Field of Science

Bible belter

News this week that Pope John Paul II (that's the one just before the current one) used to spend his down-time whipping himself with a belt:

As some members of his close entourage in Poland and in the Vatican were able to hear with their own ears, John Paul flagellated himself. In his armoire, amid all the vestments and hanging on a hanger, was a belt which he used as a whip and which he always brought to Castel Gandolfo
Anyone familiar with the Catholic faith will know that this kind of behaviour is held in high regard. It's not just Catholics either. Fanatical adherents to most of the popular faiths can be found indulging in similar painful rituals - AC Grayling has a nice round-up.

So why do they do it? Here's the conventional sociological explanation (provided by Grayling):

Studies of self-inflicted suffering in religious observance suggest that it has two main purposes. One is the hope of rooting out sexual desire or some other physical appetite, thereby achieving purity and self-mastery, and thus merit. The other, much the main purpose, is to induce an ecstatic or transcendent state often interpreted by believers as contact with the divine.

But behavioural psychology and economics suggest a rather different explanation. Some of these I've written about before (e.g. self-punishment and costly-signalling). But I think the current front runner is something called a credibility enhancing display, or CRED.

Joe Henrich, of the Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition and Culture at the University of British Columbia wrote a very nice paper on this last year (thanks to Michael Blume for sending it to me!)

CREDs are all about communicating ideas, especially ideas that we have no way of verifying. We're much more likely to accept these kinds of ideas if we see someone acting as if they truly believe what they're telling us. If they walk the walk, as well as talk the talk.

So, if I wanted to convince you that tofu is a miracle food, you'd be much more likely to believe me if you knew that I actually ate tofu myself (despite the taste - sorry tofu fans). It makes what I'm saying more credible.

What Henrich does is to build a model that incorporates these ideas. He compares two competing beliefs that are equal in all ways except that one of the beliefs is associated with a ritual that is costly but which also enhances credibility.

The results suggest that a belief that carries no tangible benefit but only a cost can outcompete a cost-free belief, so long as as the cost is linked to a 'credibility enhancing display'.

So, if I say that God likes people to eat fine food, and you say that God likes people to whip themselves, then your version can (if the conditions are right) become more popular.

Henrich goes on to suggest that if you put this idea about CREDs together with other ideas about cultural group selection, maybe you could have a situation where practices that are costly to the individual, but beneficial to the group, could evolve. Religion might be an example of this.

So how does this help understand what's going on with the Pope and other self-flagellators? A cynic might say that he's simply trying to convince others of the sincerity of his beliefs.

By the CRED idea runs deeper than this. It acts at a subconscious level. The beliefs that get passed on are the ones that have the showiest, most costly signals.

From this perspective, it looks like the Pope was infected by a particularly virulent meme. A meme that ruthlessly self-propagates, despite the damage done to the host.


Henrich, J. (2009). The evolution of costly displays, cooperation and religion: credibility enhancing displays and their implications for cultural evolution. Evolution and Human Behavior, 30 (4), 244-260 DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2009.03.005

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

Research Blogging Awards

Research Blogging is a great site that amalgamates posts on peer-reviewed science from around the blogosphere. If you're a regular visitor, you may have noticed the little Research Blogging icon at the foot of a lot of posts. Well now you know why it's there :)

Anyway, the reason for this post is that they're calling for nominations for the Research Blogging Awards 2010.

Just saying, all right? In case you feel the urge to nominate a blog...


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

My article in New Humanist

This month's New Humanist has an article by me (Who Needs God? - a rather more jazzy title than the one I gave it). They've just posted it online, and also opened a thread for comments!

It basically covers the major sociological theories on the decline (or persistence) of religion, and talks a little about the psychology behind the theory that personal insecurity is an important factor in determining whether religion retains its position in society.

