Field of Science

Why religious communes succeed and secular ones fail

Here's an interesting graph. It's from a study comparing religious and secular communes in 19th century USA. Michael was talking about this study in the comments so I thought it would be nice to show the data and talk it through.

It looks at how long each commune lasted, and compares it with the onerous commitments (everything from giving up certain kinds of food, to abstaining from sex, to cutting ties with the outside world) that each commune demanded from its members.

There's two things to notice here. First, the religious communes lasted a lot longer than the secular ones. Second, the more 'costly requirements' imposed, the longer the commune lasted - but only for religious communes, not secular ones.

What's going on here? Well, the idea is that the 'costly requirements' allow potential members to send a signal. If you are prepared to put up with all the arbitrary rules that make your life difficult, then that's good evidence that you really, really want to be part of the group. It's a classic 'costly signal'.

So why doesn't it work for secular communes? Sosis argues that religious rituals are more powerful, because of the supernatural connection (p230):

Thus, it appears that the relative success of religious communes is a result of religious rituals and constraints being imbued with sanctity, whereas the rituals and constraints of secular communes are not consecrated. As Rappaport (1971) stated, “to invest social conventions with sanctity is to hide their arbitrariness in a cloak of seeming necessity”

I think that's part of the explanation. A costly commitment has to be justified if people are going to accept it as a price of group membership. For religious communes, it's fairly straightforward. You can argue it's what the god demands - and who can prove otherwise?

For secular communes, there has to be a 'real world' justification. If you are going to ask people to hand over their possessions, you'd better have thought through your rationalization pretty well.

You can see this in Sosis' data. 90% of secular communes have five or fewer costly commitments, whereas half of religious communes have six or more. Secularists simply aren't attracted to this kind of mentality. It's a tough sell.

But I also think there's something else going on here. For people to join a group and stay in it, they have to get something out of it. Crucially, they have to get more out of it than they put in.

For the religious, there's a lot to gain from being in a religious commune. Typically, they might feel that they'll be rewarded by their god in this life or the next. And, arguably, the stricter the group the more rewards they might feel they're going to get.

For the secular, all rewards are solely in the material realm (I don't mean possessions, I mean rewards like being among friends you can trust). And the potential payoff from group membership has to be greater than the costs of membership.

After all, that's the whole point of costly signalling. It acts to screen out people who aren't really committed to the group. For the secular, there just isn't very much point to being a commune member. It's a religious idea, which has been taken up by idealistic secularists only for them to see their vision fail.


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

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Religion as a costly signal: why the idea is bunk

In the previous post I mentioned the idea of costly signalling. And that's prompted this post, which has been gestating for a while, about the 'costly signalling' explanation for religion. I think the idea is fundamentally flawed, and to explain why I'm going to lean on an essay by Jeff Schloss, who's an evolutionary biologist and ex-member of the Discovery Institute! (You can read more about that bizarre story here).

A costly signal is a cunning evolutionary device, and the classic example is the male peacock's tail. The elaborate tail imposes a cost, but (so the theory goes), it also demonstrates to potential mates the male's genetic fitness. So the guys with the big tails get the girls, and the investment in the tail pays off.

The crucial feature of a costly signal is that it's hard to fake. Keep that in mind...

There is a theory that religious rituals evolved because they're a costly signal. To understand how this works, first you have to accept that religious beliefs encourage people to be honest. (This isn't really backed up by the evidence - the evidence is that environmental primes are effective but not supernatural beliefs in themselves. But anyway...)

So, the theory goes that being altruistic is a potentially a good thing, because people will treat you better. But they can only do that if they can trust you. And that's where costly signalling comes in.

The idea is that all the rituals involved with religion are actually a kind of costly signal. Only people who truly have supernatural beliefs will devote the time and energy to religious rituals, and so you can tell the true believers by their outward show of devotion.

Anybody spot the flaw in that one?

OK, so the obvious problem is that it's a signal that's easy to fake. If going to religious services and pretending to be pious gets you and advantage, then that's what cheats will do.

