Field of Science

Psychologists are the least religious of American Professors

Fifty percent of professors of psychology at US universities and colleges do not believe in any god, and another 11% are agnostic. That makes them the least religious of a pretty heathen bunch.

The data come from Politics of the American Professoriate study, a survey carried out in the spring of 2006 and published yesterday in the journal Sociology of Religion. The researchers, Neil Gross of the University of British Columbia and Solon Simmons of George Mason University, surveyed nearly 1500 full-time college and university professors teaching in U.S. institutions.

The results are reminiscent of a 2007 survey which found that psychiatrists were the least religious of physicians. It seems that there's something about studying how the mind works that makes people skeptical of the God delusion!

Gross and Simmons looked into the link between academic field and religion in some detail. Here's what they concluded

With other factors controlled, biologists and psychologists—relative to professors outside the top 20 fields—are less likely to believe in God and less likely to hold traditional views of the Bible; professors of communications, English, and history are less likely to hold traditional views of the Bible; sociologists are less likely to have a traditionalistic religious orientation overall; and professors of accounting, finance, and nursing tend to be more religious.

Lord knows why mechanical engineers are so irreligious!

Another factor that separates nonreligious professors from the religious is whether they actively engage in research, or just teach.
Those who are oriented primarily toward research are less likely to believe in God, less likely to have a traditionalistic view of the Bible, less likely to attend religious services, more likely to describe their overall religious orientation as "not religious," and less likely to consider themselves spiritual persons.
That might either be because they consciously reject religion as a result of their commitment to science, or it might be because religious people choose other careers.

Regardless, one thing this survey does is further demonstrate that academics are less religious than the general population. Overall, 9.8% said they don't believe in any god, and 13.1% said they didn't know.

Which is about three times the proportion of atheists and 'don't knows' as found in the general population!

Gross, N., & Simmons, S. (2009). The Religiosity of American College and University Professors Sociology of Religion DOI: 10.1093/socrel/srp026

Curlin, F., Odell, S., Lawrence, R., Chin, M., Lantos, J., Meador, K., & Koenig, H. (2007). The Relationship Between Psychiatry and Religion Among U.S. Physicians Psychiatric Services, 58 (9), 1193-1198 DOI: 10.1176/

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Do religious immigrants send more money home?

Remittances sent by immigrants to their home country are an important source of income for poorer nations. Does religion matter? Do religious people send home more than the non-religious? There's quite a few reasons to expect that they might.

They might send more in the hope of getting a supernatural reward. They might come from cultures that emphasize familial ties. They might face more social pressure (from their co-religionists) to send money home. And of course it might simply be that folks who like to indulge in public acts of charity are also the ones who want to be a member of a religious group.

That's what Claudia Kelly and Blen Solomon, Economists at Grand Valley State University, set out to prove (interestingly, both are immigrants: Claudia was born in Jamaica and Blen in Addis Ababa). They analysed a 1996 survey of newly permanent residents in the USA.

You wouldn't guess from reading their conclusions that their hypothesis was disproven.

Here's what they concluded:

Catholics are more likely to remit than individuals with no religion. In contrast, Protestants and individuals from other religion are more likely to remit than Catholics. Regular religious service attendance is positively related to remitting behavior, however, this correlation is not statistically significant.

Now all this is true, but it's not the whole story. The full picture jumps out at you if you plot the data – something they didn't do in their paper. What the figure shows is the amount of remittances sent home compared with Catholics. The lines give an indication of how uncertain the estimate is (they show the standard error). As a rough rule of thumb, if the lines of two different groups overlap, then there probably is no difference between them.

You can clearly see that the remittances sent home by atheists are actually not that different from those sent home by Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Orthodox Christians.

And what about religious attendance? This is exactly where you would expect to find the biggest effect. The most devout should send the most home, regardless of their religion. The fact that there was no significant effect demolishes the hypothesis they put forward. As they say in there conclusions, the actual number is positive, but the magnitude is so small and the variance is so high that this is almost certainly a chance effect.

In other words, they have some really interesting data here, but completely fail to pick up on that because they're so wrapped up in their preconception that religion should increase remittances.

So what is going on? What's so special about Protestants?

Well, it could be that this was a statistical fishing expedition. They threw all the data into the pot in the hope that something would pop out. If one religious group – any one – remitted more than non-religious, then they would consider their hypothesis proven. With 8 groups tested, there was a good chance that one of them would come out higher, just by chance.

