Field of Science

Religious rituals explained by how we memorise?

There's a nice article over at New Scientist on the theories of Harvey Whitehouse, an anthropologist at the University of Oxford. He's been looking at religious rituals, and thinks he can explain why dramatic rituals tend to occur only in small, fringe religions - and why religious rituals are so undramatic in the complex, hierarchical religions that dominate most of the world (Christianity, Islam, etc).

His idea is that the different types of rituals appeal to different fundamental aspects of memory:
"The reason why there are only two types of religion is that there are only two basic systems of memory that matter," he argues. The first is semantic memory, which deals with things we are conscious of remembering and stores what we have learned about the world. Then there is episodic memory, which hangs onto memorable events from our own lives. Whitehouse argues that to persist and spread, a religion must elicit the help of rituals that reinforce memories in both these systems.

So, religions that have little in the way of systematic theology, and instead depend on intense personal experiences, often also feature intense rituals that are stored in episodic memory.

Complex religions that require adherents to memorize shared stories (often counter-intuitive ones) instead feature frequent, low-intensity rituals designed to trigger semantic memories.

It's a nice idea. It's also one that provides an alternative to the more common idea that rituals are 'costly signals' - i.e. by participating, you show that you are sufficiently committed to the group to spend time doing apparently pointless tasks.

But is it true? A good theory makes predictions that you wouldn't otherwise expect. Unfortunately, I don't think the predictions made by Whitehouse's theory fit the bill:

One advantage is that it makes testable predictions. For example, religious rituals are unlikely to be both low frequency and low arousal - because such rituals would not be easily remembered - or high frequency, high arousal - because most people will not willingly undergo too much torment even in the name of religion. It also predicts that doctrinal religions will tend not to have low-frequency, high-arousal rituals because they undermine orthodoxy, and imagistic religions will tend not to have high-frequency, low-arousal rituals because these undermine exclusivity.

To me, it is not surprising that high-arousal rituals are also low-frequency. You could not do penis-cutting every day.

It seems to me that the intensity of frequency of religious rituals are more likely driven by the nature of the society, rather than the type of religion. These imagistic religions occur in small-scale, tribal societies.

What's more, there are plenty of examples of low-frequency, intense rituals within doctrinal religions. Pilgrimages, for example. Not to mention things like Shia self-flagellation and Christian sacramental penance. Of course, Whitehouse is an expert anthropologist so no doubt is aware of these. His argument is that the bulk of religions fit these 'ideals'.

But one interesting deviation is modern Christianity. In the UK at least, many Christians go to church once a year at Christmas time - the very model of a 'low frequency, low arousal' ritual!

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

Christian cancellation of the secular truce

People living in the UK will have noticed that Christians have been getting noisier in recent years. More clamour for more state-funded faith schools, more litigations, and more complaints against perceived anti-Christian bias.

Evidence of a popular religious revival? Or the death throes of a once-powerful ideology? A team from Erasmus University in the Netherlands has some answers.

It seems that when Christianity is popular, Christians are content with the idea of a firewall separating Church and State. It's only when Christianity begins to lose it's influence over the population at large that Christians begin to campaign for the State to adopt a Christian character.

Looking at survey data from 18 Western countries, they found:

  • The fewer Christians in a country, the greater the support among Christians for a greater public role for religion (as shown in the graph).
  • The polarization of views between Christians and non-religious on a public role for religion is greatest in countries where there are fewest Christians.

Then they took a look at data from the Netherlands, where the proportion of Christians has plummeted from 60% in 1970 to 35% in 1996. There's a good time-series of data covering this decline in Christianity.

In the Netherlands they found a similar picture. As the numbers of Christians declined, the support among Christians for a greater public role for religion went up, and the gulf in attitudes grew.

I guess these results are not too surprisingly, but they do highlight a reality that is often not fully appreciated by researchers into 'secularization'. And that is that secularization is not a single thing or process. What's more, it's possible to have different aspects of secular (or religious) trends to move in opposite directions, at least for a time.

A resurgence of governmental interest in religion, and increased noise from religious adherents, can happen alongside a increasing popular disinterest!

Well, that's nearly it for 2009! I hope you enjoyed the blog this year, and I wish you all a great Christmas (or whatever you choose to call the midwinter/summer festival). I'll try to put a post up before the New Year, but just in case I don't - have a happy New Year as well :)

ResearchBlogging.orgAchterberg, P., Houtman, D., Aupers, S., Koster, W., Mascini, P., & Waal, J. (2009). A Christian Cancellation of the Secularist Truce? Waning Christian Religiosity and Waxing Religious Deprivatization in the West Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 48 (4), 687-701 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2009.01473.x

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

Religion continues to decline in the UK

Quick post tonight, with news from the British Social Attitudes Survey. The 26th report is due out in January, but they've slipped out a yuletide press release on religion.

