Field of Science

How religion generates social conservatism

You could make a reasonable case that pencils have a purpose, but pencil shavings just exist. But what about elephants? Religious people and children are, of course, more likely than non-religious adults to say that animals exist for a purpose.

But what about men and women? Black people and whites? Rich and poor? Arab and Jew? Do these exist for a purpose? And is it possible for one to become another? Gil Diesdendruck and Lital Haber of Bar-Ilan University in Israel decided to find out what children think.

They tested 64 Jewish girls and boys aged 7-12 years. Public education in Israel is heavily segregated, and they took half their sample from a secular school and half from an orthodox school. Each child was shown a series of picture pairs - animals (elephants and lions), artefacts (chairs and tables), ethnicity (Arabs and Jews), sex (men and women), race (black and white), and wealth (rich and poor).

They were then shown a little story, in which two dolls discussed whether these different categories exist for a purpose, e.g., ‘‘Danny says that rich people exist for a purpose. Yossi says that rich people exist for no purpose, they just exist”. The children were then asked who was right.

There were big differences between the two groups, shown in the figure here. Orthodox kids were much more likely to say that Arabs and Jews exist for a specific purpose, as do blacks and whites and, revealingly, rich and poor.

In other words, they think that all these types exist because they have a specific role to play, usually mandated by god. You can see here the seed of adult-life social conservatism.

They also asked the kids whether it was possible for one type to become another. Whether an Arab could become a Jew, or a poor person become rich. While they broadly agreed on animals, artefacts, and wealth, orthodox kids were more likely to say that sex, race and ethnicity are fixed (they have 'essential' properties).

These differences become even more stark when you split the kids not according to whether they were orthodox or secular, but according to whether they thought that God had created each of the categories in question. Of course, orthodox kids were more likely to think this, but not all of them did (and, conversely, some secular kids did).

The kids who thought that god created race, ethnicity, and gender were significantly more likely to think that this categories were created for a purpose and also that they were stable (you can't change from one to another). Although they thought that socio-economic status and animals were also created for a purpose, but weren't more likely to think that these categories were stable.

Here's what Diesendruck and Haber conclude:
... our findings indicate that children’s essentialist beliefs about animals, and their teleological construal of artifacts, come to them intuitively and independently of creationism. In turn, children’s extension of essentialism to particular social categories, and teleology to both social categories and animals, are reflective, and result from the communication of a culturally constituted belief system – i.e., creationism.
In other words, if you teach kids creationism - not just about animals, but about people - you train them to think that they have a specific purpose (in the same way that secular kids think about artefacts such as pencils, tables and chairs).

It's no wonder, then, that they grow up to be social conservatives - fearing women and gay rights, accepting wide differences in social equality, and reinforcing the ethnic schisms within society.

ResearchBlogging.orgG DIESENDRUCK, L HABER (2009). God’s categories: The effect of religiosity on children’s teleological and essentialist beliefs about categories. Cognition, 110 (1), 100-114. DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2008.11.001

17 comments:

  1. What do the numbers on the ordinate mean? An average answer of 1 means what exactly? In absolute values, how many of the children answered affirmatively to each question?

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  2. That is rather odd. Some people think that everyone has a meaning and purpose in life and they become social conservatives?
    And those who think humans are purposeless are liberals?

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  3. I think we need to be very careful the causal relationships here.

    Could it perhaps be that those parents who are orthodox are more social conservative that the average not because of what they have learned during their upbringing, but because those who are social conservatives (by nature) are more likely to become very religious? If it's the latter, and if conservatism is heritable (is it?), then social conservatives are more likely than the secular parents to make their children go to an orthodox school.

    MrFreeThinker would be free to think of it as being prone to thinking that life has meaning and being a conservative stem from the same heritable trait (which I don't know the name of).

    It boils down to a nature/nurture debate.

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  4. Clearly we could debate causation until the cows come home (or more usefully, until we get some new data) but the correlation is interesting in itself.

    Now we need to find out whether this is a general feature of profound religious belief, whatever the religion, or whether it's just an Israeli Orthodox thing.

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  5. Bjorn, you hit the nail on the head. This is a problem with just about every study into the psychology and sociology.