Then too, this was a complex multivariate regression. They threw a lot of variables into the pot. There could have been some interactions that made the results unintelligible. For example, according to their results immigrants from Africa and the Middle East were particularly reluctant to send money home. This seems unlikely. Perhaps this might help to explain why Muslims and Protestants came out tops (because people from Africa and the Middle East are likely to be Protestants or Muslims).

But perhaps most tellingly, their analysis doesn't take into account the socioeconomic status of the migrants. If you're a professional from a wealthy family, as atheists and Jews tend to be, you would be less likely to have to support your family in your home country.

Put together with the fact that religious service attendance does this clinch the proposition that religiosity has no effect on remittances sent home by immigrants? I think it does.

ResearchBlogging.orgKelly CS, & Solomon B (2009). The influence of religion on remittances sent to relatives and friends back home. Journal of Business and Economics Research, 7 (1), 91-100

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A new, integrated theory of the social factors that make people religious

This one's new out in the British Journal of Sociology. There's no shortage of ideas about why religion is more important to some people, and some regions of the world. All of them have a certain amount of evidence to back them up, but none is really comprehensive.

Jörg Stolz, at Lausanne University, has put forward a model that integrates most of the major strands of thought regarding how culture creates individual religiosity.

Essentially, what the model assumes is that a person's environment - the society they live in, as well as their more immediate environment (the attitudes of their parents, for example) - create individual situations, which in turn generate an individuals actions.

This is a broad model, and all of the factors that are conventionally used to explain differences in religiosity can be incorporated within it. So how well does it work? Stolz tested it by looking at the relationship between macro and individual factors across Swiss cantons.

What he found broadly supported the role of individual factors in generating religiosity. Having a religious upbringing had the strongest effect, perhaps unsurprisingly. This was based on parent church going, whether both parents were of the same denomination, whether the individual had undergone the rite of confirmation, and the number of years of religious education.

A less significant factor was 'regulation of demand'. This was derived from how urban the place was where the individual lives, and how many religious people live there. If you live in a secular town, you're less likely to be religious yourself.

Also playing minor roles were education and wealth, and ethnicity (immigrants are slightly more religious).

The macro-level variables didn't have much effect at all. Importantly, regulation of religion (i.e. local laws restricting or promoting particular religions) had no effect, contradicting one of the major current theories. Neither did state spending on 'secular culture' (museums, art galleries and the like), which in theory might tempt people away from religion.

What did make quite a difference was the religious culture - people living in Catholic cantons were more religious than those living in Protestant ones.

Stolz also looked at what might explain 'alternative' religiosity - the sorts of New Age religions and mysticisms. Only wealth had any detectable effect (poorer people were more mystic).

And a final interesting nugget from this study was the significant effect of age (for Christianity, although not alternative religion). It's well know that older people are more likely to be religious, but there's ongoing controversy about whether this is simply because they were more likely to have been brought up religious.

Well, this study controls for that, and still finds an effect of age. This suggests that there really is something to being older that increases religious feelings. It could be an effect of facing up to your own mortality, or it could be that older people are often not as wealthy (perhaps they gain more from a religious community). Or it could even be cognitive decline. Or perhaps some mixture of all three!

ResearchBlogging.orgJörg Stolz (2009). Explaining religiosity: towards a unified theoretical model British Journal of Sociology, 60 (2), 345-376 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-4446.2009.01234.x

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A leaflet from my friendly neighbourhood fascists

When people get anxious about their future, it drives support for right wing authoritarianism. So it's hardly surprising that the economic meltdown has been a boon for the various neo-fascist parties around Europe, especially in the UK.

Still, it was a bit of a shock to come home the other day to find that someone had stuffed a leaflet for the British National Party, the largest English fascist party, through my door. It seems they've arrived in some small way even in my fairly untroubled corner of England!

The leaflet itself was pretty much what you'd expect. An obsession with warfare (it even includes a list of battles dating back to Trafalgar!) coupled with stoking up in-group loyalty and out-group fears.

It got me thinking, though, about why people turn to these kinds of parties when they feel anxious.

One of the leading researchers in this field is John Jost, at New York University. Back in 2003, he analysed all the published studies to show that fear of uncertainty and feelings of being threatened are higher in conservatives and extremists. But what he couldn't tell from the data was whether these factors lead to right wing extremism in particular, or just extremism in general.

He did a follow-up study, giving a battery of questionnaires to undergrads, to try to settle this. Using a statistical analysis of how their responses clustered, he found that fear of uncertainty and threat in fact were associated to conservatism, and only via that to extremism. In other words, both factors contribute to right wing extremism, but don't explain left wing extremism.