So, says, Jeff Schloss, we can move up a level. He suggests that deep-seated, involuntary actions are the true costly signals:

Another way—sometimes attending ritual but often contrasted with it—is the widespread, varied, and in many respects distinctive existence of highly visible, involuntary, dramatic manifestations of religious experience: Glossalalia (“speaking in tongues”), convulsive weeping (“veil of tears”), contagious laughing or singing (“holy laughter” or “singing in the spirit”), fainting (“slain in the spirit”), trembling/shaking (“under the power”), religious trances, spontaneous bleeding, etc.

The existence of these ecstatic human behaviors, especially in the religious context, warrants both proximal (neurophysiological) and ultimate (evolutionary) explanation. Unlike involuntary displays such as blushing or piloerection, which merely signal emotional arousal, or vasomotor fainting/epileptic seizures, which are not associated with particular cognitions—these autonomic manifestations are taken to reflect the experience of a very specific (and sublime) reality.

To put it bluntly, when religious people freak out they are giving a hard-to-fake religious signal. The analogy is with smiling - a smile is hard to fake.

Frankly, I'm skeptical. Firstly, these kinds of behaviours are relatively rare, and there's no evidence that people who act like this are regarded as more trustworthy. There's certainly no evidence that they are more trustworthy.

Secondly, smiling might be hard to fake but people who have an incentive can certainly do it. There's no shortage of con men out there who can do it. If you trust people because they 'have an honest smile' then you are a ready-made dupe.

Lastly, and more fundamentally, I think the whole concept is fundamentally flawed because there is no evidence that religious beliefs are linked to altruistic behaviour. Religious priming is, certainly. If you put religious images up, or prompt people with religious messages, then they behave better. But this works with atheists just as well as with the religious. Beliefs have nothing to do with it (Shariff & Norenzayan showed this back in 2007).

What's more, what's more, people tend to justify and rationalize their bad behaviour. Since they also tend to create God in their own image, they can easily co-opt their God into their own rationalizations.

If they can do that, then the whole idea of costly signalling is fatally skewered. If religious beliefs are not linked to altruistic behaviour, then engaging in religious rituals can't possibly be a signal of good intent.

Schloss himself makes this point, and I think I'll leave the last word to him:

It is possible that these highly contagious religious displays are not adaptations for human flourishing at all, but are viral memes parasitizing reward systems that have been selected for other purposes or distorted by various deprivations. Although I have been arguing that this is not the case and that religious affections along with their distinctive manifestations play an important role in promoting cooperative commitment, still, they are notoriously vulnerable to a final, quinternary level of cheating: self-deception. Unlike intentional hypocrisy or consciously manipulative employment of costly signals (Cronk 1994), the best way to fake a hard-to-fake signal is to be sincerely, though inauthentically persuaded of ones own commitment.

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Why do atheists have fewer kids?

Here's something interesting from the papers last week. First we've got the philosopher Julian Baggini, an atheist, arguing in The Guardian for the virtues of a childless life. Then, in response, Ed West writes in The Telegraph arguing that atheism is facing a kind of demographic implosion, as the religious inexorably overwhelm them in in the fertility arms race.

Now, this isn't a new argument, but there's precious little research into it. About the only sociologist brave enough to attempt a quantitative prediction is Eric Kaufmann - I blogged about his latest analysis back in June.

But it does give me a handy hook to talk about a chapter in the recent book The Biological Evolution of Religious Mind and Behaviour by Michael Blume - who's done a number of studies into the function of religion from an evolutionary perspective.

First off, some basic stats to give you a feel for what we're talking about here. These are averages across all nations in the World Values Survey, showing the tight light between fertility and religious service attendance.

So is this simply because religions are associated with traditional values? Or maybe that the religious are lower socio-economic status.

It doesn't seem to be so. Blume zooms in to Switzerland, and the data from the census in 2002. Those Jewish and Christian sects that have a higher proportion of the wealthy and educated are actually more fertile than the others.

What's more, traditional sects seem to have lower fertility than the new ones, like Jehova's Witnesses and the New Apostolic Church.

