Field of Science

Atheists! Think you know more about religion than the faithful?

I'm fascinated by the tussle between the so-called 'new' Atheists and the folks in the other corner, who for want of a better term seem to be called 'accomodationists'. The main reason I find it fascinating is not the content of the debate, which is mostly pretty mundane, but the fact that the argument rages so hard (take this recent example from Jerry Coyne or this, from Casper Melville standing in the other trench).

Anyway, that's not what today's post about. What it is about is the new research from the Pew Center, who have recently found that atheists scored higher in a religious quiz than any of the religious groups.

You can take a short form of the quiz here. Let me know how you get on!

Now, atheists tend to be better educated than the religious, but  the differences held even after they adjusted for demographic differences like education and income.

So it seems that the non-religious are genuinely more knowledgeable than the religious - at least in terms of this kind of knowledge-based quiz.

What makes this interesting is the charge, often made by religionists, that the 'New' Atheists don't even understand what is they're attacking. They don't understand religion. Now, to a certain extent that's true. Theological rationalizations for the existance and nature of the various gods can be esoteric in the extreme, and few atheists will have spent the time to understand them.

But of course by this standard most religious people don't understand religion either, which rather begs the question of what religion is. Are these 'ordinary' religious people simply uneducated? Or, if confronted by the rarefied, intellectual and theologically correct version of religion, would they reject it?

In other words, is the ill-informed, theologically incorrect version of religion more real than the true religion?



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

Live organ donation

If you're looking for the Monty Python sketch, well I'm afraid to say you've come to the wrong blog post. This one's about the views of the religious on organ donation.

Now, you might assume (as I did) that organ donation might be a particular problem for the religious. After all, if you have someone else's heart, then are you fully you, or are you partly somebody else? Where is it that 'you' reside? It's a problem that reminds me of that ancient paradox, the Ship of Theseus.

Of course, the common-sense idea is that humans have an 'essence' (or soul), which remains constant even though bits come and go. But if the organ brings with it a bit of the dead person's essence, then the it might turn you into some kind of terrible chimera. It could make you commit suicide or, even more alarming, make French people talk English.

There is also a serious problem here. There's a shortage of organs in the UK and worldwide, and it's a problem that's getting worse. That's partly an unintended consequence of better road safety - fewer young, healthy people being killed means fewer healthy organs to go round.

It's a particular problem among ethnic minorities. People of Asian or Afro-Caribbean descent form 8% of the UK population, by 23% of the kidney waiting list. Unfortunately, only 3% of kidney donations come from these ethnic groups.

To try to find out whether religion is contributing to this a problem, the Department of Health funded a series of interviews with religious thought leaders (and also with Naomi Phillips of the British Humanist Association - as the token atheist). They wanted to find out whether religion was a barrier to organ donation.

It turned out that all the holy books are, in fact, silent on the subject:
The texts were written at the time of the gurus… there wasn’t any discussion about it in those times (Dr Indarjit Singh, Network of Sikh Organisations, UK)
There are no explicit references to organ donation in the texts (Malcolm M. Deboo, The Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe Incorporated)
An unfortunate oversight that might make you think that God rather dropped the ball on this one.
Nonetheless, almost everyone they interviewed supported organ donation. What's more, they almost all said that, although controversial, most of the people in their faith group supported it.

There was a common thread in the rationale they gave for supporting organ donation. Basically, religion encourages people to be generous, and organ donation is a generous act.

That in itself is interesting, because of course letting someone else use something that you have no use for is hardly generous. So maybe they have a lingering concern that bodies should, ideally, be kept whole - in readiness for meeting your maker.

