Field of Science

No effect of religion on creative accountancy and book fiddling

The joy of accountancy is that it is no longer a simple game of adding up money in versus money out. Financial dealings these days are so complex that there is an almost infinite number of ways to hide or massage bad figures - if you want to, that is (think: Enron).

Now, the really fascinating thing is you can see this happening at an aggregate level. For example, you can look at how reporting of profits and losses vary from year to year, to see if accountants are smoothing the figures. You can also look to see whether small losses are being under-reported (by being massaged away), and there a bunch of other clever ways to shine a light on murky dealings.

So, now you're itching to know whether more religious countries have more or less of this 'creative accounting' (technically, it's called 'earnings management'). Jeffrey Callen, chair of accounting at the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, has done just that.

He found that there was no relationship between earnings management and whether people in a country said religion was important to them, or that they were a religious person, or how often they went to religious services. Nor was there any relationship with the numbers of Catholics, Muslims, or religious people other than Protestants.

Countries with more Protestants did have less book-fiddling, but on delving into the stats this turned out to be because Protestant nations are also more individualistic - and that personality factor is the crucial thing that stifles creative accounting.

Interestingly, there was a correlation between the numbers of people who derive comfort from religion and the under-reporting of small losses. But it's hard to know what to make of this - it could just be a chance effect.

Now, Callen & Co were a bit surprised by this. They were expecting religion to suppress creative accounting. They suggest that what might be happening is that religious people may be persuading themselves that such book fiddling is all for the greater good - and thus morally acceptable.

But regular readers of this blog will know that this is not, in fact, a surprising result. The reality is that study after study has shown that profession of religion has almost no discernible effect on behaviour.
Callen, J., Morel, M., & Richardson, G. (2010). Do culture and religion mitigate earnings management? Evidence from a cross-country analysis. International Journal of Disclosure and Governance, 8 (2), 103-121 DOI: 10.1057/jdg.2010.31

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

And the winners are...

In the previous post, I reviewed the new book Jesus Potter Harry Christ, and thanks to the author put up three copies to win.

I was dead chuffed to see so many entries. Not only were they great to read, but it turns out that there are people out there after all who read the blog. Never quite trust web statistics :)

So anyway I narrowed it down to a half dozen and then picked three. And here they be:

Torbjörn Larsson: for pointing out that all religious founders were actually first recorded by people who lived remote from the alleged holy man.

Kevin Zimmerman: because I love the idea of him and his Mormon, Harry Potter-loving wife chewing over the parallels between Jesus and Potter (There are many parallels, of course. JK Rowling did this deliberately in order to tap into culturally-embedded narratives - exactly as the early Christians did when developing their mythology).

John TK: Because the difference between the Christian mythology of the 'inner circle' of initiates and the ordinary lower ranks is one of the issues Murphy tackles directly.

I have John and Kevin's emails - Torbjörn, drop me a line at the address under 'About' on the right-hand column.

I would love to hand out more (particularly to Andy Breeden for his EMMM methodology). But sadly I ain't got more to distribute. Still, this was good fun so I'll see if I can run another competition for a different book!

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

Win a copy of 'Jesus Potter Harry Christ'!

I suspect that most atheists, to the extent that they think about the biblical stories of Jesus at all, probably take the view that they are a big helping of myth built upon a small kernel of truth. That's certainly the view I took. I know that some people claim that it's an entire myth - that Jesus the man never existed - but to me that never really seemed credible.

After all, the earliest stories of Jesus date to just a decade or two after his death. How could anyone have fallen for a complete invention so soon after the alleged event?

Well, I've just been reading Harry Potter Jesus Christ (don't be put off by the title! It isn't sensationalist and is actually rather scholarly). It's quite a fascinating book - one of those books that takes the facts you already know (at least in broad terms) and presents them viewed through a different lens. Anyway, suffice to say that although I'm still sceptical of the idea that Jesus the Man is a complete myth (we'll never know for certain, of course), at least now I can see how the myth could have come to be, and how it people could have persuaded themselves that Jesus was real.

So it's a book well worth reading and, courtesy of the author (Derek Murphy), I have three copies to give away! To find out how you can win one, scroll to the end of the post.

Before you do that, though, you might want to learn a little more about the book. I fired off some questions to Derek ideas and how they came to him. Here are his answers - they'll give you a flavour of what the book is all about.

