Field of Science

Most people are a bit crazy, and believers are a bit crazier than most

Full-blown delusions are thought to be pretty rare. By that I mean the truly bizarre delusions, like Capgras syndrome (when you think that relatives or close friends are sometimes replaced by identical-looking impostors), or Subjective Doubles (a belief that there is another person who looks and acts like you) and Controlled Thoughts (that your thoughts are not fully under your control).

It's actually quite difficult to find out just how common these kinds of delusions are. You can't just ask people a straight question, because there's a good chance that they won't give you a straight answer (nobody wants to seem to be a lunatic).

So Rachel Pechey and Peter Halligan, at Cardiff University in Wales, created a new questionnaire specifically to try to find out how common bizarre delusions actually are. They did this by asking about symptoms without framing them in terms of mental illness, and by asking about them as part of a larger questionnaire covering all kinds of beliefs - including religious and political beliefs.

They interviewed 1,000 people from around Britain, and found that a staggering 78% of them said that they currently experienced one or more bizarre delusions to some degree. Some 26% reported a 'strong' experience of a bizarre delusion.

So, for example, when asked "Do you believe that people you know disguise themselves as others to manipulate or influence you?", 4.4% said that they strongly believe' this to be true.

They also asked about a range of paranormal and religious beliefs - and you can see the results in the figure below.


Just over 25% were atheists, but of course some of them might have held one of the other kinds of paranormal beliefs. Hopefully there were no atheists among the 5% of the population who believe in werewolves!

Then they looked at how these paranormal and religious beliefs correlated with the delusional beliefs (to do this, they excluded the werewolf and astrology questions - because they didn't form part of a common statistical factor along with the other paranormal/religious beliefs).

Well, you probably know where this is heading. There was a good correlation between paranormal/religious beliefs and delusional beliefs. In contrast, there was no correlation between either of these and a third basket of questions relating to political and social beliefs.

This fits with other research, showing that delusional beliefs are more common among the religious and among 'New-Age believers' (see When people stop believing in God... they go mental?). Halligan points that delusional beliefs don't seem to result in as much distress among these populations, and that fits with other evidence that psychotic patients with religious beliefs are less distressed (see Why psychotic patients with religious delusions are harder to cure).

Just why there should be this correlation is harder to say. Certainly, if you've had some freaky experiences, then it stands to reason that you're going to be more open to unorthodox ideas about how the world works.

But Halligan suggests that there may be a deeper connection:

One potential explanation is that holding a belief may impact upon an individual’s wider belief system so that the endorsement of similar (e.g. irrational/unscientific) beliefs becomes more likely. This is in line with the web-of-belief hypothesis advocated by Quine and Ullian, which suggests that a belief coheres with other beliefs held by an individual. In addition, other cognitive factors such as the reasoning biases associated with delusions may also play a role in the development of other abnormal beliefs.

In other words, religion and delusional beliefs may form part of a reinforcing worldview, and both may also be prompted by failures of rational thought. Other research has pointed in a similar direction (see You either believe it all... or you don't).


ResearchBlogging.orgPechey R, & Halligan P (2011). The Prevalence of Delusion-Like Beliefs Relative to Sociocultural Beliefs in the General Population. Psychopathology, 44 (2), 106-115 PMID: 21196811

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

Less God and more democracy

A new analysis from the University of Zurich rates 30 nations on the strength of their democracy. All interesting stuff, but it's at times like this that I like to ask 'How does it correlate with religion'.

So, if you were wondering the same, here's the answer. Those countries whose population rated God as less important in their lives, were also the countries where democracy is strongest.

The relationship is statistically significant, with an r-squared of 0.16 (which means that about 16% of the variation in god-belief can be 'explained' by variation in democracy - or vice-versa).

Not a great surprise, of course. It's just the latest in a long line of similar results - the least religious countries are more peaceful, have less corruption, more telephones, do better at science, have less inequality and other problems, and are generally just less dysfunctional.

As usual, those dastardly Scandinavian countries, with their strong social welfare programmes, liberal morals, and strong social ethics, come out on top on both scores.