It seems, then, that there is a direct effect of religion on fertility. The question is why that might be so.

From an evolutionary standpoint, it's clear that any trait that increases reproductive success will become more common in the gene pool. Assuming that the demographics we see in the modern translate into the modern world, those genes that favour religion would be more successful.

It's not at all clear to me that we can extrapolate back like that. After all, there's a lot more to reproductive success than churning out children. And modern people have retained a capacity for atheism, which suggests some competing reproductive benefit.

Still, it's worth considering why religion is linked to higher fertility. And it's here that Blume's arguments get really interesting. He suggests that a key factor is honest signalling.

This is the idea that people pay a visible price to get membership of a group, in order to prove that they are committed to the group. The classic example is initiation rites in gang membership.

How does that apply to religion? Well, religions impose a number of obligations on their member - service attendance, food and dress codes, for example. The idea is that these obligations deter those who are not 'true' believers.

There are a number of issues with honest signalling theory as it applies to religion - the jury is still out in the matter (personally, I'm sceptical). But Blume does provide one tantalising piece of evidence.

And that's gender ratios in religious membership. Specifically, the heavy preponderance of women in religious groups, followed next by married men.

The idea is that women have a lot to lose by hooking up with an unfaithful guy. But a male who has made a commitment to the group is sending a signal that he values the group ideals sufficiently to invest the time and effort in going to Church (or whatever). With a bit of luck, that means he's not going to run off with the next available female that crosses his path.

If you want to read that essay yourself, you can download it from Blume's webpage here. It's worth it for the fascinating anecdotes about Darwin and the splendid Faust reference!

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Professional obligations versus personal ethics: what doctors think

In the last post, I reported on a study into whether religious people are more likely to support the Supreme Court to judge matters of right and wrong. Apparently they are. This is in line with the well-known fact that religious people are more likely to have authoritarian natures.

But it doesn't necessarily follow that religious people are more likely to obey authorities if those authorities are religious. There's some good evidence of this from studies of physicians. The most recent has just been published in the journal Academic Medicine.

The study lead was Farr Curlin, from the University of Chicago. Back in 2007 he published a survey which asked US physicians whether they are obliged to refer patients if the patients want a treatment to which they are entitled but which the physician objects to on personal ethical grounds. Abortion is a classic example.

Now, the rules on this are in fact murky. But, as Bernard Dickens, Professor of Health Law and Policy at the University of Toronto, wrote in a paper earlier this year:

The right to conscientious objection is founded on human rights to act according to individuals' religious and other conscience. Domestic and international human rights laws recognize such entitlements. Healthcare providers cannot be discriminated against, for instance in employment, on the basis of their beliefs. They are required, however, to be equally respectful of rights to conscience of patients and potential patients. They cannot invoke their human rights to violate the human rights of others. There are legal limits to conscientious objection. Laws in some jurisdictions unethically abuse religious conscience by granting excessive rights to refuse care. In general, healthcare providers owe duties of care to patients that may conflict with their refusal of care on grounds of conscience. The reconciliation of patients' rights to care and providers' rights of conscientious objection is in the duty of objectors in good faith to refer their patients to reasonably accessible providers who are known not to object.

In other words, if s doctor refuses to provide a service on moral grounds, they have an obligation to refer.

What Curlin found was widespread disagreement with this basic principle among the religious. Nearly half of all physicians with high 'intrinsic religiosity' rejected it, as did 40% of those who went to church twice a month or more. It was rejected by less than 20% of non-religious physicians.

Scroll forward to 2009, and Curlin has done a follow up survey (again in the USA). This time, he specifically asked doctors whether they agreed or disagreed witht he statement "Sometimes physicians have a professional ethical obligation to provide medical services even if they personally believe it would be morally wrong to do so."

The results probably aren't quite what you'd expect.

For Christians versus atheists, there's a clear difference. Christians were more likely to reject the idea that they have a professional obligation to provide services they find immoral.

But Hindus and Muslims were much more open to the idea. In fact they seem more open to the idea of professional obligations trumping personal reservations.