What's more, he also went on to show that fear of uncertainty seemed to cause resistance to change, whereas fear of threats lead to an opposition to equality. These two factors mediated the effects of the two fears on political views.

So this triggers another question - one that's unanswered as far as I know. Does this help to explain the association between religion and right-wing authoritarianism? There are at least two possible explanations for why these two sets of ideologies often go together.

One is that religion might represent tradition and ethnic identity. If so, then the association is purely circumstantial. If a society were historically atheist, then that would be held up instead as the rallying cry (think of a historically communist state facing some kind of threat).

The other is that fear - of uncertainty and threats - generates both conservative views and also increases religiosity. As far as I know, there's been surprisingly little research into this possibility. It is know that 'existential anxiety' (the fear of death) can increase religiosity. But there's no study I know of that looks into whether more generalised fear and uncertainty make people more religious - even though it's widely supposed to be the case.

ResearchBlogging.orgJost, J., Napier, J., Thorisdottir, H., Gosling, S., Palfai, T., & Ostafin, B. (2007). Are Needs to Manage Uncertainty and Threat Associated With Political Conservatism or Ideological Extremity? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33 (7), 989-1007 DOI: 10.1177/0146167207301028

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Religious solidarity: the hand-grenade experiment

So, you're in your bunker, and a hand grenade lands. Do you fall on it, smother the blast, and sacrifice yourself for the group? What if they were co-religionists? Wouldn't you like to find out if that makes a difference?

Unfortunately, doing that actual study is considered unethical in today's PC world. So here's a study that uses the next best thing: financial, rather than bodily self-sacrifice.

What Joseph Bulbulia and Andrew Mahoney, of Wellington University in New Zealand, set out to discover was whether Christians reward other Christians who they observe making a sacrifice for 'the team'. They did this by asking a group of local Christians to play a two-stage online game with a similar group of Christians located in Manitoba, Canada.

In the first part of the game, the New Zealand Christians offered a fixed $5 sum to the Canadians, who could accept all, none, or part of what was offered. Whatever was accepted was doubled and shared between the two. So if the Canadian accepted $3, then at the end of round 1 she would have $3 and the New Zealander would have $8.

In round 2, the New Zealander could send any amount out of their takings from stage 1 to the Canadian. So if the same New Zealander as above offered $4, then at the end of the game the Canadian would have $7 and the New Zealander would have $4.

Essentially, the Canadian could punish the New Zealander in round 1, and the New Zealander could reward the Canadian in round 2.

Now there was a ruse, of course. All these kinds of games have a ruse. In this experiment there were two. Firstly, the Canadian was lied to – they were told that the New Zealander was not a Christian. The New Zealander was told about the experimenter's lie.

The second ruse was simply that the Canadians didn't actually exist. The New Zealanders weren't told about that one.

In fact, whatever the New Zealander offered, the computer was set up to reject it, explaining that it was rejecting the offer on the grounds that the New Zealander was not a Christian.

Think about that. You are told that the Christian on the end of the line has turned down your offer – hurting both you and him – for no other reason than his (misinformed) belief that you are not a Christian! How do you react?

Well, before answering that you need to know that there was a control group. The control group was treated in exactly the same way, except they were just an ad hoc selection of New Zealander students. These subjects were told that the other player was a New Zealander located on the North Island, who rejected their offer on the grounds that player 1 (the human!) was a foreigner.

The comparison between the two groups is shown in the figure. Overwhelmingly, players in the control game – about nationalism, gave back nothing in round 2. They chose not to reward their partner, who had punished them for not being a New Zealander.

But look at the Christians. Most of them gave something, and 20% of them gave the most they could. It seems that they were rewarding their fellow chrisitians, who were prepared to make the not-quite-ultimate sacrifice for the good of the group.

I'm not entirely happy with that conclusion, though it's the one drawn by Bulbulia and Mahoney. I wonder whether these Christians were actually demonstrating forgiveness and love, showing the other side the only way they could how a true Christian behaves. After all, the money was sent to the Canadian accompanied by the words “The New Zealand player really is a Christian and has decided to give $X.” I would think many of the players would regard it as unchristian to punish and not forgive.

This could've been tested with a third group – facing a Canadian player who was not a Christian. That setup would've sat uncomfortably with the deceptive nature of the study, however.