It also, of course, takes a look at my own research published last year. Here's a taster:

We’re still a long way away from a universal theory to explain why some parts of the world are more religious than others. But the research linking societal stress and income inequality to high levels of religion at least helps to explain some conundrums that have perplexed sociologists. Why is the USA so religious, despite being the epitome of modernity? Well, largely because of the higher levels of stress faced by its citizens, compared with the relatively worry-free lives led by people living in the bosom of the European welfare state. It also helps to explain the blossoming of religion in Russia and other parts of the old Soviet bloc, which occurred against the backdrop of a sharp decline in living standards and the crumbling of the old certainties provided by the monolithic communist state.


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

Be religious and live forever!

OK, so the headline's a touch optimistic. Sadly we are all going to die some day, believers and non-believers alike. But, if you have the right kind of beliefs about god, you might at least be able to persuade yourself that you're not going to die.

And those beliefs are? Fatalistic ones. In a survey of some 300 elderly Philadelphians, Laraine Winter and colleagues found that a high level of deference to God's will were linked to preferences for heroic medical interventions in hopeless cases.

So, for example, people who believe that God is their guide and mentor were more likely to say they would like medical intervention if they had a stroke or were in a coma with no chance of recovery, or were suffering from painful liver cancer.

Now, there was some similar research last year, but what this new study adds is the confirmation that it's deference to God's will that is the important factor. These people believe that their God will save them from death by some miracle.

And as was pointed out last year, this can cause some problems - one of which is a lack of planning for your death. I've dug up some more interesting research which sheds some more light on what is going on here.

This research (from Amy Al and colleagues at Washington University) found that people who report experiencing "religious reverence" are, as you might expect given the above, less likely to make plans for settling their affairs after they die.

However, people who had experienced reverence in a naturalistic setting (feeling reverent in the presence of nature, or enjoying music or art) were more likely to plan for their deaths.

In other words, seeing beauty in the here and now allows you to be more acceptant of your inevitable death. Seeing beauty in god obstructs that.


ResearchBlogging.orgWinter L, Dennis MP, & Parker B (2009). Preferences for life-prolonging medical treatments and deference to the will of god. Journal of religion and health, 48 (4), 418-30 PMID: 19890718

Ai AL, Park CL, & Shearer M (2008). Spiritual and religious involvement relate to end-of-life decision-making in patients undergoing coronary bypass graft surgery. International journal of psychiatry in medicine, 38 (1), 113-32 PMID: 18624023

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

Science education inoculates against religion

At the back end of 2007, I wrote that science education doesn't inoculate against religion. But the time has come to indulge in a bit of revisionism.

Here's why. Darren Sherkat (who has a paper out on religious fundamentalism and verbal ability that I covered in the previous post) has also taken a look at the link with scientific knowledge. The paper isn't published yet, but he sent me the manuscript - and he's also blogged it, if you want the 'horse's mouth' version!

As before, this is an analysis of the US General Social Survey, which includes a set of 13 questions on general science topics. As you can see in the graph, people who think the Bible is a book of fables scored nearly 40% higher that those who think it is the literal word of God.

You get a similar result for people who are members of Conservative Protestant sects. What's more, it persists even after controlling for other factors that might explain the difference - like age, education, income, race, immigrant status and region.

It seems that there is something about conservative Christianity in the US that works directly against science skills. In part, this might be down to the nature of the questions.

Sherkat omitted from the analysis the question about evolution, but there are also questions about continental drift and also the Big Bang. A Young Earth Creationist, might give the wrong answer to these even though they had been taught the correct answer.

So why did I previously suggest no link between science proficiency and religiosity? Well, I looked at international student scores on science collected by PISA, and correlated these with data on how often people in those countries prayed. I didn't find any link.

But Sherkat's work suggests that the link is strongest with people who have a rather extreme attachment to their religion. So I went back and redid the analysis, using the latest religious data from the World Values Survey.

This time I looked at people who rated themselves '10' on a 10-point scale asking how important God is in their life. This is a question that really picks out the very devout.

