Field of Science

Religious groups reduce vaccination rates

The Netherlands has a healthcare problem. Despite a high overall vaccination coverage, in the last two decades there have been epidemics of poliomyelitis (1992-1993), measles (1999-2000), rubella (2004-2005) and mumps (2007-2008).

These epidemics were all largely confined to an area stretching from the south-west to the north-east of the country. This is the Dutch Bible belt - shown in the graphic - where there are a relatively high number of orthodox (aka fundamentalist) Protestants. Almost all patients in these epidemics belonged to the orthodox protestant minority and were unvaccinated because of religious objections.

But what's not clear is whether Protestant minorities have a low vaccination rate, and whether that is really linked to their religion. After all, they are also more likely to be rural, and low-income.

So Wilhelmina Ruijs (Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre) and colleagues looked to see whether regions of the Netherlands with more Orthodox Protestants have lower vaccination rates, after controlling for urbanization, poverty, and immigration.

It turns out that they do. Vaccination was a little lower in areas with a lot of Orthodox Protestants - 93.6%, compared with 96.9% elsewhere. That's a small difference, but it only takes a small drop in vaccination rates to decrease 'herd' immunity to the point where an epidemic can break out.

More interestingly, 84% of the variation in vaccine coverage from one area to the next was down to the presence of these churches. The other factors had relatively little influence.

ResearchBlogging.orgRuijs, W., Hautvast, J., van der Velden, K., de Vos, S., Knippenberg, H., & Hulscher, M. (2011). Religious subgroups influencing vaccination coverage in the Dutch Bible belt: an ecological study BMC Public Health, 11 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1471-2458-11-102

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

Get out and vote "Yes to AV" in the UK referendum

90% of the readers of this blog are from outside the UK. If you're one of them, look away now - this post is not for you!

In fact, it's not even about science and religion. I almost never deviate from the regular fare on this blog, but this is a topic that's really dear to my heart - the UK referendum on 5th May on changing the the voting system.

If you're a typical reader, then you're an educated liberal, and so you probably already support the AV system, at least in vague terms. But what you might not know is that it's going to be very close.

That means that every vote counts - which means you! This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to make the UK electoral system fairer. AV is not perfect, but it's a damned sight better than first past the post, and we won't get another chance in the foreseeable future!

So do me a favour and get out and vote on May 5th! And get all your friends to go and vote too. If you don't, we're going to be stuck with the same god-awful system we've got now.

The No campaign has a huge slush fund, donated by a handful of the super-rich. The Yes campaign can't compete, and there's a real danger that money, rather than ideas, will win out. But the Yes campaign advantage lies in the large groundswell of popular support - and it's networking and word of mouth that will win the day.

They have a website, Yes to Fairer Votes, where you can sign up to help out. Do what you can!

For any non-UK people still with us, the UK is holding a referendum on whether to change the current system (where you put an X next to a single candidate) - to the so-called 'alternative voting system' (where you rank candidates in order of preference).

The current system is deeply flawed, because most candidates get elected without the support of the majority of the electorate (because there are usually many candidates for each seat). Even worse, people often vote tactically - for the candidate they think has a chance of winning, rather than the candidate they actually want.

The result is an artificial two-party government. It's impossible to challenge the incumbent in most seats. If the party bureaucracy puts a monkey in as your local candidate, then you have to vote for him (or her). If you vote for an unofficial candidate, then all that happens is that the vote is split and neither of the candidates you want gets in.

It's a truly awful system, and the UK needs a better one! AV has been described as a 'miserable compromise' but actually it's just about the best voting system if you want to keep the 'constituency' organization that is so deeply ingrained in the British heritage.

Here's a couple of my favourite videos to explain it. They're a bit nerdy but hey, this is a kinda nerdy blog! Talking of which, here's a longish post by Tim Gower, a mathematician at Cambridge, explaining the benefits of AV.

The first video is a straight up explanation of why AV tends to give fairer results:

And this second one is a bit more partisan - explaining why the UK in particular will benefit.

Here endeth the partly-political broadcast. Normal service resumes in the next post. Just get out and vote "Yes to AV", OK?

