (2004). Are interactions in Gray's Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory proximal or distal in the prediction of religiosity: a test of the joint subsystems hypothesis Personality and Individual Differences, 36 (5), 1197-1209 DOI: 10.1016/S0191-8869(03)00211-3

"Religion first!", squeal Catholic doctors

The European Federation of Catholic Medical Associations, at their annual jamboree in Gdansk, have issued a statement insisting that beliefs should trump laws, and that doctors can ignore social norms if they don't like them:

We affirm that ethical norms and principles precede enacted laws and should influence their contents in accordance with natural law and the teaching of the Church.

Which is fantastic news for those doctors labouring to provide medical care in the few European countries where abortion rights are still restricted (or even banned altogether). The Catholic Church says that they should follow their conscience and do what's best for the patient!

Oh no no, of course the Catholics don't mean that. What they mean is that Catholic doctors should have special privileges to refuse to treat patients they disapprove of, and that the rest of society can go to hell. Literally. Laws are for little people, not for Catholics.