It turns out that countries with a lot of these really devout people do very poorly at educating their children about science.

In a way that's not too surprising, because these countries also tend to be poorer and less well educated in general.

But PISA also provide data adjusted for socioeconomic differences between the countries. So this score reflects how effective countries are at educating their children on science, after taking into account their different circumstances.

The data are only available for OECD countries, but that's good because these countries are broadly similar to start with. Unfortunately, the WVS didn't collect religious data from all OECD countries, which makes the sample even smaller. But even so...

The remarkable fact is that even within this small, relatively homogenous, pool of countries there's still a significant correlation.

Although this is an ecological study (it didn't look at individual data, like Sherkat's can do with the GSS data), it does support his findings.

Either highly religious people shield their children from science, or good science education shifts people from being highly religious to a more moderate stance (or perhaps both, of course).

Either way, I'm going to have to revise my previous belief that science education and religion aren't linked!

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

Bible done be the Word of God!

Religious fundamentalists in the US have poor verbal skills. That's not too surprising given that they also tend to be poor and uneducated. What is surprising is that, even taking all this into account (and much more besides), they still come out worse than you'd expect.

Darren Sherkat
(Southern Illinois University), has analysed data from the General Social Survey, which is a regular US survey on a wide variety of topics - including (in some years) a test of verbal skills.

The effect is pretty big - belief that the Bible is the word of God has a negative effect on verbal skills similar to the positive effect of being university educated. The effect of simply being a member of a fundamentalist group was smaller - about half as big - but still significant.

So why should fundamentalism be linked to problems with language? One answer is simply that people who have poor verbal skills are attracted to religious fundamentalists - perhaps because it provides a peer group of similarly impaired individuals.

In fact individuals who join sectarian groups as adults do have language problems, but they're not as bad as lifelong members. On the other hand, people who were born into fundamentalism but left as adults are normal.

An alternative explanation is that fundamentalist groups are insular, and discourage the wider social interactions and learning that might help develop social skills. This might explain why non-fundamentalists improve much more on verbal skills as they get older.

Perhaps the verbal skills help explain why fundamentalists earn less.

Here's some more interesting titbits from the analysis - the other factors associated with poor verbal skills in the good old US of A:
  • Being younger
  • Being male
  • Being non-white,
  • Being an immigrant
  • Being poor
  • Not having a university degree
  • Being married at any time (although getting a divorce helps repair the damage)
  • Having children
  • Living in the countryside
  • Living in the South.

And what about people with no religious affiliation? Well the good news is that, independent of age, gender, race, education, income, marital status, number of children, and location, they have better verbal skills than people who are members of religious groups!

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ResearchBlogging.org
Sherkat, D. (2010). Religion and verbal ability. Social Science Research, 39 (1), 2-13 DOI: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2009.05.007

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

Anonymous? We just can't get our head round the idea

People don't act rationally. One way to tell this is from studies of behavioural economics (the sort of studies made famous by Dan Ariely). Typically, these studies require some sort of anonymous dealings.

People usually don't cheat as much in these studies as they could. Since the rational thing to do in such a situation is to cheat all you can (since no-one will ever find out), it follows that people aren't rational.

Take, for example, the studies of Richard Sosis on Israeli Kibbutz members. They measured how much these Kibbutzim would contribute to a common pot in an anonymous game.

The rational amount to contribute is zero. Of course people do contribute, but what Sosis found was that those members who attended public rituals more often contributed more.

In other words, participating in these public rituals made them more irrational, in favour of the group and against their own narrow self interest. That's a good thing for the group, of course.

Now, public rituals are a classic 'costly signal'. They show that you are committed to being a member of the group (for whatever reason) - because there's no other reason to do them. But that doesn't explain why more committed group members contribute more.

One possibility is that they don't believe the experiment is truly anonymous. This is a problem for all studies like this. Another is that it's something to do with religion (perhaps these people think their God is watching them).