The press release points out that religious belief has dropped sharply, and that Britain is much less religious than the USA. No surprises there! You can a quick heads up from Irish Sun. The NSS has some interesting figures on differences in social attitudes (homosexuality, euthanasia, etc).

But in this post I wanted to pull out some interesting facts in the survey not reported in the press release (you can browse the full report at the publishers website).

First off, some interesting data on the 'fuzzy' middle ground. Everyone always talks about the religious and the non-religious, but David Voas (who wrote the report and who also was a presenter at the NSRN conference last week) points out that many people don't fit into either category.

The idea is that religious people are those who believe, identify with a religion, and go to services at least occasionally. The non-religious are people who don't believe and never attend. And the 'fuzzy' group is everyone else (they either identify, believe, or occasionally attend - but not all three). Here's the data for the UK and USA:

The 'fuzzy middle' is quite large in the USA. The main difference versus the UK is decline of religious at the expense of the non-religious. Presumably what's happening here is that the 'fuzzy' middle is a group that people transition through on their way to being non-religious.

Some other data from the report:

I find the last line really amazing! Here's just one more, to show how the decline of religion is spread among denominations:

Lastly, it turns out that although the level of belief is very different in the USA and UK, attitudes to religion seem to be pretty similar in the two countries:

  • The majority of people in both countries are keen to maintain a separation of religion and state. For example two thirds (67% in Britain and 66% in the US) think religious leaders should not try to influence government decision-making.
  • Nearly three quarters (73%) of people in Britain and two thirds (66%) of Americans think people with strong religious beliefs are often too intolerant of others.
Now, that's a surprising result, given the findings of another recent study - but that will have to wait till the next blog post!

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

Atheism increases trust

In modern, industrialised societies, we put an awful lot of trust in strangers. That's good, because if we couldn't trust strangers then most of our economic and social transactions would struggle. In fact, trust is a cornerstone of economic growth.

It's hardly surprising, then, that nations with high levels of trust are also the wealthiest. They also often have a high number of atheists - Sweden is the classic example.

But does atheism add to that trust, or take away from it? After all, atheists are (famously) one of the least trusted minorities in the USA.

Two Swedish researchers (Niclas Berggren and Christian Bjørnskov of the Ratio Institute in Stockholm) have looked at what role religion has in explaining different levels of trust in countries around the world, and in different States of the USA (Working paper only, available here).

The first thing they show is that non-religion and trust are correlated. In countries with more religious people, and in states with more religious people, fewer people are will to answer "yes" to the question "In general, do you think most people can be trusted or can't you be too careful?"

Well, that's interesting in itself, but of course there could be any number of reasons for that correlation. For example, income inequality erodes trust, and it also increases religiosity. Berggren and Bjørnskov take care of most of them by adding them into their model.

However, even after adjusting for income inequality, presence of a monarchy (increases trust, apparently), post-communism, and proportion of Muslims, Catholics or eastern religious people (none of the religions had any effect), the correlation remains pretty robust.

Just in case there's something magic about Nordic countries, they even included them as an 'explanatory factor' (it turns out that there does indeed seem to be something special about them - it's not just the atheism)

For the US states, they adjusted again for income inequality, blacks, and ages. They also took into account from which countries the local's ancestors had emigrated. Again, the correlation stuck.

To give you a feel for how strong the effect is, if you go from the average nation religiosity (67% of people saying that religion is important in their lives) to Nordic levels (20%), the number of trusting people goes up by about 8-10 percentage points (and this is after adjusting for all the factors mentioned above).

Among US states, the effect is similar. If you move from the average (65%) to the least religious (Vermont, 42%), then trust increases by about 5-10 percentage points.

How did they demonstrate causality?

What they've shown is a correlation, of course. So how can they be confident that it's atheism increasing trust, rather than trust increasing atheism? Well, they use a statistical trick (guess I have to be careful with that word, given the climate email controversy!) call 'instrumented variables'. Basically, this means choosing another variable that correlates with religion but can't directly be influenced by trust.

They chose GDP which might seems strange choice given that trust is an important cause of economic growth. However, they show that the other factors included in the model account for this relationship, and that GDP is independent of reverse causality.

How could more religion mean less trust?