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

Punitive gods stop cheaters, compassionate gods encourage them

Probably more important than whether you believe in a God is the type of God you believe in - from a behavioural point of view, at least.

For example, believers in a judgemental god are more likely to support the death penalty, and are more likely to suffer mental ill health. Back in 2006, Gary Jensen (a criminologist at Vanderbildt University) showed that so-called 'passionate dualism' - i.e. religious worldview characterised by intense beliefs in a clash between good and evil - is a major cause of homicide.

Now, a new study by Azim Shariff, at the University of Oregon, and Ara Norenzayan, at the University of British Columbia, have looked at how views of God affect cheating. You may remember Shariff from a pivotal study in 2008 on priming religious concepts and honesty.

In this new study, they sat students down to what they thought was a warm-up task on basic numeracy (adding up a bunch of numbers - simple but tedious). Unfortunately, the computer programme had a glitch that showed the answer after a few seconds. The students were asked to be honest and press the space bar to make the answer go away - without looking at it.

Of course, this was no glitch. In fact, they were interested in whether (and how often) the students did the honest thing and pressed the space bar.

It turned out that there was no difference in honesty between atheists and the religious. However, there was a big difference among the religious.

Those who believed in a stern, punishing god were less likely to cheat - while those who believe compassionate, forgiving god were actually more likely to cheat! On average, the two cancelled out - which is why the religious as a whole were no different from atheists.

So does that mean that encouraging belief in punishing gods will reduce cheating. Well, it's not quite that simple.

Take, for example, this graph that I just knocked together. It plots 'Passionate Dualism' - based on Gary Jensen's original measure of heaven and hell beliefs - against corruption (the Corruption Perceptions Index). It goes in the opposite way to what you might expect - the greater the level of belief in punitive gods, the more corruption a country has.

One reason this might happen is that Shariff's study was a scientific study, done in isolation from any context. Yet the most common cause of cheating is actually when people feel that they've been hard-done by elsewhere, as this article in the NY Times explains:

“Cheating is especially easy to justify when you frame situations to cast yourself as a victim of some kind of unfairness,” said Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the use of prescription drugs to improve intellectual performance. “Then it becomes a matter of evening the score; you’re not cheating, you’re restoring fairness.”

What's more, individuals who are convinced that they have the moral high ground are actually more likely to cheat. Perhaps believers in a punitive god have had experiences in the past that make them feel like they are victims of injustice, and also that they are strongly in the right.

Well, this might help to explain it, but it certainly isn't the full story, and it probably isn't the most interesting one.  Much more interesting is the likelihood that people change adapt their concept of god to suit the society in which they find themselves. Here's Shariff and Norenzayan:

... the concept of a punishing God should be expected to be more widespread in societies where the threat of freeloading is high, such as those lacking effective social institutions, experiencing internal or external threats, or both. This hypothesis raises the possibility that the widespread belief in benevolent deities is a modern phenomenon—the consequence of a gradual change in religious beliefs.

Their point is that believing in a punishing god is actually very stress-inducing. An earlier study found that reminders of God make Christians less fearful of death - but make Muslims more fearful! That was mainly because, unlike the Christians, they had solid belief in hell. Back then I commented that:

The function of Hell is to reinforce social order by threatening punishment to wrongdoers who can't be brought to justice by normal societal mechanisms. As a strategy, it's not terribly successful. Medieval Europe is not renowned as an era of peace, justice and harmony.

But perhaps in the absence of more effective social controls, promoting fear of hell is better than nothing. When better social controls are invented – such as in modern Europe – Hell is no longer needed.

If Hell is no longer needed in modern Europe, then Heaven still is. People still die, and our basic, evolved instincts make us all fear of death. The prospect of heaven can reduce that fear – but only if you abandon the inconvenient concept of hell.

