Field of Science

Maybe there are more atheists in foxholes!

A team of psychiatrists at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, USA have been taking a look at the religious beliefs of military folks who attended outpatient clinics, and they've turned up something rather interesting.

Well, in fact the main thing they found wasn't too surprising. It'll shock no-one to learn that these military patients were overwhelmingly Christian. In fact, 87% were Christian, 8% no religion, with a smattering of minority faiths. Only 73% of the US population in general say they are Christian.

Fascinating, even if expected. Just what is it about the military that's so attractive to Christians in the US? It's a topic for a blog post on its own (the link between religious identity and nationalism), but it isn't what caught my eye.

What did catch my eye was that those on active duty were significantly less likely to be religious!

Their interview sample included a mix of retired military personnel (16%), family members (30%), and those on active duty (53%). And on every question relating to the importance of religion in life, those on active duty scored lower.

Unfortunately, they didn't dig into why that might be. For example, men and younger people were also less religious, and the strength of the effect was about the same. Since servicemen on active duty are (I guess) more likely to be male and younger, that could well account for it. However, they didn't do the stats to find out.

But even assuming that age and gender account for the lack of religion among active service personnel, it's still a fascinating finding. The folks back home, praying away, while those sailing the high seas put their trust in technology and their fellow crew!

ResearchBlogging.orgMcLaughlin SS, McLaughlin AD, & Van Slyke JA (2010). Faith and religious beliefs in an outpatient military population. Southern medical journal, 103 (6), 527-31 PMID: 20710135

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

When in doubt, preach!

Recent years have seen an extraordinary phenomenom. A modern-day cult is spreading rapidly across the globe, advancing from its US homeland on the back of a small army of evangelical preachers. People of all backgrounds, but particularly the young and the wealthy, are recruited to its ranks - only to become in turn preachers themselves.

I am talking, of course, of the Cult of Apple.

But what inducers cult members to preach their gospel? New research by David Gal and Derek Rucker, at the Kellog School of Management at Northwestern University, suggests that shaking a person's confidence actually can make them more likely to go out and preach.

They took 106 undergraduate Mac users, all of whom believed that Macs were superior to Windows-based PCs, and put half of them in a state of trepidation by asking them to write about a situation in which they felt uncertain. The other half wrote about a situation in which they felt certain.

Then they were asked to imagine that they were talking to a Windows-user who was happy with his or her PC. Half had to imagine a conversation with a Windows-user who was open to the idea of switching, and half to a Windows-user who was closed-minded.

How likely would they be to try to persuade the Windows user to switch to a Mac? Well, it turned out that it depended both on their own state of mind, and on whether the target was open to persuasion.

As the graph shows, compared with confident individuals, those in a doubtful frame of mind would be slightly less likely to try to persuade a close-minded person. But they would be much more likely to try to persuade an open-minded person.

This wasn't a one off, either. They did another experiment which showed that students would spend much longer composing a persuasive message to convert someone to their own dietary habits (carnivorous, vegetarian, vegan) if they were feeling doubtful. They got a similar result after asking students to write about their views on animal experiments.

The authors link this effect to the classic study by Leon Festinger, who infiltrated an apocalyptic cult back in the 1950s. When the end-time predictions of the cult leader failed, the previously-secretive cult members responded by turning to active advocacy and proselytisation.

There's also the case of George Alan Rekers, a prominent homophobic campaigner who recently was revealed to have hired a rent boy.

Gal and Recker reckon that doubt about closely held attitudes and beliefs can adversely affect your view of yourself. Cult members whose faith has taken a hit proselytise as a way to resolve their own doubt, and thus restore their self-image. And they finish with a warning:
Finally, the present research also offers a warning to anyone on the receiving end of an advocacy attempt. Although it is natural to assume that a persistent and enthusiastic advocate of a belief is brimming with confidence, the advocacy might in fact signal that the individual is boiling over with doubt.