    In this case I reckon it's more likely that religiosity is causal. That's because younger kids show 'promiscuous teleology', and they have to learn otherwise.

    Kids brought up in a religious environment don't learn otherwise, and that's the major difference between them and secular kids.

    So we know that a religious upbringing causes kids to retain the teleological beliefs that other kids lose.

    It would be interesting to repeat the study with social conservatives vs liberals, though.

    The scale on the graph, by the way, is very simple. They look at 2 different pictures (e.g. Arab or Jew). If they answer 'has a purpose' to both, then they score 2.

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  6. MrFreeThinker, this isn't about individual purpose. It's about categories.

    I have two kids. You could say that being a dad is my 'purpose'. But that's not the same as saying that the purpose of men is to be fathers. Let alone the purpose of white people or English people.

    Black people and white people all have their individual meaning and purposes. But do 'black people' have a purpose that is specific to them? And 'white people'?

    If you think that god created black people and white people, men and women, rich and poor, you might think that he did it for a specific reason. And if you do think that, then you might be more resistant to social moves that start to blur the boundaries (homosexuals, for example) or try to get rid of categories altogether (socialism). In other words, it might make you socially conservative.

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  7. "It's no wonder, then, that they grow up to be social conservatives - fearing women and gay rights, accepting wide differences in social equality, and reinforcing the ethnic schisms within society."

    This is certainly an interesting study, with many implications. However, the last sentence of interpretation is a wild leap.

    If you believe that women were created for a purpose, that leads somehow to fearing women? Huh? I don't see any discussion of the gender breakdown of responses -- what about the women who answered yes to that question? Are they afraid of themselves?

    Just because kids believe Jews and Arabs were both created for a purpose, why does that mean they will "reinforce the ethnic schisms in society"? What if the kids believe they were both created for the same purpose?

    Having known many deeply religious liberals, I resent attempts by secular liberals to portray all religious people as conservatives. For one thing, that plays right into the hands of the religious conservatives who want to push the same message.

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  8. Anonymous, it's women's rights that social conservatives fear, not women. Women can also be social conservatives and against women's rights - believe that a woman's place is in the home etc. They fear blurring the social roles.

    Although religious people are not necessarily socially conservative, there is a high correlation. It's something that needs to be explained, and I think this study goes some way towards explaining it.

    It's conceivable that some of the kids thought that the different categories were created for the same purpose - although I doubt it from some of the responses they gave. Also, remember the religious kids were also more likely to say that you can't go from one category to another.

    So - that's why I think these results reinforce the idea that religions strengthen the distinctions between social categories.

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  9. Are we all oppressing pencils, wheel-chairs and remote controls because of giving them specific functions? I don't see how we can enslave anything because of understanding the role it plays in our daily experience.

    What about surveying older children who have undergone a somewhat more high-level education which has provided them with the traditional scientific answers (or "purposes"/"reasons") for animals, for instance, to be here? I think the only thing the authors measured was that, by the same age, Orthodox children have been given "answers", albeit wrong ones, about the origin/purpose of some particular entities, and children from secular families haven't because they follow a normal, incremental, science-based education in which they are given more scientifically sound answers only when they're capable to fully understand them.

    I think this study is about lack of parallelism in different educational curricula, nothing else, not about so much about the allegedly oppressive nature of assigning roles to entities in the real world. Otherwise, any hierarchy or organization would be oppressive merely because of every single one of its members having a specific function, regardless of the nature of that function. That sounds rather counter-intuitive.

    Soft science at best.

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  10. Skepthink:I don't see how we can enslave anything because of understanding the role it plays in our daily experience.

    It's not about enslaving. The evidence is that orthodox kids believe that God created these categories to serve a purpose, and also that it is difficult to change from one category to another. I think this means that they are more likely to be socially conservative (believe, for example, that men and women have defined, traditional roles that can't be blurred).

    What about surveying older children who have undergone a somewhat more high-level education which has provided them with the traditional scientific answers (or "purposes"/"reasons") for animals, for instance, to be here?

