Field of Science

New ARIS survey will show that US atheists/agnostics have nearly doubled since 2001

The next wave of the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS)will be released on March 9 2009 - but we've got a sneak preview of the non-religious data! ARIS is the most comprehensive and reliable survey of religion in the USA (surveying 50,000 people), and two sets of data have been published so far - from 1991 and 2001. The ARIS team last repeated the survey in 2008 and have been crunching the data since - the report will be available here in just over a week.

The data are going to be very interesting - the 2001 survey was a bombshell because it revealed just how many Americans are switching off religion. What will the 2008 data show? Well, if you drill down at the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society there's a presentation with a few of the key numbers. So here's a sneaky peek at them!

Trends are what's important - is America becoming more secular? Comparing the numbers with 1991 and 2001 reveals all...

In 1991, There were 14 million who did not count themselves as belonging to any religion. By 2001, that had mushroomed to 29 million. The past seven years has seen another 3 million abandon religious identity (or, alternatively, 3 million religious elderly pass away, and 3 million secular youth replace them in the statistics). A small gain.

The US population has also grown over that time, but the % figures still show a similar story. Huge growth in the 1990s, followed by a smaller growth afterwards.

Having no religion is not the same as being a non-believer. A common claim is that, although the number of people without a religious identity is increasing, this does not reflect an increase in atheism or agnosticism. Instead, these people without religion are just dissatisfied with the current offerings, and so are going their own way. In 2002 Hout and Fischer, using data from the General Social Survey (which stretches back over decades), concluded that:
Religious skepticism proved to be an unlikely explanation [of the increase in non-religious]. Most people with no preference hold conventional religious beliefs, despite their alienation from organized religion. In fact, these "unchurched believers" made up most of the increase in the 'no religion' preferences.
The new data from ARIS show a different story since 2002. Take a look at the number of self-declared atheists and agnostics (I'm adding in to this group the small number of people who call themselves humanists). These went from 1.2 million in 1991 to 1.9 million in 2001, and then shot up to 3.5 million in 2008. Although there's only been a small growth in the numbers of people with 'no religion', there's been a doubling of people prepared to admit to an interviewer that they are atheist or agnostic. 3 million new non-religious, but 1.6 million new atheists/agnostics.

The graph shows these numbers in percentage terms. It's a striking picture, especially when compared with the changing numbers of 'non-religious'.

In the 2001 ARIS survey, only one in five people who disagreed strongly or somewhat that "God exists" were prepared to call themselves either atheist or agnostic. We won't have those data for 2008 until the final report is published in just over a week. But I suspect that the nonbelievers are coming out of the closet. It seems that perhaps the Out Campaign might be having some effect. Atheism is finally starting to become socially acceptable in the USA.

Hout M, Fischer CS (2002). Why more Americans have no religious preference: politics and generations. American Sociological Review, 67, 165-190

Keysar A (2007). Is religion on the rise or on the decline? Canadian American Research Series, 4 (1), 2-6

"God does not exist." Error: does not compute!

Michael Persinger is a behavioural scientist at Laurentian University in Canada who is most famous for studies where he uses transcranial magnetic stimulation to induces feelings of God in ordinary people (even, on one occasion, Richard Dawkins! Edit: although he tried, Dawkins was impervious to his electromagnetic charms - watch the video to see more).

Persinger thinks that we're hardwired to believe in God, and his latest research on this has just been published. His experiment was rooted in the theory that parts of your right-brain are involved in detecting potential upsets in a logical chain of thought, before passing this information over to decision-making parts of your left hemisphere.
If the right hemisphere is more specialized for vigilance and affect than the homologous regions of the left hemisphere, then one would expect specific activation by the emotional meaning or implications of statements that challenge personal beliefs, particularly those (such as belief in God) that have maintained reduction of anxiety about the dissolution of the self (death).
So how to test this theory? Well, Persinger put his subjects through a 'dichotic word listening task'. Essentially, this involves playing different words to your left and right ear at the same time. The number of words played in your left ear that you get right reflects the speed at which information is transferred from left to right brain.

Then he ran them through a long chain of logical statements, beginning with 'The universe contains matter" and ending with 'Matter is composed of atoms'. Towards the end of a chain were a series of statements about the non-existence of god. I've put the results of these ones in the figure.

The correlation between the slowness of information transmission between the hemispheres and the speed with which people answered the questions got higher as they got onto the God questions.

In other words, a large part of why some people took so long to think about these questions seems to be to do with emotional processing of the content. It upset their gut feelings.

Persinger thinks that this demonstrates that we're hard-wired to reject statements about the non-existence of God. I'm not so sure.

The main problem is that there weren't any controls. It may well be the case that you'd get the same results with any statements that challenges your preconceptions - even if those were cultural preconceptions, rather than innate.

And secondly, I think that a lot of believers would argue that the chain of statements is inherently illogical. I mean, they sound logical but I don't think that each necessarily implies the next. The results Persinger got may simply come from the fact that his 'logical chain' doesn't actually make logical sense!

Still, even with these caveats, it's clear evidence that when people reject the claim that "there is no God", their reasoning involves a large emotional component. And that alone makes this is an interesting study!