Epiphenom: What's the basic premise of your book?
Derek: That Jesus and Harry Potter are both literary (fictional) characters which incorporate classical (pagan) spirituality and religious ideology, which is itself based in large part on ancient astrology and astronomical observation. I start by using the similarities between Jesus and Harry to raise the question, "how can Jesus be historical if Harry is fictional?" From there, I go over the evidence and history of the belief in the historical Jesus, the problems with the research, and the comparisons between Jesus and older pagan gods to establish the possibility that Jesus may be mostly literary, and then search through ancient sources to try and understand what went into the making of the Jesus myth, and how/when it got mistakenly viewed as history.

Epiphenom: What first interested you in the Jesus myth?
Derek: I was raised Christian and in my teens even flirted with some very cult-esque organizations; it is easy to channel teenage energy and passion into Christian worship. I considered myself a wise and intellectual believer. However as I travelled I had more and more difficulty dealing with pressing questions such as how a just god could "save" mostly Western countries while ignoring (or leaving to accident) everybody else. I began studying theology (in a seminary school, with Franciscan, Dominican and Jesuit classmates), and then switched to philosophy. What I learned raised even more questions. Around this time I found a copy of "The Jesus Mysteries" by Freke and Gandy. It clicked everything into place. Since then I've been researching independently; there is a lot of good material on the web but a lot of "Christ Myth Theory" is overstated, or recycles faulty evidence. But when you go to the original sources, Christian or pagan writings, modern scholars, it is pretty easy to find support to make the case that Jesus was never historical. I put out a little book in 2006 to test the waters, but realized if I was going to add to the conversation I had to do a significant amount of new research and present it in a way to catch the attention of people who aren't already interested in the subject.

Epiphenom: How do you go about creating a god?
Derek: I think humans are naturally god-producing beings. When we're alone in the forest, surrounded by beauty or natural, it's natural for us to have this feeling of awe, humility and empowerment all at the same time. When we're hurt or sick it's natural for us to ask life or the universe for help - maybe we don't ask any body in the beginning, but these feelings lead to a kind of sincerity in prayer which could evolve into more detailed description of just who or what is out there. I think most early descriptions of gods and goddesses however are directly related to astronomical observation of the planets - which appear to move by themselves in contrast to the night sky; Mars is red and angry, Venus is bright and beautiful, etc. However much, much later, we do have examples of empires deliberating forging disparate beliefs together in attempts to unify their dominions and simplify their rule. I don't believe Jesus is necessarily a fake or forgery - it's probable that he's a natural synthesis of his times... and yet there is precedent for the argument that some Roman Ruler decided to create a Jewish-Pagan synthesis to try and soothe the continuously rebellious Jews.

Epiphenom: Are all Eurasian mythologies underpinned by a single cosmic archetype?
Derek: No - there are many different gods and goddesses, some of which evolved separately. But most of them are based on constellations or planet movements, so there is some repetition. However two threads that go back a long, long time, are the ideas about the creation of the world coming from a serpent or snake, and being forged through its defeat by a victorious warrior, and a dying, suffering and returning god. There are details to these stories that make it unlikely to be coincidental, and they can probably be traced to a very ancient source, perhaps somewhere in India, that spread out in both directions (Europe/Asia). With the growth of the Greek and Roman Empires, however, cultures were coming together and increasingly gods were being merged together in cultural synthesis. There was a quest to find the best or most powerful god, the god that was behind all others. Eventually this movement resulted in Christianity, which is basically an "everyman" religion that assimilated aspects of everything else.

Epiphenom: What are the similarities between the the Roman and Greek mysteries and the Jesus myth - and how do we know which direction the influence went?
Derek: The main features are the dying and resurrecting gods, the specific dates of worship, and the rituals included in the ceremonies. The only argument that Jesus is NOT one of those other dying and resurrecting gods is that Jesus was real, and he physically resurrected, while the others were myths; but this is a modern argument. Ancient cultures also believed that their gods were real. Christianity is unique in prioritizing a resurrection of the flesh, but the story of Jesus is in no way new. Specifically you have a prophesied infant born to be savior, who is threatened by a ruler and goes into hiding, who comes back to defeat his enemies but at the same time suffers death, is mourned and then (sometimes) comes back. The birth was commonly on December 25th, and the resurrection sometime in the spring. The way we celebrate Christmas and Easter is entirely based on pagan rituals that preceded Christianity. The way we know what came first is that the earliest Christians were already aware of the similarities, and trying to explain them; the foundation of Christian apologetics is the attempt to answer the criticism that a) Jesus wasn't real or b) his story is a copy from pagan mythology. We find traces of these defenses in the Bible and in all early Christian literature. So even if we ignore the similarities at face value, ignore the fact that we can establish the worship of the other pagan gods centuries earlier, ignore the fact that the Jews, and early Christians were very familiar with these rival deities... we still have the evidence of early Christian writers confirming the similarities and refusing it by using the "diabolical mimicry" argument.