ResearchBlogging.orgGal, D., & Rucker, D. (2010). When in Doubt, Shout!: Paradoxical Influences of Doubt on Proselytizing Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797610385953

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

Do people reject evolution because it unnerves them?

Do you ever get the feeling that one reason a lot of people can't stomach the theory of natural selection is that they hate the idea that everything we see around us is the result of blind chance. Hostility to the notion of chance is certainly a recurrent theme in creationist objections.

Of course, evolution by natural selection is not really evolution by chance, as the creationists claim. But even so chance does play a role. Stephen Gould, in many of his essays, repeatedly drove home the importance of chance (or rather, contingency) in evolution. As he argued in the essay "Eight little piggies", there doesn't seem to be any particular reason that we have five fingers, rather than 6, or 7, or 8. That's just the cards we drew.

But there is another perspective, championed recently by Simon Conway Morris in his book Life's Solution. He emphasises rather more the many occasions of convergent evolution, and makes the controversial case that the development of sentient life was more-or-less inevitable - in flat contradiction to Stephen Gould.

I say all this by way of introduction to a rather intriguing study by Bastiaan Rutjens, at the University of Amsterdam. Along with his colleagues, he's been looking at how threatening people's sense of personal control can change their attitudes.

He takes his inspiration from Aaron Kay, at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, who has shown that making people feel like they are not in control causes them to activate beliefs that restore their sense that something, at least, is in control - like a belief in a controlling God, or support for a strong government. It's a theory called compensatory control.

What Rutjens did was to prime students (140 in total) by asking half of them to write about a bad experience when they did not feel in control, and also to give three reasons why the future is not controllable. The other half did a similar task, but emphasising and reinforcing their sense of control.

Next, they were given three short descriptions of various theories of evolution, and asked which one they thought more likely to be true. The three theories were Intelligent Design (ID), the Theory of Evolution but emphasising its randomness (TE), and the "Conway Morris" Theory of Evolution (CMTE).

The graph shows what they found. Now, remember this is The Netherlands, so most of the students were pretty godless. Without the 'loss of control' priming, almost none of them approve of ID - or, for that matter, CMTE.

But when primed to feel loss of control, the students were much more likely to prefer either ID or CMTE (although still a large majority accepted evolution).

So the students seem to compensate for their feeling of anxiety and uncertainty induced by their loss of control by turning to theories about life that reassure them that there is some kind of plan in place.

All this may help explain why evolution is unpopular in parts of the world where life is full of uncertainty. And it might help explain why religion and rejection of evolution so often go hand in hand. Both are tools that provide compensatory control.

But what's really interesting is that ID and CMTE seem to be interchangeable. I wonder if presenting Darwinian evolution in CMTE terms might help to get religious people on board. After all, Conway Morris is himself a Christian, which has perhaps influenced his views on evolution!

ResearchBlogging.orgRutjens, B., van der Pligt, J., & van Harreveld, F. (2010). Deus or Darwin: Randomness and belief in theories about the origin of life Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (6), 1078-1080 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.07.009

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

Young kids can't help believing what they're told

My son turned 6 this weekend, and one of the games we played at his party was the classic Simon Says. I love that game! It never ceases to amaze me how easily the kids are fooled. Even at 5 going on 6, they seem to instinctively obey verbal instructions.

It reminded me of a study just published in Psychological Science by Vikram Jaswal, at the University of Virginia, and colleagues. They've been looking at the power of adult verbal testimony to lead children to disbelieve their own eyes.

For example, in one study the experimenter hid a sticker under one of two cups. If the kid guessed right, she won the sticker.  If the kid guessed wrong, the experimenter got it. The experimenter told the kid how much she wanted the sticker.

Then the experimenter told the kid which cup the sticker was under. Of course, she lied.

The kid, unsurprisingly, believes the experimenter - after all, the kid is just 3 years old. And then the kid is proved wrong.

The strange thing is that the kid doesn't learn from her mistakes. She goes on believing the experimenter. And losing every time.

