Field of Science

Young evangelicals are greener... but no more liberal

During the last US presidential campaign, there was a flurry of excitement when pundits caught hold of the idea that some young Christian evangelicals might possibly vote for Obama (despite the fact that he is, apparently, a Muslim, or perhaps not even a Christian, or something). This would not be so surprising. After all, there is nothing set in stone about what the political and even moral beliefs of an evangelical should be. There would be nothing in principle to stand in the way of a bit of revisionism.

Well, it turns out that no, young evangelicals are just as likely to vote Republican as their parents. That's according to a new analysis, by Buster Smith and Byron Johnson, of the Baylor Religion Survey (which was conducted back in 2007). That's even more surprising given that non-evangelical youth tend to be more liberal than their parents.

Not only that, but young evangelicals are similar to their old folks on a number of other moral questions - most of them think that abortion is wrong, even in the case of a rape. They're against smoking dope, and also embryonic stem cell reseach. And they have a particular beef about allowing homosexuals to marry.

So much for issues of personal morality. What about broader political issues? Well, here it gets a little more interesting.

Here they found the only significant difference between young and old evangelicals - on green issues. Young evangelicals were more likely to think that the government should spend more to protect the environment. They were also more likely to think that climate change will be disastrous, and that we're going to run out of fossil fuel.

But that's it. The only difference. Young and old thought similarly about government health and welfare spending.

There's a couple of things that fascinate me about this analysis. It doesn't surprise me that views on personal morality are shared between young and old. I guess that means these are a core feature of evangelical identity. If you drop them, then you are no longer part of the gang. Although I don't see the religious link to maijuana use, I can see how religious ideals of purity (homosexuality confuses gender), procreation (abortion reduces fertility), and essentialism (embryonic stem cell research means changing one thing into another) are essential building blocks of evangelism.

Similarly, I can see how green issues could be up for grabs. The Bible doesn't really have a lot to say about anthropogenic climate change, but I'm guessing (I'm no expert here) it does have some bits that talk about looking after your patch.

But the results for health and welfare suggest that these, too, are a core part of the evangelical identity. Why should that be? Why should rejection of state welfare be linked to evangelism? Is this an inheritance of the old (and probably mythical) 'Protestant Work Ethic'?

The second thing that strikes me is that these evangelicals - young and old - actually support more government spending on the environment and health. I suspect that's not a view shared by many non-religious, fiscal conservatives.

Good evidence, all-in-all, of issue bundling. What we are lookgin at is poor, ill educated people who want the government to spend more on their health (if not welfare), but who vote Republican because their religious views on personal morality take priority.


ResearchBlogging.orgSmith, B., & Johnson, B. (2010). The Liberalization of Young Evangelicals: A Research Note Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49 (2), 351-360 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2010.01514.x


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

Praying and staying together - and away from those infidels

Here's a conundrum for you. In the USA, religious couples report higher satisfaction with their relationship. African-American couples are more religious than white couples. Yet African-American couples report lower relationship satisfaction than White couples. What's going on here?

The answer, according to a recent analysis of the National Survey of Religion and Family Life (NSRFL), is that African-Americans would have even worse relationships if it weren't for their religion.

The graphic shows how different groups map out in terms of average family religious activities - "praying together" - and relationship satisfaction. African-Americans are the most religious, yet report the lowest relationship satisfaction.

Teasing these data apart, the researchers (led Chris Ellison at the University of Texas) conclude that family religious activities have a positive effect, and that African-Americans would have even worse relationships if it wasn't for the fact that they are so religious.

The details are a little bit technical, but basically when they chucked a whole bunch of variables into the model, which took account of differences in education, income, marital status and other things (but not religious activities), they found that African-Americans did not, in fact, have lower relationship satisfaction.

Then they added family religious activities in, and suddenly being African-American was linked to worse relationship quality. They concluded that the higher family religious activities of African-Americans were bumping up their relationship quality. Here's W. Bradford Wilcox, one of the study co-authors:
"Without prayer, black couples would be doing significantly worse than white couples. This study shows that religion narrows the racial divide in relationship quality in America," Wilcox said. "The vitality of African-Americans' religious lives gives them an advantage over other Americans when it comes to relationships. This advantage puts them on par with other couples." [Press release]
Now, although this is a reasonable conclusion, it is also something of a statistical sleight-of-hand. They didn't actually show a statistical interaction. They're inferring one, which is a bit dangerous. It's also a weak effect - going all the way from 'never' to 'more than once a week' on the religious activities scale would only shift relationship satisfaction by 0.6 points on a 6-point scale. Even with all their variables in the model, they only explain 10% of the variation in satisfaction. And, of course, we don't really know which way cause-and-effect is running. 

But think about what it means if they are right. It means that the surest way to relationship satisfaction is to enjoy whatever it is that Whites have apart from education and money - high social status, I guess. But for African-Americans, religion acts as a kind social support to help them deal with their allotted place in society.