This is a nice sample of nations, though. Because they're mostly pretty wealthy (the poorest, South Africa and Costa Rica, have per-capita GDPs around $10k), it's not too badly distorted by wealth.

Just a note on the data. The religion numbers come from Waves 4 and 5 of the World Values Survey (I used Wave 5, unless a country was only represented in Wave 4). I used the "Importance of God" question because it's the only one asked consistently in both Waves.

The democracy number "uses 100 empirical indicators to measure how well a country complies with the three democratic principles of freedom, equality and control as well as the nine basic functions of democracy" (Science Daily).

So there you go. More evidence that the least religious countries are the best places to live. Who'da thunk?


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

Evangelists love Wal-Mart - even the ones who should know better

Wal-Mart is the biggest US supermarket chain, with a controversial anti-union policy and low-wage policy. So you might think that the people least happy with the business might be those at the bottom of the social pile.

In fact it turns out that the opposite is the case. According to research by Rebekah Massengill, at Princeton University, the people who are most positive about Wal-Mart are the ones who are least-educated - and income seems to have no effect at all (although the poorest people tend to think that it's a good place to shop).

Evangelical Christians are particularly warm towards the business. In fact, they are four times as likely as the non-religious to think that Wal-Mart is a good place to shop, and nearly three times as likely to think that it's good for the USA.

That's probably because of the close ties between Wal-Mart and the Evangelical movement. According to Massengill:
Sam Walton was widely regarded as an evangelical Presbyterian, the company continues to market Christian books and tapes, and its very foundations emphasize a conception of family values quite compatible with the evangelical moral worldview (Moreton 2006, 2009). Thus, Wal-Mart’s own discourse through advertising campaigns and press releases provides an opportunity for “signaling” evangelical shoppers via the language it uses to celebrate free enterprise, prioritize the family, and honor the nation ...

Apparently eager to maintain its relationship with this key demographic, Wal-Mart recently avoided a boycott by the American Family Association by backing away from its largely symbolic partnership with the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce...

That probably won't surprise anyone living in the USA, but it was news to me :). The interesting finding, however, is that although educated evangelicals are somewhat less approving of Wal-Mart, the effect of education isn't as marked as it is among everyone else.

Massengill thinks that this is because, although education generally has a liberalising effect, among evangelicals it could cause a reactive swing to conservatism:
These findings lend additional support to the proposition that higher education works slightly differently for evangelicals than other religious groups—if evangelicals see encounters with secular institutions such as colleges and universities as an opportunity to test and strengthen Christian faith
And one last thing. Wal-Mart here in the UK (aka ASDA), has no Christian, let alone evangelical, overtones. Which makes me think that the company is simply using Christianity as a marketing ploy, as required, to appeal to the huddled masses in their various markets!


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

Atheists Are Generous-They Just Don't Give to Charity

I write a regular column for Free Inquiry, the magazine of the Council for Secular Humanism, in the USA. Most often, you can only read them if you're a subscriber. But it looks like my last one was one of the ones they picked to be above the paywall.

So here's a link to it: Atheists Are Generous-They Just Don't Give to Charity. I wrote it as a response to a column by Tom Flynn, the journal's editor: Are Secularists Less Generous?

The general theme will be pretty familiar to regular readers. If you're interested to read more about the studies cited, well here's where you can find the relevant blog posts:
You might also want to take a look at Least Church-Going Rich Countries Give Most!


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

Why we are all different (and not all religious)

So, on to the paper by Robert Rowthorn, which I see now has even been picked up by the Denver Post!

Just to explain a bit of the background. Rowthorn is an economist, and his paper is basically a model of what would would happen if you have a gene (strictly speaking [and for Bjørn's benefit], an allele) that predisposes for membership of a group, and if that group has high reproduction.

What he shows is that the gene spreads incredibly quickly - just 10 generations after it appears, 80% of the population have it. After 20 generations, 95% have it, and it keeps increasing until that figure reaches 100%.

Because the gene spreads, membership of the group increases. It starts off a little slower, and never quite reaches 100% (because even gene carriers can opt out in this model).

