Field of Science

Did fornicating Farm Girls boost the rise of atheism in Britain?

These days, Britain is one of the most atheistic countries around. It wasn't always like that, of course, but one of the problems with trying to work out how the present state of affairs came about is that there are very few statistics on religion the stretch back far enough.

Stepping into the breach is Steven Bruce and Tony Glendinning, of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. They've put together a time-series from data collected by the Methodists Churches, who have been among the most rigorous in collecting data on their membership.

If you look at the raw numbers, it looks at first sight as though Methodist membership held up quite well - at least until recent decades. But over that same period of time, the total population of the UK nearly trebled.

When you plot membership as a percentage of the total population, a different picture emerges. Methodist membership has actually been declining since records began, with the decline accelerating in the post-war period decades.

Broadly similar patterns (with a few hiccups) can be seen in many other measures of religion in the UK (although inevitably more murky because the data are more patchy). Overall church membership peaked around 1904, Sunday School enrolment peaked in the same decade, and baptisms peaked around 1930.

What caused this decline? Well, membership goes down when the churches lose members - either to death or defection - faster than they can recruit. And the evidence suggests that the major reason for the decline is failure to bind children into the religion of their parents.

This really kicked off during the Second World War. Here's another graph, showing showing the percentage of people in Scotland who stopped attending, according to when they were born. Mostly these are people who went to church as children, but who stopped attending before they turned 21.

There was a sudden surge in the numbers of people who stopped attending, which started for people born during the war and persisted afterwards.

The Second World War caused an enormous upheaval in European society, and trying to trace any one factor as the cause of the rise in godlessness is problematic. However, one clue is that a major reason for young adults to abandon Christianity is having parents from different denominations.

In other words, its much more difficult to pass on religion to your children if parents have different views - even if those differences are as minor as the differences between Anglicans and Methodists.

Now, add to this the fact that the War brought a revolution in the social mobility of women. Young women broke free from their traditional roles, and by 1943 90% of single women aged 18-40 were employed either in the armed forces or in industry.

Many women found themselves posted to areas of the country far from home, often with others - both men and women - of very different social backgrounds. And with that came not only a broadened outlook but also sexual emancipation. One 'Land Girl' working in Romney Marsh recalled:

There were troops everywhere. You could just take your pick. You didn’t know how many were married; you just had to take their word for it. . . . I had several boyfriends during the war. . . . It was a case of a broken heart one night and the next night a new boyfriend’

One result of this freedom was that women born between 1914-1924 were twice as likely to have had sex before marriage than women born 10 years before. But, perhaps more importantly, both men and women were exposed to perspectives on the world that they would never have gained previously.

According to Bruce & Glendinning, the war weakened the community ties that help the successful transmission of any shared cultural characteristic:

With vast numbers of young men in the armed forces being moved around the country, one way or another, almost all single British women between 1939 and 1945 experienced an unprecedented degree of social mixing. A large part of the eligible population had a chance to engage in pleasant and positive social interaction with people from very different social, regional, cultural and religious backgrounds (Harris 2000: 113). Not all such mixing resulted in a broadening of horizons and a weakening of previous loyalties. The aliens – inner-city evacuees, servicemen, foreigners – could be handy scapegoats for those who saw no benefit from the disruption of old ways of life but for many of those whose children were to form the missing generation of church members in the 1960s, the war was a liberating experience.

As a result, women were less likely to marry the local lad from the same street and church. And it's the mixing together of different world views and perspectives that is fatal for the successful transmission of religion.

ResearchBlogging.orgBruce, S, & Glendinning, T (2010). When was secularization? Dating the decline of the British churches and locating its cause. The British Journal of Sociology, 61 (1), 107-126

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

Protestants tempt fate, but atheists don't!

Apparently, some people think that talking or merely thinking about an event can actually bring it about. To me, that's incomprehensible. When I was young, I assumed that the concept of "tempting fate' was a poetic metaphor. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that some people take it literally!

Jonathan Abramowitz and colleagues, at the University of North Carolina, have done a nice little study into the differences between Protestants and nonbelievers in attitudes towards tempting fate. Technically, this is actually 'thought-action fusion' - a cognitive bias that occurs when people believe that thinking is equivalent to doing, and that thinking can make certain events more probable. It's related to obsessive-compulsive disorder.