The researchers did also show one other effect of religion. When partners shared religious beliefs, they tended to be more satisfied. On the face of it, that's not too surprising. You'd expect partners that shared beliefs and attitudes to have more in common, and so to get on better.

But turn it around, and you can see that couples who belong to different beliefs systems are inherently less likely to be happy together. And the effect is potent - partners whose beliefs are strongly different score 1.3 points lower in relationship satisfaction. They may be a great match in every other way, but those different beliefs about an intangible thing like your choice of god is enough to drag them down.

In other words, what we have here is strong, incontrovertible evidence of the fracturing effects that religious beliefs have on society. But somehow that conclusion didn't seem to make it into the press release!


ResearchBlogging.orgEllison, C., Burdette, A., & Bradford Wilcox, W. (2010). The Couple That Prays Together: Race and Ethnicity, Religion, and Relationship Quality Among Working-Age Adults Journal of Marriage and Family, 72 (4), 963-975 DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00742.x

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

Pic of the week

The folks at BRIN have been busy putting together this fab chart showing generational changes in religion in Britain. The data are from the 2008 British Social Survey and show the religion in which people were brought up on the left, and their current religion on the right. Connecting the two are 'pipes' showing how people have switched - the fatter the pipe, the more people have followed that path.


What jumps out immediately is that, 'No religion' is now the biggest category, as a result of large numbers of people switching out from Christianity. What this chart also makes obvious is that very few British people switch religions,. What switching there is seems to mostly be out of religion altogether. 

What's more, non-Christians almost all have stayed religious - very few have switched out to non-religion. I guess that's because these people are mostly first or second-generation immigrants, for whom religion forms an important part of their cultural identity.

Now compare the UK chart with one done for the US by Internet Monk.


Some things are similar. Most notably, a lot of people have converted to 'no religion'. Unlike the UK, however, some people move from 'No religion' into a religious group. That hardly ever happens in the UK, and perhaps reflects the social pressures on US individuals to be at least nominally religious.

In the US, there seems to be more switching in general, however. Unlike the UK, there's noticeable switching from Catholic to Protestant (and vice versa), and even back and forth from 'other' religions.

I wonder why this should be?


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

Praying for abstinence

Religious people are less likely to drink heavily. However, there's a chicken-and-egg problem here. Is it that turning to god help people stay off the demon drink, or is it that hard-core party animals are less likely to be religious?

These questions crop up a lot in studies of religion, but there are a couple of ways round them. Basically, you can look at what happens over time (does being religious at the start of the year predict alcohol consumption at the end), or you can encourage people to be religious and see what happens to their drinking.

That's what Nathan Lambert, of Florida State University, and colleagues, have done (they've done a couple of similar studies in the past). They took a group of students  and found that, sure enough, the religious ones were less likely to binge drink. They also showed that religiosity at the start of the semester predicted less binge drinking at the end.

Rather more interesting was that they then did a trial in which they randomized students (all of them religious believers) to two groups. One group was asked to pray every day for their friends and family (they had to pick 5). The other group was asked simply to think positive thoughts daily about their friends and family.

By the end of the study, four weeks later, the  'good thoughts' group were drinking nearly twice as much alcohol as the 'prayer' group.

So it seems that making nominally religious people actively engage in their beliefs can discourage them from drinking. But why?

Lambert has two theories. First is that prayer may help to improve your relationships with others (that's something Lambert has shown in an earlier study). And if relationships are stronger, then you'll have less need to turn to drink to overcome social barriers.

His second theory is that spirituality and alcohol consumption are alternative routes to relieve the 'burden of self'. This is the idea that, particularly in Western cultures, people are under high pressure to succeed as individuals. By turning to prayer, people may have less need to turn to the bottle.

Personally, I think something else is going on here. By making people pray every day, what you are doing is reminding people constantly of their religion. It's called priming. And by doing that, you remind them of their cultural expectations - and also remind them that god is watching them.

In other words, you'd expect daily prayer to encourage people to conform to whatever it is they think their god wants - in this case temperance!


ResearchBlogging.orgLambert, N., Fincham, F., Marks, L., & Stillman, T. (2010). Invocations and intoxication: Does prayer decrease alcohol consumption? Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 24 (2), 209-219 DOI: 10.1037/a0018746

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

Why psychotic patients with religious delusions are harder to cure.

We all hold beliefs that are not provable, and defining when these beliefs cross the line and become psychotic delusions is not easy. It's clear that such a line does exist, however: every town has its share of people whose religious beliefs fall sufficiently far outside the conventional that they are declared psychotic.

In popular imagination, at least, psychotic delusions often have a religious component. In reality, many psychotic delusions are not religious. However, many delusions involve hallucinations or mind control by unseen agents, and so it's not too surprising that those who experience them fold them into their religious background. The religious beliefs don't trigger the psychosis, but they become enmeshed within it.

But do religious beliefs help or hinder those with delusions?

Sylvia Mohr, at the University Hosptial of Geneva in Switzerland, took a look at over 200 psychiatric outpatients at two mental health institutions - one in Geneva and the other in Trois-Rivières, Québec. Half of them had frequent psychotic delusions, and 38 (around one in six of the total sample) had delusions with religious content.

