Field of Science

Religious prompts make people more obedient

Submission and obedience are prominent themes in the major monotheisms. However, until now no-one has tested whether religion can actually make people more obedient.

Vassilis Saroglou, a psychologist at Université catholique de Louvain, conducted a clever priming study. The gist of it was that the subjects were asked to write a short essay, which was then marked by another (imaginary) subject. The marker always gave a rather scathing review.

Then the subject was asked to choose some questions for the marker. They could chose from a mix of easy, medium, or difficult questions.

For half of the subjects, the researcher asked them to select difficult questions, in retribution. Also, half the subjects were given a subliminal religious prime, making four groups in total.

And this is what happened. If you look at those subjects that were left to make their own minds up, you can see that those without the religious prime had a slight tendency to choose the more difficult questions. Those with the religious prime were slightly forgiving.

But when the experimenter actually asked them to take revenge, the pattern reversed. Although both groups were more vengeful, those who had been primed with religion flipped from being least vengeful to most vengeful.

It seems that, when the subjects were left to choose for themselves, the religious prime tended to make them more forgiving. But when the experimenter asked for revenge, they complied willingly.

Now, this doesn't necessarily apply to religion in general. The subjects were psychology undergrads at a Belgian University. Although their religious affiliations aren't disclosed, we can take a guess.

But what this does show very nicely is that religion can have complicated, double-edged effects.

ResearchBlogging.orgSaroglou, V., Corneille, O., & Van Cappellen, P. (2009). “Speak, Lord, Your Servant Is Listening”: Religious Priming Activates Submissive Thoughts and Behaviors International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 19 (3), 143-154 DOI: 10.1080/10508610902880063

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Why should government welfare mean less religion?

It looks like my paper in Journal of Religion and Society should be published any day now! I'll post a summary here when it is - this post is by way of a bit of background.

Here's a big question: why are there more religious people in some countries than others? To some extent, that's easy to explain. Richer countries tend to have fewer religious people. But why, for example, is the USA so religious relative to European countries?

This was a question that Anthony Gill and Erik Lundsgaarde tackled by in 2004. They analysed the data from a range of countries, and found that the greater proportion of GDP that was spent on government welfare, the more non-religious people there were and the lower church attendance was. This held true even after statistically adjusting for other factors, like per-capita GDP, urbanization, government regulation of religion, and religious pluralism.

Now, this might explain why the USA is less religious than Europe. But what explains the link? Gill and Lundsgaarde's explanation seems unlikely to me.

They reckon that religion provides a service, the provision of welfare, and that with the availability of government welfare the demand for religion falls away. In other words, they're thinking within the 'rational choice' theory of religion.

Maybe there's some truth to their theory. It might well explain why people stop going to church. But it doesn't really explain why people stop believing in God. And people go to church for all sorts of reasons, other than the hope of a handout.

There are some other tidbits of information that give a different perspective. Pippa Norris, in a book also published in 2004 (Sacred & Secular), suggested that the major reason people turn to religion as a psychological buffer to hardship and adversity.

Now put this with a third paper, the controversial publication in 2005 of a paper that claimed that religious countries had worse 'societal health'. That paper, by Gregory S Paul, was published in the Journal of Religion and Society.

Paul found that religious countries were worse on a range of outcomes, like murder rate, infant mortality, teenage pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases.

Could this explain the link between welfare and religiosity? Perhaps it's not simply that people choose to get their handouts from the government, so give up going to church. Perhaps government welfare programmes are simply quite effective in creating societies that are less stressful places to live.

Maybe those governments that spend national wealth on reducing hardship also reduce the personal tragedies that draw people into religion. That's the hypoethesis that I wanted to test.


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

Paul, Gregory S (2006). Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look Journal of Religion and Society, 7
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The more government interferes with religion, the less satisfaction it brings you

It's well known that, if you take a cross section of a typical western society, the people who are most likely to say that they are happy and satisfied with their lives are the religious. That's a fact that's often put forward as an argument for the government to encourage religious involvement.

Marta Elliott (University of Nevada) and R David Hayward (Duke University) have analysed data from 65 countries in the World Values Survey to see how 'life satisfaction', religious identity and attendance, and government regulation of religion interact.