ResearchBlogging.orgM.A. Persinger (2009). Are our brains structured to avoid refutations of belief in God? An experimental study Religion, 39 (1), 34-42 DOI: 10.1016/j.religion.2008.05.005

Why be good? Imitation and migration might explain it

Just before Christmas, the American Humanist Association ran bus ads with the slogan 'Just be good for goodness sake'.

Yeah right.

From an evolutionary standpoint, pure selfless altruism - doing something that costs you but only benefits someone else - doesn't make sense. Altruism is usually explained by kinship, or because it enhances reputation, or because it avoids punishment. People are good because they get something out of it.

But what about anonymous encounters? Say if I were to meet you in a dark alleyway. I'm never going to meet you again, and nobody will ever know what I did. Evolution says that the sensible thing for me to do is to mug you and steal your money.

Of course, sometimes that's exactly what does happen (not with me, I hasten to add!). But usually it doesn't. Explaining this so-called 'pure altruism' is tricky. Often, it's explained as some kind of aberration - in the real world you can't ever be sure that what you do is truly anonymous, so we are driven to err on the side of altruism.

But maybe there is a better explanation. Maybe co-operation is a successful strategy even when individual transactions are anonymous. There's a new study that sheds light on how that might happen.

What the researchers (two social scientists based in Zurich) did was run a computer simulation based on the classic 'prisoner's dilemma'. This is basically a two-way gambling game where co-operation by both players gives the greatest rewards, but the worst outcome is if you co-operate and the other guy defects. If it's just an anonymous two player game, then the best strategy is always to defect. Trying to co-operate just means you get taken for a sucker.

So what they did was broaden it out a bit. They stuck their computer 'agents', who played the game, in a grid with vacant squares. The agents could either be co-operators or defectors in trades with next-door agents, and they could swap their role either by copying those around them or by random chance.

Also - and crucially - the agents could look around their neighbourhood and see if there were any vacant spots where they might get a better deal. If there were, they could move.

Now, the agents all had amnesia - no memory of how the other agents had behaved. But they could tell if neighbourhoods were filled with co-operators or defectors. And look what happened.

The figure shows the results of one experiment that started off with a group of pure defectors (in red). Time passed and the agents moved around. Some individuals tried out the co-operate strategy, but they were rapidly taken advantage of, and so turned back to being defectors.

But then, and purely by chance, a small group of co-operators happened to come together. And they were so successful that the other agents started to copy them. Sure, defectors tried to invade the co-operating groups, but whenever they did that the group collapsed and the agents migrated somewhere better. What they ended up with is a dynamic pattern of groups of co-operators with parasitic defectors living on the margins.

They ran the simulations with added noise - to simulate the reality that real-life decisions are often imperfect - and found the same thing. It's a pretty stable result. Here's what they conclude:
Our results help to explain why cooperation can be frequent even if individuals would behave selfishly in the vast majority of interactions. Although one may think that migration would weaken social ties and cooperation, there is another side of it that helps to establish cooperation in the first place, without the need to modify the payoff structure. We suggest that, besides the ability for strategic interactions and learning, the ability to move has played a crucial role for the evolution of large-scale cooperation and social behavior.
In other words, the implication is that if we can choose the kind of neighbourhood we live in, then even pure altruism can be explained by simple evolutionary dynamics. Of course, the other explanations of altruism probably still dominate. But this study seems to go some way to explaining why we are good even when we don't seem to be getting anything obvious out of it.

ResearchBlogging.orgD. Helbing, W. Yu (2009). The outbreak of cooperation among success-driven individuals under noisy conditions Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0811503106

If religion makes you healthy, how come it doesn't?

One of the widely held truths about religious belief is that it helps keep people healthy. Of course, there are dissenters (like Richard Sloan at Columbia University) - much of the evidence is pretty shaky. Nevertheless, it's fair to say that most researcher think that there is some kind of connection, although the hows and wherefores are much debated.

Recent research in larger samples with tighter controls is beginning to shed some light on this fairly murky subject. It seems that, as with much else about religion, it's going to religious services, and not belief per se, that may be responsible for any effect. Late last year, for example, a study showed that women who went to church once a week, regardless of their beliefs, were about 10% less likely to die over an 8 year period (see Sick women don't go to church). They controlled for all the factors they could think of, bit still saw this residual, unexplained effect.

So a recent new study that shows no effect at all comes as a bit of a surprise.

The researchers looked at data from 450-odd men living in an inner city region who have been followed since 1950 (when they were teenagers). They found that there was no link between church attendance and death. But there was a small, but statistically significant, correlation between church attendance and health (as measured by lumping together a number of factors like how active they were, and their doctor's opinion).

Then they started to strip out the other factors that could be clouding the analysis. For example, church goers were wealthier, better educated, and smoked and drank less. All of these factors contribute to better health. Taking these factors into account demolished the effect of church attendance. In other words, it wasn't church attendance per se, but a bunch of other factors that may or may not be causally related to church attendance.

So how come there was such a difference with the earlier study? There are a couple of important differences.

First, the earlier study was in women, not men. Previous research seems to show that the effect of religion on health is greater for women than it is for men. Men just are less likely to see the benefit.