What they did is to sit people down and ask them to think about a close relative. Then they were presented with two sentences which they had to copy, inserting the name of said relative:
  • "I hope has a car accident today"
  • "I hope I have sex with "
Then they were asked about how the task made them feel, was the thought morally wrong, did it make them anxious, and did they think the event was more likely to happen as a result? All this was rated on a 1-100 scale.

The Protestants thought the sex thing was very wrong (giving it 98), the nonbelievers less so (only 81). But neither group thought it was going to happen, even though the thought had been seeded.

For the car accident, things were different. Here the Protestants felt twice as strongly that merely thinking about it made it more likely to happen.

After the test, the participants were told that they could do anything they wanted to reduce or cancel the effects of writing or thinking about the sentence. The results were fascinating.

As you can see in the graph, the Protestants were much more likely to try to neutralise the words - typically by doing things like tearing up the paper, scribbling over the words, or flipping the paper over.

The researchers think this is because Christian theology encourages thought-action fusion. It crops up in many popular bits of the bible - like the commandment against coveting, and Jesus' warnings that lust is the same as adultery and that hating your brother is equivalent to being a murderer. What's more, other studies have found that more religious people do indeed show more thought-action fusion.

But I'm not so sure. I suspect it's the other way round. To me, it seems more likely that this is yet another of those cognitive predispositions that just make religion seem more plausible. I suspect that the reason I am an atheist is that this way of thinking about the world just seems downright alien to me.

What do you think?
Berman, N., Abramowitz, J., Pardue, C., & Wheaton, M. (2010). The relationship between religion and thought–action fusion: Use of an in vivo paradigm Behaviour Research and Therapy DOI: 10.1016/j.brat.2010.03.021

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

Science can't prove that! How rejecting evolution leads to rejecting science

Recent studies have shown that, at least in the USA, science and religion don't really mix. Religious people tend to have worse understanding of science, and scientists are, of course, far less religious that the general population (probably because they start out that way, before they ever get to university).

We also know that religious people are much more likely to reject evolution. You think there's a connection here? Well, no doubt. But new research suggests that the connection runs deeper than you might assume.

Geoffrey Munro, of Towson University in Maryland, has shown that people who are confronted with scientific evidence that conflicts with their beliefs are more likely to reject science as a source of evidence. Rather than modifying their beliefs, they move the goalposts!

What he did was to show undergrads some brief research summaries that had been tweaked so that the results either supported or refuted the notion that homosexuality is linked to mental illness. Of course, for some of these undergrads the 'research' they were shown conflicted with their beliefs, and for some it supported their beliefs.

Then they were asked about what information sources they would turn to to help them decide about whether the US should have the death penalty. They could choose from scientific research (into whether or not it reduces violent crime, what the cost to taxpayers was, etc), or from a variety of other opinions: from crime experts (judges, prison wardens), or moralists (religious leaders, philosophers), families of victims, or supporters or opponents of the death penalty.

The results were clear. People who had just read research that conflicted with their beliefs about homosexuality were less likely to see the value of science in helping them decide about the death penalty.

And when they were asked to choose the one source they would turn to first, there was a dramatic drop in support for science - from 54.3% for people who's beliefs were previously confirmed by science, down to 24.4% for those whose beliefs were previously refuted.

This fits in with the attitudes of the religious towards evolution. There are a large number of Americans - some 30%, if you crunch the numbers -who understand the theory of evolution, but they simply reject it because it conflicts with their beliefs.

If Munro is right, then the inevitable consequence is that these people will also become sceptical of science in general.

And in case you're wondering whether these undergrads changed their beliefs towards homosexuals at all as a result of the scientific research they were shown (whether it conflicted or agreed with those beliefs), then the answer is "no". Not a jot!

[Edited to delete 'subjective opinions']

ResearchBlogging.orgMunro, G. (2010). The Scientific Impotence Excuse: Discounting Belief-Threatening Scientific Abstracts Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40 (3), 579-600 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2010.00588.x

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

Lessons from the Indonesian financial crisis of 1998

The Indonesian Financial Crisis of 1998 was disastrous for the families caught up in it. The rupiah devalued by 80%, and food prices more than doubled. Worst affected was the price of rice, which rose by 280%.

As a result, the monthly surplus that the average family had to spend on non-food items dropped by two-thirds - from $7.34 to $2.64.