There are other caveats. New Zealander Christians are a minority group – New Zealand is one of the most secular countries in the world. That may generate especially strong feelings of group solidarity, especially in a setting where their religious identity was heavily primed (they knew, presumably, that they had been selected because they were Christians, and the Christian group identity was regularly reinforced during the experiment).

Notwithstanding all that, this study does clearly show that Christianity can trigger altruistic sacrifice, for whatever reason, for fellow Christians. On that basis alone, religion does seem to be a powerful tool for generating group cohesion.

In a world of competing groups, this might give the more religious ones a competitive edge.

ResearchBlogging.orgBulbulia, J., & Mahoney, A. (2008). Religious Solidarity: The Hand Grenade Experiment Journal of Cognition and Culture, 8 (3), 295-320 DOI: 10.1163/156853708X358191

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Scientia Pro Publica #4 at Primate Diaries

The fourth edition of Scientia Pro Publica blog carnival is up at Primate Diaries. This one's dedicated to the memory of Stephan Jay Gould, who died seven years ago this month. I was chuffed to see that Eric (he of Primate Diaries) had chosen one of my earlier posts.

Eric's picked out dozens of great science writing from the blogosphere (I especially like Neuroskeptic on Free Will). Head on over there to check the rest out!

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Does secularization of the USA spell social meltdown?

Back in 2005, the sociologist Robert Putnam got a $1.2 million grant from the Templeton Foundation to look at social capital in the USA (social capital is the term to describe all the interlinking relationships that help society tick along).

Well, the payoff comes this year, with a book by Putnam on the way. Putnam also spoke recently at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and a taste of what will be in the book can be seen in the media buzz.

It seems that American youth are more secular than their parents, and the country's going to hell in a handbasket as a result.

From a certain, narrow perspective, that's a perfectly reasonable conclusion. After all, Putnam's study showed that religious Americans are more 'civically engaged' than their non religious counterparts:

The scholars say their studies found that religious people are three to four times more likely to be involved in their community. They are more apt than nonreligious Americans to work on community projects, belong to voluntary associations, attend public meetings, vote in local elections, attend protest demonstrations and political rallies, and donate time and money to causes — including secular ones. (USA Today)

Stands to reason, then, that fewer religious people means a disintegrating society, right?

Well, maybe not. In the USA today, being religious is a social norm. Those people who are prepared to stand up and be counted as atheists are also those who reject this social norm. It's not too surprising that they don't score as highly on these measures of integration.

Those atheists who do want to participate in their community are going to have to swallow their principles and pretend to be religious. If you want to participate in American society, then you need to be a church goer. It's expected of you.

But it doesn't need to be this way. Focus the microscope on more secular countries - New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden etc. - and the image you get is rather different. These are hardly nations on the brink of social meltdown. Rather, they are among the happiest nations on earth.

So could it be that religion has little or nothing to do with social capital?

That's certainly what two European sociologists, Loek Halman and Thorleif Pettersson, have concluded. Using data from the European Values Survey, they found that there was no relationship between how religious a country was (on average) and a rich it was in social capital.

For example, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have similar levels of social capital, although Slovakia is far more religious than the Czech Republic. Some of the countries with the most social capital, Sweden and Denmark, were also the least religious.

In fact, in Western Europe, the trend is the reverse of what you might expect - the least religious nations have the most social capital!

Now, the important fact to bear in mind is that, in Europe as in the USA, more religious people are more civically engaged. It's just that, at the aggregate level, other factors are overwhelmingly more important.

For example, social trust, a key generator of social capital, is driven at a cross-national level by the same factors that build a strong democracy - such as open institutions and free speech. Although religious are generally perceived to be more trustworthy on an individual level, that really has no bearing at a national level.

In other words, this is another example where extrapolating from the personal effects of religion to the society-level (or aggregate) effects just does not work.


Loek Halman, & Thorleif Pettersson (2001). Religion and social capital in contemporary Europe: results from the 1999/2000 European Values Survey Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion, 12, 65-93

Kaasa, A., & Parts, E. (2008). Individual-Level Determinants of Social Capital in Europe: Differences between Country Groups Acta Sociologica, 51 (2), 145-168 DOI: 10.1177/0001699308090040

Newton, K. (2004). Social trust: individual and cross-national approaches Portuguese Journal of Social Science, 3 (1), 15-35 DOI: 10.1386/pjss.3.1.15/0

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Maybe the religious live longer because they don't think they're going to die

Here's a speculative idea, prompted by an article in this week's New Scientist on the noxious placebo (or nocebo) effect. That's the term given to the very real health effects that come from thinking that you're going to die.