Second, this new study controlled for one fact that the first did not. Happiness. Religious people tend to be happier than non-religious, and happier people tend to be more healthy (Veenhoven 2007). That's exactly what this new study found. Those who were regular church goers were more happy, and mood had a major effect on health (almost as big as smoking).

I think this study gives a key insight into why religiosity and health are correlated. We humans are social animals. And being sociable makes us happy and healthy. Religion provides one means to achieve that end.

Laura B. Koenig, George E. Vaillant (2009). A prospective study of church attendance and health over the lifespan. Health Psychology, 28 (1), 117-124 DOI: 10.1037/a0012984

R. Veenhoven (2007). Healthy happiness: effects of happiness on physical health and the consequences for preventive health care Journal of Happiness Studies, 9 (3), 449-469 DOI: 10.1007/s10902-006-9042-1

Big questions in the social science of religion? How to get it wrong...

The social science of religion has taken off in the past decade or two, after having been the poor relation of other fields of study for the past century. One of the major reasons for this transformation is a guy called Rodney Stark, currently Professor of Social Science at Baylor University. In the 1980s he, along with a few others, challenged the then-dominant paradigm of 'secularization'. In simple terms, the secularization paradigm said that industrial modernization brings with it an inexorable decline in religiosity.

Using the USA as example of a modern nation that bucks the trend, Stark challenged this assumption and showed that it was wrong, at least as a simple description. In it's place, he put forward an alternative theory based on free market forces to explain the vigour of religion in the USA. Religion in the Old World, he argued, was unpopular simply because it didn't cater for people's needs.

Anyway, all that has nothing directly to do with this blog post! What this post is about is a new paper by Rodney Stark, in which attacks a few sacred cows in the social science of religion. It's published in the open-access Interdisciplinary Journal of Research in Religion - you can read it here. After attacking these sacred cows Stark puts forward a couple of alternative, more nuanced ideas but (astonishingly!) his proposals are vulnerable to exactly the same criticisms he makes of the 'sacred cows'. All right so here they are:

Sacred cow #1: Religion functions to sustain the moral order

As Stark points out, clearly religion in its broadest sense does no such thing. The gods of ancient Greece and Rome were hardly moral role models! As a result many sociologists, the original and most famous being Emile Durkheim, have argued that religion is all about rites and rituals - the particulars of the god involved are simply unimportant.

Stark reckons he's proved them wrong. He did a cross-country analysis which showed that, in monotheistic countries (26 Christian and 1 Muslim) there was a strong correlation between the importance of god in an individual's life and their tolerance for immoral behaviour. In the two polytheistic nations (China and Japan), there was no such correlation.

Stark thinks that this proves that moralistic religions (but not others) improve morality. He concludes:
Religions will function to sustain the moral order if (and only if) they conceive of conscious, morally concerned gods. Lacking such a conception of gods, religious rites and rituals will have little or no effect on morality.
But wait a moment! All he has actually shown is that people who adhere to a 'moralistic' religion will, when questioned, tell you that they are moralistic. This says nothing about cause and effect!

Perhaps moralistic religions have no effect on behaviour. Perhaps if your dominant religion is moralistic, it simply discourages non-moralistic people from joining. Perhaps people who claim to follow a moralistic religion will, when questioned, say that they are moralistic - but then do something completely different in their private lives. Hypocrisy is not unknown in the religious sphere...

Sacred cow #2: Poor people are more religious and initiate new religious movements

In fact, as Stark has shown, new religious movements are usually started by people with wealth and connections. But he gives a totally bizarre and unsupported reason for this:
Religious movements usually are formed by people of privilege, especially those who have inherited their status and then find that power and privilege do not satisfy their spiritual concerns.
Surely the reason that new religious movements are usually founded by those in a position of power is the same reason that powerful people are responsible for most historical events: they are more powerful!

If you are going to start a new religion, then you will need followers. To get followers, you need to be a somebody - it's incredibly difficult to get people to take you seriously as a prophet of new gods if you are an itinerant nobody. Reputation is all, when it comes to religious authority. Plus, money can help support and protect you. Furthermore, since religious hierarchies are closely linked to power, starting a new religion is often the first stage in a power grab.

These seem like strange mistakes for Stark to make. But they are easy to understand once you know where he's coming from. If religious ritual is what is important (sociologically speaking) about religion, then it can easily be substituted by modern secular organisations. Indeed, that's exactly what Durkheim argued. And if poor people are more religious, then modernization and wealth will lead also lead to secularization.

In other words, he needs to convince himself (and others) of his two 'axioms' in order for Rational Choice Theory to be true. And, as a result, he's not being sufficiently self critical.

The paper goes on to deal with a couple of other issues, including a lengthy swipe at Gregory Paul's 2005 paper linking religion to societal ills. But his major criticisms (that correlation does not equal causation, and that preconceptions should not be shoe-horned into the evidence) can be directly levelled at his earlier claims!

Religious services, not belief, make you want to kill strangers

Suppose you're lost in a strange town and it's late at night and you see a group of men coming towards you. Do you feel more safe or less safe on knowing they've just come from a prayer meeting?
Christopher Hitchens was famously challenged with this question - and swiftly replied that it would be no reassurance to him at all (citing "Mr Paisley's Martyrs Memorial church in Belfast or a Party of God soiree in Beirut or to the Greater Serbia Church in downtown Belgrade" as examples). There's a gut feeling here that getting groups of people together to celebrate their religion might not have the great consequences that religious leaders like to believe it has!