    Answers, purposes and reasons aren't synonymous, at least not in this context. The technical term is teleology. The orthodox kids are teleological - they think that animals aren't just there as a consequence of something else. They are there to fulfil a need, or to play a role. An example of a teleological argument is that zebras exist to provide meat for lions. A scientific argument might be that zebras exist because their ancestors managed to avoid being eaten by lions.

    The orthodox kids are also essentialist. They think that categories have essential properties that mean you can go from one to the other.

    I think the only thing the authors measured was that, by the same age, Orthodox children have been given "answers", albeit wrong ones, about the origin/purpose of some particular entities, and children from secular families haven't because they follow a normal, incremental, science-based education in which they are given more scientifically sound answers only when they're capable to fully understand them.

    I think this study is about lack of parallelism in different educational curricula, nothing else, not about so much about the allegedly oppressive nature of assigning roles to entities in the real world

    Absolutely that's right. All kids start off teleological. You have to teach them otherwise. But the problem is that orthodox kids retain teleological and essentialist ideas about men/women, arabs/jews. I think that this would predispose them to social conservatism.

    Otherwise, any hierarchy or organization would be oppressive merely because of every single one of its members having a specific function, regardless of the nature of that function.

    I'm not saying that social conservatism is necessarily oppressive. Just that is conservative!

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  11. Tom,

    TOM SAID: Answers, purposes and reasons aren't synonymous, at least not in this context. The technical term is teleology.

    SKEP.: Yes, I agree, I also like to draw distinctions between cause and purpose. I might have been wrong in suggesting, if I did, that a child knowing the scientific reasons for X to exist would then be more likely to respond "X exists for a purpose", because I don't think so either. What I think is that the fact that children from secular families have no "purpose" associated with a given animal has little or maybe even nothing to do with their political views.

    According to the survey, secular children do not assign roles to animals or people (in opposition to Orthodox children), but I don't think that's because not having conceptual roles or purposes associated with animals or people is what we expect to be right (plus, who said that was the right thing? Has anyone ever correlated before teleology and conservatism? Why should I be more willing to keep things the same if I think they have a purpose? If I think books are for reading, will I oppose using books for decoration?), but rather because those children have simply not been exposed yet to any sort of dubious religious cosmology (as in the case of Orthodox children -in religion, in fact, purpose and causation are confused more often than not, since gods are posited as creators due to true-believers' inability to come up with the causes of phenomena-).

    Therefore, I believe that any secular child, after having undergone a normal, scientific education, will associate particular roles and causes (the former adequately differentiated from the latter) with animals, people, bits and iPhones indistinctively as his knowledge of the behavior, properties and origin of all those entities increases.

    TOM SAID: Absolutely that's right. All kids start off teleological. You have to teach them otherwise.

    SKEP: Really? I didn't know that. I don't know how established a truth that is. I would normally doubt it (because I disagree), but I have not enough knowledge to challenge that assertion right now.

    TOM SAID: But the problem is that orthodox kids retain teleological and essentialist ideas about men/women, arabs/jews. I think that this would predispose them to social conservatism

    SKEP: I don't see the relationship. Imagine the "purpose" your teachings have made you associate with women is that of "protect, admire and obey", as in medieval courteous love. You've got it: full purposefulness, but those initiated in this belief would not be against women rights, but rather the contrary. As a consequence, I don't see any relevant link between teleology as such and social conservatism. Teleology, the same as scientific knowledge, is just a matter of programming a human mind to do do things (either socially progressive or socially conservative). Obviously, you can get wrong teleology (imbued by religion) at unsuited ages (in religious families), but that's only going to cause a different behavior, and has nothing bad as long as the concept of teleology is concerned. Teleology is right even when you teach to make mistakes: that's the RIGHT way... to make mistakes. So, teleology is above morality or religious/sociopolitical considerations.

    I assume that the more instructed children are, the more teleology you're going to find in them. Think of it the other way around: if, in 10,000 years' time, all naturally original species in planet Earth have disappeared and they have all been replaced by human beings with synthetic life-forms to keep things going, the answer you would expect from secular children would be exactly the opposite, that is, all animals should be reported to have a purpose (being pets of a super-developed human civilization). Would you then say that all children have gone conservative? Or that all Orthodox have gone liberal overnight?