In the period spanning the crisis, the Indonesian Central Statistics Office ran a series of surveys - the Hundred Villages Survey - which followed over 1000 households as they struggled to cope. One of their findings was that, in the aftermath of the crash, Indonesians increased their participation in Pengajian (communal study of the Koran in Arabic), and they were also more likely to send their children to Islamic schools.

Daniel Chen, of the University of Chicago, has looked through the numbers in some detail. He was able to pick out those people most exposed to the financial crisis. For example, the wages of government employees were fixed, and so they were hit hard.
What's more, since the worst inflation was in the price of rice, those people who farmed rice were less affected.

Sure enough, the increases in Pengjian and sending children to Islamic schools were greatest for government employees, and least for rice farmers.

Why this should be? It's not because people had more time on their hands - other communal activities didn't increase, and people hit hardest by the crisis actually worked longer hours. And it's not because Islamic schools are cheaper. In fact, they are more expensive, and what's more children educated in Islamic schools don't earn as much when they leave as children who go to secular schools.

It seems to be that religious institutions help to insulate people from the economic shocks. People who increased their religious participation decreased their need to borrow from relatives. What seems to be happening is that religious institution are acting as a kind of localised insurance system, taking from people according to their religious intensity, and redistributing to those in crisis according to their religious comittment.

In other words, religion facilitates the ramping up of 'group identity' in response to crisis.

Now of course there are other ways of dealing with financial crisis. Wealthy nations typically do this by various forms of social insurance. And it seems that exactly the same thing did happen in the Indonesian crisis, albeit in a patchy way.

Because in those areas where credit was available (in the form of banks, microfinance institutions, or a rural financial system called 'BRI loan products'), the effect of financial distress on religious intensity was reduced by 80%.

The Indonesian provides a stark example of how state institutions are in direct competition with religious ones. It's something to bear in mind as we watch how patterns of religious behaviour change in response to the current crisis.

ResearchBlogging.orgChen, D. (2010). Club Goods and Group Identity: Evidence from Islamic Resurgence during the Indonesian Financial Crisis Journal of Political Economy, 118 (2), 300-354 DOI: 10.1086/652462

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

Will the financial crisis turn people to religion?

Well, we have a global financial crisis. We also know that religion is a source of solace for a lot of people. So will the financial crisis mean boom times for religion?

The answer is probably yes, but not in a way that's straightforward. That's the message from two new studies, one in the US (which is the topic of this post) and one in Indonesia (which I'll write up in the next post). The Indonesian one is particularly interesting because it's not often we get insights into the role of religion outside the Western world.

But let's look first at the US study, by Matt Bradshaw at the University of North Carolina and Chris Ellison at the University of Texas.

They took a look at data from the US General Social Survey that was gathered back in 1998 to see whether psychological distress (whether people said they felt restless, hopeless, depressed, etc) was linked to being poverty. And of course they were interested in how this connected with different aspects of religion.

Turns out that, in case anyone doubted it, wealth really does make you happy - or at least less stressed. But although those people stuck at the bottom of the pile in the USA felt more stressed, the effect wasn't huge - only about 10% of the variation in stress was explained by poverty.

They also found that, in general, people who went to church more often were less stressed. The opposite effect occurs with prayer, though - people who pray more are more stressed (presumably that's partly why they pray).

So here's the big question. Is religion particularly effective in reducing the stress of poor people? The answer to that is yes, but in a surprising way.

Because although overall belief in the afterlife wasn't linked to less stress, it proved to be the biggest factor in helping the religious poor deal to deal with stress of their situation. Sugarcandy Mountain, anyone?

You can see the interaction clearly in this graphic. Wealthy people are pretty relaxed, whether or not they believe in the afterlife. Those who are poor are more stressed - except for those who have consoling beliefs in the afterlife. In these people, stress levels are reduced to levels similar to that of the rich.

It seems that the hopes of being wealthy in the next life can make up for the reality of this one.

There was a similar effect with religious attendance. Going to Church makes rich and poor less stressed, but the effect is particularly strong among the poor.

Surprisingly, although meditation didn't reduce stress on average, it did seem to reduce the stress caused by financial hardship. Perhaps this just shows that people who meditate don't see wealth as a measure of their personal success or social status, and so are unfazed if they happen to be poor.