Since there is a gene for religion, and the religious (especially the ultra-conservatives) have more kids, you can easily see how this model directly relates to the real world.

And that, Dear Reader, is why 95% of the world's population are Orthodox Jews!

Oh. Alright there is clearly something wrong with the model, but that's OK. Models are usually wrong, and the fun part comes in trying to figure out why. And this model is particularly interesting because it touches on a number of popular misconceptions.

Some are specific to this model but there's also a much bigger issue underlying all this: just why is there so much variation in how religious people are, if (as some theorists will have you believe) religion is so beneficial?

But first, let's look at some specific problems with the assumptions in this model. First off, it isn't really a model of religion, despite the title of the paper. It's a model of conservatism.

Rowthorn starts from some basic assumptions. That global birthrates have fallen, but they have fallen more slowly among the most religious (and not at all among certain sects like Orthodox Jews and the Amish). That conservatism and religion are inextricably linked (and that they have a simple genetic basis). And that religion is inextricably linked to high birth rates.

A quick survey just of European history will quickly show that the last two assumptions don't hold. There have been countless examples of religious anti-conservative movements - the Protestant reformation is just the most obvious example, but there are numerous others, like the anti-slavery movement and the 12th century reformation.

Religion is invented by people, and religion can be radical and innovative - according to their needs.

And of course religion does not necessarily promote fertility. Throughout most of its history, the Catholic Church has been at pains to promote the moral value of 'sexual continence'. The most religious people eschewed sex, and were packed off in their tens of thousands to monasteries and nunneries - places not renowned for their fecundity! Not just Europe either - Burma even now has around 400,000 monks.

So the link between religion and fertility is a cultural one, and it's a product of our recent history. Cultural innovation in recent decades has been tied to non-religion. Conservative people by their nature are likely to shun innovative lifestyles, and are more likely to adopt the lifestyles prevalent in the past. From the perspective of the early 21st century, that means things like religion and traditional families.

One of the problems with Rowthorn's model is that assumes that there are only two groups. A high fertility, religious (conservative) group, and a low fertility, non-religious (liberal) group. People who carry the 'gene' can switch out of the religious group, but their descendants will still be more likely to switch back in to that same group.

But what happens if the genes for conservatism and religion are not inextricably linked? What happens if new cultures arise that are religious, but do not promote fertility, or which are conservative, but do not promote religion?

And, of course, what happens if there is not really a gene for religion at all? Are the Amish really genetically disposed to be Amish? Or is it simply that they have been brought up to be Amish? Even if they are, will their offspring be more likely to rejoin the Amish, or will they simply be more likely to join some other traditional cultural group (steam engine enthusiasts, perhaps).

This is not to knock Rowthorn's paper, which gives a great insight into gene-culture interaction. It shows very nicely that a gene can spread faster than the culture that promotes it.

But it is a caution against running away with conclusions about a complex world based upon a simple, unvalidated model.

It raises a much bigger question, too. Just suppose there really is a culture that is 'best' (from an evolutionary perspective). And just suppose that there is a personality that is predisposed to that culture, and a gene that predisposes to that personality. Well then, if such a thing exists, why isn't everybody like that?

After all, evolution is ruthlessly efficient. A gene that reduces fitness by only 1% will be eliminated in just 10 generations, and will be carried by just 100 individuals. There's an excellent paper published a few years ago that tackles question of why on earth people have different personalities (see the footnote for reference).

After ruling out genetic drift and random mutation, the authors conclude that the most likely reason different people have different personalities is that there is no one 'optimal' strategy. In different times, or in different places, different approaches might be best.

This effect is called 'balancing selection', and it results in a number of different 'evolutionary stable strategies' - i.e. personalities.

What's more, these stable strategies often show negative frequency dependence. What that means is that the benefit of having a particular personality decreases the more that other people have the same personality.

In other words, human society creates a kind of ecosystem, and different personalities occupy different niches in that ecosystem.

Even then there are some nuances. Reproductive fitness is not just a question of numbers of offspring. Each organism has to make a choice of whether to invest resources in growth, in reproduction, or in survival. The optimum balance depends on - you guessed it - the particular environment (both physical and cultural).