    In my opinion, I still see only correlation, no causation.

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  12. SKEP: You've got it: full purposefulness, but those initiated in this belief would not be against women rights, but rather the contrary.

    I think part of the problem may be that we're meaning different things by 'social conservatism'.

    What I mean is the tendency to be literally conservative. To believe that the way things are and have been is the way that they should be. To react against innovation in the way social categories are defined and treated.

    Now, that doesn't mean that women's rights are necessarily repressed. But it does mean that, if women's rights are historically repressed, then social conservatives will tend to react against attempts to redefine them.

    Of course, if women's rights are historically supported, and then you try to restrict them, social conservatives would react against that as well.

    So you see, it's not the attitudes themselves, but the reaction against innovation that defines social conservatism (at least in my mind).

    If you think that god made women's roles the way they are as part of some grand plan, then you'll react against attempts to change that. You'll be socially conservative. And this shows up in this study as teleology and essentialism in orthodox kids.

    If in the future, some super geneticist created breeds of people for specific purposes that could not be changed to fulfil an accepted wider plan, then the teleogical and essentialist explanation would be justified - and so would social conservatism!

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  13. I see your point as regards the meaning each of us is assigning to "social conservatism". If you take it to mean merely "persistence of ideas" (but not any particular idea), then it would certainly make sense that children having been taught "that X is the case" are more difficult to convince of the opposite than any child not having been taught so (changing your mind is clearly not the same as learning from scratch).

    However, although that can be true as regards opposite ideas, I don't think it is true for complementary ideas, that is, I don't see how assigning a role to a pencil can make you resist to novelties as regards the role of pencils. If I'm not wrong, and according to the study, a child who had learned "drawing" as the role for "pencil" would then be more "conservative" as regards pencils than another child who didn't know what pencils are for. Would that mean that a child who has learned a role for a pencil has problems to learn a second role for it, whereas a child not knowing what a pencil is for in the first place can learn that role more easily? Imagine you've learned a spoon is for eating liquids. Does that mean you're going to resist the idea of using a spoon also for eating ground solids? I don't think so, unless some particular ideology is involved.

    I would see a disadvantage if the new role challenged some previous ideas but, if not, then I would say past experience with the role of a spoon would indeed predispose to learn new roles, not to mention related roles.

    I really cannot see the relation between associating roles to things and being unable to associate new roles to those things.

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  14. Skepthink: It's not so much the specific roles. The children tended to think that pencils have a specific purpose. We don't know what purpose they had in mind but they're quite right to think that. Somebody made them the way they are for a specific reason - or maybe several reasons. The children don't think that pencil shavings have a purpose - again quite rightly, since they're just discarded waste.

    But purpose is only part of it. It's also about whether they think they can change from one to the other. Some kids said that a man could change and be a woman. The interesting thing was that secular kids were more likely to believe it was possible.

    I don't know what was going on in their heads when they said that. But it's possible that the difference is to do with the fact that secular kids are brought up in an environment where men and women have more similar roles - together with their lack of belief that god created men and women for specific purposes.

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  15. Tom,

    Yes, I see your point, and I totally agree that the difference might have to do with the different way in which secular and Orthodox children are brought up, no doubt there.

    Where I think the study draws too audacious conclusions is when it tries to link assigning particular roles and psychological resistance to new roles, because that link doesn't seem to apply, at least not in the case of pencils, such that, if the authors have observed resistance to new roles when it comes to people, then that's probably to be accounted for on the basis of something else, rather than roles (since both pencils and people can have roles but that wouldn't be making you reject new roles in both cases -children would only reject new roles for people).

    I also think they jump too fast to the conclusion of "social conservatism" and mix it with political rights issues which have little to do with cognitive categories such as that of "role". I insist, I think I see your point and I have no problem to agree with your description of the data. I'm not denying the data, actually, but trying to make sense of them: I don't see why the same data would justify two different claims (namely, that knowing the role of something can make you oppose new roles for it in the case of people, but not in the case of pencils).

    I hope this has helped clarify my position a bit. I know it's a mess ;-)

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  16. Hi Skepthink - to be fair, they don't spell out the implications relating to social conservatism. That's my interpretations of what their results mean :)

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