It seems that there's something specially convincing about verbal testimony. When they re-ran the experiment, but with the experimenter using an arrow to point to the cup, instead of saying anything, the kids cottoned on much quicker. Well, mostly.

And when they re-ran it using either a video of the experimenter or audio, they found that the kids were more likely to keep believing the lie if they could see as well as hear the experimenter.

The researchers reckon this reveals a deep-seated, evolved trait the drives young kids to believe what they're told.

“Children have developed a specific bias to believe what they’re told,” says Jaswal. “It’s sort of a short cut to keep them from having to evaluate what people say. It’s useful because most of the time parents and caregivers tell children things that they believe to be true.”

Other research they've done (not yet published) shows that kids will repeatedly believe an adult's account of an event, rather than trusting their own eyes. And other evidence seems to show that adults also are susceptible to this - although less so than 3-year olds, of course.

Now, you may be wondering what all this has to do with this blog's regular fare of religion or non-religion. The answer is: not a lot! But it is interesting...

ResearchBlogging.orgJaswal VK, Croft AC, Setia AR, & Cole CA (2010). Young children have a specific, highly robust bias to trust testimony. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21 (10), 1541-7 PMID: 20855905

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

Understanding segregation in American Churches.

Cliff Huang has created some amazing graphics depicting racial segregation in US cities. What I found fascinating was quite how sharp many of the boundaries are. They're often sharper than you would expect if the causes were simply economic.

That's because there's a powerful social phenomenom at work here, which is simply that people prefer to be with their own 'kind'. If you identify with a particular community, and that community is defined ethnically, then living outside of it can be very uncomfortable.

Which brings me to some recent research by Chris Scheitle, at Pennsylvania State University, and Kevin Dougherty, and Baylor University. They've analyzed data from over 400 people who took part in the US Congregational Life Survey to find out how long people had been attending their congregation, and how that related to whether they were in a minority or majority group.

They found that those who were members of a minority ethnic group in any particular congregation (e.g. a black person in a mainly white congregation, or a white person in a mainly black congregation) tended to have joined more recently than members of the majority group. In other words, their membership duration was shorter.

Now, all sorts of factors could explain this. But even after they took account of the obvious ones (including demographics, type of congregation, and whether the congregation is growing) they found that there was still a significant interaction: the bigger the size of the majority group, the more important majority membership is for predicting membership duration.

The graphic shows the relationship between the two. As the size of the majority group increases, so the membership duration of individuals in the majority goes up. At the same time, the membership duration  of members of the minority goes down.

The lines cross at about 60%. So, when the majority group is only 60% of the congregation, then the average membership duration of minority and majority groups is the same.

Now, it is possible that the US has recently undergone a major racial mixing, so that congregations are becoming radically less segregated (which would lead to new members tending to be of minority groups). But the alternative explanation, and the one the authors think is most likely, is that members of racial minorities are more likely to leave.

That would fit in with other research into racial segregation. The problem is not simply straightforward racism. There are also language, food and other cultural barriers. Different people do things differently, and that can make it hard for outsiders to fit in.

Now, it's not possible to say from this research whether the problem is bigger or smaller for religious congregations compared with other social groups. But it is possible to conclude that it seems to be a big problem, and it probably helps explain why religious congregations are so segregated.

And all of this causes problems for the 'religious market' theory of religion - the idea that people are free to pick and choose their religion according to whether it fits their beliefs. If ethnicity is the barrier that it seems to be, then religious choice is much more restricted than the theorists often assume.

ResearchBlogging.orgScheitle, C., & Dougherty, K. (2010). Race, Diversity, and Membership Duration in Religious Congregations* Sociological Inquiry, 80 (3), 405-423 DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-682X.2010.00340.x

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

Mr Smart and Heroman

Let me introduce you to Mr Smart and Heroman. Mr Smart is really, really clever. So clever that he knows everything - like what's inside a closed box. Heroman is not so smart, but he does have a special power. Heroman has x-ray vision, so that he can see into the closed box.

Here's a picture of Mr Smart. He looks a bit like a lot of Professors I know.