As a result, modern Christianity, reacting to market demand, quietly drops the concept of hell, but retains the concept of heaven.
The feel-good version of religion, like atheism, is what you get when you remove danger and threat from people's lives.
Shariff, A., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Mean Gods Make Good People: Different Views of God Predict Cheating Behavior. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 21 (2), 85-96 DOI: 10.1080/10508619.2011.556990

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

European Christians don't want government to reduce income inequality

You may have seen the article by Jo Stiglitz, Nobel-Prize Winning Economist, in the current issue of Vanity Fair, in which he rips into the yawning chasm of wealth inequality that now exists in the US. Dan Ariely (of Predictably Irrational fame) is also in the news, talking about his study in which he showed that US citizens don't actually know how unequal their nation is, and that regardless of political persuasion they'd like it to look more like Sweden.

Now, inequality is a complex social problem, but regular readers will know that the link to religion is something that fascinates me.

Countries with higher income inequality also tend to have citizens who pray more and who go to Church more often. Now, one explanation for this is that, when wealth disparities are large, life can get more stressful - especially (but not only) for those at the bottom of the heap.

However, there's also evidence the religion actually drives wealth inequalities. Countries with more religious people spend less on social welfare, but it's not clear whether religious people actually prefer it that way.

That's where a new analysis by Daniel Stegmueller, a sociologist at Goethe University in Frankfurt Germany, and colleagues comes in. They looked at data from 16 Western European countries that took part in the European Social Survey in 2002-2006. One of the questions asked in the survey was the extent to which people agreed that "The government should take measures to reduce differences in income levels".

People who said they had a religious affiliation (Catholic, Protestant, or'other') were less likely to agree. That held even after adjusting for a wide range of other factors, like age, income, social class, employment status, children, and whether the respondent was on a temporary contract. They also adjusted for the political climate of the country (social democratic versus liberal, and social conservatism).

The interesting thing was that the difference between Catholics and Protestants was quite small, and much smaller than the difference between the religious and the non-religious. The effect is quite large - equivalent to five more years of education or increasing household income by €500/month.

Now, there are three reasons that the religious might be less keen on social welfare. The first is that they may get social support from their fellow Church members, and so be less interested in state support. But, in this analysis, churchgoing had no effect on support for welfare.

Another possibility is that believers may think that God will take care of them. Or they may think that their god will favour them, and so they will not end up at the bottom of the pile. That's certainly a possibility that is not ruled out by this analysis.

But the third possibility is that religious people may resent the idea of giving money to people who aren't part of their 'gang'. That wouldn't be surprising - it's well known that countries that have a large mix of ethnicities have lower support for government welfare. People don't mind paying taxes to help their own kind, but they're not so keen to see their money going to help 'them'.

Indeed, Stegmeuller found that more religiously polarized countries (defined by the difference in religiosity of religious group members compared with non-members) had lower the support for social welfare.

So religious polarisation reduces support for social welfare. But the surprising thing was that it had no effect on the link between individual religious affiliation and rejection of governmental intervention to reduce inequality.

Even in the least religiously polarized countries, religious people are still just as opposed to the idea that the government should try to reduce inequality.
Stegmueller, D., Scheepers, P., Rossteutscher, S., & de Jong, E. (2011). Support for Redistribution in Western Europe: Assessing the role of religion European Sociological Review DOI: 10.1093/esr/jcr011

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

Tunisia evenly balanced between religious and secular

In January this year, Tunisia kick-started the Arab spring when President Ben Ali was forced into exile. Tunisia had a happier experience than neighbouring Libya, and presidential elections are expected to take place this summer.

But what kind of president will they elect? In neighbouring Algeria the first free elections, held in 1991, returned an Islamist government with 47% of the vote. That was enough for the Islamists to gain more than two-thirds of the seats, which would have allowed them to change the constitution to create a permanent Islamic state. Instead it triggered a military coup and a 20-year civil war.

A US Polling Company has just conducted a detailed opinion poll in Tunisia, and the results suggest a similar split.

The nation seems to be pretty split among those who would prefer a religious or a secular government, and this split holds across all ages. According to a March opinion poll, the Islamist Renaissance party is currently the leading party, with 29% support.

Tunisia may be in for a bumpy ride!