But is that so? Religion has been linked with both pacifism and violence in a number of contexts. In the modern world, there's an urgent need to unravel the apparent links between suicide attacks and Islam. There's a substantial minority of opinion that says that this link is due to something special about Islam. It's supposed to be a particularly violent religion.

New research from Jeremy Ginges at The New School in New York pretty convincingly shows that religious beliefs probably have little or nothing to do with it. In fact, it's all about religious attendance.

In collaboration with Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia, Ginges conducted four studies trying to figure out whether it was beliefs or participation that was most closely linked to support for suicide bombings. In the first two studies, they simply analysed data from existing surveys conducted among Palestinian Muslims. In both studies, frequency of praying wasn't linked to attitudes to the bombers. But those who attended a mosque every day were roughly twice as likely to support suicide attacks.

This is interesting, but it might just be circumstantial. So next they tried something rather more clever. They switched their focus to Jewish settlers, rather than Arabs. They phoned up a random selection of people, and asked them about their support for a specific event - the attack by Baruch Goldstein in 1994 in Hebron, which killed 29 muslims. Was this act 'extremely heroic' they asked.

Now for the clever bit. For one-third of the sample, they just asked the question straight. For another third, they first asked 'How often do you go to the synagogue?' The other third they first asked 'How often do you pray?' In other words, they surreptitiously planted in the minds of these people the idea either of attending religious service or going to church.

It's a simple thing, but it had a dramatic effect. Priming people with thoughts of prayer reduced their support for suicide attacks. But priming people with thoughts of going to a religious service increased it. There was a four-fold difference between the two conditions.

Do these results also hold for people living outside the Palestinian conflict zone? It seems they do. Ginges & co then looked at data from an international survey on religion. This didn't ask about support for suicide bombers, but it did ask about the feelings towards 'in-group' ("I would be willing to die for my God") and out-group ("I blame people of other religious faiths for much of the trouble in this world"). They called this 'parochial altruism' - the idea of sacrificing yourself for your neighbours.

Across the six countries they surveyed (including Hindus, Christians and Muslims and Jews), frequent attendance at religious services doubled the support for parochial altruism. Although prayer increased parochial altruism in some countries, overall it had no effect.

What these results are saying is that going to Church, or to a Mosque, Synagogue or Temple creates a 'coalitional commitment'. On the face of it, this isn't too surprising. After all, we're always being told that religion acts to 'strengthen the community'. And it does. Religious attendance seems to help people to live longer, and to reduce the risk of suicide - presumably by helping them feel part of a special group.

But here we're seeing the nasty flip-side to group cohesion. Religion also helps people to do all the nasty things that they do as groups. If you want to stop society splitting into 'us' and 'them', then the first thing you need to do is to reduce - not increase - support for religious groups. Jeremy Ginges, Ian Hansen, Ara Norenzayan (2009). Religion and Support for Suicide Attacks Psychological Science, 20 (2), 224-230 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02270.x

Why adults don't believe in god... perhaps!

Earthworms tunnel underground to aerate the soil - right? Go on, admit it... you were tempted to to answer yes to that one! OK well perhaps not, but these kinds of backwards connections between facts are surprisingly common. Generally, if a phenomenon (e.g. 'earthworms') have a functional consequence (aerating the soil), we have an inbuilt predisposition to believe that the phenomenon exists for the purpose of the consequence. Goats need mountains to climb. Therefore mountains exist to provide goats with something to climb on!

It's more common in children than in adults, and in kids it even has a label - 'promiscuous teleology' - coined by Deborah Kelemen at Boston University. Kelemen's latests study explores the question of why adults are less likely than children to give teleological explanations.

Basically, the test subjects (121 university students) were flashed a series of questions that were either teleological ('Water condenses to moisten the air') or physical ('Flowers wilt because they get dehydrated'), with a few questions thrown in just to make sure people were paying attention ('Zebras have black stripes because they eat coal', 'Children wear gloves to keep their hands warm').

They had to say whether the statement was true or false. The catch was that they only had a limited time to decide. I've pulled out two of the results in this graph. In the 'No time pressure' condition, they had 5 seconds. In the 'Time pressure' condition, they only had 3.2 seconds.

As you can see, there's a pretty clear result. Even with plenty of time to think about it, well educated adults succumb to incorrect teleological explanations pretty often. But when you put these people under time pressure, the acceptance rate jumps.

Kelemen reckons that this is because adults actually retain their childhood predilection for teleology, but they repress it consciously. They've been taught the real explanations, and when they have time to think it through, their education shows. But their gut instinct is for design.

And what does this have to do with a belief in a creator god? Well, Kelemen actually didn't find any correlation between a predilection for teleology and belief in god. But I have several problems with the analysis.

Firstly, all 'belief in god' was treated the same - but some people believe in a creator god, and some in a distant god. You would expect teleological beliefs to correlate not with just any religious beliefs, but only with belief in an active, creator god. Secondly, all the teleological responses - hurried and unhurried - were lumped. You would only expect the unhurried, conscious responses to match with a conscious belief in god.

