Field of Science

Uncertainty doesn't make people more religious if you first make them feel good about themselves

A series of studies over recent years have found that if you make people feel uncertain or anxious, they'll respond by turning up the intensity of their religious faith.

Quite why this happens isn't known. It might be that unhappy people turn to their gods. Or it might be the implicit threat to their well being that's triggering the response.

Enter a new study by Aaron Wichman at Western Kentucky University. He used a paper-based task to induce feelings of uncertainty in two groups of undergraduates (he got them to write about a time when they were uncertain).

In the first study, he then got them to write about a time when they had succeeded at something (or, in the control group, when they had failed). The results are shown in the top graph.

The only significant effect was in the group that had to write about a time they were uncertain about something, and then about a time when they had failed. This group had their religious beliefs strengthened.

Wichman concludes that uncertainty "does not result in defensive responding when individuals are given the opportunity to repair self-worth".

In the next experiment, he switched the order around and changed the task. First, he got some of his subjects to do a self-affirmation task (write about their most important value, and why it was important. The rest wrote about their least important value (no self affirmation).

Then he got them to do the uncertainty task (well, half were in the control group that just did a general writing task about TV watching).

The results on this one were a bit more complicated, but basically people who did the self-affirmation task were inoculated against the effects of uncertainty (at least insofar as religiosity goes). People who hadn't done the self-affirmation task got religion, as expected.

What's doubly interesting is that the results weren't affected by how happy or sad people were. It seems that it's not that uncertainty makes people unhappy, it's that it makes then feel threatened - and that's why they turn to religion.

And you can eliminate this effect by first bumping up their self worth!

Wichman, A. (2009). Uncertainty and religious reactivity: Uncertainty compensation, repair, and inoculation European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.712

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Happy worshippers, unhappy believers

Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn, a social scientist at Harvard, has been looking at religion and happiness around the world. What he's found is really quite remarkable.

First, some background. Previous studies, mostly done in religious countries like the USA, have tended to find that religious people are, on average, happier (in fact, what's usually measured is 'life satisfaction', since happiness is difficult to compare across cultures).

But simple 'average' levels of happiness obscure a lot of detail. Earlier this year, Luke Galen showed that, even in the USA, convinced non-religious people tend to be quite happy. It's the people who are uncertain about their beliefs who are dissatisfied with life.

Okulicz-Kozaryn has used some fairly sophisticated tools to analyse data from the World Values Survey. Here's the key things that he's found.

Religious people are both happier and unhappier. In other words, they tend to be found at either extremes of the happiness scale.

You can get a feel from this from the graphs shown here. A higher percentage of religious people say that they are extremely happy, compared with convinced atheists. But a higher percentage also say that they're extremely unhappy. Atheists are more likely to report being somewhere in-between.

Religious service-goers tend to be happier.
Teasing apart the data in more detail in a multilevel analysis that takes into account all sorts of national-level factors (wealth, democracy, corruption etc) and individual-level factors (personal income, health, education, number of friends, recreational activities, etc) shows that people who go to religious services and belong to religious organisations are happier.

Non-believers tend to be happier. In the same analysis, people who believe in god are much less happy. In other words, the happiest people are those who take part in the social side of religion but don't take all the god stuff too seriously.

The effect depends on how religious the country is. The more religious on average the country is, the happier believers are. In countries that are not very religious, non-believers are happier than believers.

Now this is a very important finding. It suggests that the reason non-believers are generally found to be less happy is because the studies have usually been done in countries where they are the minority.

This might be down to social desirability. In other words, being among like-minded people makes you happier. Also, it might simply be that people who want to fit in are happier. In religious countries, these kinds of people are religious. In non-religious countries, they're non-religious.

Lastly, religion alleviates the effects of unemployment, but only in rich countries. Okulicz-Kozaryn showed that being unemployed makes you unhappy, and that this effect is stronger in rich countries compared with poor ones. Unemployed people who are religious are happier than the non-religious unemployed, but only in rich countries.

He speculates that there is greater social stigma to unemployment in rich countries, and that religion alleviates the misery that this causes.