Zoroastrians, on the other hand, have no such problem - once you're dead, you're vulture food. But Zoroastrians, too, think that organ donation is a good thing. The lone Zoroastrian they interviewed gave a much more exciting rationale than bland do-gooder generosity:

Zoroastrians consider the concept of death as evil…The purpose of creation in Zoroastrianism is to assist God to defeat evil. Thus Zoroastrians see themselves as warriors of good fighting evil; therefore, they are pro-life and pro-organ donation because by donating their organs another life of a warrior can be extended, who in turn will continue to fight the good battle against evil (Malcolm M. Deboo, The Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe Incorporated)
The most divided faith seems to be the Muslims. Muslims interviewed admitted that the issue is controversial, and the lone voice speaking out against organ donation was a Muslim. His objection was based on classic essentialism:
(It is forbidden) firstly because when an organ has been removed from the body it is deemed to be impure. Secondly, because of the honour and dignity that is due to man (Mufti Zubair Butt, Muslim Council of Britain)
All well and good, but the trouble with these interviews is that they seek out the intellectuals from within a faith tradition. Are any of them actually representative of the living religion, as it is practised by the masses? Apparently not, since by and large these thought-leaders condemned their co-believers for their ignorance.

Freed from the burden of theological doctrine, the great unwashed masses probably hold beliefs that are truer to the core, cognitive biases that drive religious beliefs.

As the paper itself points out, that 60% of Muslims in the UK think that their religion outlaws organ donation (other research suggests that, the more religious they are, the more likely they are to oppose it). Orthodox Jews are also likely to think similarly. Of Americans opposed to organ donation, 8% think that it conflicts with their faith. And lack of organ donations from Black Americans has been attributed to religious concerns.

So although religious leaders may think that charity trumps essentialism, their followers are not so sure. They would rather keep all their bits, in readiness for the next life!


Randhawa, G., Brocklehurst, A., Pateman, R., Kinsella, S., & Parry, V. (2010). Religion and Organ Donation: The Views of UK Faith Leaders Journal of Religion and Health DOI: 10.1007/s10943-010-9374-3

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

Blink and you'll miss it (depending, of course, on your religious beliefs)

The attentional blink is another of those weird and wonderful cognitive blind spots with which the human race is afflicted. Flash up two images in close succession, and we find it really difficult to even notice the second, let alone figure out what it is. That's basically because our brains are still engaged in processing the first one.

In another recent study by Lorenzo Colzato (she also did the "big picture" study from a couple of blog posts ago), atheists and Dutch Christian Calvinists have had their attentional blinks assessed.

The set-up is pretty simple. A series of single-digit numbers flash up on the screen, then a letter, then a few more numbers, then another letter. The task is to identify the two letters.

Now, getting the second letter right is easy if you weren't paying attention to the first one. So the key is to look for those people who got the first one right. If you get the first one right, and the second wrong, you have a long attentional blink. If you get the first right and the second right too, then you have a short attentional blink.

Lorenzo found that the atheists she tested had a shorter attentional blink than the Calvinists. In fact, as the figure shows, there actually seems to be a fairly direct relationship between how often the people in her study prayed, and the length of their attentional blink.

She thinks that this is related to her earlier finding (that Calvinists are 'detail' people rather than 'big picture' people). Calvinists are trained from birth to focus on a narrower, rather than a bigger context, and Lorenzo thinks that this has widespread effects on their style of information processing - when compared to individuals who are raised with a broader, more complex worldview (including religious people).

Now, I have no idea whether a long attentional blink is a good or bad thing. I guess it depends a lot on the circumstances. It is, however, interesting to note that an earlier study, which showed that meditation can shorten your attentional blink, came down firmly on the side of believing this to be a good thing.


ResearchBlogging.org
Colzato, L. (2010). Religion and the Attentional Blink: Depth of faith predicts depth of the blink Frontiers in Psychology DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00147

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

The tarnished golden rule

Subliminal priming is a cool psychological trick that can change the way you think or the things you do without you even being aware of it. So, for example, you do a word puzzle that includes religious words, and chances are you'll behave more honestly later.

Which brings us to the Golden Rule. This is one of those basic components of human morality that pops up in pretty much every culture - the British Humanist Society even produces a poster with 20 different versions from around the world. The version familiar to those of us with a Christian heritage is the well-known phrase "do to others what you would have them do to you".

So what happens, do you suppose, if you subliminally prime people with the Golden Rule? Perhaps you might expect them to be more open and tolerant of others who are different to them. Well maybe not, if new research from Oth Vilyathong at York University in Toronto is anything to go by.

Along with colleagues Nicole Lindner and Bryan Nosek, Vilyathong set out to see if priming the Golden Rule would make people less homophobic. You might expect so - after all, the basic message is one of tolerance and equality.