What they found was pretty interesting. After controlling for a range of other factors that influence happiness, they found that having a religious identity (that is, being a self-declared 'religious person', as opposed to a non-religious person or an atheist), was indeed linked to satisfaction. The effect is quite strong - being religious is about half as effective as being married.

What's more, the more your government regulates civil, religious and political freedom, the stronger the association is. Highly regulated countries make for happier religious people.

Then they looked at religious attendance. Here too, they found a link between attendance and happiness. In countries with low regulation, people who attend religious services more often tend to be more satisfied with their lives.

But in countries with high regulation, the relationship flips. In highly regulated countries, regular attenders at religious services are actually less satisfied with their lives. It seems that government encouragement of religious worship can actually end up with people going to church against their preferences.

There's another point to be drawn from this analysis. At first blush, you would take it as evidence that religious people are more satisfied. That might be so, but that's not what's been shown here.

That's because they control for other factors that affect happiness. For example, being educated, or employed, or married also increased happiness. But all of these factors also interact with religion. If religious identity is lower in educated or employed people, then the net result is hard to predict.

What's more, they found differences among the religions. While protestants and Buddhists were a happy bunch, Catholics, 'Independent' Christians and Muslims were less happy than average. Is this a function of their religion, or other cultural factors at work. There are, after all, more people with 'no religion' in societies where Protestantism or Buddhism prevail...


ResearchBlogging.orgElliott, M., & Hayward, R. (2009). Religion and Life Satisfaction Worldwide: The Role of Government Regulation Sociology of Religion DOI: 10.1093/socrel/srp028

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Christians have a strange affinity for Islamists - mortality salience and the response to islamic threats

When you remind people that they're going to die, it affects their thinking. There's a whole field of study, Terror Management Theory, dedicated to it.

One of the things it does, so the theory goes, is trigger something called 'cultural worldview defence'. It makes you cling to the values you are comfortable with.

It also tends to make people more religious, as Ara Norenzayan and Ian Hansen showed a couple of years ago.

Now they're back with another study that looked at a related question: what effect does reminding people about death (they call it 'mortality salience') have on attitudes to foreign religions?

It could go two ways. The fear of foreigners could trigger hostility, but religious solidarity might over-ride that, even if it was a foreign religion.

So what they did was to ask their Canadian test subjects, a mix of non-religious and religious (mostly Christian, none Muslim), to rate a virulently anti-western essay, allegedly by an Islamic visiting student. Prior to doing that, they were asked to think either about dying, or watching telly (the experimenters took pains to add in a bunch of other tasks, so the subjects didn't guess what was going on).

In the control condition, where subjects were not made to think about death and so weren't 'mortality salient', there was no difference between the reactions of religious and non-religious to the essay.

And when exposed to death thoughts, the result for the non-religious was as expected. Those who were 'mortality salient' became more hostile to the Islamic essay.

But that didn't happen with the religious. Their attitude didn't change (in some experiments, they actually warmed slightly to the islamist).

They ruled out a few potential explanations. It wasn't anything to do with political opinions or self esteem, and the groups didn't differ in their response to the death prompt. It wasn't that the non-religious thought more about death as a result, for example.

According to Norenzayan and Hansen, what's going on here is that two processes are working in opposition. The religious have the same 'fear of foreigners' response as the non-religious, but they also are sympathetic to the religious message.

In other words, fear of death makes Christians open to the idea of the imposition of religion onto society, even when the message is coming from a foreign religion.

In case you're curious, here's the essay they had to rate. You can see why Christians might be strangely attracted to it, because it has a lot of ideas in it that fit snugly with Christianity.
The problem with the Western world is the lack of faith. It is for that exact reason that the West will never triumph over the Islamic world. A person with faith is by definition a stronger person than one who has nothing to look up to beyond themselves. The West has a lot to offer economically to try to fill the void in people’s hearts, but ultimately will fall behind in a true cultural war against a culture that offers conviction, offers hope for something bigger than more money or empty pleasures. Religion in the west does not offer real comfort and a true path for their believers as they do in the nations of Islam, and the important values are neglected in the West and emphasized in the Islamic world.

History shows that cultures, which offered monetary and quality of (material) life advantages at the expense of true spiritual path, eventually fell before religious passion (e.g., Greece and Rome). And we all know that history repeats itself. The signs that the wheel is starting to turn are already around us.