All in all, some fascinating stuff. It confirms that the religions causes extremes - both high happiness but also high unhappiness. Plus, happiness is mostly linked to social activities.

Most importantly, this study explains the conundrum of why atheist countries, like those in Scandinavia, consistently rank among the happiest. Atheists are happy among like-minded people, and the societies in which they predominate are also rich in the other factors that make people happy - freedom, justice, and equality.

Okulicz-Kozaryn, A. (2009). Religiosity and life satisfaction across nations Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 1-15 DOI: 10.1080/13674670903273801

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

International trends in religious belief and participation

If anybody has a handle on global religious trends, it should be Tom Smith, co-founder of the International Social Survey. He's just produced a report, Religious Change Around the World, that summarizes trends gleaned from opinion survey results around the world

Well, I say summarized, but the full report is 346 pages! OK so the beef of it is in the first 16 pages - the rest of it is a torrent of data. So let me summarize it a bit more for you.

The graph shows trends of some of the key measures of religion from the major surveys - the World Values Survey, the International Social Survey, and the European Social Survey.

The data are from Table 15 in the report, and I have to warn you that it's a bit of a bodge job. The data on religion over time are patchy at best. And what Smith has done here is a simple average across countries - they aren't weighted for population, so Belgium counts as much as India.

What's more, these survey over-represent the wealthy nations. If anything, you would expect that to produce a bias in favour of a global increase in religion. That's because these countries start out less religious than average. The countries that aren't in the survey, on the other hand, tend to start out at the top end of the religion scale, so there's not much scope for them to go up.

And the national trends are all over the place. Some countries are up, and some countries are down. So the average trend doesn't tell you anything about what's happening in any one country.

Even so, there seem to be some interesting global trends. It looks like more people say that they believe in god or the afterlife, although fewer pray every day. But the number of people actively participating has slipped, and fewer people claim a religious affiliation.

Over on Science+Religion Today, Smith talks about what might be behind this apparent drop in religious membership:

Partly this is due to the fact that, over time, governments and other institutions have taken over many of the societal roles that religions used to dominate (e.g. state welfare programs vs. alms for the poor). Partly this is due to religion becoming more individualized and less institutional. And partly, it is due to the fact that society in general has changed more rapidly than religions have.

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Do atheists make better parents?

I've done a few posts recently about fertility, so how about the next stage, parenthood? How do non-religious parents differ from religious ones?

Here's a study by Bart Duriez, from the Catholic University Leuven in Belgium, which looks into just that. He quizzed over 900 secondary school students in Belgium about their religious attitudes and their parents approaches to parenting. He also asked their parents the same questions.

Duriez used a rather nifty measure of religion, specially developed at the Center for Developmental Psychology in Leuven. It separates Christian beliefs along two dimensions: how strong is their belief in the transcendent, and how literal (or fundamentalist) are their beliefs.

Their measured four different aspects of parenting style: support, regulation, extrinsic goal promotion (i.e. wealth, popularity, good looks), and conservation goal promotion (i.e. conformity and tradition).

So... drum roll... who makes better parents?

Well, it turns out that there was no difference between atheists and strong religious believers on the amount of support given to children, how much parental control there was, and whether the parents promoted so-called 'materialist' ideas (extrinsic goals).

But there was a strong an consistent difference on conservation goal promotion. Religious parents were more likely to promote conformity and tradition, rather than openness to change. Previous studies have found that a parental focus on goal conservation leads to decreased well-being and increased authoritarianism.

You might expect that fundamentalists were more conservative, but this study didn't find that. Biblical literalism was not independently related to conservation goal promotion.

It's the the intensity of beliefs, rather than the parents' so-called 'cognitive style', that matters. Where biblical literalism did have an effect was on materialism - fundamentalists were less worldly.

Previous studies have found a link between religion and parental control, and Duriez & Co speculate that their failure to find the same may be a statistical aberration. They conclude:

... although adolescents of religious parents may be less likely to engage in problem behaviors, this might be accompanied by a rigid and closed-minded functioning.

So, who makes better parents? It depends what you mean by 'better'.