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

A general-purpose "need to belong" drives belief in God

There's an element of Western religion that's clearly linked in some fundamental way to the fundamental human drive to be accepted and to 'belong' to your group. Teasing out what that is is actually harder than you might think.

Jochen Gebauer, at Humboldt University in Berlin, and Gregory Maio, at Cardiff University in Wales, have just published one of the most interesting studies into this that I've seen.

What they did was to get a bunch of Welsh students and subtly manipulate the strength of their belief in God. They did this by asking them to read a cleverly faked research article on the discovery of a "Theory of Everything", which concluded in one of two different ways.

Half the students got a version of the research article which concluded that “there is a consciousness that asserts His will in the universe,” whereas the other half got a version which concluded that the Theory of Everything “cannot help to test the existence of God.”

Before that, they had already asked the students about their views of God. They were all asked to say whether they thought God is accepting or rejecting, and controlling or not controlling - regardless of whether or not they actually believed in God.

After the study, they asked the students about the strengths of their actual belief (or lack of) in God.

What happened was that those students who read the 'no evidence for God' article reported similar levels of belief regardless of their image of God. So these students are a kind of reference point.

Among those students who read the "Evidence for God" version of the article, belief in God increased - but only among those who had a mental image of God as being 'accepting'. Among those who had a more 'rejecting' image of God, belief actually went down after learning that there was evidence that God exists!

Now, this could suggest that belief in god is stimulated by a need to be accepted, and that an image of God as rejecting actively drives some people away from belief. But there could be all sorts of other things going on here. More evidence is needed.

And that extra evidence comes in the second study. Hold on to your hats, because here's where it starts to get complicated!

The second study was basically the same as the first, but this time they asked half the students to first spend a couple of minutes thinking about someone who “lives in your neighbourhood, but you do not know well”. The other half were asked to think about someone who “accepts and loves you and helps you in times of need”. The idea was that the second group would be reminded that they were already loved and accepted, and so their need to belong would be reduced.

For the first group, who thought about a person they didn't know too well, the results were the same as the first study.

In the second group, the results were dramatically different. This time, reading the article had no effect on their level of belief in God.

In simple terms what happened was that, by satisfying their need to belong, the students with an image of God as 'accepting' were not motivated to believe in God in order to feel loved. And students with an image of God as 'rejecting' were not motivated to shun belief in God for fear of being rejected.

They did a couple of other studies, one showing that people who were subtly made to think that God is rejecting subsequently went on to report lower levels of belief, and also were less inclined to go to Church. And their final study showed that believers are quite aware of this motivation - the need to belong - as a part of their rationale for their beliefs.

What makes this study so interesting is that it shows not only that belief in God can make you feel loved and accepted, but that it is a direct substitute for human love and acceptance.

In other words, belief isn't driven by some specific need to 'belong' to and be accepted by a god-figure. It's a general purpose need, which can be filled (if otherwise vacant) by God. [The researchers are careful to point out that there are a lot of other factors involved in motivating religious belief and non-belief, of course.]

Now, this has some interesting implications. There's a lot of research showing that religious activities like Church going are quite different from religious activities like prayer and belief, and that it's Church going that is most strongly associated with all of the beneficial effects sometimes ascribed to religion - health, happiness, and social integration.

But of course, going to Church also satisfies your need to belong. Can it actually decrease belief in God?

I don't know about that - it would be pretty hard to tease out from all the other effects going on. But one thing seems likely. This new research helps to explain why countries with the highest social capital also have the lowest levels of belief.

Strong, integrated communities don't need gods.
Gebauer JE, & Maio GR (2011). The Need to Belong Can Motivate Belief in God. Journal of Personality PMID: 21446945

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

People: not as nice as they think they are

A lot of experiments comparing religious and non-religious people go something like this: give the study subjects an imaginary scenario, ask them some questions about how they would react, and then ask them about their religious beliefs.

All well and good, except that it's well known that we are not terribly good judges of our own behaviour. Most of us look at our own deeds through rose-tinted glasses - we tend to think that we're kinder, more trustworthy, more intelligent and braver than we actually are.