Norenzayan, A., Dar-Nimrod, I., Hansen, I., & Proulx, T. (2009). Mortality salience and religion: divergent effects on the defense of cultural worldviews for the religious and the non-religious European Journal of Social Psychology, 39 (1), 101-113 DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.482

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Atheists also have a sense of awe and wonder

Cardinal Cormack Murphy O'Connor caused a stir last month with his claim that atheists are not fully human because they don't have a sense of transcendental. Now, atheists mostly aren't transcendental almost by definition - the word refers to a belief in something for which there is no evidence.

But do atheists also lack more common human emotions, like a sense of awe and wonder? After all, these emotions are also irrational - they depend upon imbuing a quality to objects that isn't intrinsic to them. The sense of awe exists only in the eye (or rather, mind) of the beholder.

Catherine Caldwell-Harris, a psychologist at Boston University, ran a small study that compared the spiritual beliefs of atheists with Christians and Buddhists. The unsurprising news was that they all scored equally on values like whether they find meaning in their life experiences, and whether they thought their life had a sense of purpose.

The atheists were also given a free-response question, which asked them "Have you ever felt wonderment or felt as if you were part of something greater than yourself?"

71% of them answered "yes". Of these, half felt this way about nature, and nearly a third about science. When asked, 46% attributed these feelings to 'science', and 17% to the universe, or a feeling of something greater than themselves. A third left that one blank though.

Why don't the atheists believe in gods? Overwhelmingly, they said it was due to a preference for logic and rationality. Which brings us back to Cardinal O'Connor. Yes, atheists are not transcendental. But they're no less human for all that.

And, for those who missed it, here's Cardinal O'Connor explaining why he thinks atheists are less than human...

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Are religious people more co-operative? How to prove what you want by careful experimental design

Two new studies have looked into the question of whether religious people are more co-operative and come to opposite conclusions. Put together, they show very nicely just how complicated this seemingly simple question really is - and they also shine some light onto what effects religion really has on behaviour.

The best thing about them is that they were both done by the same guy, Ali Ahmed at Växjö University in Sweden.

Both studies used the same basic setup. He got people to play the 'Public Goods' game, which is a standard game used to test co-operativeness. The basic idea is that you get put in a group of three and everyone is given some money, which they can either stick in a common pot or keep to themselves. Everything that gets put in the pot gets increased by 50%, and then shared back equally.

The tricky bit is that this is all done in complete anonymity. Now, the rational thing to do in this game is to keep all your money for yourself. That's the strategy that gives the best payout on average.

But in fact that's not what people tend to do. They tend to put at least some money in. Quite why they do that no-one really knows. It might be simply that our minds aren't geared up for this kind of artificial, one-shot, anonymous transaction. It's the cognitive equivalent of a visual illusion.

If you're religious, though, the calculation shifts. Nothing that a religious person does is truly anonymous. Since they often believe they'll get a supernatural reward for good behaviour, it makes sense for them to contribute to the pot, even if they don't get back as much as they put in.

Well, that's the theory at least. Ahmed set out to test it.

In the first study, he ran the experiment with groups of economics students in Mexico, Sweden and India - culturally Catholic, Protestant, and Hindu. A good cultural cross section.

In all three places, there was absolutely no difference between the religious and the non-religious students. You can see in the graph what happened (the numbers at the bottom refer to the numbers of tokens contributed - they got to convert them to money at the end of the experiment).

The second experiment was done in India only, but compared two different groups of students. The first group were social science students, but the second group were 'imams in training' from the local madrasahs.

This time there was a clear difference. The religious students were more co-operative than the secular students. They contributed more on average, and hardly any religious students contributed zero (2%, versus 15% for the secular students).

So why the big difference? There are a few possible reasons.

It could be that people who sign up to religious schools are different to religious people in general. Maybe people who want to make a career out of it are more generous than average. However, other studies consistently find no difference between religious and non-religious people in these kinds of economics games.

But there's another factor that's been shown to make a big difference. The religious students were actually tested in their religious schools. It might be that this environment, rather than their beliefs, made them contribute more.

The simple act of flicking up subliminal flashes of religious words can make people co-operate more, even if they are not religious. There's some fascinating new evidence that religious environments can make people more co-operative, but that the effects are short-lived (more on that in another post).