Curlin explains these differences in two ways. Firstly, in cultural terms:

The idea that physicians should never act against conscience follows from a long Western tradition, expressed in the maxim, “Let your conscience be your guide.” This tradition is rooted in part in Catholic moral theology, which says that an individual “must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself."

To me, this doesn't seem very likely. The atheists in his survey probably have mostly a 'Christian culture' heritage. And yet they accept professional obligations.

Curlin also found that immigrants are more likely to prioritise their professional obligations, and writes that:

...this finding may indicate that immigrants make a special effort to accommodate and adapt to what they perceive to be the expectations of the host culture.

It would be interesting to do this study in India, to see if the findings are different. But it might explain the atheists responses - as a minority group, they might be more inclined to see the value of having professional rules that apply to everyone.

Alternatively, it might be that the ones who have the biggest problems with the rules are the Christians. After all, the rules tend to allow medical procedures that are anathema to some religious authorities.

Atheists, on the other hand, have no rule book to follow except the commonly agreed standards of the society in which they live.


ResearchBlogging.orgCurlin, F., Lawrence, R., Chin, M., & Lantos, J. (2007). Religion, Conscience, and Controversial Clinical Practices New England Journal of Medicine, 356 (6), 593-600 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMsa065316

Lawrence RE, & Curlin FA (2009). Physicians' beliefs about conscience in medicine: a national survey. Academic medicine : journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges, 84 (9), 1276-82 PMID: 19707071

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The intimate connection between religion and authoritarianism

It's well known that religious people are more likely to be authoritarian than non-religious people. By 'authoritarian' I mean someone who's predisposed to follow the dictates of a strong leader and traditional, conventional values.

But, in a secular society, this leads to a potential for conflict. How do religious people respond if the government authority contradicts religious authority? A new study suggests that it depends on how firm their moral convictions are.

First off, let me just quote from the paper on the difference between religious and moral conviction:

Theories in moral development suggest that people’s religious beliefs are based more on authorities, rules, etc., whereas people’s moral beliefs are comparatively authority independent (Nucci & Turiel, 1978; Turiel, 2002). Consistent with this idea, religious authorities or institutions determine what is permissible or impermissible and at least some of these determinations evaporate in the absence of authority or institutional support.

Conversely, people’s moral imperatives hold even in the absence of authority or institutional support (Nucci & Turiel, 1978). Moreover, belief in God and a general high level of trust in religion load on the same factor structure as general trust in the state and average trust in the government to handle a host of specific issues (Proctor, 2006).

In short, these results suggest that religiosity reflects a generalized willingness to trust authority, regardless of whether the authority is secular or religious.

To look into this further, they looked into data they got from a survey of a cross-section of around 700 Americans. The topic was physician-assisted suicide, and they wanted to know firstly whether panel supported making it legal, and also whether they trusted the Supreme Court to make the right decision. To tease out the effects of the different factors, they used multiple regression.

So what did they find. Well, basically, the more religious the person was, the more likely they were to agree that "I trust the Supreme Court to make the right decision about whether physician-assisted suicide should be allowed." However, people with strong moral convictions were less likely to trust the judgement of the Supreme Court.

They also tested how fast people answered the question. Both strong religious and moral conviction resulted in faster response times. This seems to suggest that the effect here is visceral and emotional, rather than logical and considered.

So much for their conclusions. Personally, I'm a bit dubious. Religious people might trust the Supreme Court to make the right decision simply because they expect the Supreme Court to agree with them.

So this study leaves a lot unanswered. It's clear that religious people do tend to be authoritarian, but it is not at all clear that that translates into obedience to secular authorities in cases of conflict.

In fact, there's some rather interesting evidence from the world of medicine that this is not at all the case! But that's a topic for the next post.


ResearchBlogging.orgWisneski, D., Lytle, B., & Skitka, L. (2009). Gut Reactions: Moral Conviction, Religiosity, and Trust in Authority Psychological Science, 20 (9), 1059-1063 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02406.x

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How normal is WEIRD?