Just how far divorced from reality we are was shown recently in an elegant study by Oriel Feldmanhall, a PhD candidate at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge University, England. She's just presented the research at the Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society in San Francisco, California.

Basically, she studied two groups of people. The first group she asked them to imagine a scenario where they would get paid a small sum to deliver painful but harmless electric shocks. 64% said they would never deliver a shock, and on average the participants would only deliver enough shocks to earn a paltry £4.

The second group got the real deal. They actually administered the shocks, and saw the response on video (they were in an MRI scanner at the time). This time, a massive 96% of participants administered shocks. Those who saw video of the grimacing faces of their victims pocketed £11.55. Those who were spared that and only saw the hands walked away with a cool £15.77.

Brains scans vividly illuminated the emotional turmoil going on in the subjects who participated in the real experiment. They had a lot of activity in their insula, a deep, primitive part of the brain thought to be linked to moral intuition. People who did the pen-and-paper, hypothetical version had no such turmoil.

So, does this mean that we should throw away all those pen-and-paper and survey-based studies of religion. Well no - they still tell us something. It's just not entirely clear what they are telling us!

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

The not-so-good Samaritan

The parable of the good Samaritan is an entrancing one for psychologists interested in religion. The parable espouses the virtue of helping anyone in need - including strangers. Since Christians are taught that this virtue is a key part of their religion, you might expect that the more religious people might be more likely to help strangers.

In fact, research tends to show that this is not the case. Religious people tend to be more likely to help friends and people in their group, but no more likely to help strangers.

There's a problem though. Religion can mean many different things, and in particular one kind of religion, commonly known as 'fundamentalism', is strongly linked to another trait known as 'right-wing authoritarianism'. Perhaps this is distorting the picture. If only we could tease out ordinary religion from fundamentalism, then the pro-social effects of religion might shine through.

That's the challenge taken up by one of my favourite psychologists of religion, Vassilis Saroglou at the Université catholique de Louvain. Along with his colleague Joanna Blogowska, he quizzed Polish students about their religious beliefs (how important religion was in their life, how often they prayed, etc) and their fundamentalist beliefs (whether the Bible is literally true, etc). They also asked about their 'Right Wing Authoritarian" attitudes ("Our country desperately needs a mighty leader who will do what has to be done to destroy the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us").

Before asking about their beliefs, however, they put a scenario to them:
...participants read a short text presenting the case of a female student who participates in many after-class activities as well as prepares for her exams. After having fallen asleep on a bus, she was robbed of her bag containing all of her books and notes. As a consequence, she cannot successfully prepare for one of the exams, and in spite of her explanations to the professor, she fails
For half the participants, the female student was described as being a feminist.

So, do you feel sorry for the student? Would you be willing to help her? Is what happened her fault, and something that will teach her a lesson? They asked 12 questions along these lines, and used them to measure how prosocial the participants were.

The more religious students were in fact more likely to say that they would be willing to help the girl - so long, that is, as the girl was not a feminist. If the girl was described as a feminist, the religious were no more likely than the non-religious to say they would help. They were prosocial, but in a limited way.

Religious fundamentalists were the same. In fact, it turned out that the limited kindness of the fundamentalists could be entirely explained by their religiosity, and had nothing to do with their fundamentalism.

Right-wing authoritarianism, on the other hand, had no effect on willingness to help, regardless of whether or not the girl was described as a feminist.

Fundamentalists were more likely than the ordinary religious to think that the feminist girl was unhappy (they were more likely to say that experiences a lot of disappointment, fear, and rage, and less likely to say that she experienced hope, courage and kindness). Right-wing authoritarians also were more likely to think the feminist girl was unhappy, but that was simply because they were more likely to also be religious fundamentalists.

Blogowska and Saroglou  conclude from this that:
These results extend to fundamentalism the findings of previous research showing that religious people’s prosociality exists but is limited and does not extend to targets who threaten their values such as homosexuals (Batson et al. 1999), sexually promiscuous people (Mak and Tsang 2008), and foreigners (Pichon and Saroglou 2009).

However, RF differed from religiosity and paralleled RWA by showing negative attitudes in emotions attributed to the feminist target. This finding is in line with the idea that RF, like authoritarianism, implies prejudice towards outgroup members.