What's more, the religious students knew that their co-players were also from the same religious school. One effect of religion seems to be to increase in-group bonding (and out-group hostility) - see The Hand Grenade Experiment, for example. They might give more because they felt a closer affinity and loyalty to the other players.

So there is still research to be done on this. But what these studies does is add to the body of work showing the same thing. That simple belief in supernatural rewards (or punishment) doesn't actually seem to have any effect on behaviour.

Religion can, it seems, change behaviour, but the reasons are not at all straightforward.

Ahmed, A., & Salas, O. (2009). Is the hand of God involved in human cooperation? International Journal of Social Economics, 36 (1/2), 70-80 DOI: 10.1108/03068290910921190

Ahmed, A. (2009). Are Religious People More Prosocial? A Quasi-Experimental Study with Pupils in a Rural Community in India. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 48 (2), 368-374 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2009.01452.x

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Out of control: how anxiety over loss of control can increase belief in God... and government!

The recent meeting of the Convention of the Association for Psychological Science had a session on the cognitive science of religion. One of the presentations was from Kristin Laurin on work by her and Aaron C Kay at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

I didn't see the session, but I have dug up the papers describing their work, and it's corking stuff.

What they set out to investigate was whether people who feel like they are not in control of their lives, and feel anxious as a result, turn to external supports to reduce their anxiety. In fact, what they suggest is that everybody has a preferred level of control that makes them feel comfortable. To reach that point, you can either convince yourself that you are in control, or you can convince yourself that the something else (God, perhaps, or a benevolent government) is in control.

If they're right, then making people feel like they aren't in control should increase their belief in and support for a benevolent God or government.

They've put together quite body of work in support of this. In the first paper they published last year, they showed in a bundle of related studies that this seems to be the case. For example:

They showed that making people think about events they had no control over radically increased their belief in God, but only when that God was presented as a controlling God. What's more, this happened because people who were made to feel like they had no control actually increased their belief that the Universe was not actually random.

The subjects compensated for their loss of personal control by increasing their belief that something else (God, in this case) was in control.

Kay and his colleagues also looked at data from the World Values Survey and showed that people who think they have no real control over their lives also think that governments should take more responsibility. Interestingly, the effect disappears in countries with corrupt governments.
Making people feel like they have no control also makes people resistant to change (but only for people who trust the government).

What's more, it also works in the other direction. Reducing trust in the government make people more likely to think that they personally can have control over their lives.

They sat subjects in front of a computer, where they had to press a key to make a green circle appear. If they had first shown them a video portraying the government as incompetent at keeping order, then the subjects were more likely to report that they were in control of the circle (in fact, none of them were).

In the second paper, they take these ideas a bit further. What they wanted to show was that the anxiety only leads to an increase in God if your sense of personal control was threatened.

What they did was ask their subjects to visualise an anxiety-inducing story - something about being alone at night and pursued. For half, they story ended with them saving themselves by their own actions - they phoned the police. For the other half, the police just turned up. This was the group that had their sense of personal control threatened.

What they found is shown in this graph. People in the low personal control group who felt anxious after the story were much more religious than people shown the same story but who didn't feel anxious.

For people who were made to feel in control, it didn't matter whether the story made them anxious or not. It didn't change their belief in God.

But there's something interesting when you look closer at these results. You can see it easier if you change the x-variable. That's what I've done in this second graph. Same data, just presented differently.

You can see that what seems to be happening is that anxiety does indeed seem to increase religiosity in the low control group. But the striking thing is the very low level of religiosity in the non-anxious members of the low control group.

What could be causing this? Maybe it's that the people who have the lowest levels of belief in god are those who stay chilled even when made to think about a scary story!

ResearchBlogging.orgKay, A., Gaucher, D., Napier, J., Callan, M., & Laurin, K. (2008). God and the government: Testing a compensatory control mechanism for the support of external systems. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95 (1), 18-35 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.95.1.18

LAURIN, K., KAY, A., & MOSCOVITCH, D. (2008). On the belief in God: Towards an understanding of the emotional substrates of compensatory control Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44 (6), 1559-1562 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.07.007

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Why Theos wants us all to think more about death

Theos is an evangelical advocacy group based in the UK. Their latest survey was on how much time British people spend thinking about death, and their conclusion was that we don't talk about death nearly enough. Now, there are some interesting findings in the survey, as the British Humanist Association points out.