Both Mr Smart and Heroman had a key role to play in a recent study by Jonathan Lane, of the University of Michigan, and colleagues, into how children come to understand magical beings.

There are basically two schools of thought on this. One is that they have to learn first about ordinary minds and then, building on that platform, they learn about extrardinary minds.

The other school holds that children are born with an inbuilt predisposition to think that all intelligent beings  have god-like omniscience. They then have to learn that, sadly, their parents and their friends are in fact limited in what they know.

A leading proponent of this idea is the cognitive psychologist Justin Barrett. His studies of the beliefs of young children have shown that the youngest (aged 3) seem to intuitively believe that all people (and God) are omniscient - they know everything that the child knows. Older children (aged 5) have learned that Mum has her limitations.

The distinction is important. At stake is the issue of whether we are born with an innate predisposition to believe in an Abrahamic god. As Barrett explains:
...early-developing conceptual structures in children used to reason about God are not specifically for representing humans, and, in fact, actually facilitate the acquisition and use of many features of God concepts of the Abrahamic monotheisms (Barrett & Richert, 2003)

But perhaps it's not that simple. Childhood development is a rapid, complex process. So Lane and colleagues set out to get a bit more granularity into the picture, by learning about the beliefs of children in the middle range, at around 4 years old.

The basic experiment is simple. The experimenter sits with the child and a box of crayons in a room. Except the box doesn't really contain crayons. it's got rocks in it instead.

The child knows that, because she's been shown them. But then the box is closed up again. The question for the child is this: who else will know what's inside the box, if they come into the room?

Would another girl her age know? Would her mum know? What about Heroman and Mr Smart? What about God?

Well, the results change with age, and in a fascinating way. On the graph, higher scores mean that the individual concerned would guess (wrongly) that there are crayons in the box.

The youngest age group, just under 4 years old. mostly think that everyone - Mum, Mr Smart, and God - would know that the crayon box actually has rocks in it.

The middle group, around 4 and a half years old, are more likely to think that they would be fooled, and think (wrongly) that the box holds crayons.

The exception is Heroman. The 4.5-year olds reckon that Heroman could see into the box, and so know that it contains rocks.

The oldest group, around 6 years old, have pretty much all figured out that Mum and the girl would be fooled, but that Mr Smart, Heroman and God would not be.

Here's what the researchers think is going on. The youngest children have what's known as 'reality bias':
When asked about what other people know or believe, very young children tend to answer by simply assessing reality and using that information to infer others’ knowledge and belief

The middle group, however, have developed enough to understand ignorance:
Soon after children develop an appreciation for the distinction between knowledge and ignorance, they begin to appreciate the distinction between reality and belief; they start to understand that others, misled by inaccurate perceptual cues or outdated information, can hold false beliefs
Only Heroman is not ignorant, because only he can see inside the box.

The oldest children have also learned that some agents - gods and the like - have (or are supposed to have) superhuman knowledge.

Lane concludes that childhood development proceeds in the exact opposite direction to what Barrett proposes. Rather than intuitively understanding the idea of omniscience, children naturally understand all agents - people and magical beings - to be limited in the same way as the people they know.

Realism, in short, is natural. The idea of the supernatural has to be learned.

ResearchBlogging.orgLane JD, Wellman HM, & Evans EM (2010). Children's understanding of ordinary and extraordinary minds. Child development, 81 (5), 1475-89 PMID: 20840235

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

Suicide in American colleges - the importance of existential well being

In the past couple of posts I've taken a look at new studies that are exploring the complex relationship between religion and suicide. In general, religious people have lower suicide rates, and these are helping to shed light on why, and also why the relationship is not as straightforward as it sometimes seems.

That's the case too, for this third and final recent study on this topic. It examined suicidal feelings among US college students - a critically important issue given that suicide is the second most common cause of death in this population. Around 1 in 12 US college students has, at some point, made a suicide plan, and there are around 24,000 suicide attempts by students annually.