Of course, they also go on to point out that there is no direct link between genes and personality. Rather, they suggest that multiple genes act to influence 'personality mechanisms' - like the 'startle reflex'. Depending on the environmental setting, these contribute to personality traits (the startle reflex has been linked to political conservatism). But even these personality traits are then further influenced by the environment to produce the end product - behaviour.

In other words, genes act at a very basic level to create a brain tool kit. These tool kits can generate a number of different personalities (and, ultimately, behaviour) depending on the environment.

And the reason you have the toolkit that you have - which is unique to you and may, depending on your environment, have resulted in you being religious or nonreligious - is because the components of your particular brain toolkit helped your ancestors to survive.

None of us, whether religious or non-religious, are maladaptive - from an evolutionary perspective, at least!

(Well, except those of you out there reading this who have congenitally low IQ - but that's a different story and you'll have to read the paper yourself to find out why!)


ResearchBlogging.org
Rowthorn R (2011). Religion, fertility and genes: a dual inheritance model. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society PMID: 21227968

Penke, L, Denisson, J, & Miller, GF (2007). The Evolutionary Genetics of Personality European Journal of Personality, 21, 549-587

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

There's no such thing as a gene for religion

A new paper by Robert Rowthorn, an economics professor at Cambridge University, has been in the news recently. I'm a bit behind the curve on this one, and in fact today's post is more by way of a preamble. I'll give you the low-down on the paper itself in the next post (probably on Thursday).

And if you can't wait till then, head on over to Gene Expression, where Razib has covered it and made pretty much all the points I was going to make, although more solidly and in much more detail! Damn you gotta move fast in the internet age! In my defence, I've been like, buying a new car and stuff. Priorities, priorities...

But first I want to tell you about something that's critically important to understanding evolutionary psychology, and that's the tortuous link between genes and behaviour.

Most people are familiar with the fundamentals of genetics. You have a gene, and that generates a trait. The classic example of this is the pea experiment by Gregor Johann Mendel. The gene for height occurs in two versions, and the pea plant will either be short or tall depending on which version it gets.

You won't be surprised to hear that it's rarely as simple as this (in fact, the father of statistics, RA Fisher, accused Mendel, the father of genetics, of fudging his data - because they were too clean!).


One complicating factor is that gene expression is responds to your environment. Take a Himalyan bunny and raise it in a cool environment, and it will have black ears, nose and feet. Raise its identical twin in a warm environment, and it will be all white. Same genotype, different phenotype. OK that's a simple example, but there are plenty more.

However, these environment effects just scratch the surface of the true complexity, and I'm going to take you just a short way on this extraordinary journey. If you want to go further, take a look at the fabulous article in the New Scientist, written by Ed Yong (of Not Exactly Rocket Science). But be prepared to have everything you thought you know about genes and psychology overturned!

Ed's article deals with a gene which is a codes for an enzyme: mono-amine oxidase (MAO). When it works, MAO breaks down a certain neurotransmitters, like serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline. When it doesn't, these neurotransmitters build up. That's it.

Like all genes, it doesn't have any grand designs, or plans. But variants of MAO do affect personality.

For example, one common, low activity version (MAOL), was found to be linked to aggression and gang membership in some boys. Yet the same gene was also linked to depression in pregnant women - a very different psychological 'effect'. Another study found that MAOL was only linked to antisocial behaviour in boys who had an abusive childhood. The high activity version, MAOH, was linked to fraud, but only in people who associated with other delinquents.

In other words, this gene did not cause aggression. The effect it had on behaviour depended on the environment.

So the environment affects the link between genes and personality. But in fact it's even more complicated than that.

Take that study on pregnant women, which found they were more likely to become depressed if they had the MAOL gene. Well, that's not the whole story. It turns out that they were only more likely to become depressered if they were also carriers of another gene (COMT).

 It's not, then, just the external environment that messes around with the psychological trait produced by a particular gene. The genetic environment also effects an individual gene.

So the effect of a gene will vary depending on what other genes it has pitched up with in the particular individual's genome. The trait a gene is linked to will change depending on what other genes you have.