Rather more interesting is the evidence that, as children grow up, their belief in god declines (see, for example, Francis 1989 for the UK and Uecker et al 2007 for the USA). If adults lose teleological beliefs by suppressing them as a result of education, is this perhaps at least a partial explanation of this loss of faith?

Deborah Kelemen, Evelyn Rosset (2009). The Human Function Compunction: Teleological explanation in adults Cognition DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2009.01.001

Francis, L.J. (1989). Measuring attitudes towards Christianity during childhood and adolescence. Personality & Individual Differences, 10, 695-698

Uecker, Jeremy E., Regnerus, Mark., Vaaler, Margaret L. (2007). Losing My Religion: The Social Sources of Religious Decline in Early Adulthood Social Forces, 85, 1667-1692

Religious fundamentalism is in the genes

The question of nature versus nurture crops up a lot in discussions of religion. Here's a study that came out at the end of last year that took a look at the problem.

It's a fairly standard twin study. They took a sample of around 600 identical and non-identical twins from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States (MIDUS), and looked at a number of religious characteristics.

Basically, their analysis allows them to tease out the variations that are shared by identical twins but not by non-identical ones (genetic factors), by non-identical twins (family factors or shared environment), and that differed even among non-identical twins. This last factor was put down to the effects of external environment (i.e. things that happen in you life that aren't shared by your twin).

I've put the results in the graph. First off, look at childhood religiosity. The biggest factor is your family, and not your genetics. It's not until adulthood that the effects of genetics really start to shine through. No surprises there!

The 'salience', or importance of religion in your life is about one-quarter defined by genetics, as is your spirituality. The most important factor here, however, is the external environment. You get similar results for religious attendance.

When you get to more personal beliefs, the patterns start to shift. There are three factors that are about 40% driven by genetics, with your family upbringing having hardly any effect. These factors are: how often you turn to religion for guidance, whether or not you take the bible literally, and whether people should stick to one faith, or experiment with others (exclusivist beliefs).

As discussed earlier, Jonathan Haidt (psychologist at the University of Virginia) has investigated conservative psychology and found it to be linked to the need for order and the fear of uncertainty. To me, these three religious attitudes are similar to conservative attitudes. I wouldn't be surprised if these psychological factors trigger both conservatism and religiosity.

But the big finding in this study is the born-again religious. These are the people who answered 'yes' to the question: “Have you been ‘born-again,’ that is, had a turning point in your life when you committed yourself to Jesus Christ?” A whopping 65% of this kind of religiosity is genetically driven!

This is particularly amusing given that most of what passes for debate on this topic seems to be between atheists and fundamentalists. If the debate often seems futile and sterile then these data might suggest why. Religious fundamentalists are born, not bred. It's not a matter of evidence or rational argument. They just can't help it!
MATT BRADSHAW, CHRISTOPHER G ELLISON (2008). Do Genetic Factors Influence Religious Life? Findings from a Behavior Genetic Analysis of Twin Siblings Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 47 (4), 529-544 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2008.00425.x

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

US Protestants have low brand loyalty

In the USA, a prominent strand of sociological thought argues that a free market in religious ideas is what drives the popularity of religion in that country - so call Rational Choice Theory. So here's some interesting new market research from an Arizona-based agency.

Apparently, seven out of ten regular church goers are open to switching denomination - there's less loyalty to denomination than to toothpaste and toilet rolls! On the face of it, that's good support for at least one basic premise of RCT. But the devil is in details

For example, there's a dramatic difference between Protestants and Catholics. Whereas 85% of Protestants are open to switching, only 40% of Catholics are. And only 10% of Catholics have no particular preference for a particular denomination.

What this illustrates is that, even in the USA, the free market in religion only stretches so far. Even within Christianity, choices are in fact restricted. And as for switching between religions - well that's very rare of course.

The USA is in many ways a bit of a one-off. It's certainly true that Protestant Christians have a bewildering array of options available to them. But outside of this the realities of religious identification are much the same as in the rest of the world.

The 'Science Books for Undergrads' blog meme

Well now. Pleiotropy has tagged me in a blog meme! Here it is:
Imagine: YOU are asked to assign a half-dozen-or-so books as required reading for ALL science majors at a college as part of their 4-year degree; NOT technical or text books, but other works, old or new, touching upon the nature of science, philosophy, thought, or methodology in a way that a practicing scientist might gain from.

Post your list, and forward the meme to a half-dozen-or-so other science-oriented bloggers of your choosing.
Trickier than it sounds. I mean, in my undergraduate days I read a fair few books that would fit the bill. But that was like 20 years ago! These days my reading tends to be more esoteric. Anyway, rushing in where angels fear to...
  • Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre. Cracking stuff. Explains how science goes wrong, especially when the media gets a hold of it.
  • Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely. Brilliantly exposes the flaws in our self-perception that we do things because we consciously think things through and thereby make the best possible judgement. Essential for anyone who wants to do science without getting derailed.
  • The Science Book, edited by Peter Tallack. Just a great, lavish, history of Western science.
  • Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits, by John D Barrow. Tackles a thorny subject: what happens when we know everything there is to know, and how will we know when we get there?
  • Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body, by Neil Shubin. One of the best recent books on evolution - from a paleontologists perspective.
  • The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris. Just because I had to have one classic from the attic. This one is before even my time!
And some blogs to tag: Science and Religion News, Bruce Hood, Just Another Deisidaimon, Lambda Delta, HASSNERS, and Climate Cassandra,

Group cohesion and the community sing

Religious types are big on communal singing. Aldous Huxley satirised this facet of religious life in his novel Brave New World...
"A cardinal," he exclaimed parenthetically, "was a kind of Arch-Community-Songster." (Chapter 17)
And it's not just singing. Chanting, dancing, and synchronised praying are characteristic of religions around the world. Why on earth should this be? Perhaps it's just that it's enjoyable. But then why should that be? And could there be something more to it?