The article kicks off with a great example of near-death by witch doctor, but here's the bit that caught my eye:

The ultimate cause of the nocebo effect, however, is not neurochemistry but belief. According to Hahn, surgeons are often wary of operating on people who think they will die - because such patients often do. And the mere belief that one is susceptible to a heart attack is itself a risk factor. One study found that women who believed they are particularly prone to heart attack are nearly four times as likely to die from coronary conditions than other women with the same risk factors.

Now, I wonder if this can be related to another interesting conundrum: the fact that religious people have a longer life expectancy than non-religious. The effect is tiny, but it is detectable if you analyse a big enough group.

The evidence suggests that the effect is due to attending church, rather than religious beliefs per se, and that the effect may be due to increased happiness.

But here's another fact: Religious people are less likely to think they are going to die, even when they are mortally ill. Maybe, just maybe, part of the health effects of religion come from a simple belief that you are not going to die (at least, not yet...).

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A first look at Supersense

Supersense has just been published in the UK (it's been out in the US for a while now, for some perverse reason). Like Konrad, I've only skimmed it so far - but here's some first impressions.

The book's billed as a kind of antidote to the uber-rationalists. What the author, Bruce Hood (Professor of Psychology at the University of Bristol) does is take a wide-ranging look at the quirky psychology that underpins superstitious beliefs.

You can get the gist of what he covers in his article published by The Guardian on the weekend. The common theme throughout the book is how we just can't help attributing mystical qualities to objects, people and places.

The first thing that struck me thumbing through it is quite how much ground it covers. The second was how much of it was new to me. I've read quite a few similar books, so that's quite a pleasant surprise.

It's also very nicely written, with a good balance between the illuminating anecdotes and the experimental evidence. It makes for easy reading, but still pretty fact-packed for all that.

The book kicks off with a look at common errors in reasoning, and then goes on to show that most people - even hardened sceptics - tend to have at least some superstitious thoughts. This leads on to the connection with religion - which depends on thoughts about the unobservable, but which are the result of culture rather than our innate biology.

How does this bridge between faulty thinking and religion occur? Hood discusses children's beliefs and misconceptions, and how they lead directly to beliefs such as mind-body dualism. From there we progress to overactive pattern identification, and imbuing mystical properties to inanimate objects.

Then we reach the crux of the book - the idea of essentialism. This is our tendency to attribute special qualities to objects above and beyond the mere physical, and underpins a lot of the odd behaviour that Hood discusses.

And finally, Hood makes the case that these supernatural thoughts are not only unavoidable, but they are probably a good thing. They provide the social glue that hold society together. Now, it sounds like this argument is going to be particularly contentious, and as I haven't read this chapter yet I'm going to withhold judgement... for now at least!

All in all, this is shaping up to be a fascinating and interesting book. There are some questions that I think it does not cover, which is a shame. I'd want to know what the inter-individual variability there is in 'supersense'. Clearly, some people have more supernatural ideation than others. How does that match to social functioning?

He points out that a large part of the variation is genetic. And yet also there is a cultural and situational component. Samoan adults are more superstitious than their children. Sportsmen and women are more superstitious than average, probably because they are engaged in activities where there are hard outcomes and a hefty degree of luck.

Which suggests that we can create a less superstitious culture, even though we will probably never shake it completely. And maybe we need a little bit of the sacred to keep us sane. Who knows?

Anyway, let's finish with Hood himself, talking about the book:

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Real gods are stranger than fiction – for adults at least

The striking thing about supernatural creatures – gods, demons, goblins and the like – is just how very like humans they are. Very often, they will have only one or two magical features, but their other characteristics are decidedly anthropomorphic.

Question is: does this reveal something about the way our minds work? Are there limits to what we can invent?

Cognitive psychologist Pascal Boyer, in his classic book Religion Explained, suggested that supernatural beings are just weird enough to be special, but not so weird as to be difficult to remember or identify with. They are, in his words, minimally counter-intuitive.

Now, clearly many gods break this rule – the Christian concept of trinity is probably as counter-intuitive as it is possible to get. But what subsequent research has shown is that popular concepts of gods conform quite closely to the minimally counter-intuitive model – they are much more anthropomorphic than are theologically correct concepts.

A recent study by Andrew Shtulman has challenged this idea by comparing religious beings (e.g. God, angels) with ones that look similar but are popularly believed to be fictional (e.g. fairies, ghosts).