Lindsay Taliaferro, a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida, surveyed over 400 of her fellow students. The response rate was high - around 90%. The good news is that, for the most part, they were not suicidal! On average, they scored 11 on a 70-point scale of suicidal thinking.

She found that, as expected, those who reported high levels of religious well being (e.g. that they find strength or support from God) or involvement in religious activities had fewer suicidal thoughts.

She also asked how hopeless or depressed the students felt, and how much social support they felt they got. When she took this into account, the effects of religion disappeared.

What this suggests is that religious well-being and involvement have whatever effects they have by reducing hopelessness and depression, and by increasing social support. No big surprises there.

But what is surprising is that she found a third factor that was even more important that religion and social support. That factor was "Existential Well-Being", which relates to things such as feeling fulfilled and satisfied with life, and finding meaning and purpose in life.

What was remarkable was that Existential Well-Being remained important even after taking into account hopelessness, depression and social support. In other words, even if you feel hopeless, depressed, and alone, existential well-being (unlike religious well-being) can ease suicidal thoughts.

Now, you have to take the results of any one study with a pinch of salt. But this does seem to fit in with other studies which have shown that spirituality does not reduce suicidal thoughts,and that feeling close to God is linked to a history of depression, whereas existential well being is linked to dramatically less depression.

But so what? None of these studies undermine the link between religion and decreased risk for suicide. What they do is begin to unpick how that effect operates.

More importantly for atheists, I think, is that they show how suicidal thoughts can be reduced without needing to believe in God. After all, for most atheists, simply telling them to believe in God and everything will be OK is not an option.

That's exactly the point that Taliaferro makes, and so I'll leave the concluding remarks to her:

Results from the present investigation indicate that many college students did not demonstrate high involvement in organized religion. Yet they reported high levels of spiritual well-being, especially existential well-being, and low levels of suicidal ideation. Furthermore, results highlighted existential well-being as an important factor associated with lower levels of suicidal ideation among college students.
Overall, these findings suggest that a strategy for reducing distress and preventing suicide among college students may involve exploring mechanisms that nurture a sense of meaning in life in individuals for whom organized religion remains unimportant. Health professionals may have more success in improving young people’s sense of meaning and purpose by methods other than an increase in faith, participation in organized religion, or other indicators of religiosity.

ResearchBlogging.orgTaliaferro LA, Rienzo BA, Pigg RM Jr, Miller MD, & Dodd VJ (2009). Spiritual well-being and suicidal ideation among college students. Journal of American college health : J of ACH, 58 (1), 83-90 PMID: 19592357

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

Religion and suicide - a patchy global picture

The previous post took a look at suicides in Switzerland, with a new study showing that, although the non-religious have a higher suicide rate than the religious, that seems to be largely down to assisted dying.

Switzerland is not like most other countries, however, which is where a new study, from an international team lead by Merike Sisak at the Estonian-Swedish Mental Health and Suicidology Institute, comes in. They looked at data from a major new WHO initiative, SUPRE-MISS. The main objective of this study is to understand the factors that contribute to suicide in different countries, and what can be done to reduce them.

In each country, people who have attempted suicide are brought into the study and given a questionnaire to fill out. Another group of people, randomly chosen, are given the same questionnaire. That allows the team to compare religious affiliation, involvement in organised religion, and individual religiosity in suicide attempters and the general population.

When they looked at the data, and adjusted them for a host of factors known to affect suicide risk (age, gender, marital status, employment, and education), a complex picture emerged.

In Iran, religion was highly protective, whether religion was measured as the rate of mosque attendance or as whether the individual thought of themselves as a religious person.

In Brazil, going to religious services and personal religiosity were both highly protective. Bizarrely, however, religious affiliation was not. That might be because being Protestant was linked to greater risk, and Catholicism to lower risk. Put the two together, and it may balance out.

In Estonia, suicides were lower in those who were affiliated to a religion, and those who said they were religious. They were also a bit lower in those who

In India, there wasn't much effect of religion at all - a bit lower in those who go to religious services at least occasionally.