But there was an interesting twist to their study. In one version of the test, they used the Christian Golden Rule. In another, they used a Buddhist equivalent, "Never hatred is hatred appeased, but it is appeased by kindness".

They did this online, as part of Project Implicit. And that meant they could test both Christians and Buddhists from around the world.

Well, they found that Buddhists were less homophobic to begin with. Priming them with the Golden Rule - either the Christian or the Buddhist version - had no effect on their level of homophobia.

Same goes for Christians primed with the Christian golden rule. They were more homophobic than the Buddhists, and they didn't become less homophobic after the priming - regardless of whether their homophobia was measured explicitly (i.e. asking them directly) or implicitly (testing the speed at which they can make associations that involve images of same-sex versus different-sex couples).

But, when primed with the Buddhist Golden Rule, Christians became significantly more homophobic (at least when they were asked directly; there was no effect on implicit attitudes). They also reported being more convinced that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice, rather than a fundamental aspect of character.

That's a really surprising result, and one that was the opposite of what they were expecting! The researchers think that it's probably down to that old religious chestnut - fear of outsiders.

There's a lot of evidence that criticism coming from someone outside the group doesn't mollify, but rather hardens attitudes. They suspect that the Christians in this sample took the Buddhist Golden Rule to be an implicit criticism of their intolerance, despite its upfront message of tolerance. And the Christians reacted by ratcheting up their intolerance.

Why didn't the Christian Golden Rule have this effect on Buddhists? Well, perhaps because they were less homophobic to start with. Perhaps it's because many of the Buddhists in their study live in countries where Buddhism is a minority religion - which might make them more sympathetic to other minorities, like homosexuals.

But the effect on Christians has important implications for the ideal of religious tolerance. Although we are frequently told that religions can co-exist peacefully, it's hard to see that happening when even messages of peace and tolerance from one religious group to another can actually serve to increase intolerance.

As Vilyathong and colleagues conclude...
The results suggest that when a tolerant message comes from a religious outgroup figure, it does not increase but instead may decrease tolerance toward another outgroup ... Although the Golden Rule has an important influence on religious believers, its message of compassion may backfire if it is seen as coming from an outgroup source. This suggests that it is not just the message, but also the qualities of the messenger, that will determine the effectiveness of appeals for tolerance.


ResearchBlogging.orgVilaythong T., O., Lindner, N., & Nosek, B. (2010). “Do Unto Others”: Effects of Priming the Golden Rule on Buddhists’ and Christians’ Attitudes Toward Gay People Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49 (3), 494-506 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2010.01524.x


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

An eye for an eye

Religious people are more likely to approve of capital punishment. That's something that's always intrigued me - partly because I find the idea of killing another human being in cold blood absolutely horrific. To be fair, however, there's a lot of variation between different religious groups in the support for the death penalty, and perhaps that holds at least a partial answer. Maybe there's something in the creed of certain religions, or sects within religions, that encourages notions of revenge and retributive justice.

When you look at the bare data, it seems that's likely to be the case. Evangelicals are more supportive than Catholics, for example. Black Protestants are even less supportive that the unaffiliated. Perhaps that's down to leadership. After all, some religious leaders are vocal in their support for the death penalty, but others are equally vocal in their rejection of it.

Kevin Wozniak and Andrew Lewis, Political Scientists at American University in Washington DC, set out to discover whether affiliation really does play a role in support for the death penalty. To this end, they mined data from the 1998 US General Social Survey (the last year in which the survey assessed all the items they needed).

Throwing all the data into the pot, they first adjusted for relevant non-religious factors. Men, for example, and right-wingers are more likely to support the death penalty. African-Americans, however, are less enthusiastic - no doubt because they are disproportionately likely to be on the receiving end.

Then they also adjusted for religious beliefs. So, for example, those who believe in a compassionate God are less supportive of the death penalty than those who believe in a harsh God. They also adjusted for Church attendance, Biblical literalism and a factor they called 'forgiveness' (which combines notions of a forgiving God with secular ideas of forgiveness).

When you take all this into account, they found that all Christian groups they looked at - Evangelical, Mainline Protestant, Black Protestant and Catholic - were still more in favour of the death penalty than the unaffiliated.