One of the things he did was to ask children and their parents whether these beings had a variety of anthropomorphic properties. The figure above shows what they found.

In the kids' minds, both fictional and religious beings were both equally anthropomorphic. Not only did they think like humans (e.g. they could be happy or sad), but they also had physical attributes (e.g. they could be located either inside or outside) and also had biological needs (they got hungry, for example).

The curious thing is that, when it came to describing religious beings, parents gave only half as many physical and biological attributes as did their children. In other words, adults were more likely to think of these entities as disembodied minds.

What this suggests is that you don't need to think about gods as abstract, non-anthropomorphic beings to start believing in them. But if you are going to maintain that belief, then you have to shift your ideas in that direction.

What's more, it shows that beliefs about God aren't fixed in childhood, as some people suppose. In order to retain their beliefs, people adapt them as they mature.

And finally, this does rather suggest that maybe we do have a natural predilection to imagine gods in an anthropomorphic way. Don't forget, even adults listed on average one physical and one biological attribute to God and angels. Maybe the gods adults believe in are not minimally counter-intuitive, but it seems they are not totally counter-intuitive!

There's just something intrinsically appealing about a the idea of a person with superhuman powers!


ResearchBlogging.orgShtulman, A. (2008). Variation in the anthropomorphization of supernatural beings and its implications for cognitive theories of religion. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 34 (5), 1123-1138 DOI: 10.1037/0278-7393.34.5.1123

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More on Biologos: the morality god-of-the-gaps

Following on from the previous post, I wanted to pull out another couple of 'pointers to God' that Francis Collins and BioLogos like to present as part of their argument for belief. I like them because, far from being pointers to god, they are in fact powerful examples of the power of science and the weakness of religion as a tool to help us understand morality. They're great examples of how science is encroaching into what was once regarding as purely religious territory.

First example is this one - "Why is it wrong to torture an individual for the greater good?"

Evil also poses problems for the nonbeliever. Claims that torture is wrong even though the victims of torture might be terrorists with useful information appeal to some external standard. But what is this standard? Such claims need to be grounded in something if they are to be asserted with such confidence

Now, the interesting thing about this one is that there is nothing in religion that allows you to deduce that torture is wrong. It's not inherent to the kind of Deism that Collins argues for elsewhere on BioLogos, and of course there is nothing in the Bible, the Koran, the Iliad, the Bhagavad Gita, etc that would allow you to deduce it.

Of course, you can cherry pick pretty much any religious text to make an argument against torture. But to do that, you have to start with the conclusion and work backwards. After all, torture for the greater good has been generally considered morally acceptable by religious people throughout history.

In fact, according to a recent survey of Americans, the Christians are still more likely than the unaffiliated to condone torture. Similar results were seen in another new survey of European nations, which found that Muslims (who are far more religious that the general public) are more likely to condone violence for noble ends.

What's more, the swing of public opinion against torture has paralleled the retreat of religion in modern times. So whatever the arguments against torture are, they don't arise from religion. They come from somewhere else.

What could explain the popular disapproval of torture? Well, science can't tell us what's moral and what isn't (it's a subjective decision that depends on the goals you set). But it can help explain why we have the morality we do.

For example, Haidt's work shows that religious people are less concerned about harm as a moral outcome. Perhaps this is because, as Scott Reynolds and Tania Ceranic showed in 2007, people who are very certain that they have high morals are in fact more likely to cheat and more likely to be tough on subordinates.

And as for why people reject torture even when it could save lives, well Marc Hauser has written a whole book on that (and related topics). One explanation is that we are programmed to pay more attention to the specific, rather than the general, and to the immediate issues, rather than the longer term ones. (Of course, there are all sorts of other arguments against torture - for example that it does not work).

Regardless, this example is a good demonstration of the difference between science and religion. Science can actually help us understand the world around us. Religion cannot.

Here's the second - on altruism:

... in its most radical form, altruism refers to situations where individuals risk their very lives to help someone they do not even know, and from whom a reciprocal benefit is unexpected or even unimaginable

At first blush, this does look like a mystery that cannot be explained by evolution. However, in fact evolution would suggest that this 'radical altruism' should be extremely rare in the real world. And indeed it is.

It does, however, crop up in laboratory studies. If you make people play a game, then some will be a little bit altruistic even when the game is anonymous, and they are guaranteed to never meet any of the other players. There's nothing in it for them, and it costs them something. How can evolution explain this?