Unexpectedly, prayer doesn't help poor people accept their low status. Poor people who pray a lot are just as stressed as those who don't pray.That's interesting because an earlier study found that both a belief in the afterlife and prayer help people who have recently had a financial shock.

Perhaps this suggests a certain realism on the part of those doing the praying. If you've just recently come into financial problems, you might hold out hope that your God will reverse those problems if you pray.

But once you've been stuck in the poverty trap for a while, you may well resign yourself to the prospect that your God is not going to help you - not in this life, at least!
Bradshaw, M., & Ellison, C. (2010). Financial Hardship and Psychological Distress: Exploring the Buffering Effects of Religion☆ Social Science & Medicine DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.03.015

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

Studying science doesn't make you an atheist... but studying literature does!

Chris Mooney has an interview with Elaine Ecklund, the researcher who's been documenting the religious beliefs of academics for several years. I've blogged about her work last year.

One of the things Mooney picks up on is her conclusion that, although scientists are much less religious than the general population, it doesn't seem to be that studying science is the cause. That's because prospective scientists are mostly non-religious in the first place.

I guess that's not too surprising. There's a considerable anti-science movement within conservative Christianity, so highly religious people are less likely to go into science in the first place. And there's no reason to suppose that learning about science should necessarily conflict with liberal religion. After all, mainstream religions have successfully accommodated science within their worldviews (often reconstructing God as a remote figure who lets evolution and the laws of physics do most of the work - although see this earlier blog post for more on that).

And yet there is something odd going on here. Because college in the US is, in fact, a major non-religious epiphany for many students.

Take, for example, data from the ongoing Spirituality in Higher Education Study. This study is following nearly 15,000 students through their college years.

They've found that religious attendance plummets during college years - as shown in the figure on the right (which I nicked from the Salt Lake Tribune). According to the study organizers, this drop in attendance is closely related to an increase in "alcohol consumption and partying". A shocking indictment of college life, I'm sure you'll agree!

But it's not just the hedonism and freedom of college life that entices students away from religion. You can see this in some remarkable data from the Monitoring the Future Study (the paper is here, but behind a paywall).

They estimated how much religiosity changes for kids who do not go to college. Then they compared that with changes in religiosity over 6 years for kids who study a range of disciplines.

The data are shown in the graph at the top of this story. Basically, for the biological and physical sciences it's a mixed picture, similar to what Ecklund found. Church attendance goes up, while beliefs go down. Perhaps that's because, as they join the workforce, they feel under increased pressure to conform socially.

For vocational subjects, the effect is all positive. These folks come out of college more religious than you might expect - which may reflect the different natures of the colleges that teach these subjects.

But both the Humanities and the Social Sciences see dramatic declines in attendance and even more in religious beliefs.

Now, this might simply be because they were more religious to start with - but then, so were those who went into education. So I suspect that broadening world views is the major reason these students lose their faith - a conclusion also suggested by the fact that, in the Spirituality in Higher Education Study, participation in a "study abroad program" also created increased skepticism about religion.

In other words, humanities and social sciences, much more than biological and mathematical sciences, challenge you to imagine the world through the eyes of others. And this exercise in imagination undercuts religious dogma far more effectively than any science lesson can.

As the Michigan researchers conclude: ""Our results suggest that it is Postmodernism, not Science, that is the bête noir of religiosity."

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

Epiphenom? There's a (Nokia) app for that!

If you have a Nokia phone, then you can now download a dedicated Epiphenom app from the Ovi store. It's an easy way to get not only the stories on the main blog, but also 'mini-Epiphenom' (interesting bits n pieces from around the web) and all the comments.

If you're on a limited bandwidth or have a small screen, it should make reading the blog much easier.Here's what it looks like on my N97 - results may vary, as they say :)

And if your phone isn't a Nokia, there are still ways to get the content in a format suitable for viewing on a phone. You could try downloading this java app - you should be able to download and run it from your phone browser. You could also just copy it across to your phone.

The simplest thing is to bookmark this URL on your phone browser - it's just a lightweight version of the main blog:

Alternatively, if you have a news reader (like the news reader in Snaptu) you can enter in the links for the relevant news feeds:


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

What's the evidence that anxiety and insecurity turns people to religion?

That's a question that cropped up recently on the Non-religious and Secular Research Network discussion forum. After I finished composing my response, I thought to myself "That's a ready-made blog post!". So here, with a few additions and added explanations, it is...