Epiphenom: Tell us about the schisms in the early Church
Derek: I think the most interesting things about schisms is that they existed at all - there are so many of them. And many of these communities believed the one thing that apostolic tradition should have rendered impossible; that Jesus wasn’t a historical man. What the schisms demonstrate is that Christianity was not a single message, flowing from a single source that became tainted as it grew. Instead it was a non-centralized body of ideas and literature, which developed independently, and perhaps only later was rebranded or assimilated under the title of a new lord called Jesus. It is impossible to tell which stories or features associated with the story were developed earlier, or later, than the birth of Christianity, because all of the relevant pieces were already developing on their own before his appearance.

Epiphenom: Why did the 'Jesus is real' faction win out?
Derek: The 'Jesus is real' faction had a lot going for it. First of all, they were almost entirely poor classes who had nothing to lose. The Jesus was Real faction was also the most simplified, philosophy-devoid, rhetoric filled version of the Jesus story available. It was essentially no different from the already low-class cult of Isis and Sarapis which, although outlawed in the beginning as a dangerous foreign cult, spread through Roman territory (it is likely that the people held responsible and punished by Nero for the fire of Rome were Isis-cult members, not Christians). Sarapis and Jesus were for the first 50 years or so worshipped together as one figure. So it is not really true that suddenly they struck the magic formula and Jesus was instantly more popular than all other faiths. Instead, other faiths were "renamed" under the banner of Jesus, which made little difference to its followers. However, the early Jesus movement also had a desperate belief in the immediate end of the world (which was also common in stoicism), were already slaves or impoverished who were enchanted by stories of God's love and blessings in heaven, or superstitious practitioners of magic who'd heard of the amazing "power" of the magical word "Jesus". They were relentless missionaries; they gave up their possessions and gathered in town squares proselytizing; they spoke boldly, refused authorities, challenged traditional gods and struck their temples and idols. Their zeal, tenacity and conviction of their beliefs were contagious. But it should be pointed out that Christianity has changed; the religion as it is today has little in common with the distinctive features of its beginnings; now it is very little from the pagan cults that the early Christians despised.

Win a copy of Jesus Potter Harry Christ!

All you need to do is answer the question "Do you think Jesus existed? Why or Why not?" in the comments below, and the best three answers win a copy (you'll need to drop me an email with your address).

You need to post your comments on the Epiphenom website. If you're reading this in one of the many places this blog gets republished, comments there don't count!

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

Fear and God

Daniel Treisman, a political scientist at UCLA, has come up with a way to measure how fearful nations are. Many surveys ask respondents how worried they are about a range of subjects - war, terrorism, crime, environmental pollution, etc. What Treisman found is that is that if an individual admit to being worried about one threat, they are also highly likely to say they are worried about the others.

In other words, any given individual tends to be generally fearful, or generally unafraid. That means you can construct an 'Index of Fear' by averaging the responses to several questions.

Now, the interesting thing is that fear is often not all that closely linked to real danger. There was no relationship between fear of BSE and actual number of cases, and only a weak relationship between fear of medical errors and the number of medical errors, and between terrorism and number of terrorist attacks. Fear of bird flu was actually highest in the countries with the fewest cases!

Fear was influenced by all sorts of  weird effects. People are less scared if you quiz them in the evenings - Treisman speculates they may have partaken of a few bevvies already!

Treisman also found that Catholic countries were more fearful than Protestant - Greece, the only Orthodox country analysed, was more fearful still.

But more important that religious affiliation (or, indeed, virtually anything else) was belief in Heaven and Hell. Belief in Heaven tended to lower fear somewhat, but belief in Hell had a dramatic and opposite effect.

Those countries where a lot of people believed in Hell were more fearful across the range of potential threats. In fact, much of the apparent relationship between religious traditions and fear could be explained by the degree of hell-belief.