But a more salient question is why Theos wants to get us all to talk about death more? Why encourage people to think about death, when they seem perfectly happy (happier, even) not thinking about it.

Could it be that they hope that it will make people more religious? Because there's pretty good evidence that the more stressed out you make people about death, the more religious they get.

The best demonstration of this comes from a cluster of studies by Ara Norenzayan and Ian Hansen, at the University of British Columbia.

In one study, half the participants were asked to write a paragraph about what they thought happens when you die. That got them thinking about death. The other half wrote about food. Then they did some unrelated stuff, and filled in a long questionnaire. Buried in the middle of the questionnaire were a couple of questions on how religious they were, and how strongly they believed in god.

Sure enough (as shown in the figure above), those people who had been made to think about death reported that they were more religious and had a stronger belief in God.

In another study, participants were shown three different versions of a story about a child, which were designed triggered thoughts about religion, death or a neutral scenario. They were then asked to read a news report about a scientific study of prayer. Those people who were manipulated to think about death found the study to be more credible and the efficacy of prayer to be more believable. Surprisingly, there was no effect in the people who were made to think about religion.

They did some similar studies with people who were adherents of other religions, including Buddhists, and found similar results. One interesting finding, however, was that death primes had no effect on the non-religious and atheists in the study group.

There are other studies that have found similar things, and the results makes sense. We know that religion is where people turn when they are frightened and afraid. But this study gives the hard facts.

When you make people think about death, not only do they become more religious, but they also become more open to religious claims. Fertile territory for an evangelical advocacy group!

Norenzayan, A. (2006). Belief in Supernatural Agents in the Face of Death Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32 (2), 174-187 DOI: 10.1177/0146167205280251

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Will the religious inherit the earth?

This month's New Humanist has an interview with Economist journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, who have a new book out arguing that the world is undergoing a religious revival (God is Back: How the Revival of Religion is Changing the World). Here's what Micklethwaite says:

"We have seen that religion is not going away, that it is in many ways a partner with modernity and not in conflict with it. Many people in Europe, ourselves included, missed the signs that religion was coming back. It took 9/11 for us to take notice, but as a phenomenon it started well before. Even as a Catholic I grew up in an environment which completely accepted the notion that modernity and religion are incompatible - we all thought that if religion did survive it would be a kind of subtle Anglicanism, some version of a doubting Graham Greeneish religion. The evidence shows we were wrong."

Most of it sounds like hand-waving stuff, but it's an interesting question - and luckily there is some serious sociological research into it (not a lot, it has to be said). Most notable is Eric Kaufmann, at Birckbeck College London. I blogged on his latest research into secularisation trends in the US earlier this year, but he also has a recent paper looking at global secularisation (ref below).

What he did first was to look at how some of the key features of modernization (GDP and average education levels) relate to religiosity. What he found was that these developmental indicators predicted the levels of religiosity in poorer countries, but they were much less predictive in wealthy countries.

You can get a feel for what's going on in this graph of the percentage religious versus GDP. Religiosity at first it declines with increasing GDP, but then the scatter increases so that, in wealthy countries, you can't guess religiosity from GDP.

He then looked at personal factors that could explain religiosity. He found that richer people were less religious in both rich and poor countries

But people who have children or are married are more likely to be religious. What's more, this effect was stronger in rich countries than in poor countries. Overall, personal factors in general seemed to be more important in rich countries.

What this suggests is that increasing wealth doesn't necessarily lead to increasing secularization. There is clearly some other unknown factors that cause these differences between wealthy countries.

One important one, which he couldn't investigate for lack of data, was income inequality. His paper is built on earlier work by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in their 2004 book, Sacred and Secular.

They showed a striking relationship among wealthy countries between income inequality and how often people pray (this figure is from their book).

So increasing modernisation doesn't necessarily lead to secularisation, but what about that other major demographic factor: birth rates?

Kaufmann shows not only that religious people have more children, but that this effect is particularly important in wealthy countries. What's more, in poor countries, national average levels of religiosity also affect fertility: the more religious your country is, the more children you are likely to have.