It seems strange, given that religion is supposed to increase honest behaviour, that people in less religious countries have more trust in their neighbours. Berggren and Bjørnskov argue that this is probably because of the divisive effect that religion can have:

The main reason to expect a negative effect, of the kind we have identified, is that religions may cause division and rift, both in that religious people may distrust those who do not share their beliefs and who are not subject to the same enforcement mechanisms as they are, and in that nonreligious people may regard with suspicion those who take religiosity seriously.

In other words, one explanation for these results might that religion promotes distrust of people outside the group. It sounds intuitively plausible, and it's an idea that's supported by other the research into the causes of distrust.

While you might expect that people distrust anyone who's different from them, it turns out that that is not the case. Diversity only increases distrust when the different groups are segregated from each other. This is from a talk by Eric Uslaner, at the University of Maryland:

... diversity can also drive people apart–when people feel threatened by minority groups. Most critically, diversity can drive down trust when there is little opportunity for contact between groups groups–as where the minority group is geographically segregated from the majority.

However, Uslaner also points out that religious diversity does not itself seem to greatly increase distrust. It's the strength of religious feeling that's critically important:

Religious fractionalization is only weakly related to ethnic and linguistic diversity. Religious fundamentalists are significantly less trusting than adherents of mainstream religions (Uslaner, 2002, ch. 4) and religious conflict is at the heart of many inter-state and intra-state wars. So we might expect that religious diversity would be more strongly (negatively) related to generalized trust–but again, we see only a weak relationship.

Now, the interesting thing about religious diversity is that it actually decreases the level of religious fervour. If religious fervour is critical to distrust, that would help explain the unexpectedly weak relationship between religious diversity and trust.

Well, so much for the philosophizing. What we need now is for someone to tease out these two factors to see which explains the link between atheism and trust.

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

Live blogging the NSRN

Today I'm in Wolfson College, Oxford, for the first conference of the Non-religious and Secular Research Network. Now the plan is that I'm going to live blog this - i.e. I'll keep returning to this page to post updates through the day. hmm, let's see how that goes, shall we!

The first presentation will be by David Voas, a demgrapher at the University of Manchesster: "Who are the non-religious in Britain and where do they come from?" The room's filling up - looks like there'll be around 50 participants.

So, who are the non_religious in the UK. Here's the topline:

Ethnicity: In the last census, over half of people with Chinese ethnicity sad they had no religious affiiliation. For whites and Afro-Carribean descent, that drops to 10-15%. But there are virtually none among those of Bangladeshi or Pakistani descent.

Age: religion declines from over 80% in people born in 1910, to 40% of people born in 1980.

Gender: women are mmore religious, and this gap is stable with age. There's interesting evidence thaht this is due to social pressure. It seems that the drop in religion lags men by 10 years. what's more, the gap also appears in newborns (girl babies are more likely to be labelled religious than boy babies).

Jedi knights. around 3% of young men, and around 1% of young women classified theselves as jedi kniht.

Education: Although historically educated people are less religious, this appears to be switching for youn adults today.

Marriage: non religious women are more likely to be alone. Same for young men, though not older men. This could be cultural (acceptability of living alone).

Non religious are less authoritarian (although this gap is smaller in younger people) and less political. They are more hedonistic but less happy.

And the most religious regions in England and Wales: Norwich, Cambridge, Rhonda Valley and, at the very top, my home town Brighton!

Kirsten Barnes, a PhD student at Cambridge, presented her research into "hyperactive agency detection". This involved showing a small group of atheists and Christians images of random noise, and asking if they see any patterns (faces in the clouds).

Turns out there was no differences between the groups. This is surprising, because this sort of agency detection is supposed to be a trigger for religion. Turns out that there were several difference between he two groups. The atheists were younger, more paranoid, more psychotic, and more neurotic. Strangely, however, there was no correlation between paranoid ideation and seeing images. Perhaps the groups were too small.

Interesting presentation from Miguel Farias, a psychologist at Oxford. He's found that, when relating life stories, atheists are more likely to report personal relationships as the most important events in their lives. They have more perceived control over their lives, and generally a more hedonistic attitude. Interestingly, they are also more likely to believe that the fantasies described in the da Vinci code are true!

Ryan Cragun, over from Florida, is presenting on predjudice in the USA. First some demogra,hics. The nonreligious are not different from religious on education or marital status (after adjusting for age). They do tend to earn slightly more though.

He's looked at whether people who are self-declared atheists, rather than non-religious. It turns out that atheists face twice the level of discrimination as the non-religious. This is particularly acute in the social setting. Cragun thinks this because they are "out and proud" - i.e. identify as members of a minority and proud of it. Others have shown that these are the people who face greatest predjudice (because they are perceived by the majority as a threat).