What all this means is that it's fearsomely difficult to link genes to personality. So difficult, in fact, that no-one's done it yet. Neurocritic reviews the latest in a series of failures in the attempt to find a link.

It should be said that it's not just psychology that has this problem. Over the summer I went to a lecture where the the leading lights in the genetic study of adult-onset (type 2) diabetes summed up the state of play. Their findings: well, they haven't really found anything yet.

The problem is that diabetes is a very complicated disease, with a huge number of genes involved, all of which interact in complicated ways with each other and with the wider environment. There is no 'gene for adult-onset diabetes'. What there are are genes that, in the presence of certain other genes, and in the right environmental context, seem to increase your risk for type-2 diabetes.

So what does this mean for all those twin studies that regularly show a genetic link to religion?

Well, you have to remember that they are looking at closely-related individuals. These individuals share a lot of genes. So, what these studies show is that, in a particular cultural setting (say, Minnesota), a particular combination of genes can affect your religious tendencies.

Take any one of their individual genes, and put it in a different genetic or cultural environment, and it could have a different effect.

And the cultural environment is particularly important for religion, because religion is a culture and not not a personality trait. In fact, the types of personalities attracted to religion are different even in the USA and Europe - which are about as similar as any two cultures you could find!

So if you can't even link individual genes to personalities, how can you possibly link them to religion?

OK, in conclusion. I'm not saying that there is no link between genetics and religion. Clearly there is.

But what I am saying is that there is no single gene (or genes) that codes for religion: there are too many intervening steps (other genes, environmental effects on gene expression, and cultural differences in what it means to be religious) to make that simplistic link.

It seems like a trivial distinction, but it's critically important to understanding the relationship between evolution and religion. Because evolution acts on individual genes, and there is no such thing as a gene for religion.


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

About.com Reader's Choice Awards - nominations open

Just a quick heads up: Austin Cline, who's been running the Agnosticism/Atheism spot at About.com for, oh about as long as I can remember (over a decade now), is hosting their Reader's Choice awards.

There's a bunch of categories that you can nominate websites for (You can read more about them here):
  • Best Book of 2010
  • Best Podcast
  • Best Blog
  • Best Twitter
  • Best Page
  • Best Social Networking Website:
Nominations are open until Feb 4, and voting begins after that! Submit nominations here.


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

A rant on the evolution of religion

There's been a minor explosion of punditry about the evolution of religion, some of it naive and some of it making my blood boil. It seems that it was Jesse Bering who kicked it off. Before Christmas, he wrote up Michael Blume's research into religion and fertility. Then in the New Year, Jonathan Leake picked up the story in the Sunday Times. Most recently, Nick Spencer took up the cudgels in the Guardian.

Each of them made me more exasperated than the last! And what is it that's got them so excited? Well, it's the idea that the relatively higher fertility rate of the religious in the modern world means that religion is somehow at the apex at the tree of life. Here's Jonathan Leake spouting off:
Such a view – that the ubiquitous phenomenon of human religiosity is not only in the blood but also delivers a distinct evolutionary advantage – is gloriously consonant with (most) religious views.
Well, maybe it is consonant with religious views, but it's also nonsense, based on a profound (but common) misunderstanding of religion, and the connection between religion and psychology. Let me try to explain in three steps...

First off, we are not naturally religious.

At least, we are no more naturally religious than we are naturally football fans, or concert goers.

Of course, football and pop concerts are popular because they appeal to a number of deep-rooted instincts, but no-one would claim they are natural. They are things we invented.

And here's the critical bit: we invented them specifically to satisfy our instincts.

So that's the way that it works. We have mental biases, that make us want to do certain things. We make culture, and we make culture that appeals to and works with our mental biases.

Religion, like music, is cheesecake for the mind - an "exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of our mental faculties". So the fact that religion, like football and pop concerts, taps into our instincts is not a coincidence and it's not a surprise.

In fact, it's bleeding obvious.

That leads to another critical concept. There is more than one way of tickling these sensitive mental spots. All of culture does it. It just so happens that one group of cultural practices in the West that seem to appeal to similar mental biases have been given the label 'religion'.