One obvious answer is the unnaturalness of the experiment. Throughout our evolutionary history, these kinds of anonymous situations would occur so rarely that our brains are not set up to deal with them (Bjorn at Pleiotropy makes this point nicely). It's the moral equivalent of a visual illusion.

Collins somewhat grudgingly accepts this:

Some have suggested that radical altruism might perhaps be explained as misfiring — we mistakenly go overboard in our desire to be nice. Radical altruism is currently somewhat mysterious.

But in fact there are also positive explanations for radical altruism. One is group selection - the somewhat contentious idea, championed by David Sloan Wilson, that behaviour that benefits the group will be selected for, even if it harms the individual.

Another is the recent study showing that being good for the sake of it can actually benefit you as an individual - but indirectly, rather than directly. This is because you will attract other like minded people, and together you can thrive.

So science can help us understand why, in the right circumstances, people reject torture and act altruistically. Religion, on the other hand, doesn't help explain either. And that's the fatal weakness of religion. Because it attributes everything mysterious to the actions of a conscious, supernatural entity whose motives we can't understand, anything you like can be 'explained'.

But in the process of explained everything, it in fact explains nothing.

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BioLogos, god-of-the-gaps and misunderstanding science

Francis Collins' new Templeton-sponsored website, BioLogos, has been getting a bit of news coverage recently. For those not familiar with the story: Collins is the Director of the Human Genome Project, and BioLogos is his attempt to persuade Christians that they don't need to be frightened of science.

I guess the guy should be applauded for trying to reign in the wackier elements of Christianity, and most of it is pretty innocuous, straightforward stuff. But there's some real intellectual howlers in there. Basically, the guy doesn't understand what science is.

At the heart of the site are some answers to big questions, and the two that really got on my goat are Question 13: What is a God-of-the-Gaps argument? and Question 4: What is the proper relationship between science and religion?

Collins (along with fellow travellers like John Polkinghorne) reckon that science provides us with "pointers to God", natural phenomena that imply the existence of a biblical God. One favourite example is fine tuning, which points out that the universe looks like it's tailor made for us, and we don't know why - and then infers that God must be behind it.

'God of the gaps' refers to the standard religious tactic that identifies a mystery and then 'explains' it by saying that it's the result of action by a magical being (i.e. a god). These kinds of arguments have a pretty sorry history - BioLogos gives planetary motion as one example of where the argument was used, only to fail miserably when science moved on. There are plenty more.

Despite their protestation, 'fine tuning' is a 'god of the gaps' argument. We don't know why the universe is the way it is. It's a mystery - for now at least. Arguing for the existance of God on this basis is exactly like arguing for gods on the grounds that that planets all move round in neat ellipses.

What's more, arguing that 'god did it' is an explicit scientific claim. BioLogos reckons that science can't disprove god because:

"God’s existence is not something that can be tested by the scientific method in the same way the existence of postulated new elementary particles are tested in supercolliders ... Rather than an empirical claim about nature or its laws, the claim that God exists is a metaphysical one, a statement about what there is, whether it be natural or supernatural."

But statements about why the universe is the way it is are empirical claims. And, despite BioLogos' misconceptions, the 'God did it' argument can be rejected on scientific grounds.

There is a misconception that science can only disprove theories, never prove them. This idea, originated in the early 20th century by Karl Popper, that you have theories that are neatly disproven by experiments, is outdated.

Modern concepts of science recognize that what actually happens is a gradual accumulation of evidence that tips the balance one way or the other. It frequently happens that a hypothesis is never actually disproved - it just becomes more and more implausible until it reaches the point that no-one is prepared to stand by it anymore (it's a process called Bayesian Inference).

Now let's relate that to what Collins argues. We have a long history of claims made about the material world - whenever we see mystery, the religious claim it as a 'pointer' to god.

Time after time they have been proved wrong. It's now very clear that humans have a propensity to mistakenly give supernatural explanations for perfectly natural (though complex) things.

Each time a 'god of the gaps' argument is demolished, the Bayesian meter of improbability swings against these kinds of claims. Now God has been pushed back to the very margins of existence. And the religious are still claiming that where there is mystery, there is a 'pointer to god'.

We have to make a judgement. Is this claim plausible, given what we know about the history of these kinds of claims. Can we ever disprove god? It depends on your perspective. There will always be mysteries.

But from a Bayesian, probabalistic, scientific perspective, God is well and truly disproved.

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Love homosexuals, hate homosexuality?