So it seems like there really is something intrinsic being religious that increases support for the death penalty - regardless of your views on the nature of your god.

Why this should be, they don't know. They were most interested in learning whether denominational leaders influence the attitudes of their flock. If this analysis is correct (and they point out that it may not be attuned to the right level of detail) then it seems like this is not the case. Despite the fact that many leaders are anti-death penalty (most notably the Catholics), their flocks seem undeterred.

What they couldn't determine was whether local leaders, the individual priests and pastors, can influence the attitudes of their parishioners. They may well be, but even if true it wouldn't alter the fact that the average religious person is a pro death penalty.

I suspect that this is shining a light on something fundamental about religion, which has to do with notions of good and evil, of us and them. What precisely that is, I don't know. But I suspect that support for the death penalty is actually a manifestation of intolerance, and of preferential support for your group or tribe, that seems to be such an  intrinsic part of religious belief.


ResearchBlogging.orgWozniak, K., & Lewis, A. (2010). Re-examining the effect of Christian denominational affiliation on death penalty support Journal of Criminal Justice DOI: 10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2010.07.011

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

Seeing the big picture

Are you a big-picture person, or do you tune into the detail? Surprisingly, the culture in which you were raised - including your religion (or lack of it) can shape this fundamental aspect of your personality.

A decade ago, researchers found that while westerners were relatively faster at picking out the component parts of a picture, Asians were relatively quicker to see the global, holistic components. They reckoned this was an effect of cultural differences - the individualistic Westerners versus the collective, community-oriented Asians.

In a new series of studies, Lorenza Colzato, a cognitive psychologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and colleagues has shown that, within both of these culture, religion can affect where attention is focussed. Remarkably, it seems that the type of religion, not religion itself, is the critical factor.

The tests use something called a global-local task. Essentially, the subjects are shown either a square or a rectangle, which are themselves made up of smaller squares and rectangles. The task is to spot the shape of either the 'big' picture or its components.

Pretty much everyone is faster at identifying the big shape. Asians, however, are even faster than Westerners - but at the cost of slower identification of the smaller component shapes.

Colzato compared a group of Dutch Calvinist Christian Students with a similar group who were raised as atheists. The Calvinists turned out to be 'detail' people, at least when compared with the atheists. This bias to the detail was evident even in those whose faith had lapsed, indicating that whatever is causing it must happen during childhood.

Then they swapped countries and religions - Roman Catholics in Italy and Jews in Israel. Here the effect was reversed. In these countries the religious were less detail-oriented, and more focussed on the big picture, than the non religious

In the ultimate test of their theory, they teamed up with Shulan Hsieh, at the National Cheng Keng University in Taiwan, one of the least individualistic countries in the world. They found that local Buddhists were more likely to be 'big picture' people than were the local atheists.

Colzato thinks that the different religious cultures are affecting the way their subjects look at the world. Dutch Calvinism is highly individualistic, and so children must (so the theory goes) be rewarded for 'correct' behaviour - for focussing on the local, and ignoring the wider environment.

Catholicism and Judaism, on the other hand, emphasize collective, social responsibility. Children growing up in that environment are learn to pay more attention to the wider picture, and less on individual responsibility.

Buddhism is very different. However, according to Colzato, it emphasizes the physical and social context in which the practitioner lives. Since meditation is not a particular feature of Taiwanese Buddhism, it's unlikely that meditation caused the effects they saw.

Now, it is of course possible that what we're seeing here is selection bias. It might be that those people whose attentional bias doesn't mesh well with the predominant religion are more likely to become atheists. That's possible, although the fact that atheist converts differed from those raised as atheists in the Dutch study would tend to suggest that isn't the case.

Whatever the source of these differences, it does seem likely that culture, religion, and attentional bias are closely intertwined. After all, you would expect that a collectivist culture would develop a religion that fitted and reinforced their collectivist needs.

If that's the case, then the rise of atheism could trigger some interesting cross-cultural 'levelling'!