It's a shocking fact, but pretty much everything we think we know about human behaviour derives from studies of US undergraduates - the psychologists' 'lab rat'! These people are WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) in more ways than one.

A paper from three psychologists at the University of British Columbia lays out in stark detail just how unusual the WEIRDs are, at least from a global perspective. First off, some stats to give you an idea of just how big the problem is. Of studies published in the top psychology journals:

  • 96% of subjects come from Western industrialized countries, which have only 12% of the world's population. And the USA alone accounts for 68% of all study subjects.
  • 99% of the investigators live in these countries, and 73% live in the USA.
  • 67% of US studies, and a staggering 80% of studies in other countries, use a study population comprised solely of psychology undergraduates!

Interestingly, this doesn't simply represent the US lead in science overall. Psychology is simply a much more popular (or well funded) subject in the USA. Whereas 70% of psychology studies come from the USA, only 37% of chemistry studies do.

Does this matter? It sure does!

When studies have been done of people outside the narrow group of WEIRDs, the results are often surprising - and conflict with some cherished theories about evolutionary psychology.

Take, for example, two games that are frequently used to try to understand how people share and co-operate - the Dictator Game and the Ultimatum Game. Studies done in the West have shown that people don't behave rationally in these games - they're more generous than they should be, and willing to take a hit in order to punish offenders.

Cue all sorts of theories about how we've evolved to operate in groups and, 'for the good of the group' are intuitively more trusting than hard rationality would predict.

But when you do these studies in people living in small-scale societies (foragers, subsistence farmers, and the like), you find that the US is a glaring outlier.

The figure shows how much people offer in the Dictator Game. Both players are totally anonymous strangers. The idea is that you need to offer as little as you think you can get away with without making the other player go off in a huff. In the USA, most players offer rather a lot - nearly 50% of what they have. But in small-scale societies, where dealings with strangers are rare, it tends to be much lower.

What these results suggest is that the pro-sociality shown by US undergraduates is not a consequence of evolution at all. Instead, it's something they learn, as a tool to help them exist in a complex society where you frequently have to interact with strangers.

So what do all these revelations mean for the psychology of religion? A couple of things, I think.

Firstly, the Dictator Game and the Ultimatum Game are standard tools to test the effects of religion. The idea is that religion - specifically the idea that a supernatural being is watching you - has an important effect in making people more honest.

So, for example, back in 2007 a study showed that religious priming did indeed increase the pro-sociality of Canadian students (whether or not they were religious themselves). But there was no effect in non-students (often older people). This suggests that the students were still learning the rule book for living in their complex world, and that's why religious priming worked.

And the second thing to consider (and this is something that I always wonder about when reading about studies on religion done in the USA) is that the USA is not typical even among Western industrialized nations.

The US is much more religious than other similar countries, and atheists are far more distrusted. What this means is that, in the US, being religious is a badge that shows you are normal and want to fit in. That you are prosocial, in other words.

So we have endless studies from the US showing that prosocial people tend to be religious. As a result, researchers have concluded that religion helps people to be prosocial. Well, maybe. But I'd like to see those studies conducted in a people other than US psychology undergrads before making my mind up!
Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (in press). The Weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

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A prayer a day to make you grateful

People who pray more are also often more grateful about, well, stuff. For instance, they're more likely to agree that "I have so much in life to be grateful for" (here's a Gratitude Scale, with six other similar questions).

Here's the thing, though. Is it the prayer that makes people grateful, or is it just that people who are grateful are more likely to pray?

It's a classic problem, and the only way to really sort it out is to do an 'interventional' study. That's one in which you take a group of people, put half on one 'treatment' and the other half on another, and see what happens.

Studies like this are pretty rare in sociology, for practical reasons, but that's exactly what Nathaniel Lambert and colleagues from Florida State University have done.

They took a group of about 100 students, almost all women and all of them in a current romantic relationship, and put them in four different groups. The first two groups were asked to pray daily, and the second two were asked to do a task unrelated to prayer. Here's the details of the groups:

  1. Pray daily for the well-being of your partner
  2. Pray daily (with no specific instructions)
  3. Report daily on their activities for the day
  4. Think positive thoughts about their partner

Then they assessed all the participants for their level of gratitude. It seems (although the paper doesn't spell it out) that there weren't any statistically significant differences.