But I want to suggest an alternative, altogether weirder explanation. And to do that, we need to talk about why people vote. Voting is, of course, completely irrational. You know that your one vote will never make a difference. And yet people do it in their millions.

If you read a recent post at the ever-excellent Psyblog, you'll know that there's a kind of magical thinking at work here. We vote because we think that the act of voting will actually influence other people to vote the same way (even though we know it's totally anonymous).

The evidence for this comes from work done by George Quattrone and Amos Tversky back in the 1980s - you can read a summary of their study here.

Could it be that the Kibbutzim who are more committed to the group (as signalled by taking part in public rituals) are actually more generous because they are trying to get other group members to do the same?

If so, then this explains their irrational behaviour. They may well believe that the experiment is truly anonymous, but they just can't help acting as if it isn't.

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

Religion makes you desirable... in the USA but not in Britain

The previous post took a look at some recent research on how competition for mates affects how religious people say they are. When a group of students in the US were subtly reminded that there's a lot of competition for potential mates, they responded by claiming to be more religious. One potential explanation for this is simply that being religious is seen as socially desirable.

If this were true, then you would expect that people who are inclined to 'self enhance' (i.e. paint a rather flattering portrait of themselves) are also more likely to say that they are religious. There have been a huge number of studies looking at this over the years (57 studies, in fact, totalling over 15,000 subjects), and Constantine Sedikides (at Southampton University in the UK) has just compiled the results into a mega-study.

The results confirm that religion is strongly correlated with socially desirable responding (i.e. the tendency to give answers about yourself that you think will make you look good). There are two kinds of socially desirable responding - self deception (i.e. subconscious) and image manipulation (i.e. consciously talking yourself up).

Overall, image manipulation, but not self-deception, was correlated with religion.

Sedikides was able to look at the the two fundamental aspects of religion (well, as it is understood in the Western World, at least) - extrinsic and intrinsic religion. Extrinsic religion is basically the externalised expression of religion, whereas intrinsic religion is the internalised beliefs.

Now, you might think that extrinsic religion would be closely linked to image manipulation, but you'd be wrong. In fact, both self deception and image manipulation were linked to higher intrinsic religiosity, while extrinsic religion was actually linked to less of both kinds of self-enhancement.

A fascinating result, but it becomes even more interesting when you break it down at the national level. As you can see from the graph, the strongest effect of religion is in the USA.

In Canada and the UK, the link between intrinsic religion and self-enhancement is smaller.

Bizarrely, in the UK, self-enhancement is linked to more extrinsic religion (unlike the USA and Canada, where self-enhancers are actually less likely to claim extrinsic religiosity.

Sedikides speculates that this is down to the different role of religion in the USA compared with Canada and - especially - the UK.

In the USA, most people are religious and it's common for people to frown upon those who are only religious for what could be seen as superficial reasons. Self-enhancers respond by saying that they are intrinsic believers, but that they are not extrinsically religious. (Compare this with the study last year that showed people in the US believe the religious to be healthier, happier, and more normal than they actually are)

In the UK, religion is a minority pursuit, and subject to ridicule. Self-enhancers respond by saying that they don't really take the beliefs too seriously, but they are in it for the community and social side.

Sedikides also looked at the difference between secular universities in the USA and Christian ones, and found something similar. Self-enhancers at Christian Universities report high intrinsic religion, and low extrinsic religion. This effect is muted at secular universities (especially for extrinsic religion).

Now, if you've read this far you are probably wondering why all this talk of cause and effect, given that all the data are correlational? Well, Sedikides has an answer. He points out that it's well known that people use a wide variety of means to satisfy their self-enhancement motives - so you would expect them to use religion as well. What's more, self-enhancement is a very basic psychological structure, whereas religion is primarily a cultural adaptation.