That chimes with some other research showing that British Christians are made less anxious by thoughts of death than are British Muslims, mainly because the Christians are less likely to believe in Hell.

Of course, it may be that people living in genuinely scary countries are more likely to believe in Hell. But Treisman adjusted for factors that are linked to real danger - like poverty, authoritarian rule, war, and even more touchy-feely factors like educational styles, cultural masculinity and individualism. And remember he also found that fear is a social construct, and only loosely related to objective threats.

To me, this looks like good evidence that putting the fear of god into people actually makes them more fearful of everything else - and that, of course, has a number of interesting political and social ramifications!

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

Safety in numbers

Back in 2009, I blogged about some then-unpublished studies by Will Gervais, a social psychologist at the University of British Columbia (Why are atheists so disliked). The results suggested that one of the reasons that atheists in the USA are so disliked is because they are distrusted, and that at least part of this distrust was simply because atheists are few and far between - and so they seem strange and unfamiliar.

Gervais has a new paper out that covers some of the same territory but extends it in interesting ways.

In particular, he looked at how distrust varies across countries, depending on how numerous atheists were locally. As predicted, people living in countries with more atheists were more likely to be comfortable with the idea of an atheist President.

In another study, students were asked to read an essay that either told them that there were very few atheists at their university (only 5% of students), or alternatively one that told them atheists were very common (50% of students at their university, and the fourth largest religious group in the world). Sure enough, those students who were told that atheists were common also thought that they were more trustworthy.

The last study (which was one I briefly mentioned in my last post) used a cunning test (the implicit association test) to find out whether this shift in attitudes was only superficial, or something deeper.

In this test, the subjects are given pictures of two people - one they are told is an atheist, the other a religious person. They then have to categorize words related to trust/distrust when paired with one or the other person. How long takes to do this depends on whether the pairings jar with your preconceptions.

And, as you can see in the graph, their implicit, subconscious trust of atheists really does seem to have been affected by the simple expedient of making them think that atheists are more common than they realised.

So what's going on here? Well, Gervais outlines all sorts of possible explanations. It might be that if they think that atheists are common, they conclude that some of the people they've met around the place must be atheists after all - and they were OK. Alternatively, they might think that, if there are a lot of atheists, then a lot of people must think that atheists are OK. There are various other ways in which simply being more numerous can make a group of 'others' seem less weird.

Personally, however, I think there is a special feature of atheism that separates it from many other kinds of predjudice - and that's the fact that atheism is a choice. When there are only very few atheists, then the only people who are going to 'come out' as atheists are likely to be those who are a little maverick.

If lots of people choose to be atheists, then it's clearly something that 'normal' people do. In other words, distrust of atheists when they are a tiny minority might well be a perfectly rational rule of thumb!
Gervais, W. (2011). Finding the Faithless: Perceived Atheist Prevalence Reduces Anti-Atheist Prejudice Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37 (4), 543-556 DOI: 10.1177/0146167211399583

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

Religion, patriotism, and death

When people are reminded about death, they get defensive. In the West, at least, they will tend to get more patriotic and more supportive of their cultural norms (Asian cultures tend to react a little differently). They also tend to get more religious.

Here's the question: do people get more religious because they want to believe in a life after death? Or do they get more religious because they need more certainty in general?

So what Zachary Hohman and Michael Hogg, at Claremont University in the USA, did was to manipulate students' feelings about the afterlife by getting them to write a short essay on how they would feel if there definitely was an after life, or if there definitely wasn't an afterlife, or if they did not know whether or not there was an afterlife.

Half of them were also asked to described how they felt about the thought of their death - the other half were asked to think about dental pain. Afterwards, they were asked a series of questions about how American they felt:

"how much they would stand up for America, how much they identified with being American, how much of a feeling of belonging they had as an American, how important to their sense of self being American was, how much they liked Americans as a whole, how similar they felt to Americans, how well they felt they fit as an American, and what their overall impression of America was"

So it's a little bit complicated, but the graphic helps to explain what happened. Basically, those who were made to feel certain about the afterlife - either that there was one, or that there was not - felt just as patriotic whether they were asked to think about their death or about toothache.

But those who were made to feel uncertain about the afterlife actually became more patriotic if they were also reminded of death.

This is a challenge to conventional ideas about why people become more religious when they think of death. According to Hohman and Hogg, what's happening here is that it isn't the fear of ceasing to exist that freaks people out, but rather the uncertainty over when it will happen and what happens afterwards.