The first place to look is studies in the laboratory that try to subliminally increase the subject's anxiety and insecurity, and then ask them about their beliefs.

So, for example, Ara Norenzayan has shown that subtly reminding people of death makes them say they are more religious. That's probably related to something called 'World View Defence' - when you remind people about death, they tend to grab onto their traditional, cultural values. Similarly, Iranian students who are made to feel more anxious are more likely to support suicide bombers.

The effect can be quite specific. Aaron Kay has shown that making people feel like they are not in control strengthens their belief in a controlling god - in other words, they compensate for lack of control in their own lives by believing in a god that has it all in hand. What's more, Kurt Gray has shown that people invoke god as a moral agent to explain negative (but acausal) events.

Our thoughts about the world are subject to all kinds of unconscious biases, and it's widely believed that these contribute to religious beliefs. And some of these biases are strengthened when people are made to feel anxious. For example, Nicholas Epley has shown that making people feel lonely increases their belief in the supernatural - and also makes them more likely to think that household gadgets have personalities!

In another study, Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky have shown that manipulating people so that they feel out of control makes them more inclined to see patterns that aren't really there. This is a key part of superstition - once you start to believe that a rain dance actually does make rain, it's a short step to invoking a deity to explain the link.

Delving deeper into the brain, it gets a bit more complicated. On the one hand, Michael Inzlicht has found that religious people have lower 'error response negativity'. This is the spike in activity in a part of the middle brain that occurs when you make a mistake - it's the brain warning system. People who have a lower ERN are less anxious about mistakes (anti-anxiety drugs also lower the ERN).

 On the other hand, another study has shown that something called the 'Behavioural Inhibition System' - a deep seated biological response that's linked to anxiety - is increased in religious people. This suggests that religious people may be inherently more anxious.

In the real world

All the studies so far have been looking at psychological response. But what about in the real world? Are religious people anxious, or are they less anxious?

Well,  Janie Wilson has shown that encouraging people to pray was effective in reducing anxiety. However, this was no more effective than getting them to read a self-help text.

Back in the 1930s, a pioneering anthropologist named Malinowski learned that those Trobriand islanders, located in the Pacifc Ocean, who fished in deeper waters (and so were more exposed to storms) had more elaborate pre-fishing rituals. This is supersition, rather than religion, but it goes to show how the need to establish order and fend off uncertainty drives irrational behaviour.

Kevin Flannelly has shown that different beliefs in the afterlife can be linked to either an decrease or an increase in psychosis, depending on the nature of the belief. Of course, working out cause and effect is problematic here, but he interprets this as evidence of what he calls an "Evolutionary Threat Avoidance System" - an alert system which is damped down by the appropriate religious beliefs.

And religion - or at least service attendance - seems to be associated with lower anxiety in the 'real world'. Chris Lewis has shown that people in Northern Ireland who go to church more often are less anxious (regardless of sex or sect). Terence Hill has shown that, in the USA, prayer and belief in the afterlife is associated with less anxiety. There are, however, quite a few wrinkles in this simple interpretation, and whatever else it's clear that the effect is pretty small.

One thing that's often forgotten is that  religion means different things to different people. Dan McAdams has found that, while liberals see a life without religion as barren and colourless, conservatives see it as chaotic and out of control.

Religion also affects how people approach financial worries. Andrew Clark found that European Protestants and Catholics are less fearful of unemployment than the non religious. Kenneth Scheve and David Stasavage have shown that religious people are less in favour of government welfare, perhaps because religion acts as a psychological buffer against an uncertain future.

Matt Bradshaw and Chris Ellison have shown that religion can reduce the stress caused by financial hardship. This last one is a very recent paper that I haven't blogged about yet. Stay tuned!

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

Who's to blame for the financial crisis?

Astute observers will have noticed that there's been something of a crisis in the financial world over the past couple of years. The EU's just coughed up €500 billion in the latest effort to stem the panic... or, in the alternative perspective, to fend off the predators!

And that gets to the heart of the matter. Is the crisis just one of those things - part of a natural economic cycle that is beyond anyone's ability to predict or control? Or is it a result of moral or intellectual failures among those who are are in charge of all the money.? Everyone has their own opinion, but what do most people think?

David Leiser and Rinat Benita, of Ben Gurion University, with Sacha Bourgeois-Gironde of the Institut Jean-Nicod, put this question via internet questionnaires to 1,707 people in France, the US, Russia, Germany, Israel, and sub-Saharan Africa.