In questions, it's been suggested that the people who state their religion as "atheist" may be more combative.


John Lanman has presented a theory that links the cognitive science to societal level differences in religiosity. The key ingredient is that threat drives people to increase their religious actions (devotions, attendence). The other ingedient is what's called "credibility enhancing displays". This is the idea that in order to believe what people tell us we need to see them act according to their beliefs - they need to walk the talk.

In low religious countries, such as Sweden, what happened was that threat was reduced (limited ethnic diversiy and high social welfare). People didn't stop believing, but they did stop acting on their beliefs. As a result, their children didn't really believe them when they talked about god. Hence religion did not get passed on.


Well that's it, all over now and I'm on the train home. The last presentation was by Colin Campbell, the doyen of sociological studies of the non-religious. He's incensed by the theory put forward by Miller and Stark that claims men are less religious then women because they have different attitude to risk - specifically because they're less able then mwomen to 'delay gratification' (i.e. undergo hardship now for rewards in the future).

This theory is flawed in all sorts of ways, most of which I covered in a series of blog posts earlier this year. Campbell seized upon the fact that this is basically a dressed up version of Pascal's Wager. On top of that, most religious people in the West don't even believe in Hell. In which case what, exactly is it that non-believers are at risk of?

I hope that's given a flavour at least of this rather remarkable conference. There's been some fascinating stuff presented, most of which I haven't been able to cover. Now at least I can put some faces to some of the names on the papers I've been reading!

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

Off to the NSRN conference in Oxford

This Friday sees the launch conference of the Non-religion and Secularity Research Network. I'll be toddling off there tomorrow evening, and I'm going to try live-blogging the event via my Nokia N97. So stay tuned on Friday!

Here's the keynote lectures, to give you a flavour:

  • Is it risky to be an unbeliever? Gender, risk and religiosity: A critique
    Colin Campbell (University of York)
  • On the receiving end: Discrimination toward the non-religious in the U.S.
    Ryan Cragun (University of Tampa)
  • Who are the non-religious in Britain and where do they come from?
    David Voas (University of Manchester)

And you can take a look at the full programme here. There's a really marvellous faculty and range of presentations. I'm really looking forward to it!

Anyway, if anyone has any burning questions they'd like fired at any of the speakers, let me know via the comments now or on the day, and I'll see if I can punt them.

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

What you want, god wants

Religious people tend to think that they know what their god wants, but how do they come by that knowledge? For me, as an atheist, it's a fascinating question. The gods can't be communicating their preferences directly (because there's no such thing), so where do these beliefs come from?

One obvious source is the various holy books. However, even if you restrict yourself to adherents of a single religion, there are vast differences in beliefs about god's opinions (and that's just looking around the world today - when you extend the comparisons back in time the disagreements between believers become even more dramatic).

All this suggests that people must be projecting their own beliefs and opinions onto their god. A bundle of new studies from Nicholas Epley, at the University of Chicago, suggests that that is exactly what happens.

What he and his colleagues did was to subtly manipulate people's own opinions, and see if that affected their ideas about what God's opinions were.

So, for example, in one study he had people read two arguments, pro-and anti-affirmative action. In the 'pro-policy' condition, the 'pro' argument was strong and the 'anti' argument weak. In the 'anti-policy' condition, the strength of the arguments was reversed.

This had the desired effect on the subjects own opinions. Whether they were pro- or anti affirmative action was influenced by which arguments they read.

Then he asked them about what the average American thought about the topic, and also what George Bush thought. As you can see in the graph, this didn't change regardless of how their own beliefs have been manipulated.

Their beliefs about what god thought did change, however. In fact, the correlation between their own opinions and those they attributed to God was very strong.

Now, what's interesting is that their beliefs about Bill Gates' opinions also mirrored their own. The thing about Bill Gates is that he's generally admired, but nobody really knows what his opinion is on this topic. So they were free to invent it.

They did another, somewhat more sophisticated experiment that showed something similar. Basically, if you change people's attitudes to the death penalty, then that changes whether they think God is pro- or anti-death penalty.

This is all good stuff. But it gets really interesting when you look at some of the brain scans they did. In these scans, they asked subjects to think about attitudes to euthanasia. First, their own attitude. Then the average American's attitude. And finally God's attitude.

The first brain image shows the difference between thinking about your own opinions and thinking about the average American's opinions. You can see that some bits light up, indicating that there is a difference between the two thought processes. The brain recognises that the average American has a different opinion.

Looking next the brain image, which shows thinking about God's opinions compared with the average American's. Again, some differences. According to this brain, God does not think the same as an average American.