ResearchBlogging.orgColzato LS, Beest I, van den Wildenberg WP, Scorolli C, Dorchin S, Meiran N, Borghi AM, & Hommel B (2010). God: Do I have your attention? Cognition, 117 (1), 87-94 PMID: 20674890

Lorenza S. Colzato, Bernhard Hommel, Wery Van Den Wildenberg, & Shulan Hsieh (2010). Buddha as an eye opener: A link between prosocial attitude and attentional control Frontiers in Cognition : 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00156

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

Gender, religion, and volunteering

Here's a quick one on a study of volunteering among older people. It's well known that religious people do more formal voluntary work, on average, than the non-religious. What's less well understood is why that should be.

Well, one other thing that's notable about religion in the USA is that it's more popular with women. And women also tend to volunteer more (well, both those 'facts' are more or less true depending on which study you look at).

In this new study, Lydia Manning of Miami University, analysed data from the Health and Retirement Study which, since 1992, has been tracking a group of over 12,000 retired people across the USA.Manning's analysis looked at the original 1992 survey, focusing on the 6,000-odd people who reported doing over 100 hours of voluntary work a year.

What she found was that women were much more likely to be volunteers - 15 times more likely, in fact. Once she took this into account, however, there was no relationship between religiosity and volunteering.

Now, there are a few deficiencies in this study - most notably that religion was only measured as affiliation (are you a Catholic, Protestant or whatever). Previous studies have shown that religious service attendance is, unsurprisingly, a better predictor of volunteering.

But Manning's study does reinforce a general point about these sorts of correctional studies. Religious and non-religious people are different for all sorts of reasons. You have to be very careful before assuming that religion is the cause of any differences you see.


ResearchBlogging.orgManning LK (2010). Gender and religious differences associated with volunteering in later life. Journal of women & aging, 22 (2), 125-35 PMID: 20408033

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

The difference between being religious and being a believer

One of the big news stories from last year was the revelation that Americans are leaving their churches and religious institutions in droves. They are becoming "unaffiliated", although there was a lot of debate over what that meant. Are Americans losing religion, or is it simply that they are disillusioned with what they're being offered?

A new analysis, using data collected over the last three decades by the General Social Survey, sheds some light on this - and also tells us more about just who is religious in the USA these days. Some of the answers are quite surprising.

First a little bit about how they framed the questions on religion in the General Social Survey - it's not straightforward. First, they asked "what is your religious preference". Those who said "none" were counted as unaffiliated and weren't asked any further questions. Those who gave a religious preference were then asked how often they attended religious services and how strong was their faith.

So the data on strength of faith and religious attendance relate only to the dwindling number of people who are affiliated. That's important to remember.

The new analysis (Kevin Flannelly and colleagues from the Spears Research Institute, New York) confirmed that religious affiliation has dropped off over the years of the survey (since 1972). Now, you might think that this happens because those who are lukewarm in their religion have dropped out. If that were so, then the average 'religious strength' of those left in would go up.

In fact, that hasn't happened. Even those still affiliated to a religious faith go to services less often than they used to. And people still in religion are no more fervent than the religious of 30 years ago.

But there are some interesting differences between the affiliated and the non affiliated. For example, the unaffiliated are, on average, better educated than the affiliated. Yet, among the affiliated, the better-educated actually have stronger faith and go to Church more often.

Perhaps that's because those educated people who remain in religion do so as an active choice.

It works the opposite way around for income. After adjusting for all the other factors, richer people are more likely to be affiliated. However, among the affiliated, wealth means weaker faith.

The last anomaly is children. Previous research suggests that religious people tend to have more children than the non-religious. And, indeed, this new research shows that the unaffiliated have fewer children than the affiliated. But, among the affiliated, those with stronger religious faith actually have fewer children those whose faith is weaker.

Now, the effect is tiny. However, it does suggest something interesting about the connection between religion and fertility. It suggests that families join (or remain in) a religion for the religious congregations - a social structure in which to raise their children - rather any particular religious zeal.

It's the classic demonstration of the difference between being religious and being believer.


ResearchBlogging.orgFlannelly KJ, Galek K, Kytle J, & Silton NR (2010). Religion in America--1972-2006: religious affiliation, attendance, and strength of faith. Psychological reports, 106 (3), 875-90 PMID: 20712176

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