[A note on how the study was done: The questionnaire was quite complex, but they used factor analysis to boil it down to two groups of questions that seemed to sort out two different groups of people - those who thought the crisis is a "systemic, global, unintended phenomenon" and those who thought it was a "local, individually and intentionally motivated one"]

On average, people were more inclined to go for the 'individual failure' explanation, rather than the 'unintended consequence' explanation:
... most people appear to construe an intentional, especially moral, reading of the crisis rather than conceive of it in terms of independent causal mechanisms. Purposiveness, be it under the guise of an intelligent design in nature or that of the secret interests of a vaguely identified group of businessmen, is the default explanation which seems to satisfy a primitive need for closure
People who are wealthier, or who are trained in in economics, were less likely to believe in the 'human failure' theory. People who had been personally affected were more likely to.

But what about religious people? If, like me, you assumed that religious people would be more likely to put moral failings at the root of the crisis, you are in for a surprise.

Because it turns out that although the religious are more likely to blame moral failures, they are also more likely to subscribe to the 'economic storm' theory. As it happens, they actually were more likely than the non-religious to agree that "The current crisis comes as a punishment to all those who misbehaved in the past few years", but even here the difference was not huge

In other words, what marks out the more religious is not that they have different views on the crisis, but that they hold them with more conviction!

It isn't clear what should drive such an association. Conceivably, it reflects a preference for clarity over ambiguity that is often seen in people attracted to the more fundamentalist religions. Perhaps the religious are simply less comfortable with admitting "I don't know".
Leiser, D., Bourgeois-Gironde, S., & Benita, R. (2010). Human foibles or systemic failure—Lay perceptions of the 2008–2009 financial crisis Journal of Socio-Economics, 39 (2), 132-141 DOI: 10.1016/j.socec.2010.02.013

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

Where Mormons Thrive

Among the great American exports to the rest of the world, there are a bewildering variety of religious cults and sects. Not all have take root, but the most successful - groups like the Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Seventh Day Adventists - now number in the millions.

Their success is mostly down to prosyletisation, in addition to any endogenous growth (due to fertility) that was the topic of the previous post.

So why are they so successful, and perhaps more importantly where are they successful? Is it something intrinsic to what they offer, or is it more to do with finding fertile soil and a receptive, willing audience? That’s what Ryan Cragun (University of Tampa) and Ronald Lawson (CUNY) set out to discover.

They analysed how these three religious had grown in different countries around the world, to see what kinds of countries saw the most rapid growth, and also whether growth was self limiting.

In turns out that their fastest growth rates are in middle income countries – not at the bottom of the scale, where grinding poverty is most apparent, nor in wealthy countries.

The graphic shows this for the Mormons. The 'Human Development Index' is a standard measure, developed by the UN, which combines life expectancy, adult literacy, and per capita GDP. Mormons grow fastest in countries mid-way along the index.

It’s hard to say why this might be, but it may be linked to the social upheaval that goes hand in hand with modernization. Perhaps people turn to these new, highly active religions to help deal with the stresses and uncertainty that this upheaval can cause.

The other important finding is that growth appears to be self limiting. After an initial burst (the ‘growth momentum’), then growth slows in proportion to the number of people already converted. It’s as if there is a certain pool of people who are attracted to these groups and, once they’re in, recruitment falls away.

What’s intriguing, however, is that there doesn’t seem to be competition between groups. In other words, the growth rate of Mormons is slower if there are already a lot of Mormons in the country, but it’s unaffected by the numbers of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

That suggests that these groups appeal to different kinds of people – although an alternative explanation is simply that the hotspots of each group is separated geographically within a country.

Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have both seen a significant slowdown in growth in recent years, although for Seventh Day Adventists the slowdown is less significant. This is probably because most current Mormons and JWs today live in relatively wealthy countries, where prospects for conversions are poor. In Europe, the number of JWs is actually falling!
Cragun, R., & Lawson, R. (2010). The Secular Transition: The Worldwide Growth of Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists Sociology of Religion DOI: 10.1093/socrel/srq022

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

Shall the fundamentalists inherit the earth?

Predictions are a tricky business, but Eric Kaufmann, in his new book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, reckons he can make some hard projections of the numbers of non-believers and believers into the 21st century. And the results are pretty disturbing for liberals of all stripes - both religious and non-religious.