New research suggests that there is. Scott Wiltermuth and Chip Heath, of Stanford University, have run a series of three experiments designed to discover if encouraging people to do things in synchrony with others can actually make them co-operate better.

For example, in one experiment, they got them to sing the line 'Oh Canada!' from the Canadian National Anthem (chosen because all the subjects were American, and so wouldn't intuitively relate to the anthem). Half the group sang along together. The other half of the group had the anthem running at different speeds, so they sang out 'Oh Canada!" at different times.

Then they got them to do a sharing game - a standard psychologist's game wherein the participants benefit most if everyone co-operates, but there is a penalty if you overestimate the co-operativeness of the rest of the group.

Sure enough, the group that sang together co-operated more. What's more, they also much more likely to report that they felt like they were on the same team. As a result, they averaged higher payouts (the synchronised group took home $5.57 on average, compared with $4.90 in the unsynchronised group).

Why did this happen? Well, singing together didn't make them any happier. And although they also tested the effects of banging cups in time, that didn't affect the result. So movement isn't needed - singing alone is enough (although marching in step also works).

It seems that singing as a group helps to bond the group. And what is the implication of this for humanists? Well, it's often claimed that religion helps to build social capital by bringing people together. But is it the religion? Or is it the singing and communal prayer? And if it's the latter, wouldn't we be better off with pop concerts and football matches?

Scott S. Wiltermuth, Chip Heath (2009). Synchrony and Cooperation Psychological Science, 20 (1), 1-5 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02253.x

God unsure as to when human life begins

The purpose of religion, we are often told, is not to give us factual information about the world but rather to give us moral guidance. So, for example, science can tell you about the development of the human embryo, but we need religion to tell us when an embryo becomes human.

Of course, religion can't actually tell us any such thing, and this was painfully obvious in a conference last November (Is the Embryo Sacrosanct? Multi-Faith Perspectives) organized by Progress Educational Trust, a UK charity. The January issue of Nature Medicine carries a report of the conference.

Turns out that believers agree that human life begins when the soul gets attached to the body. That, of course, is the easy bit. The difficult bit is judging when this happens. Here's Nature:
Most of the religions represented at the conference don’t automatically grant an embryo the same rights as a person. Instead, they generally deem its transformation to personhood to occur at some point during pregnancy, often when the embryo is thought to attain a soul (known as ensoulment). This precise point not only differs between different religions but also between different denominations of the same religion.
Apparently, for Muslims ensoulment occurs sometime between 40 and 120 days (depending on the religious expert you talk to). For the Church of England, it's either at conception or at Day 14. Catholics simply hold their hand up and admit their god hasn't told them this rather crucial piece of information (although every sperm is sacred, of course).

Now, a cynic might say that the reason this is difficult is because A) religious books were written before the advent of modern embryology, and B) the soul doesn't actually exist. It's a pre-modern attempt to crystallise an abstract concept.

In fact, we now know aspects of the mind that comprise the old-fashioned concept of soul - character, consciousness and self-awareness, for example - develop in a gradual process that starts as the nervous system begins to form, and carries on into early adulthood. There is no such thing as 'ensoulment'.

What's more, the idea of embryos having souls is laughable since most embryos don't make it to term - as John Harris, professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester, pointed out:
John Harris ... counters that during natural reproduction embryos are also lost: “the willful creation and sacrifice of embryos is an inescapable and inevitable part of all reproduction.” At the meeting Harris said that “Everybody sitting in this room is here over the dead bodies of between three and five siblings that had to die in order that we could be born.”
If all these embryos have souls, then heaven is full of the souls of unborn foetuses!

What this conference really shows is quite how useless religions are when discussing modern ethical dilemmas. They start from the wrong premise, and so get side-tracked into muddle-headed and pointless debates. We should not pay them any attention, since they have so little of value to contribute.

Born believers?

The New Scientist has just posted an article on the psychology of religious belief - Born Believers: How Your Brain Creates God. It argues heavily on the side of 'religion as a byproduct'. In other words, religion isn't something that evolved directly by making our ancestors fitter (the 'religion-as-adaptation' hypoethsis). It's just that the short-cuts and illusions that our brains produce to help us function in a complex world have the side-effect of predisposing us to invent gods. For example:
The religion-as-an-adaptation theory doesn't wash with everybody, however. As anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor points out, the benefits of holding such unfounded beliefs are questionable, in terms of evolutionary fitness. "I don't think the idea makes much sense, given the kinds of things you find in religion," he says. A belief in life after death, for example, is hardly compatible with surviving in the here-and-now and propagating your genes. Moreover, if there are adaptive advantages of religion, they do not explain its origin, but simply how it spread.
The article itself covers a lot of territory - Justin Barrett's work on childhood belief, and Paul Bloom's work on innate dualism.