They respond to those feeling of uncertainty by trying to crystallise their own notions of who they are - by identifying more stongly with ethnic, cultural, or religious groups, for example.

All this is fascinating because it once again highlights that non-believers and believers are similar in many ways (see The Happiness Smile), and that the people with the greatest emotional problems are the in-betweeners.
Hohman, Z., & Hogg, M. (2011). Fear and uncertainty in the face of death: The role of life after death in group identification European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.818

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

Religion as a tool for social control

According to a new study just published in Science, societies can be spread along a spectrum of how tight their social control is:

... tight nations are more likely to have autocratic governing systems that suppress dissent, to have media institutions (broadcast, paper, Internet) with restricted content and more laws and controls, and to have criminal justice systems with higher monitoring, more severe punishment (e.g., the death penalty), and greater deterrence and control of crime.
A team lead by psychologist Michele Gelfand (University of Maryland) surveyed people from 30 countries to assess how tight each country was. They were asked to rate statements like:
  • “There are many social norms that people are supposed to abide by in this country”
  • “In this country, if someone acts in an inappropriate way, others will strongly disapprove,” 
  • “People in this country almost always comply with social norms.”
What they found supported their theory that tight societies develop in response to external threats (broadly defined and including both environmental and man-made threats). Tighter societies had higher population density, fewer natural resources, lower food supply, more pollution, more natural disasters, more disease, and more threatening neighbours.

They had more autocratic governments and less press freedom, fewer political rights and civil liberties, more police and less crime (at least, less reported crime). 

They also (you won't be surprised to hear if you read this blog regularly), are more religious, with more people attending religious services and (to a lesser extent) more people rating god as being important in their lives.

At least, that's what they found using religion survey data from 1995. I repeated it but using data from 2005 - and as you can see from the figure there's no correlation at all. Now, part of that might be because I only had data for half the countries. But it may indicate that the relationship is unstable.

Still, it's an interesting finding (assuming it's correct!). The authors argue that tight nations are religious because religion reinforces "adherence to moral conventions and rules that can facilitate social order and coordination".

That certainly gives an alternative perspective to the conventional rubric that people under threat turn to religion to help to alleviate their anxiety!
Gelfand MJ, Raver JL, Nishii L, & others (2011). Differences between tight and loose cultures: a 33-nation study. Science (New York, N.Y.), 332 (6033), 1100-4 PMID: 21617077

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

Religion and support for torture

So, what do you think? Are the religious in America more or less likely than average to support the use of torture?

To find out, Arial Malka (Yeshiva University, New York) and Christopher Soto (Colby College, Waterville, Maine) used data from a couple of opinion polls, one conducted in 2004 for ABC News/Washington Post and a larger one (nearly 2,000 people) conducted in 2008 (the 2008 American National Election Studies time series).

Here's an example of what they asked (this is from the 2004 poll):

“Some people say it’s acceptable to torture people suspected of terrorism, in cases where other methods have failed and the authorities believe the suspect has information that could prevent terrorist attacks and save lives. Other people say the use of torture is never acceptable because it’s cruel, it may violate international law, it may not work, and it could be used unnecessarily or by mistake on innocent people.”

Well, it turns out that, in both surveys, religious Americans were actually slightly less likely than the less religious to condone torture (they measured religion using a composite of attendance, prayer, and subjective ratings of importance). But that's only half the story.

They were also interested in the interaction with political persuasion (liberal or conservative), and they tested this using a statistical technique that allows you to check if one variable (in this case, religiosity) might be influencing another variable (in this case, attitudes to torture) only indirectly - via its effects on a third variable (political persuasion).

What they found was consistent with a set up where religion makes people conservative, and that in turn makes them support torture. In other words, religion has a direct and an indirect effect. Basic religion (in their model) opposes torture, but it also religion increases support for conservative politics. As a result, it indirectly increases support for torture.

What's more, this indirect effect was much stronger in in educated people. In educated people, religion is more likely to be linked to conservative views, and conservative views are more likely to be linked to support for torture.

In my view, the real interest in these results is that they underscore once again just how complex religion is. I think that the motives for educated people to embrace religion differ from the motives of the less educated.As a result, the kind of religion they have, and the purposes they put it too, are different.

They make religion in their own image.
Malka A, & Soto CJ (2011). The Conflicting Influences of Religiosity on Attitude Toward Torture. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin PMID: 21525330

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