ResearchBlogging.orgDuriez, B., Soenens, B., Neyrinck, B., & Vansteenkiste, M. (2009). Is Religiosity Related to Better Parenting?: Disentangling Religiosity From Religious Cognitive Style Journal of Family Issues, 30 (9), 1287-1307 DOI: 10.1177/0192513X09334168

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Religious brain, pragmatist brain

Here's a brain-scanning study with a difference. Most such tudies try to work out which parts of the brain are activated when people have religious thoughts. This new one looks at whether religious people have more or fewer nerve cells in different parts of their brains.

It's by the team lead by Jordan Grafman that published a study earlier in the year on brain activation. This latest study uses data from the same brain scans.

Basically, the deal is that they boiled their subjects' religious beliefs down to four factors:

  1. Intimacy of relationship with God, including praying and religious participation.
  2. Religiosity of upbringing
  3. Pragmatism (which covers the sorts of ideas that the non-religious would agree with)
  4. Fear of God’s anger

Then they looked at the thickness of the cerebral cortex, and measured which bits were thicker (or thinner) in subjects that endorsed each of these beliefs.

The idea is that the thicker bits have more neurones, which means that they work harder. If you know what those regions that have more neurones do, then you can start to figure out what religion (and non-religion) actually is, at least in terms of brain processing.

The first factor, intimacy with god, was greater in people who had more neurones in an area of the brain that deals with interpersonal relationships.

Now, that's interesting stuff because it shows that people who have a prediliction for feeling intimate with God (praying to god, going to church) may essentially be highly social. The God thing is just an extension of that into the supernatural.

The other interesting thing to ponder, according to the researchers, is that this same bit of the brain is also associated with mental disorders. People with a lot of neurones in this area are at risk of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and people with few neurones are at risk of schizophrenia.

Here's what they conclude from that:

We speculate that the range of RMTG volumes can be viewed as a spectrum, in which high RMTG volume is associated with stereotyped and ritualistic behavior, high-normal volume is associated with religious behavior (which, we should note, is by definition ritualistic), low-normal volume is associated with non-religiosity, and pathologically low volume is associated with schizophrenia (in which disorganized behavior and aberrant religiosity, with blurred boundaries between the self and God, may occur).

The other interesting factor was number 3 - the 'non-religious' factor. This was associated with a part of the brain involved in switching to different perspectives. That suggests that people who are more able to take different perspectives may take a more skeptical, worldly attitude.

Finally, factor 4, fear of god, was associated with fewer neurones in a region associated with empathy and the ability to figure out what's going on in other people's minds. It also helps with using memories to deal with current situations. The researchers suggest that people deficient in this region may fear god essentially because they don't feel confident that they know what god is going to do next.

Now, this is all correlational stuff. It doesn't tell us whether people are born this way, or if these regions of the brain expand (or contract) as a result of life experiences.

Factor 2, religious upbringing, hit a blank. You could take this to mean that having a religious upbringing does not change your brain in any detectable way. But it might simply be that the bits it changes are the same bits that are associated with religious beliefs.

The researchers draw two overall conclusions from this. Firstly, this is more evidence that there is no special bit of the brain for 'religion'. Rather, religion taps into neural pathways that evolved for other reasons:

This implies that religious beliefs and behavior emerged not as sui generis evolutionary adaptations, but as an extension (some would say ‘‘by product’’) of social cognition and behavior.

Secondly, the type of god a religious person believes in is a consequence of their underlying neural makeup:

...the current study suggests that evolution of certain areas that advanced understanding and empathy towards our fellow human beings (such as BA 7, 11 and 21) may, at the same time, have allowed for a relationship with a perceived supernatural agent (God) based on intimacy rather than fear.

In other words, it seems that the way a religious person conceives of their god is a reflection of their own ingrained personality.

ResearchBlogging.orgKapogiannis D, Barbey AK, Su M, Krueger F, & Grafman J (2009). Neuroanatomical variability of religiosity. PloS one, 4 (9) PMID: 19784372

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Why Rabbi Sacks is wrong on religion and fertility

Rabbi Johnathan Sacks has been hitting the headlines recently with his latest warnings on the perils of nonbelief. Michael Blume has dug out the transcript of his speech, so you can get it from the horses mouth.