Bloom says the two systems are autonomous, leaving us with two viewpoints on the world: one that deals with minds, and one that handles physical aspects of the world. He calls this innate assumption that mind and matter are distinct "common-sense dualism". The body is for physical processes, like eating and moving, while the mind carries our consciousness in a separate - and separable - package. "We very naturally accept you can leave your body in a dream, or in astral projection or some sort of magic," Bloom says. "These are universal views."

There is plenty of evidence that thinking about disembodied minds comes naturally. People readily form relationships with non-existent others: roughly half of all 4-year-olds have had an imaginary friend, and adults often form and maintain relationships with dead relatives, fictional characters and fantasy partners. As Barrett points out, this is an evolutionarily useful skill. Without it we would be unable to maintain large social hierarchies and alliances or anticipate what an unseen enemy might be planning. "Requiring a body around to think about its mind would be a great liability," he says.

Which feeds into Jesse Bering's findings on assumptions about life after death, and Deborah Kelemen's work on teleology (our natural tendency to assume that objects have a purpose - the sun exists to provide warmth, for example).

True, it concludes that there could be some benefit to religion (from an evolutionary perspective)

Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford - the researcher most strongly identified with the religion-as-adaptation argument - also has no problem with the idea that religion co-opts brain circuits that evolved for something else. Richard Dawkins, too, sees the two camps as compatible. "Why shouldn't both be correct?" he says. "I actually think they are."

But the general tenor seems to capture the way the wind is blowing in this particular field of research. Evidence continues to accumulate that many of our supernatural beliefs are accidental by-products of brain functions that evolved for other purposes, while empirical evidence that believing in god actually provides measurable benefits (from an evolutionary perspective) remains weak and circumstantial.

Spiritual guidance doesn't help substance abusers

Spirituality is traditionally a part of recovery programmes for substance abusers. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, includes invocation of a higher power as part of its program. Surprisingly, however, nobody has looked too closely at whether such spiritual guidance is any help. Until now, that is.

A team from New Mexico, lead by Professor William Miller, has tested the effects of spiritual intervention in two meticulously designed studies. In addition to their usual treatment, patients were also also offered a series of one-on-one sessions with counsellors delivering a manual-guided form of spiritual direction designed by Miller specifically for this population. The guidance comprised the patients selection from:
... acceptance, celebration, fasting, gratitude, guidance, meditation, prayer, reconciliation, reflection, service to others, solitude, and worship. The chosen disciplines have historic roots of practice for hundreds or thousands of years, and are familiar within the Judeo-Christian tradition that is the most common religious background in the US population.
And what happened? Well, in both studies, normal treatment was highly effective, significantly and rapidly increasing the percentage of days that patients were able to stay off the drugs . The addition of spiritual guidance, however, had no effect.

Well, not quite no effect...

In turns out that, in Study 1, the patients who were given spiritual guidance suffered significantly more anxiety and depression in the first 6 months of the study. In fact, what happened was that patients just given usual treatment saw their anxiety and depression reduce. Spiritual guidance prevented that happening.

Now, this effect was not seen in Study 2. And the difference between the two studies was? Well, in the first study, the guidance was given by "three highly experienced, certified professional spiritual directors". In the second study, the guidance was provided by secular counsellors (with qualifications in psychology or social work).

In other words, spiritual guidance from religious enthusiasts can successfully put the fear of god into these people, but it doesn't get them off drugs. Drug rehabilitation is an expensive, time consuming, and vitally important business. Spending money on unvalidated spiritual intervention is a distraction.

It's time we got drug abuse counsellors off their addiction to religion.

W MILLER, A FORCEHIMES, M OLEARY, M LANOUE (2008). Spiritual direction in addiction treatment: Two clinical trials Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 35 (4), 434-442 DOI: 10.1016/j.jsat.2008.02.004

Manipulative, cynical nonsense

I'd like to offer an alternative analysis of the Theos survey on British attitudes to evolution. (The following is copied from my personal blog, and the style reflects this.)

Last year Christian think-tank Theos argued that because most of us know the Easter story, therefore most of us literally believe in the Easter story.

From the same people who brought you this unfathomably crap interpretation of their own, agenda-ridden research, now comes a sparkly new survey on the public attitude to evolution.

Or so say rubbish science journalists who didn't even bother to look at the research, blindly trotting out their own version of the Theos press release all round the internet today. (You'd think science journalists would be the one kind of journalist most likely to do their fucking job and go and look at the so-called science, but no.)

The research never actually asked people a fair, balanced question about their belief in evolution, defined simply as a process of natural selection. Oh no. Do you want to know what it actually asked them?

What the actual survey actually asked about evolution was two separate questions, one on "theistic evolution" and one on "atheistic evolution". The latter definition and question read:

Atheistic evolution is the idea that evolution makes belief in God unnecessary and absurd. In your opinion is Atheistic evolution: [and then the choices]

Just confusing the two separate issues of a/theism and evolution was obviously going to result in weird answers from the start, especially since they don't even bother to spell out simply what the actual theory of natural selection says or associate it with either view.