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ResearchBlogging.org
Sedikides, C., & Gebauer, J. (2009). Religiosity as Self-Enhancement: A Meta-Analysis of the Relation Between Socially Desirable Responding and Religiosity Personality and Social Psychology Review DOI: 10.1177/1088868309351002

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

Get religion and get laid

Humans adapt their mating strategies according to what they think their chances are. For example, when there are more men than women, people marry earlier and divorce less. When there are more women, the opposite applies. The supposition is that this this is because, when women are in a 'buyers market' they are more able to demand fidelity.

What's more, when women are shown an array of attractive, promiscuous women, they're more likely to reject the notion that casual sex is OK.

How does religion fit into this? Douglas Kenrick (Arizona State University), who's an expert on human mating strategies, has set out to investigate this.

He started with a hypothesis. He suspected that when women face more competition they would also report being more religious. The idea is that being more religious will somehow force prospective partners to be more faithful.

Now, to me that doesn't really make sense. You would expect women in a competitive marketplace to want other people (especially men) to be more religious - but not themselves. If women are in a position to demand fidelity, then men would respond by claiming to be religious (in an attempt to persuade women that they are a good, faithful 'catch'). But if men were in demand, then they could demand less 'religiously virtuous' relationships.

But that's really a moot point, because Kenrick didn't find what he expected to.

What he did was to show students pictures of 6 attractive men or six attractive women (the ruse was that they were helping improve a fictional dating service). He then asked them about their religiosity.

It turned out that neither men nor women said they were more religious after seeing pictures of the opposite sex. But both men and women reported being more religious after seeing pictures of the same sex.

So, when you remind people of the competition, they get to thinking that the mating odds are stacked against them. And they respond (at least, these US students respond) by claiming to be more religious.

It's a puzzling result if you start from the assumption that people assert their religiosity in order to advertise their secular fidelity. Why on earth should women claim to be religious, when that might make them less attractive to potential mates?

So if these responses aren't about advertising fidelity, what can explain them? I think it's simple. In the USA, religion is a social norm. Atheists are outsiders. So, if you want to make yourself look attractive, then you claim to be religious.

Indeed, there's some great evidence that that's exactly what happens - which is the topic of the next blog post.

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ResearchBlogging.org
Li, Y., Cohen, A., Weeden, J., & Kenrick, D. (2009). Mating competitors increase religious beliefs Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.10.017

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

Atonement, self-punishment, and guilt

Atonement is a funny concept. Essentially, it's the idea that you can cancel out a wrongdoing not by doing a good deed, but by engaging in some act of self-punishment.

Although the classic example comes from Christianity (the tortured death of Jesus) similar concepts of penance are widespread in other religions. Penance goes beyond the more normal concepts of justice (revenge and punishment) because it's voluntary.

Perhaps there's more going on here than meets the eye. Rob Nelissen and Marcel Zeelenberg at Tilburg University in The Netherlands speculate that people might indulge in self-punishment because it makes them feel better.

They set out to test whether people self-punish when they are made to feel guilty, but only if they can't make good the wrong doing directly.

The basic idea was that subjects had to perform a test that they were told was a measure of how hard they concentrated. As usual it was no such thing - whether the subjects succeeded or failed was entirely manipulated by the investigators (why do the subjects fall for this every time, I wonder!).

They were paired up in this game with another player (OK, so the player was fictitious too, just there to help manipulate their guilt).

Basically the deal was that some of the subjects were made to feel that they had underperformed on the second round of the game, so that they had let the other player down.

In the third round, they were given the opportunity to self punish. Instead of just receiving points for correct answers (as in the previous rounds), now they would get points taken away for wrong ones.

The key to the experiment was that some participants chose the level of their own punishment, while others got to chose the level of their partner's punishment.

The graph sums up the results nicely. In the control condition, there was no guilt and the level of self-punishment and partner punishment were similarly low.

In the guilty condition, there was no change in the partner punishment. But there was a large increase in self-punishment.