Most of it is the usual stuff... but then comes the bit where he says that atheists are slowly killing Europe because they're failing to have enough kids.

This is a fascinating claim, not only because it's factually incorrect but also because of what it reveals about the religious mindset.

First, to deal with the factual inaccuracy. (I'll dispense quickly with the obvious howler: that Europe is the only region experiencing population decline. North America, China, and Australasia are also shrinking).

I'm more interested in what I've shown in the graph, which is that the most religious countries in Europe actually have a lower fertility rate than the most secular ones!

Now, it is true that, within these nations, the most religious people tend to have more offspring. And yet when you look at the country level, the effect is reversed. How can this be?

Well, when you see an effect like this, it's big red flag warning that there's a third factor that connects religion with fertility at a social level, only in the opposite direction. And if Sacks had bothered to talk to a demographer, he could've easily found out what it was (but then I guess he would've got no headlines!).

You see, the factors causing the low birth rates in Europe are fairly well understood, and can be put simply: it's a clash between women's aspirations and societal expectations.

In traditional, patriarchal societies, women have few opportunities other than the role of mother. In Europe and other modern societies, their opportunities are far greater.

The highest fertility rates occur in those European societies where women are enabled to achieve both a career and a family. In a recent paper, the Italian demographer Alessandro Rosina wrote that this will occur in:

...contexts and social categories in which childcare services are more readily available, gender asymmetries are less evident, economic conditions are better, and modern and post-modern values are more diffused

And this is the missing factor that accounts for low fertility in religious countries. Religion is closely connected with conservative values. In traditional, highly religious countries, women have to choose between career and motherhood. In countries that have made the transition to modern values, they can have both.

So much for the statistics, what about the religious mindset on fertility? Well, the reason that fertility is lower in wealthy countries in general (leaving religion out of it) is that whereas children were once a financial asset (not only do they help out on the farm, but they are also your old-age pension), now they are a financial burden.

As a result, birthrates fall. Is this a problem? Sacks thinks so, and as evidence quotes approvingly the 3rd-century BC Greek historian Polybius:

"The fact is, that the people of Hellas had entered upon the false path of ostentation, avarice and laziness, and were therefore becoming unwilling to marry, or if they did marry, to bring up the children born to them; the majority were only willing to bring up at most one or two."

[Sacks:] That is why Greece died. That is where Europe is today

Now, Sacks doesn't actually know what the fertility rate in ancient Greece was. I know that, because the leading authority on the subject, Walter Scheidel of Stanford, doesn't know either. However, there's no basis for Sacks' claim that low fertility 'is why Greece died". (But see footnote.*)

But why should it matter? So what if Europe's population decreases?

Well Polybius is notable because his is the first voice in history to express the fear that 'our' tribe is going to be overwhelmed because 'we' are not breeding as fast as 'them'. It's a fear that has echoed down the ages, reaching a zenith in the fascist idea of motherhood as a national duty. You can see it in full flood in modern movements like Quiverfull.

Put simply, this is fertility as an extension of tribal warfare.

Of course, religion is closely linked with other aspects of tribalism (or group cohesion, as a sociologist might put it). Rabbi Sacks' goes on to say:

The only serious philosophical question is “Why should I have a child?” And our culture is not giving a very easy answer to that question.

He doesn't himself answer that question, but his polemic gives the game away!

*Footnote: Although we don't know the fertility rate of Ancient Greece, we do known that Mycenean Greece experienced a population crash. In the 500 years that followed, the population of Greece increased perhaps 10-fold. By Polybius' day it had reached the point where the population could only be sustained by dominating neighbouring countries and sucking resources in - a fact that probably explains as well as anything the Greek's subsequent demise.

Europe is currently running at 220% of biological capacity. Similar to ancient Greece, we're pillaging the rest of the world to maintain our lifestyle. Rabbis Sacks urges us to be custodians of future generations, and yet a swelling population is the greatest enemy that our children face.