In a second experiment, the religious were more likely than the less religious to say that they would help a friend in need, but they weren't more likely to say they would help a stranger. Again, the fundamentalists were similar, but this could be explained simply by the fact that they were more religious.

Right-wing authoritarianism had no effect on willingness to help a friend but, unsurprisingly, such people were actually less likely to help strangers than liberals.

According to Blogowska and Saroglou, what this means is that religious fundamentalism is not simply right-wing authoritarianism in religious clothing. Fundamentalists, unlike right-wing authoritarians, are more pro-social to friends and non-threatening people who could be considered members of their own group.

Blogowska and Saroglou also found another interesting gem. They asked their students straight out whether they practised universal love - whether they were willing to help all people, regardless of who they were. Of course, both the ordinary religious and the fundamentalists were more likely to say that they did.

Even though they had just given the game away in the answers they gave just moments before!

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

Efficacy of prayer questioned

Prayer is a pretty common feature of human existence, and holy books typically instruct believers to pray to obtain special blessing. But how do we know it works? Well, one line of thought is that a large number of people believe it works, and they unlikely to all be wrong.

Francis Galton, a freelance statistician based in London, England, has his doubts. He's published an analysis in which he points out that many other widely-held beliefs have fallen by the way-side:

Witches were unanimously believed in, and were regularly exorcised, and punished by law, up to the beginning of the last century. Ordeals and duels, most reasonable solutions of complicated difficulties according to the popular theory of religion, were found absolutely fallacious in practice. The miraculous power of relics and images, still so general in Southern Europe, is scouted in England. The importance ascribed to dreams, the barely extinct claims of astrology, and auguries of good or evil luck, and many other well-known products of superstition which are found to exist in every country, have ceased to be believed in by us.

To test whether prayer really is effective, Galton begins by looking at life expectancy. Monarchs are among the most widely prayed-for people in Europe. And yet, Galton reports, their life expectancy (64 years) is actually shorter than other affluent people, such as Army Officers (67 years) and the gentry (70 years).

In fact, even the clergy, who pray regularly (and whose prayers are "full of petitions for temporal benefits"), don't live long (69.5 years). Slightly longer than lawyers (68) years and medical men (67.3 years), it's true, but Galton puts this down to "the easy country life and family repose of so many of the clergy" which "are obvious sanatory conditions in their favour"

Galton goes on to point out some other interesting facts - the number of still born children born to clergy is no lower than for other professions. Missionaries often die of tropical fever soon after their arrival. Despite the fact that we often pray that "Nobility may be endued with grace, wisdom and understanding", both nobles and the clergy are often quite mad - in the case of the clergy, Galton says, this is probably a result of their "meditations on hell".

What's more, the insurance industry, where pragmatism is a must, shows up the inefficacy of prayer. Boats carrying missionaries are not offered lower premiums than vessels on a purely mercantile mission. Lightening strikes have disproved the theory that god would protect churches, and now lightening conductors are universal.

All this, Galton concludes, provides sufficient evidence that prayer does not work. It's now up to those who disagree to prove otherwise.

Galton finishes by conceding that prayer can be uplifting, even if it doesn't work. But he argues those who are sceptical can have an equal sense of wonder and rejoice in the world around them:

... it is equally certain that similar benefits are not excluded from those who on conscientious grounds are sceptical as to the reality of a power of communion. These can dwell on the undoubted fact, that there exists a solidarity between themselves and what surrounds them, through the endless reactions of physical laws, among which the hereditary influences are to be included. They know that they are descended from an endless past, that they have a brotherhood with all that is, and have each his own share of responsibility in the parentage of an endless future. The effort to familiarize the imagination with this great idea has much in common with the effort of communing with a God, and its reaction on the mind of the thinker is in many important respects the same. It may not equally rejoice the heart, but it is quite as powerful in ennobling the resolves, and it is found to give serenity during the trials of life and in the shadow of approaching death.
Galton, F (1872). Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer. Fortnightly Review , 12, 125-135

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