So they lumped together the two 'prayer' groups and the two other groups. That has the effect of increasing the statistical power.

Doing this comparison, they found a significant difference. Those students who were asked to pray daily did become more grateful.

This is a great study simply because it is interventional. What's more, they controlled for 'social desirability' - the tendency for some people to tell you what they think you want to hear. So it's good evidence of genuine cause and effect. But there are a few problems with it that need to be remembered.

Firstly, they excluded all the non-religious people - in other words all though who said they rarely or never prayed. That amounted to about 25% of potential participants. So this is a study of the effect of prayer in people who already see some benefit to it, but who just don't get around to it as often as they might.

Second, the effect is pretty small - about 1.6 units on a scale that stretches up to 42. The effect might be statistically significant, but that's not the same as saying it's important (Olivier Morin has written about this recently over on ICCI blog). Without the authors putting the results into context of other factors that affect gratitude, it's hard to judge.

And third, the after-the-fact lumping together of groups because they didn't see the result they expected is a little bit dodgy (although much worse goes on regularly, it has to be said).

But despite these caveats, this is a good study. However, it leaves open the question of why prayer should increase gratitude. Mike McCullough, at the University of Miami, put forward some potential reasons in a 2002 paper:

  • Most religions promote gratitude as a desirable attribute, so people may link religiosity to expressions of gratitude.
  • Religious people tend to believe in a creator god. So when something good happens (or is seen, like a sunset), they may be more likely to respond with feelings of gratitude.
  • Lastly, religious people tend to attribute good events, but not bad ones, to the actions of a god. So that may enhance their feelings of gratitude.

To me, generalised gratitude seems like an odd concept. It seems to be tailor-made for the religious mindset. While I have plenty of things to feel glad about, I only have feelings of gratitude towards people.

Religious people are naturally going to extend those feelings towards their god. So I guess we should not be too surprised that making religious people think more about their god also increases their sense of gratitude!

Lambert, N., Fincham, F., Braithwaite, S., Graham, S., & Beach, S. (2009). Can prayer increase gratitude? Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 1 (3), 139-149 DOI: 10.1037/a0016731

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By their faces you will recognize them

Does this look like a religious woman to you? According to a study by Prof Richard Wiseman in the New Scientist in February this year (hey, I've only just read it, OK?), this is a typical face of a religious person in the UK.

What they did was to ask readers to send in photos of themselves, along with a rating of their personality. They digitised the key features, and produced an average of each personality type. When other people were asked to guess the personality based on face alone, they were pretty accurate for religious women - 73% got it right.

There was lots of stuff in the article about why this might be (androgens or other genetic linkages, for example), but no mention of one blindingly obvious explanation.

You see, the most striking difference between the 'religious' face and the 'non-religious' one is that the non-religious face is smiling.

In fact, the same goes for all the pairs of female faces that the raters were able to identify correctly. The lucky face and the trustworthy face are both smiling.

The raters couldn't get the male faces right. And sure enough, neither pair of male faces are smiling. It seems that it's the smile that gives the game away. In a letter in the 21 March issue, a reader points this out:

Our brains seem to be hard-wired to interpret smiling positively. Nearly all of your data can be explained by it, yet the experiment does not control for smiles.

Only the paired female images gave positive results, and those were the pairs that exhibited greater differences in their smiles. For example, both composite faces under the "Humorous?" heading are smiling to a similar extent, and there was no difference found between them. In the "Religious?" category, we might suppose that people would consider those who are religious to be more serious, and the image with the smaller smile is indeed chosen by the majority.

Wiseman responds by conceding that smiling might explain 'some' of the results. But points out that religious people are supposed to be happier than the non-religious.

This study doesn't show that you can identify religious people by the shape of their faces. But it does suggest that, in the UK at least, religious people are thought of as unsmiling.