Now look at the last brain image in the panel. This takes the brain activity of someone thinking of their own opinion, and subtracts that from the brain activity of that same person thinking of god's opinions. And guess what? They are exactly the same.

'What would jesus do?' It turns out that what Jesus would do is exactly what 'I' would do - at least in so far as figuring out what Jesus's opinions are. Thinking about God's opinions and thinking about your own opinions uses an identical thought process.

This is a fascinating result. It suggests that people use God not to inform their own decision making, but to reinforce it. Here's what the study's authors conclude:

People may use religious agents as a moral compass, forming impressions and making decisions based on what they presume God as the ultimate moral authority would believe or want. The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing. This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God’s beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing.

Now, this doesn't show that religion has no influence on attitudes and opinions. Other research has shown that it does. But it does show is that people can and do reinvent their god to suit their own beliefs.

They make god in their own image.
Epley N, Converse BA, Delbosc A, Monteleone GA, & Cacioppo JT (2009). Believers' estimates of God's beliefs are more egocentric than estimates of other people's beliefs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 19955414

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

Someone to blame when disaster strikes

Here's a Friday evening paradox for you. For most atheists, the abundance of suffering in the world is a pretty clinching argument against the existence of a moral god. Yet religion seems to thrive in places where suffering is greatest (the graphic shows the correlation across US states between a basket of 'suffering' measures and belief in God).

What gives? Kurt Gray, a psychologist at Harvard, has some novel ideas about why this should be.

First off, he points out that we have a tendency to find intelligent agents to explain events - we've got a 'hyperactive agent detection device'. What's more, he suggests, that's particularly important for things that have gone wrong or caused harm. You can understand this in evolutionary terms, because intelligent agents are the biggest threats to survival.

Now, it's true that people also attribute good events to the action of their God. But Gray points out that negative experiences are more powerful, and people are more likely to attribute them to an intentional agent.

In one rather nice study, he gave some 'disaster' scenarios to a group of believers and asked them whether God (they were all Christians, presumably) or a human was to blame.

The scenario was this. A family was picnicking in a valley, when suddenly there was a flood.

  1. The flood was caused by an evil dam worker, but the family escaped with no more than a ruined lunch (human cause, no harm).
  2. The flood was caused by an evil dam worker, and the family were all killed (human cause, harm).
  3. The cause of the flood was unknown, but the family escaped with no more than a ruined lunch (unknown cause, no harm).
  4. The cause of the flood was unknown, and the family were all killed (human cause, harm).

So, for which of these scenarios was God to blame?

Unsurprisingly, God was not held responsible for the first two scenarios. More surprisingly, God wasn't responsible for the third one, in which the family managed to escape.

The only scenario where God was blamed was the last one, where the family were all killed for an unknown reason.

Now this is fascinating stuff, but it doesn't really clinch it for me. Where is the equivalent study, but where there was a positive outcome? Perhaps God would be held equally responsible for that.

Nevertheless, this does show that people only invoke God to give meaning to events if those events have a moral dimension. It's not that they can't understand acausality, it's that they're driven to find an intelligent actor behind harmful events.

Gray's theory gets a bit more complicated from here on. Moral acts require two people - someone to do the act (the agent), and someone to receive it (the patient). This way of thinking is so ingrained that we tend to typecast individuals as either moral agents or moral patients.

Mother Theresa, for example, is typecast as someone who can do good things but is relatively insensitive to pain or pleasure. When people have to choose someone to receive unavoidable pain, they choose Theresa - presumably because they think her to be less sensitive.

Now this is fascinating because people tend to think of God as an agent that can do moral actions, but can't experience them. In other words, God can do good and bad things, but good and bad things can't happen to God.

Bringing all this together, what seems to be happening is that when some piece of bad luck happens, people automatically view it in moral terms. They typecast themselves as moral patients - and that, of course, then means that there must somewhere be a moral agent.

God, according to this theory, is the ultimate moral agent.

Gray concludes that religion, far from being a cause of morality, is actually a consequence of it. Because of the way our minds analyse moral situations, morality actually causes us to invent a god. He says:

God may be more accurately characterized as “God of the Moral Gaps,” a supernatural mind introduced into our perception of the world because of the underlying dyadic structure of morality. Seen in this light, God stems not only from agent detection but from patient detection as well, both of which arise from a persistent need to maintain the moral order of a universe consisting of moral agents and patients. Such a view of God can explain why He thrives on human suffering and why His mind is perceived as curiously one sided.

Gray K, & Wegner DM (2009). Blaming God for Our Pain: Human Suffering and the Divine Mind. Personality and social psychology review : an official journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc PMID: 19926831

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