Vietnam was similar. Those who went to religious services yearly were less likely to have attempted suicide, but no other measure of religion had any effect.

In Sri Lanka, going to religious services had no protective effect, but subjective religiosity did.

In South Africa, those who go to Church were no less likely to attempt suicide. In fact, those who said they were religious were actually nearly three times more likely to attempt suicide, and those who were affiliated to a religion were an incredible six times more likely!

These are very large differences. In Brazil, religious people are six times less likely to commit suicide than the non religious. In South Africa, they are three times more likely. How to explain these national differences?

Part of it might be differences in the predominant religion. The protective effect of religion seems to be higher in monotheistic countries, and it's particularly high in the most fervently monotheistic country, Iran. In India, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam, the protective effect is smaller or non-existent.

But that doesn't explain South Africa. South Africa is unusual in that it is a highly diverse country, fractured by ethnic, social and religious boundaries. The researchers think that this might be a factor:
South Africa has been described as ‘‘The Rainbow Nation’’ because of its cultural diversity. There are a variety of ethnic groups and a greater variety of cultures within each of these groups. While cultural diversity is seen as a national asset, the interaction of cultures results in the blurring of cultural norms and boundaries at the individual, family and cultural group levels. Subsequently, there is a large diversity of religious denominations and this does not seem favorable in terms of providing protection against attempted suicide.
They point out that earlier studies have shown that religious homogeneity is linked to lower suicide rates, and they suggest that the reverse might well be happening in South Africa.

In fact, this also could explain why, in Brazil, Protestants have a higher suicide rate than the unaffiliated. That too could be linked to their status as a religious minority.

So once again we've got a study showing the double-edged nature of religion. For those inside the group, it provides support and comfort. But once fractures appear, religion just seems to turn up the heat!

ResearchBlogging.orgSisask, M., Varnik, A., Kolves, K., Bertolote, J., Bolhari, J., Botega, N., Fleischmann, A., Vijayakumar, L., & Wasserman, D. (2010). Is Religiosity a Protective Factor Against Attempted Suicide: A Cross-Cultural Case-Control Study Archives of Suicide Research, 14 (1), 44-55 DOI: 10.1080/13811110903479052

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

Suicide, age and poison

At the end of the 19th Century, the ground-breaking sociologist Émile Durkheim made an important discovery: across Europe, Protestant regions had a higher suicide rate that Catholic regions. This, he said, was because Catholicism created more integrated societies. In today's parlance, Catholicism generates more social capital.

Since then many studies reinforced this theory, showing that Catholicism, and indeed religion in general, seems to protect against suicide. Unfortunately, almost all these studies have been flawed - most often because they looked at average suicide rates and average religious beliefs across particular societies. They didn't look at the individual characteristics of those people who commit suicide.

Three new studies have addressed this problem. Each of them them takes advantage of new data to explore in some detail the link between religion and reduced suicide.

I'm going to write them up in separate posts, as they all tell different aspects of the story. What they do have in common, though, is that they all show that that the story isn't quite as straightforward as Durkheim believed!

Matthias Egger, at the University of Bern in Switzerland, has cleverly linked census data to death records - not at all as straightforward as you might imagine. What that gives, for the first time, is a large database with reliable records of individual's religious affiliation in the last few years before they took their life.

What they found was that, as Durkeheim found when looking at Swiss data a century earlier, Catholics had the lowest suicide rate and Protestants higher. What's more, Egger found that the unaffiliated had the highest of all.

But there was more to this story than meets the eye. One thing that jumped out was that the gap was much bigger for older people. At ages 35-44, there was essentially no difference. The gap grows gradually with age: in the oldest group (aged 85-94), Protestants are twice as likely as Catholics to commit suicide, and the unaffiliated four times as likely.

And Egger found something else. Strangely enough, the effect was particularly strong for death by poisoning.

That's a perplexing result, until you remember that Switzerland is one of the few countries where assisted suicide is legal (so long as the motive is not selfish). There are several societies in Switzerland that provide assisted dying, with the usual method being an injection of barbiturates.