Here's a new study which claims that religion actually reduces homophobia. Huh? That's a pretty daring conclusion - especially given that there were two studies earlier this year that found just the opposite (What's the connection between religion and homophobia?).

Here's what the study authors conclude:

...endorsement of orthodox Christian beliefs was related to positive attitudes toward
homosexuals as individuals or as a group, but not toward homosexuality as a behavior or lifestyle.

But in fact that's not quite what the study showed. In fact, orthodox Christian beliefs were highly correlated with both kinds of homophobia. But the Christians who were homophobic also tended to be right-wing authoritarians. It's only when you statistically manipulate the data to strip out this effect that you see a positive effect of Christianity.

In other words, what this study shows is that Christian beliefs might reduce homophobia, if it weren't for the fact that so many Christians are right-wing authoritarians. It's a bit like arguing that Christians don't really support torture, it's just that many of them happen to be neo-fascists!

However, the reality is that many Christians are authoritarian. Is this a coincidence, or a consequence of Christianity. The difference is very important. If it's a coincidence, then Christianity might be a way to reduce homophobia.

But if Christianity bolsters right-wing authoritarian views, then spreading Christianity will increase homophobia.

And it's more complicated even than that. This study measured religion by giving the subjects a test on orthodox Christian beliefs. In other words, people who scored highly were fairly sophisticated Christians - quite untypical of the common herd.

One of the studies published earlier this year took a look at the link between religion in general and homophobia. It found that, even after adjusting for right-wing authoritarianism, there was still a connection to religiosity.

The take home from all this? I guess it's that the relationship between religion and homophobia is complex and can work both ways. But attributing the link to authoritarianism is not explaining it. It's 'explaining it away.

ResearchBlogging.orgFord, T., Brignall, T., VanValey, T., & Macaluso, M. (2009). The Unmaking of Prejudice: How Christian Beliefs Relate to Attitudes Toward Homosexuals Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 48 (1), 146-160 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2009.01434.x

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Two new research networks devoted to atheism and secularism

Via the Boston Globe comes news of a couple of new networks for research into atheism and secularism.

In the UK, there's the Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network. This was set up in November last year by Lois Lee, a sociology graduate student at Cambridge University. The idea is to centralise and facilitate non-religion and secularity research, and they have a conference scheduled for later this year.

In the USA, the Center for Atheist Research is looking to investigate the atheist experience in the US, where they are a decided minority. To kick off, there's a few surveys on the home that they're asking visitors to fill in.

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It's official: praying for sick people doesn't help

Every few years, a group based at Hertford College at Oxford puts together a statistical analysis of all the studies conducted to date that have looked at whether praying for sick people helps them get better (or at least stay alive).

The latest has just been published, and it contains something pretty radically new in their conclusions: the evidence is now so clear cut that they think that no more studies should be done. The book is shut. Praying for sick people simply doesn't work.

Now, the odd thing is that there haven't actually been any new studies on this since their last report, back in 2007. So why the change of heart? There are a couple of reasons.

First off, this analysis is done under the auspices of the Cochrane Collaboration, which is an international group of experts devoted to pooling together the results of clinical trials to answer medical questions with unprecedented precision. The Cochrane Collaboration sets out the guidelines for the best ways to do this.

Last year, they upgraded their guidelines, a recommended a better statistical method (technical note: they used a random effects model this time, rather than fixed effects model). The previous analysis found a hint that praying for sick people might actually help them live longer. The improved analysis squashes that idea.

And the other new thing is some information on one of the studies they had previously included. This one looked not at death but the opposite: birth. The premise of the study was that people in the US, Canada and Australia prayed for couples undergoing in vitro fertilization. The result was, apparently, a doubling of the fertility rate in those couples who got prayed for - a fantastic increase.

I say 'apparently' because it turns out that the study was a fraud. Not only that, but the guy who ran the prayer groups was later jailed for an unrelated fraud. Strike one for the power of prayer.

Now, overturning the conclusions on technical grounds might make some people suspicious. Perhaps this is just a bunch of cynical scientists looking for an excuse to bury data they don't like.

But you'd be wrong. The lead author, Leanne Roberts, is not a scientist at all but in fact Chaplain of Hertford College. In previous editions of their analysis they were actually quite hopeful that they might see an effect.

All credit to them, they took a good hard look and the evidence and concluded that there was nothing there.

_______________________________________________________________________________________ Roberts L, Ahmed I, Hall S, & Davison A (2009). Intercessory prayer for the alleviation of ill health. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2) DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000368.pub3.

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