As a result, trying to figure out what the future holds for secularisation is particularly tricky. What he suggests is that a model like the one on the right here might go some way to helping understand the process.

As 'human development' rises due to modernization, it results in less religion (in the right contexts) and also lower fertility.

Religion, on the other hand, increases fertility, and in a feedback loop fertility increases the numbers of the religious.

Given the right conditions, it could easily be the case that religious fertility tips the balance, and leads to a decrease in secularisation in coming decades. It all depends, I guess, on what the 'conversion' rate from religion to non-religion will be in low and middle income nations. And that, in turn, will depend on what those 'other factors' are.

ResearchBlogging.orgEric Kaufmann (2008). Human Development and the Demography of Secularization in Global Perspective Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, 4: Article 1

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Of secularism and correlations

Well, my last post caused quite a stir - nearly a thousand comments on Digg and Reddit, plus the ones here and elsewhere on the web. If you're one of the 60,000 people who stopped by yesterday, this post is for you. If you're not, well business as normal tomorrow! (I've got a bunch of interesting studies to blog.)

Of the critical comments, a couple of themes that cropped up time after time, and so I want to take the time to respond to them: the first is the complaint that 'atheism is not secularism', and the second is that 'correlation is not causation'.

What is 'secularism'?

Some people complained that it was secularism, not atheism, that was associated with peaceful societies. Never mind the fact that the data I showed was for atheists, this argument is actually comes from a misunderstanding of what 'secularism' means. Because the US is a secular state, some people have got the idea that secularism means only the separation of church and state, like in the US. That's wrong.

Secularism can mean that, but it also has wider meaning, like the following:
  • Miriam Webster: indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations
  • Your Dictionary: worldly spirit, views, or the like; esp., a system of doctrines and practices that disregards or rejects any form of religious faith and worship
A secular state is a state in which religion plays no role in government. A secular society is one in which religion plays no role in society. The US has a secular state, but not a secular society. Denmark does not have a secular state, but it does have a secular society. Secular humanism is the atheist form of humanism.

In social science, secularization refers to the gradual reduction in religious faith that occurred in the 20th century, especially in Europe, that has lead to a secular society.

Correlation is not causation

Just because secular societies are also more peaceful, doesn't mean that atheism is the cause, of course. That's a valid point, and I certainly didn't want to suggest that it is.

The irony is that I was showing just how correlation is not causation, a theme I talked about in an earlier post. Let me explain. There are a number of studies, mostly from the USA, which show that religious people score higher on a variety of prosocial attributes (they don't take drugs, they a dutiful, etc). But there's a simple reason for this. In a non-secular society, like the USA, dutiful people are religious. It's expected of them.

So the idea that we should spread religion to make the world a better place is based upon dodgy correlations. The analysis I posted helps to show that. Secular societies are, in many ways, better places to live than non-secular ones.

Now this doesn't mean that atheism makes for better people. Certainly not. We know that stressful situations make people more religious (and I have a couple of posts coming up on that topic). But it does suggest that better people tend to be atheists. That probably explains a large part of the correlation.

Well, thanks for sticking with this pretty self-indulgent post so far, but I wanted to clear up those couple of points. As a bonus, here's a couple more stats, treated in the same way as previously. The first is the percentage of people who say they are not religious, added to the numbers of outright atheists. The second is the percentage of people who say that god is unimportant in their lives (they rated 1 on a 10 point scale, so these folks hard hardcore atheists).

Incidentally, the p numbers I put on the graphs are a measure of probability. You can think of it as the odds of getting that result by chance (statisticians: it's not quite that, I know!) I calculated them using a two-sample t-test assuming unequal variances.

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Atheist nations are more peaceful

The 2009 Global Peace Index has just been released. It's basically a ranking of how turbulent and warlike a country is.

They put it together by assessing 23 criteria, including foreign wars, internal conflicts, respect for human rights, the number of murders, the number of people in jail, the arms trade, and degrees of democracy (Guardian).

You can see a world map of peace at the Vision of Humanity website, and also take a look at country rankings for 2009, as well as earlier years.

New Zealand came top this year. Hmm, New Zealand is a pretty non-religious country. In fact, if you eyeball the rankings, the top few countries are all pretty non-religious.