That would explain why the religious people didn't smile. They knew, of course, that the photograph was going to be linked to their personality traits. And that knowledge would undoubtedly change their behaviour.

Interestingly, both religious and non-religious, and the raters, knew the rules of the game. Religious people in the UK aren't supposed to be smiley!

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Why are atheists so disliked?

Bruce Hood has a post up about the atheist bus ad controversy in the US state of Iowa (OK, it was a couple of weeks ago, but I've been away...). What caught my eye was a comment by Konrad:

The thing that got me was the governor of the state saying that he found the ad disturbing. Clearly, people seem to treat religious adherence as symbolic of group identity so that they find the idea of atheists in their midst as threatening as that of enemy spies.

The hostile reaction to what was a pretty innocuous ad certainly is extraordinary. But is group identity - and the distrust of non-group members, really the cause of it?

Some intriguing hints come in a masters thesis by Will Gervais, a student at the University of British Columbia (I took it with me on vacation for some pool-side reading!). In it he describes a series of three experiments in anti-atheist prejudice among fellow students.

The first was an implicit association task. What this found is that religious people have a fairly deep-seated conception of atheists as unpleasant and untrustworthy - but it was the lack of trust that came through strongest.

The second explored the idea of trust further, by exploring how religiosity affects willingness to hire atheists.

It turns out that it depends on the kind of job. Religious people were quite prepared to hire atheists for jobs that don't require require particularly trustworthy people. But they weren't prepared to hire atheists for high trust jobs.

Religious people didn't show this bias when the jobs were split into those that do or do not require pleasant people, or when the jobs were split according to the required degree of intelligence.

These two experiments show that the primary driver for religious hostility to atheists is specifically a lack of trust, rather than a belief that they're more generally unpleasant. But it doesn't explain why they have this level of distrust.

It could be in-group favouritism. Trust is the classic victim of group divisions, and so if the religious see atheists as an alien group then you would expect them to be distrustful.

However, Gervais argues that this might not be the whole story, for several reasons. Firstly, there was no evidence that atheists distrusted the religious, which you would expect if this were a standard case of distrust between groups.

Also, it's not at all clear that 'atheists' are seen to be a group. Although the 'religious' are also highly diverse, by and large they all subscribe to some doctrine that defines them as group members (of one religion or another). Atheists, by definition, have no such common ground that make them an identifiable group.

What's more, open atheists are a tiny minority in North America. Normally, between-group hostility is proportional to the size of the group. The hostility towards atheists seems to be, quite literally, out of all proportion.

It might be that distrust of atheists is driven, or at least augmented, by fears that non-belief in a punishing god will lead atheists to behave dishonestly. That's certainly what a lot of evangelical Christians believe (and cognitive psychologists, for that matter).

But what about the third experiment? Here's where it gets rather interesting. In the third experiment, Gervais gave the subjects one of three passages to read and react to - one on food, an excerpt from The God Delusion in which Dawkins argues that belief is nonsensical, and a passage detailing the increasing numbers of atheists in the USA in recent decades. This last passage included the crucial fact that at least 20% of Americans aged 18-25 are atheists.

For the religious, reading that atheism was rather more common than they previously believed had a remarkable effect. It effectively abolished their distrust of atheists.

To me, this result strongly suggests that distrust of atheists is mostly due to fear of 'others'. It suggests that the main reason for the distrust is that the subjects had not realised that many of their fellow students were, in fact, atheists.

Once they learned that atheists were not a weird, alien group, but rather people just like them, they felt able to trust them. And I think this conclusion is supported by the experience of atheists in places like the UK, where overt atheism is much more prevalent and distrust of atheists is correspondingly lower.

There are two lessons here. First, it suggest that theories that religion evolved as a tool to enforce in-group trust may be wrong.

Second, it suggests that all those bus ads may well be serving a useful function, even if they're unlikely to convert anyone. If they normalise atheism, then they should also help to change the lot of atheists in the USA from social pariahs to trusted community members.

By the way, if you're interested in group cohesion, you might be interested in an earlier post on The Hand Grenade Experiment.

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