But try to apply these categories to other cultures, and you fall flat. Other cultures have invented kirschtorte, not cheesecake, while some choose not to have dessert at all. These people have the same cognitive biases, but different ways of tickling them.

Once you get that point, the next is obvious: Religion can be beneficial without being optimal.

If someone invents a cultural practice that's harmful, it's not going to be very popular. But if someone invents a cultural practice that's really the bees knees, it still won't be popular if it doesn't tickle our cognition.

So the most popular cultural practices are going to be ones that make the best of our mental deficiencies, while still appealing to our blinkered mental capacities.

You can be reasonably sure that religions have, in some way, been optimised. But optimised for what? In the great landscape of cultural possibilities, any given religion is probably at a local optimum. It will have been designed that way by its human inventors. But that doesn't mean that a better culture is not possible, if you shift radically to another part of the landscape.

To the people of Iron Age northern Europe, garotting members of their community and dumping their bodies in the bog probably seemed like a damned fine idea. No doubt it appealed to a host of human mental biases. It also seems to have been successful in building communities (at least, in relative terms) - after all, the culture survived for millennia.

And yet, it's an approach to life that most people would frown upon today.

In other words, it's perfectly possible for religion to be beneficial in terms of the local cultural landscape, and yet harmful compared with the potential possibilities. Religion can be beneficial and harmful at the same time. It just depends what you are comparing it with.

Which brings me to my last point. High fertility is not a sure indicator of evolutionary advantage.

Sounds odd? But it all depends on context. Let me explain with an example.

Fat people are less fertile. They get fat because they're predisposed to eat too much and not exercise unless they have to. So it's clear that these traits are not going to be favoured by evolution, right?

Which, no doubt, explains why why my local shopping mall is populated by such svelte, athletic-looking individuals!

Well of course it's immediately obvious what's wrong with that line of argument. In fact, 2 million years of evolution, in a harsh, food-scarce environment, has favoured precisely those individuals who stuff their faces with all the calorie-dense food they can get, and who do the absolute minimum of exercise required to get it.

It's only in the modern environment where the tables have been turned. It's only now that over-eating and under-exercising carries an evolutionary penalty. And that's why so many people in rich countries struggle with their weight.

Now compare that to atheism. Atheism, like religion, is a cultural construction. It's taken up by people with the right mental biases who are placed in the right cultural setting. And like obesity, atheism is increasing, not decreasing. The majority of people in Scandinavian countries (and, yes, now the UK too) are now not religious, just as the majority of Germans are now overweight.

Clearly, the mental biases that predispose for atheism were not selected against in our evolutionary past, no more than the mental biases that predispose to obesity were.

Perhaps, in the cultural settings that occurred in the past, the mental biases that are today linked to atheism actually increased fertility. Perhaps those mental biases led to a higher proportion of children survived to reproductive age. Who knows!

Today, atheists and the non-religious have fewer kids. Now, that could mean all sorts of interesting things in the future. But predicting the future is a mug's game, and simple extrapolation almost always results in embarrassment.

Predicting the past is much easier. And whatever else, we can be sure that a good grip on reality does seem to have been evolutionarily beneficial. Which is nice.

To finish, here's one Mormon woman's remarkable story, just published in the NY Times. Just to show that the relationship between religion and fertility is never going to be as simple as the pundits would have you believe.

 If you liked this... then you might also like the follow-up posts, There's no such thing as a gene for religion, and Why we are all different (and not all religious).


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

Americans: not as religious as they think they are

We're used to hearing that America is an exceptional nation when it comes to religion. Certainly, the hold that religion has over public life is unparalleled among wealthy nations, and most Americans readily tell pollsters that they are dutifully religious.

But it seems that American religiosity might also be exceptional for quite another reason. It turns out that the gap between what they tell pollsters and what they actually do is bigger than for any other nation.

We've known for a long time that, when asked, people report going to Church more than they actually do. That's not too surprising. It's well known that, when you ask questions that relate to personal esteem, people will tend to tell you what they wish was true, rather than what actually is true.

They tell you what they want to believe.