What I've done in the figures here is to take data from the World Values Survey on the percentage of people in each country who say they are a committed atheist, and also on the percentage of people who say that they go to a religious service at least once a month.

Then I split the sample into two equal groups, based on their score on the Global Peace Index. The ones in the 'Peaceful' group are countries with a GPI score less than 1.8.

Sure enough, peaceful countries have more atheists and fewer regular worshippers. The difference is highly statistically significant (P=0.001 or less) - in other words it's real, not just a chance finding.

Now, there are several possible reasons for this. It could be that people living in turbulent countries turn to religion, or it could be that religion is not a good way to structure modern society. Or it could be that some other factor or combination of factors (democracy? free speech? education? government welfare?) generates citizens who are both peaceful and non-religious.

Whatever, it's another blow to the idea that secularization leads to social meltdown. Atheist countries are, in fact more peaceful.

Follow up post: Of Secularism and Correlations (also, what the word 'secular' means).

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Religious schools result in more abortions, but absence of religion lowers abortion rate

A new analysis of data from the US National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health has revealed no relationship between how religious a woman is and whether her first pregnancy ends in an abortion.

But the study did find that women who went to private religious schools were more likely to have had an abortion.

The effect of schools was really dramatic. A woman who had gone to a religious school was 5 times more likely to have had an extra-marital abortion than a woman who went to a state school.

On the face of it this is a pretty strange result. The researcher, sociologist Amy Adamczyk at City University of New York, thinks it may be down to social pressures against extramarital births:

"Religious school attendance is not necessarily indicative of conservative religious beliefs because students attend these schools for a variety of reasons," Adamczyk said. "These schools tend to generate high levels of commitment and strong social ties among their students and families, so abortion rates could be higher due to the potential for increased feelings of shame related to an extramarital birth." (Press release)
There's another possibility, of course. It might be that students who go to religious schools have restricted access to contraception. This would fit with an earlier study which found that teenagers who make virginity pledges are no more likely to abstain from sex, but are less likely to use contraceptives. It also fits with evidence that more religious countries have higher abortion rates.

So what else lowered the abortion rate? Well, the press release and a lot of the media reports picked up on the fact that Protestants were less likely than Catholics and women of other faiths to have an abortion.

But what they don't mention is the fact that having no religion was just as effective at reducing abortions!

Here are the data: Conservative Protestants were 48% less likely to have their first pregnancy end in abortion. The reduction in women with no religion was 43%. Those two numbers are statistically indistinguishable.

Now, this is not because women with 'no religion' were better educated, or from wealthier homes, or had higher college aspirations, or any of the extenuating circumstances that might otherwise account for the effect. All these were taken into account in the analysis.

Nope, it's freedom from religion, pure and simple, that led to fewer abortions.

ResearchBlogging.orgAmy Adamczyk (2009). Understanding the Effects of Personal and School Religiosity on the Decision to Abort a Premarital Pregnancy Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 50 (2), 180-195

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Globalisation makes a more moral society? An excerpt from 'The Evolution of God'

Robert Wright has a new book coming out, The Evolution of God. If you want to know more about it, Salman Hameed has an excellent round up of reviews.

The Atlantic Monthly has published an excerpt, which takes a look at the origins of Christianity through the lens of the modern marketing industry. It's quite a cute angle, if all a bit vapid if you look too closely.

But here's the bit that caught my eye. It's towards the end, where Wright talks about how moral good emerges from enlightened self interest.

... history expands the range of non-zero-sum relationships—relationships in which two parties can both win if they collaborate, or lose if they don’t. Technological evolution (wheels, roads, cuneiform, alphabets, trains, microchips) has placed more and more people in non-zero-sum relationship with more and more other people at greater and greater distances—and often across ethnic, national, and religious bounds.

What he's arguing here is we as a society are more moral these days than we were in the past, even the recent past. And the reason for this is that society is so much more tightly integrated. These days we have so much more to lose, and so much more to gain, by assuming liberty, equality and fraternity.

All this is very relevant to discussion of where morality comes from. Theologians argue that if God does not exist, then there's no rational basis for morality. Clearly, that's not the case.

And if Wright is right, then not only can morality be supported without recourse to God, but our moral society grew naturally from the rational application of common sense. Religion bought into this, but didn't originate it.

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