Having a large family is not self-sacrifice. It's the ultimate in selfishness.

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Religion causes inequality (or is it the other way around?)

In the previous post I wrote about new research linking income inequality to religious attendance. The supposition is that the stresses and bad social conditions that are often found in nations with high inequality goad people into church. It also seems to make them generally more religious.

But hang on! Perhaps that's back to front. Perhaps, in fact, religion causes inequality. Plenty of people think that's the case, and there's some good scientific theories which suggest it should do exactly that. There's also evidence that belief in God and belief in government are alternative reactions to conditions of uncertainty. And David Stasavage at NYU has shown that non-religious people are more likely to favour government welfare schemes.

So does religion help to explain national differences in income inequality? The unfortunate truth is that right now it's not possible to tell. There simply aren't enough good-quality historical data to decide whether changes in religiosity come first, before changes in inequality.

However, it's still possible to have a crack at putting the theory on a slightly more rigorous footing by using multivariate analysis. In other words, look at the correlation between religion and inequality while adjusting for the other factors that also cause inequality.

The only analysis of this type that I'm aware of was published last year in a student-run journal, the Journal of Politics and International Affairs. The author, Priyanka Palani, controlled for the numbers of elderly people in a nation, as well as education, GDP and whether the nation has an advanced economy (according to the IMF). The correlation with income inequality remained significant.

Well, that's interesting but I don't find it too convincing. The problem is that there are many other factors that affect income inequality that weren't included in the model. Here are a few that I am aware of:

  • GDP: richer countries have more spare cash to spend on welfare.
  • GDP growth rate: high economic growth (independent of actual GDP) is supposed to reduce inequality.
  • Proportional representation: democracies with PR are more likely to elect left-wing governments than democracies that used a 'first past the post' system. The reasons are complex, but have to do with the way political parties can build coalitions.
  • Migration: high numbers of economic migrants increase inequality, because they are prepared to work for lower wages than the locals.
  • Working-age population: nations with a demographic 'hump' (i.e. a baby boom) experience low inequality when that hump is at employment age, and higher inequality when they retire.
  • Ethnic fractionalisation: people are less likely to support government welfare if they think that the money is going to go to people from different ethnic groups.
  • Trade openness: dropping trade barriers increases income inequality.
I put all these factors into a model, correlating them with prayer frequency (which I previously found to be strongly related to income inequality).

With 54 nations in the analysis, the only factor that correlated with inequality was religion! None of the others had any effect.

However, that's probably because poorer countries operate on different economic rules than rich ones do. So I re-ran the analysis just using the richest two-thirds of the nations (Mexico was the poorest one included).

This time three factors came out to have a significant effect: GDP, PR voting, and working-age population. The number of migrants just failed to reach statistical significance. All told, the factors explained nearly 80% of the variation in income inequality.

But guess what. Even after controlling for all these factors, religion still had a significant effect. And the effect was powerful: the four most powerful factors (religion being one of them) all had about the same effect.

I played around with the stats in a number of other ways, mixing things around. But the effect of religion was doggedly persistent.

I also looked at the correlates of government welfare spending. This is a tougher nut because the data aren't so good. I controlled for various national-level factors that are supposed to explain differences in welfare spending (GDP, number of school-age children, number of retirement-age people, proportional representation again and also ethnic fractionalisation).

The result? No effect of religion! I had better luck when looking at social wages, which is that part of government welfare spent on taking care of people out of work. Here there was a significant effect of religion.

Does that prove that religion actually causes income inequality? No, it doesn't. But it does help buttress the idea that there's a feedback loop at work here - that inequality leads to more religion, and more religion in turn leads to more inequality.

If that's true, then it raises an interesting possibility. You see, dynamic feedback loops can lead to a system with multiple stable states. In other words, a nation could settle at a position of high inequality and high religion, or low inequality and low religion. Both states would resist change, and it would take quite a hefty kick to move from one to the other.