On the death record, that's recorded as a death by poisoning.

So what we're seeing here is driven in large part by differences in attitudes towards assisted dying. Elderly Catholics, who see suicide as a sin, prefer a natural death. Elderly Protestants and, especially, the unaffiliated, have a different view.

The unaffiliated see assisted dying as an acceptable way to deal with terminal, debilitating, and often painful illness. As a result, the suicide rate among the very old is higher.

That's not to say that Durkheim was wrong about religion. Social integration is important in reducing suicide, and that may well have contributed to the differences seen. Egger found that married people, and those living with others, also had lower suicide rates. But these data couldn't show that religion affected social integration.

But what Egger has shown is that the relationship between religion and suicide is more complex than sometimes assumed. Just how complex is the topic of the next post, which looks at suicide rates in different cultures around the world.
Spoerri A, Zwahlen M, Bopp M, Gutzwiller F, Egger M, & for the Swiss National Cohort Study (2010). Religion and assisted and non-assisted suicide in Switzerland: National Cohort Study. International journal of epidemiology PMID: 20841328

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

Why young adults change their religious beliefs

Your religious beliefs, like many aspects of personality, tend to crystallise in your late teens and early adulthood. It's a period of tremendous change but, once set, few people undergo and radical changes.

Even so, some kids change, while others do not. It's interesting to speculate on why that might be. What separates the changers from those who stay the same? Is it genetics, or is it environment?

A recent study has looked at this using data from two twin studies in Colorado, USA. The basic idea is simple: they measured religiosity at around 12-18 years old, and then again around 5 years later.

By comparing identical twins with non-identical twins, you can estimate the importance of three factors contributing to the change:
  • Genetics (what's shared by identical twins but not non-identical ones),
  • Family or shared environment (what's shared by twins after you take out the genetic component, but not shared by individuals not brought up together)
  • Non-shared environment (what's left, which is basically whatever it is that causes twins to be different).
Now, it has to be said that there are a lot of caveats to these kinds of studies. The gene-environment interaction is complicated, and the effect of genes in one environment likely differs from the effect in another - including another genetic environment (i.e. the same gene will have different effects in different people).

There's an additional problem when linking genes to personality. The classic example is genes for skin colour. Your skin colour affects the way people treat you, which in turn affects your personality. Gene linkage studies would show that your personality is genetically determined, whereas in truth its the environment (i.e. social prejudice) which is causing the effect!

All in all, lessons from gene studies in Colorado, where the population is mostly religious but undergoing change, do not necessarily apply to Pakistan or Sweden.

That said, take a look at what they found. For those Colorado kids who kept their religious beliefs as they moved into adulthood, the major influence was their family. Not too surprising- your family environment is a major, constant factor.

Interestingly, however genes only play a minor role - especially when it comes to the importance of religion in their lives. Keeping the faith is largely a function of family pressure.

Looking at what lies behind changing religious beliefs, you can see that the external environment (the stuff that one twin is exposed to but the other is no) plays a vital role. Change is driven by outside influence.

But it's also driven by genetics - and to a greater extent than religious stability. What this seems to indicate is that some effect of genetics is critical to changing beliefs.

In the case of these Colorado kids, the most common change (in common with kids elsewhere in the USA) was a decrease in religious attendance and also in the importance attached to religion.

So some kids are genetically predisposed to shift their beliefs. Unfortunately, what this study doesn't tell us is why. Perhaps these genes somehow lead to a rejection of religious worldview. That's certainly a possibiliy.

But I wonder whether perhaps some kids are just born to be different. Perhaps these kids are becoming non-religious because it shocks the old folks. Perhaps, in a world of atheists, these would be the kids picking up religion!

ResearchBlogging.orgButton TM, Stallings MC, Rhee SH, Corley RP, & Hewitt JK (2010). The Etiology of Stability and Change in Religious Values and Religious Attendance. Behavior genetics PMID: 20711848

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