The basic stats are simple. The religious have more children than the non-religious. Although more people convert from religion into non-religion, conversion probably won't be enough to tip the balance. As a result, the religious will make up an increasingly large proportion of the population as the century progresses.

Why should this be a problem? After all, most religious people are inoffensive, liberal types who are good neighbours. They surely don't pose a threat to liberal society.

But the problem comes when you dig into the details - especially when you separate out the devoutly religious (fundamentalists, born again Christians, cultists etc) from the mainstream religious.

Because the major fertility fault line is not between the religious and atheists, but between the mainstream religious (and atheists) and the fanatics.

In modern America fertility rates among the mainstream religious, although a little higher than among the non-religious, are pretty low. Kaufmann shows that, regardless of faith, fertility rates among the religious have declined throughout the 20th century, tracking (although always slightly higher) those of the non-religious.

Today, the fertility rate for liberal protestants in the USA stands at 1.84 children per woman (p90), while that of moderate protestants is 2.01 and conservative protestants has fallen to only 2.13. Mormon fertility rates, although consistently higher, have on average tracked those of the US population at large.

And it's not just Christians that are seeing fertility rates drop. In 1981, Muslims in Austria had a fertility rate of 3.09 (p172). Twenty years later, that had dropped to 2.34 (still well above the fertility rate of the natives, however).

In other words, this is good old-fashioned conservatism. Liberals have lead the way, with female emancipation causing the 'Second Demographic Transition' to small family sizes. Conservatives have come on board more slowly, but young conservatives are adopting the values of the liberals of a generation ago.

But these average statistics conceal an ugly reality. Because while fertility rates among the 'normal' religious are dropping, those among the hardliners are staying high or even increasing.

The most dramatic examples given by include the ultra-orthodox Jews, ultra conservative cults like the Amish (who have increased from 5,000 to 250,000 in the past century), the 'Quiverful' fundamentalists, and pentecostals in Finland. In all cases, these groups are characterised by isolationism and high birth rates. Their new recruits are born, not made.

There seems to be two reasons why this happens. Firstly, these ultra-conservatives have remained highly patriarchal.

'Normal' conservative Christianity places a high value on conversions. While this increases their numbers, it also means that their members and values are influenced by those in the wider world.

Not so the patriarchal cults. Cut off from influence from the outside world, women remain relegated to their traditional roles. With restricted access to education, and little opportunity for independence or escape, they become, in practice, children factories.

The statistics demonstrate the power of these cults in enforcing traditional values and preventing female emancipation. The Mennonites, who are Anabaptists like the Amish but who speak English at home and accept intermarriage and modern technology, have average fertility rates. And while the most conservative old-Amish retain 95% of their children, the slightly more liberal new order Amish retain only 57% (p36).

But there is more to the story than female subjugation. Because these cults actively and consciously promote fertility as a way to increase their power.

In other words, they recognize that conversion has failed as a strategy to promulgate religion. So the fundamentalists have retreated from conversion, turn in upon themselves, and intend to achieve victory through remorseless demographics.

In Israel and Palestine, both orthodox Jews and religious Muslims have astonishingly high birth rates, at least in part as a consequence of waging war 'by other means'. Throughout the Islamic world, those who have the most extreme beliefs are also the most likely to endorse the desirability of large families.

And, back in the USA, the leaders of the half-crazed "Quiverful" cult fantasise about their future armies of "mini-me's". Geoffrey Botkin, one of the architects of the movement, even:

...produced a spreadsheet which predicts that he will be the patriarch of 186,000 male descendants within two centuries. At the birth of his latest addition, Anna Sofia, Botkin passed his hand over the abdomen of the sleeping newborn, praying for her to be the 'future mother of tens of millions'. (p95)

These religious cults are a lethal combination of female subjugation and male power fantasies. And that's what makes them dangerous to all liberals - both religious and non-religious.

So what should be the appropriate liberal response? Well, Kaufmann does not say. Although he holds out hope that moderate religion, with its feel-good fuzzies, may somehow triumph over the hardliners, he recognizes that action is needed:

It will be a century or more before the world completes its demographic transition. There is still too much smoke in the air for us to pick out the peaks and valleys of the emerging social order. This much seems certain: without an ideology to inspire social cohesion, fundamentalism cannot be stopped. The religious shall inherit the earth.