Could this help explain the persistence of religion and inequality in some parts of the modern world?
Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Income inequality drives church attendance

The Dutch press is reporting a new study with an international perspective on what drives church attendance (the authors are Stijn Ruiter, senior researcher at the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement, and Frank van Tubergen, a professor of sociology in Utrecht).

What they set out to do was to compare the major theories on what causes religion, using data from the World Values Survey and other sources. Broadly speaking, you can summarize these theories like this:
  • Religious regulation: a close relationship between state and church tends to turn people off it.
  • Education: better educated people abandon religion
  • Economic security: if people don't have to worry about their future, gods lose their appeal.
  • Individualization: religion is a social phenomenon, and people are only religious because everyone around them is.
What Ruiter and van Tubergen did was a multi-level analysis. In other words, they looked at the characteristics of individuals and compared them with their churchgoing habits. And they also looked at the characteristics of nations, and looked to see what effect that had on individual churchgoing.

This multilevel analysis is a very powerful. But one downside is that it needs a lot of data, and the sort of data it needs aren't available for a lot of countries. In fact, it's mostly available only for rich, Christian countries. Still, they included 60 in their analysis, which is quite a pool.

By far and away the strongest predictor of how often a person goes to church is whether they had religious parents. That's not too surprising. But what is surprising is that, even after controlling for that effect, one of the most powerful predictors is how religious everyone else's parents are. In other words, one of the major deciding factors in whether or not you go to church is whether you grew up in a religious country.

Another important factor was religious regulation. In countries with a strong state interference in religion, attendance goes down. Other studies suggest that's probably because when people feel pressured into going to Church, they don't enjoy it.

One thing that didn't have much effect was education. There was no clear effect of average education in a country. But there was a slight effect of individual education - more educated people are slightly less likely to be churchgoers. That's probably because education is double-edged when it comes to religion. It decreases beliefs, but it also increases 'community-mindedness'. In other words, educated people tend to get involved in community activities.

The final factor was income inequality. In line with other studies, they found that both income inequality and low state welfare spending are associated with more religion:

...we find that attendance rates are particularly high in countries with more socioeconomic inequalities and fewer social welfare expenditure. This effect equally applies to both poor and rich people, which is in line with the idea that because of economic mobility and the possibility of unemployment in the (nearby) future also the more affluent population feels more insecure in countries with more inequalities and without a well-developed social welfare system.

We also see that people with a lower income and who are unemployed attend religious meetings more often, and we find an enduring effect of growing up in times of war. In summary, the results of our study suggest that personal and societal insecurities play a crucial role in explaining cross-national variation in religious attendance.

Now this is particularly interesting because it backs up what I found in my own study, published earlier this year. In that study, I looked (in a rather simpler analysis) at the country-level factors that correlate with how often people pray. I found that income inequality was one of the strongest.

So the two studies complement each other. Religious attendance and religious belief are related, but they are not the same. At yet both these two key aspects of religion both decrease in countries with strong social systems where people have less to worry about.

But by now people have probably spotted the potential flaw, which is shared by all these kinds of correlational studies: correlation does not mean causation! So which is it? Does inequality really lead to more religion? Or could it be that religion causes inequality?

That's a good question - and it's a topic for the next post!

Hat tip: David Flint of Humanists4Science.

Stijn Ruiter, & Frank van Tubergen (2009). Religious Attendance in Cross-National Perspective: A Multilevel Analysis of 60 Countries American Journal of Sociology (November)

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Live long and be atheist

The splendid World Happiness Database has released a new analysis of their 2009 data. Basically what they've done is to multiply happiness scores in each nation with the life expectancy. The idea is that what most people want is a life that's both long and happy.

Costa Rica came out top, followed by the usual gaggle of Northern European Countries (and Canada).

Now, there's an 'ecological' problem in this analysis, in that the people with long lives in a nation aren't necessarily the happiest. What's more, happiness might be very unevenly distributed in some countries.

And being grumpy might have its plus side - in the news yesterday was an Australian study which claimed that grumpy people are less prone to errors of judgement!

Be that as it may, whenever these national statistics come out I always like to correlate them against religion, to see how they stack up. So here's the results for this one.