Moreover, when people were being asked to assent to "atheistic evolution" they weren't just being asked to assent to evolution-minus-God, they were being asked to assent to the view that evolution necessarily implies that there was no God.

Now, I think that evolution is true and I think that belief in God is unnecessary and absurd, but I still might well have said that "Atheistic evolution" as defined in this survey was probably not true, because I don't think that one does necessitate the other. Evolution has nothing to say about the origin of the world, for example.

Answering this survey, I might well have been waiting for a third, good, neutral statement of evolution before I plumped for it.

Worse still is the interpretation which Theos then puts on this already flawed data. Having found probably even lower levels of general assent to the theory of evolution than we should want and expect – and would get if we asked better questions – they go on to conclude (in their press release) that the hopeless confusion we're all is the fault of atheists:

Unfortunately, he [Darwin] is being used by certain atheists today to promote their cause. The result is that, given the false choice of evolution or God, people are rejecting evolution.

"Darwin has become caught up in the crossfire between creationists on one side and certain public atheists on the other. It’s a battle in which everybody suffers."

That's right. Who's to blame for Creationism and ID? Is it the proponents of Creationism and ID? No. It's atheists! And why should we blame the atheists, Theos? Well, because they conflate Darwinism and atheism giving people a false choice between the two, says Theos. Oh, right, I get it, exactly like your survey cleverly demonstrates by doing exactly that? Um, yes, yes that's what we, um, intended, says Theos.

Of course, there are a whole bunch of reasons why Darwinian evolution is associated with atheism. This isn't a story about evolution getting "caught in the crossfire" between warring fundamentalist theists on one hand and marauding atheists on the other, as if Richard Dawkins (doubtless the intended ring-leader of the "public atheists" mentioned) has single-handedly warped a theory which was otherwise neutral with regard to God. The reason evolution is associated with atheism is because prior to Darwin the church said quite emphatically that God created the Earth and all living things in seven days. During the bronze age! Religion got caught with its panda's thumb up its giant red arse on this issue, forcing them ever since to either dig in and become full blown fundamentalists, or to pass off centuries of previous heretic-burning as a crazy, mistaken, drunken game, because they didn't really literally believe in Genesis, no, no, it was an allegory all along. For something.

The dawn of evolutionary theory is the great naturalizing moment of the last two centuries. It completely reversed the way we had to think when trying to explain the construction of living forms. It blew away the need for design, and a designer, previously the greatest single argument for the existence of God, with an idea of simple beauty and devastating cogency. Atheists didn't manufacture a wargame here – if anything it was the vicious response of religionists in Darwin's own time which show exactly why so many people regard evolution as literally bringing the riddle of life back "down to earth".

But none of this means that when you ask people about evolution you should imply that they have a choice between "theistic evolution" and "atheistic evolution". That's just bollocks.

Theos is basically attempting to do exactly what it pretends not to be doing. They are accepting that it's not okay to be a biblical literalist, but also trying to blame anyone who expresses both atheism and evolution for other people's confusion and ignorance, thereby leaving "theistic evolution" as the only option on the table.

Well, no, damn it! We must be free to express the fact that evolution leads us to thinking about life in a naturalistic way, without being branded some kind of intellectual warmongers. Being free to say that evolution is part of our atheism is like saying that Galileon cosmology leads us to thinking less anthropocentrically about the nature of the universe; and like saying that Newton leads us to think that maybe there is a coherent underlying structure to the universe, which is not interfered with by capricious deities.

Theos point the finger. But they are the ones shamelessly playing games with science.

How many Britons are creationist?

According to a survey out today, it's 50%. The survey itself is sponsored by Theos, the religious think tank, as part of their program to 'Rescue Darwin' from his association with atheism. The survey results are published yet, but The Guardian has a report on them:
The poll found that 25% of Britons believe Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is "definitely true", with another quarter saying it is "probably true". Half of the 2,060 people questioned were either strongly opposed to the theory or confused about it.
12% opted for intelligent design and 10% opted for creationism. These figures sound bad, but in fact they are an improvement from a 2006 Ipsos MORI poll, which found that 17% opted for intelligent design and 22% for creationism. The difference might be down to the way they phrased the question - it's hard to tell from the news reports.

Regardless, I guess we should welcome the Theos campaign (funded, incidentally, by the Templeton Foundation) to persuade believers to accept evolution. Apart from this poll, their going to write an essay on why Darwin and religion are compatible, and commission some research into how creationists think. They've even commissioned a PR company.

This poll is the first fruits of the Templeton Foundation's investment. It doesn't really help us much to understand why there are so many creationists in the UK. Hopefully they'll release the full survey results, with an analysis of the demographic factors linked to accepting evolution by natural selection. But in the meantime, here's my prediction about the characteristics of creationists and IDers: They'll be:
  • Older
  • Less well educated
  • More religious
OK so not earth shattering but it does point the way to what you need to do to get greater acceptance of evolution. You have to wait till people with old-fashioned ideas die. You need to be firmer in education (both science and religious) - and to do this you need to stop religious teachers from teaching what they want to teach. And lastly, you need to reduce the influence of religion and religious leaders in wider society.

It's that simple. Over to you, Theos!