Philip Brenner, at the University of Michigan, set out to see if this gap, between reports and reality, was the same in all countries. He used data from a variety of surveys, and compared it to so-called "time use" studies. These studies ask participants to write down each day what they have been doing.

He found that Americans say they go to Church about twice as often as they actually do. That's pretty similar to what has been found in other studies.

In other countries, however, the gap was much smaller - in fact, for many of them, it was non-existent (the bar chart only shows the worst offenders). It's not a recent phenomenon either. Brenner plots graphs for each of the 14 countries he studied. The graph for the USA shows a pretty consistent gap for the past 40 years (the paper isn't yet published, but I'll put the graphs up when it is).

Compare that with the Netherlands, where Church attendance has gradually declined, with polling surveys and time-use reports pretty much matched all the way.

Broadly speaking, there were three kinds of countries. Those where Church attendance is steadily falling (Netherlands, West Germany, France Slovenia, Spain, Austria, Ireland), those where Church Attendance has always been low (East Germany, Norway, Finland, Britain), and one (Italy) with a more complex picture.

But only the USA and Canada showed a marked gap between reported Church attendance and reality. Why should that be? According to Brenner:
When you ask people if they attended church, they hear that question pragmatically. They reflect on their identity as a religious person and they want to honestly report their identity as a religious person.
So I think they are being honest with how they understand the question: ‘Are you the sort of person who attends religious services?’ is what they think they hear and they say yes.

So could it really be that could be that religion is an important part of identity in these countries but not in Europe? Possibly, but I don't really think that's the case in Canada. Certainly not when compared to Ireland and Italy!

So there must be something else in North American culture that prompts people to say they are more dutifully religious than they really are. It beats me what that could be - but, perhaps, whatever it is is the same factor that make religion so resilient in those countries?


ResearchBlogging.orgBrenner, Philip S. (2011). Exceptional behavior or exceptional identity? Overreporting of church attendance in the US Public Opinion Quarterly: In press

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

Religion causes wealth inequalities

Back in 2008, I wondered whether the reason that the religious give more to charity than the non-religious might be that they get more out of it. They get an extra benefit from charity (an anticipated reward from their God) that atheists don't. When atheists want to redistribute money, they would prefer to do it via taxation (because that minimises the risk of free-riders - people who don't contribute their fair share).

Well it turns out that Ceyhun Elgin, at Bogazici University in Istanbul, and colleagues have been thinking along the same lines. They were wondering whether it might explain why religious countries tend to have higher income inequality than non-religious countries. Their analysis has just been released - you can download the working paper here.

The first thing they did was to develop a mathematical model, which showed that the idea was plausible. Agents in their model get more satisfaction from charity if they are religious, and so (they found) prefer a lower tax rate. That, in turn, means lower levels of income redistribution. It's all complex stuff and I have to confess that I haven't taken the time to try to understand it, but I'll take their word that this is what they've shown!

Then they to some multiple-regression analyses of real-world data. They found that, after controlling for GDP and also for type of religion (Protestant/Catholic/Muslim), countries with high levels of belief in the afterlife also have high levels of income inequality, low levels of tax, and low levels of government spending.

All this tallies well with what other research has shown. In my own analyses, I found that high levels of prayer are associated with low levels of welfare payments for the unemployed, even after controlling for a range of factors.

Of course, there are other reasons why religion might be linked to income inequality. There's good evidence that religious people aren't as anxious about losing their jobs, because God (and their Church) will provide.


More importantly, high levels of income inequality are linked to all sorts of societal problems, as well as high levels of anxiety (for rich and poor, although mostly for the poor). That could increase religious beliefs. There's good theoretical reasons to think this, and also some evidence from studies comparing countries (including my own).

Elgin suggests that religious countries might not be as unequal as the statistics show. That's because charitable benefits are often not counted as income. However, given that charitable donations are dwarfed by government welfare (even in low welfare countries like the USA), I don't think this is likely.

What's more, it's not true that the religious prefer small government. There is one area of government spending that they are in favour of - and that's defence spending! So the effect of religion on government welfare spending may be even more dramatic than Elgin's figures suggest.


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