What I've done is plot the percentage of hard-core non-believers in each country against the 'happy-life-years'.

In the top graph, it's the percentage of people who say they are 'confirmed atheists'. In the bottom graph, it's the people who say that religion is 'not at all important' to them.

There is a weak, but statistically significant relationship - especially with the unimportance of religion. What's more, the correlation is about 50% stronger than with happiness alone.

However, digging around in the data shows that the is mostly driven by life expectancy. Average happiness, by itself, is not related to the number of atheists, and only marginally related to the number of non-religious.

Now the interesting thing is that happiness is strongly correlated with life expectancy (as you might expect). So you also would expect a correlation of happiness with atheism - simply because they both correlate with life expectancy.

The fact that this does not happen suggests a negative interaction. What may be happening is that some countries with short life expectancy are particularly religious. That makes them happier than you would expect, and confounds the straightforward link between long life expectancy, happiness and atheism.

To put it another way, turning to religion has the effect of increasing happiness. But good life expectancy is more important, and countries with good life expectancy are the happiest and least religious. 
Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Is ritual purification brain down to a brain short circuit?

You might have seen the recent study which found that the subtle smell of Windex (a brand of window cleaner) makes people more charitable. Time magazine, for one, carried a report - which got up the nose of a writer on the GetReligion blog. Here's the offending paragraph:

Nevertheless, both morality researchers and olfactory scientists agree that people do strongly associate physical cleanliness with purity of conscience. It is the notion at the heart of adages like “cleanliness is next to godliness” and evidenced by the widespread use of cleansing ceremonies to wash away sins in various religions around the world. (Truth be told, that practice is merely an extrapolation of an evolutionary strategy to avoid disease.)

Well, that doesn't sound very likely to me either. There is a clear evolutionary link, but it's not so banal as encouraging people to wash their hand so as not to get sick.

The evolutionary origins of our moral sense is a hot topic at the moment, but what's becoming clear is that physical and moral disgust are tightly linked (we pull the same faces for both, for example).

Why? Well, moral disgust probably probably evolved out of the neural systems that originally served to provoke physical disgust. And they're still linked. Which suggests that the reason we associated cleanliness with godliness is down to a neural short circuit - a 'design' flaw that reveals evolution at work.

In other words, ritual purification may well stem from the fact we have a cognitive malfunction that makes us associate cleanliness with morality. Assuming that, the interesting question to ask is what the consequences? The 'Windex' study suggests that purification has a morality-reinforcing effect, but there may also be a darker side, according to a study published earlier this year.

That was a study into the effects of hand-washing, by Simone Schnall and colleagues from the University of Plymouth in the UK. In a cunningly experimental design, they quizzed students on morality - but half of them were asked to wash their hands first (they went through some hoops to make sure the students didn't think the hand-washing was connected to the experiment).

And here's what they found. Students with clean hands actually rated a series of morally ambiguous actions as less wrong than students who hadn't washed their hands.

The difference was particularly big for judgements where the students were asked to imagine themselves doing the action. For example, they were asked to imagine they found a wallet with money in it and the address of the owner, and that they had decided to keep it on the grounds that the owner was rich and they were poor.

Is that an immoral act? Well, it's questionable, of course, but the point is that those who had washed their hands were less likely to think it immoral.

This result reminds me of other studies which suggest that people who are very firm in their moral convictions are actually more likely to act immorally, and also that we seem to have an internal accounting system that adds up good and bad deeds, and pushes us to do bad or good if we're getting out of equilibrium.

Maybe if you're in a clean environment, then you act in a morally clean way. But if you personally are ritually pure, then that makes it easier to do morally dubious things.
Schnall S, Benton J, & Harvey S (2008). With a clean conscience: cleanliness reduces the severity of moral judgments. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 19 (12), 1219-22 PMID: 19121126

Liljenquist K, et al (2009). The smell of virtue: clean scents promote reciprocity and charity. Psychological Science in press

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Schnall S, Benton J, & Harvey S (2008). With a clean conscience: cleanliness reduces the severity of moral judgments. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 19 (12), 1219-22 PMID: 19121126