It seems likely that this self punishment only takes place when there is no opportunity to right the wrong. In another experiment, they asked people to envisage a variety of scenarios about borrowing money for college from their parents, and then goofing off. They were then given some options on what to do next.

Some students were presented with the scenario where they had no opportunity to make up for their wrongdoing by working harder. These students were more likely to choose the self-punishment course (denying themselves the pleasure of a skiing trip).

So, there you go. Do the religious ideas of penance and atonement result from a subliminal need to self-punish? And, if they do, what could possibly be the function of it (from a biological/evolutionary perspective)?

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ResearchBlogging.org
Nelissen RM, & Zeelenberg M (2009). When guilt evokes self-punishment: evidence for the existence of a Dobby Effect. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 9 (1), 118-22 PMID: 19186924

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

A brief history of 2009

Happy (Gregorian) New Year everyone! Let's kick off with a traditional round-up - 2009 was a great year for new research into belief and non-belief, and here's some of the highlights!

First up, brain scans. Neuroimaging studies are starting to get under the skin of religious beliefs, and several this year showed the religious beliefs seem to tap into the neural pathways used for everyday life. For example, one showed that praying to God is much the same as interacting with another human.

We also learned that God wants the same thing as you happen to want, and also that people seem to create god in their own image. Sam Harris and colleagues showed that religious brains work in a pretty similar way to non-religious brains.

What are the effects of religion? Well, research this year showed that religion acts like an antidepressant, reducing anxiety over mistakes. We got some insights into the link between religion and homophobia, and found that religious prompts make people more obedient.

Spiritual guidance doesn't reduce substance abuse. Praying can reduce your own anxiety, but praying for sick people doesn't have any effect.

There were a raft of studies showing that, contrary to expectations, religious beliefs don't seem to have much effect on behaviour. Rather, the important factor seems to be the social side - attending religious meetings, for example.

Religious attendance, but not beliefs, were linked to a improved health, a reduction in suicides, and increased marital fidelity. Christians behave better, but only on Sundays.

On the down side, religious services - but not religious beliefs - also increase hostility towards people outside your group. And Church goers are more likely to steal newspapers.

So much for the effects of religion, are we any closer to understanding why religion is still so popular? I think so. In 2009, we learned that God is the ultimate attachment figure, and that people get more religious when they feel events are out of their control (although not if you first make them feel good about themselves). What's more, God is someone to blame when disaster strikes.

The highlight for me was my own paper. This added to the growing body of evidence that social conditions - particularly ones that increase feelings of insecurity - are a major reason why people turn to religion. A paper from Greg Paul also showed a link between religion and societal ill health. The Global Peace Index for 2009 was published, and the countries with the most atheists also scored the best.

And why do people become atheists? The reason young adults are less religious than children and older adults might be to do with cognitive abilities. The correlation between atheism and IQ was discussed in at least one controversial paper. Education increases church attendance, but decreases religious beliefs, and simply reading a couple of paragraphs by Dawkins can make you less religious.

So as society becomes more secure, you might expect more people to lose their religion. Sure enough, the ARIS survey in the USA and the British Social Attitudes Survey both showed religion is continuing to decline.

How will society look with more atheists? Well, one of the first studies to look at atheists (rather than the non-religious) finds that they are a happy bunch after all! Perhaps this is because, although transcendental spirituality did not increase happiness in children, 'personal' and 'communal' spirituality does. What's more, atheists also experience a sense of awe and wonder.

Atheist parents are more likely to tolerate divergent opinions from their children. In the US, atheists are notoriously the least trusted minority. But new research shows that this is probably simply because they are 'unknown outsiders', and that this fear can be reduced simply by atheists being open. In fact, the least religious societies are also the ones with the highest levels of trust.

And finally, we all know that university academics are a pretty irreligious bunch, but which discipline has the most godless? That prize goes, perhaps unsurprisingly, to the psychologists! (Although new research that came out in December suggests that philosophers probably trump the lot!)

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