She found that religious nature of their delusions did help some patients to cope. For some, who believed they were being persecuted demons, belief in their god or guardian angel gave them comfort and strength to deal with their condition. This is what one patient said:

The auras say "we will catch him" and "we will kill him," and they make me feel external pain. At the beginning, I was hopeless and I believed that the auras were strong and superior. I spoke to the priest about the auras, and he helped me to find the courage to fight. God loves me and comforts me. With the help of God, I am winning against the auras. They cannot hurt me anymore, and they are inferior. I don't speak about this to the psychiatrist, because it is very personal. I do not have a mental disorder, but a physical illness due to the auras, so I take the medication".

For one patient, who believed he was being controlled by supernatural entities, turning to his priest helped them to understand that his delusion was an illness. Others had similar tails to tell.

However for most patients (55%, in fact), the religious component of their delusions actually made their condition more serious. This was especially the case for those suffering from self-delusions - thinking that they are somebody else. The delusion that you are John the Baptist seems to make it harder to cope with your disease than the delusion that you are Napoleon!

Patients with delusions - and especially those with religious delusions - tended also to be more religious than those. And this is where their real problems begin.

For one thing, despite being more religious, patients with religious delusions actually engage in fewer group religious activities and receive less support from their religious communities than do patients with non-religious delusions. That's presumably because their religious communities find these religious delusions particularly disturbing.

These patients also are more likely to find that their religion brings them into conflict with psychiatrists and others who are trying to provide mental health support. In fact, one in four of them have come to believe that their religion does not allow them to take antipsychotic medication.

So religion is a mixed bag when it comes to psychosis. For some, it provides solace. For others, however, it increases the danger that they will sink further into their own delusions - a problem exacerbated by the fact that they are shunned by their religious colleagues.For these patients, their religion is more often a burden than a support.


ResearchBlogging.orgMohr, S., Borras, L., Betrisey, C., Pierre-Yves, B., Gilliéron, C., & Huguelet, P. (2010). Delusions with Religious Content in Patients with Psychosis: How They Interact with Spiritual Coping Psychiatry: Interpersonal & Biological Processes, 73 (2), 158-172 DOI: 10.1521/psyc.2010.73.2.158

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

Why are there more Christian congregations where there is more crime?

Take a middle-American US city – a fairly typical city with the usual mix of rich and poor, down-town and suburban, black and white. Indianapolis, let’s say. Which areas do you think would have the highest levels of crime?

Well, the poor areas of course. No surprises there. Down-town areas and those area with low population density are also at risk – probably a result of increased opportunities. Racially mixed areas have higher level of theft and burglary, although not violent crime. And there also seems to be a strong ‘cultural’ effect. There are pockets of high crime that persist even after taking into account all the other factors.

And, last but not least, you also get more crime in neighbourhoods that have more Christian congregations.

Now, the effect isn’t across the board. Catholic and non-Protestant congregations are not related, either positively or negatively, to crime levels. And although Black Protestant and mainline Protestant congregations tend to be located in areas of high commercial burglary (and larceny, in the case of mainline Protestants), they aren’t associated with other types of criminal behaviour.

It’s evangelical Protestants (aka ‘fundamentalists’) that show the strongest connection. Those areas of Indianapolis with more evangelical Protestant churches also have more robbery, aggravated assault, vehicle theft, commercial burglary and larceny. Blimey.

This is just a statistical association. So it could simply be that these churches set up shop in those areas with highest need – with the highest crime rates. But remember that this association remains even after controlling for all those factors I mentioned above. These churches are located in areas that have more crime than you would expect, given the level of deprivation and other factors that predispose to crime.

It could be that these evangelical churches actually increase crime rates as a direct result of their teachings. Often these churches extol the virtues of defensive and punitive violence, and Manichean (i.e. dualistic, ‘heaven and hell’ religious concepts) have been linked to more violent societies. But evangelical churches were not associated with more homicide in this study (although they were linked to more aggravated assault).
The researchers (led by Scott Desmond at Purdue University in Indiana) think that it has something to do with the relative newness of Conservative congregations. In particular, it might be that many people commute to these congregations, rather than living locally. The normal social networks that help forge society are undermined when people travel to meet people over long distances, rather than getting to know their neighbours.

There is, however, one final possibility suggested by the researchers. In the US, churches are a fundamental of social fabric. But the evangelical churches are highly polarising. Could it be that having one arrive in the middle of your neighbourhood actually leads to suspicion, resentment and even hostility?

If that were so, then more evangelical churches could actually have a destructive effect on local society.

PS. I'm currently away, but will catch up on comments and emails when I get back!


ResearchBlogging.orgDesmond, S., Kikuchi, G., & Morgan, K. (2010). Congregations and Crime: Is the Spatial Distribution of Congregations Associated with Neighborhood Crime Rates? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49 (1), 37-55 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2009.01491.x

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