I, for one, see hope for a liberal, secular future, despite these grim statistics.

We can start by recognizing that some liberal values hold within them the seeds of their own destruction. For the cults to survive, they need to isolate their children from external influence. They do this in a number of ways, especially by physical isolation - home schooling, restrict access to alternative world views, separate schools, and even (in the case of the Mormons) separate universities.

This can only happen when children are regarded as the property of their parents, rather than as individuals with rights of their own to an open, diverse education and interaction with the wider world. Liberals need to weigh carefully these two rights to ensure that liberal values do not empower most those who seek to destroy them..

What's more, these cults thrive upon fear of outsiders. Both Muslim and Christian fundamentalists play upon fears that their culture will be overwhelmed by secularists. Atheists need to think hard about how they engage with the religious, since ratcheting up the level of conflict serves to paradoxically increase the power of the religious patriarchs.

Furthermore, part of the reason birth rates have fallen with female emancipation is that, all too often, women are forced to choice between an independent career and a family. Signs are that this is already changing.

Men are devoting more time to child care than ever before. In Europe, fertility rates are actually highest in the least religious countries. If liberals can create a society in which women can couple a secure, independent existence with children, then fertility rates may yet rebound.

And lastly, I wonder about the future of liberal fertility. It's true that liberal fertility rates are continuing to fall. But liberal values, like fundamentalist ones, are inherited as well as communicated.

Many liberals do have children. They have found a solution that balances liberal values, modern society, and family. And since they are still in the vast majority, it is their values (and genes), that will make up the overwhelming majority of future generations.

Maybe, just maybe, it will be these liberals that shall inherit the earth!

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

Religious teens start drinking later, but not because they're religious!

New research confirms that religious teens in the US start drinking slightly later than non-religious ones, but that this probably is nothing to do with their religious beliefs.

Kathryn Paige Harden (University of Texas) did this by looking not only at individual teens, but also at their brothers and sisters. Some of them were identical twins, but others ranged in genetic relatedness from normal siblings to half-siblings (i.e. one parent different) to cousins to adopted (unrelated).

Using this data, they were able to split up the causes of religion and also teen drinking into three factors: genetic, family environment, and external environment (the external environment is the social environment that is not shared by siblings).

Paige Harden's first finding is that only one third of the differences in religion in these American teens is down to religion. That fits in with other studies that have found that religion is mostly down to the environment in which you are raised (at least for teens, that is - genetics might be more important in later life).

She points out that this does not mean that we have genes that 'code for' religion. What it means is that, in certain cultural contexts, there are genetic factors that predispose you to adopting behaviours that fall under the label 'religion'. In a different cultural context, these same genese might act differently.

But what about religion and drinking?

Well, what she found was that religious teens (i.e. those above the middle-line of religiosity) were older on average when they had their first alcoholic drink. But the difference was tiny - religious teens postpone their drinking by only six months (from just under 14 years to just over).

However, when she looked at siblings who were raised in the same home but had different levels of religiosity, there was no difference. In other words, it's not the teenager's religious beliefs that cause the difference in drinking, but something in their environment.

Paige Harden demonstrated this more formally by showing that the family influences that are linked to religiosity are also linked to later drinking (but not the genetic factors), and that when you take this into account individual religiosity is irrelevant.

What could these family influences be? One obvious answer is that religious parents delay teen drinking. But she also found that religious mothers had no effect on the onset of teen drinking.

The most likely explanation, then, is that there is something in the wider social environment (but still shared with their family members) of teens that is linked to religion and that causes a small delay in when they choose (or are able to) take their first drink.

In other words, it's about living in an environment where teen drinking is frowned upon (which, in the highly religious USA, also tends to be religious environments).

Does this matter? Well, yes it does, because it suggests that programmes that try to make children more religious are unlikely to affect teen drinking. As the Paige Harden concludes:

These results suggest that increasing an individual adolescent’s own level of religiosity, independent of his or her family background, may not protect against early drinking initiation. Federal ‘faith-based’ initiatives, if they focus on increasing adolescent involvement in religious organizations but do not change the adolescent’s family environment, may be ineffective in preventing adolescent substance use.

ResearchBlogging.orgHarden, K. (2010). Does religious involvement protect against early drinking? A behavior genetic approach Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2010.02247.x

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