Field of Science

How 9/11 grief affected the religious convictions of the victim's families

Grief has a complicated relationship with Western religion. On the one hand, loss of a loved one can reinforce beliefs. On the other hand, arbitrary or meaningless deaths could feasibly undermine belief.

There hasn't been much investigation into this topic, which is why a new study of the families of 9/11 victims is particularly interesting. Yuval Neria, a psychiatrist at Columbia University, organised a survey of these families. In all, they got completed questionnaires from 608 9/11 bereaved. Each of these had lost either a child, a spouse, parent, some other relative or a close friend or colleage.

They quizzed them on how important religion was to them before the attack, and also how important it was to them now. They also asked them to fill out questionnaires looking at post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and something called 'complicated grief' - which is a condition "marked by prolonged yearning for the deceased, bitterness, interpersonal disengagement and a sense of meaninglessness".

Those who lost a child were nearly twice as likely to likely to lose religion than those who lost a different relative or a friend. What's more, those who watched the attacks live on television were also twice as likely to say that religion was less important to them now.

It seems possible that the severity of the distress is the causal factor here. Indeed, after adjusting for whether the respondent had lost a child or watched the attacks live, they found that those with worse mental distress after the attacks were also twice as likely to report that they had post-traumatic stress, 2.5-times more likely to report that they had major depression, and three times as likely to report that they had complicated grief.

Neria and colleagues conclude that:

"Bereavement from to traumatic loss which commonly entails feelings of purposelessness and futility about the future (Prigerson et al., 1996) may exacerbate the sense of meaninglessness that may underlie the decrease in importance of religion among the bereaved."
Seirmarco, G., Neria, Y., Insel, B., Kiper, D., Doruk, A., Gross, R., & Litz, B. (2011). Religiosity and mental health: Changes in religious beliefs, complicated grief, posttraumatic stress disorder, and major depression following the September 11, 2001 attacks. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality DOI: 10.1037/a0023479

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

Banish your worries by surrendering to God

You may have seen, earlier this month, one of several news reports about how belief in God is great for reducing worries (e.g. here). Well no, that's not really what the study found - the study is actually a bit more precisely focussed than that and a bit more interesting for it.

The researchers, lead by David Rosmarin at Harvard Medical School, were interested in the idea that the  Middle-Eastern monotheisms place a great deal of focus on trusting God. Yet many believers don't trust their God - for whatever reason, they've "come to believe that the Divine is intentionally ignorant or malevolent." Indeed, some people seem to hold both beliefs about God simultaneously.

Now, believers who mistrust their God also tend to be more depressed, anxious and worried. Although that might sound unsurprising, in fact the reasons for this aren't altogether clear.

Rosmarin thought that trusting God might help people to cope better with uncertainty. So, first off they surveyed a bunch of mostly very-devout believers - around 100 Christians and 200 Jews. He asked them about their trust in God, how freaked out they were by uncertainty, and how worried they were.

By carefully analysing the results they were able to show that the data fitted the model, and that it was unlikely that the cause and effect ran in the backwards direction. That supports the idea that distrust in God leads to fear of uncertainty, which in turn makes you worried.

So far so good. The next step was to see if increasing trust in God could decrease fear of uncertainty and reduce worry.

So they took a group of 39 religious, but stressed and worried, Jews, and ran them through a two-week programme of guidance, stories, visualisation exercises and prayer, all designed to increase their trust in God. The programme was effective - trust in God went up, distrust went down, and as a result the participants were more tolerant of uncertainty and less worried.

So it does indeed seem that, for stressed-out religious Judaeo-Christians, getting them to trust God makes them better able to cope with uncertainty. Another recent study found that Appalachian students who surrender to God are less stressed.

Crucially, however, it only applies to people who already believe in God. If you do, then changing your views about God can change your outlook.

But when you think about it, really all that's happening here is that you are making these people fatalistic. Maybe you could create the same effect in non-believers by encouraging them to be fatalistic. I know that when I'm stressed, taking a fatalistic outlook helps a lot!

And a final thought to consider. Fatalism might make you less anxious about uncertainty, but that can have unintended knock-on effects too. It might lead to a certain lack of realism about your own inevitable death, for example. And who knows what else!
Rosmarin, D., Pirutinsky, S., Auerbach, R., Björgvinsson, T., Bigda-Peyton, J., Andersson, G., Pargament, K., & Krumrei, E. (2011). Incorporating spiritual beliefs into a cognitive model of worry Journal of Clinical Psychology, 67 (7), 691-700 DOI: 10.1002/jclp.20798

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

If religion makes you happy, why are people turning away from it?

Every now and then a study comes along that cuts with laser-like precision into one or two of the murky questions that haunt the sociology of religion. Just such a study has recently been done by Ed Diener, at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, and colleagues (earlier this year Diener published another great study on happiness and inequality in the USA).

What Diener et al wanted to know is simply this: why, if religion is supposed to make you happy, are people in the West leaving it in droves? It's a simple and important question, but it's one that's actually really tough to answer - which is why no-one's tried before. They cram an awful lot into this one paper, so I'm only going to give the headline results. They're quite fascinating enough.

They began by confirming that people in difficult social circumstances are indeed more likely to be religious. They showed this was the case by looking at states in the USA, and also by using the massive Gallup World Poll of over 455,000 people. Although similar things have been shown before, their approach was pretty nice because they included things like whether people feel safe at night, or whether they get enough to eat, as well as more standard things like education, income and life expectancy.

So their next question was: what matters most? Is it your own personal circumstances that dictate how religious you are, or is it simply living in a society where a lot of people are doing badly - even if you personally are doing OK?

Again, they found pretty much the same things in both US States and among nations. Although your own personal circumstances do affect your beliefs a little, what's far more important is the society you live in. In difficult societies everyone - rich and poor alike - are more religious. That's reminiscent of a study I blogged a couple of weeks ago, showing that the inequality actually increases the religiosity of the rich.

But does religion actually make people happier? Well, on average it does. After controlling for circumstances, religious people have better 'well-being' (covering positive and negative feelings, and overall life evaluation). But dig a little, and the picture is more complicated.

Because it turns out that religion only improves well-being in tough societies - places like Mississippi or Alabama in the USA,or Egypt and Bangladesh in a global scale.

You can get a feel for this in the figure below. Take the panel on the left. This shows how people rated their positive emotions. The two bars furthest left shows how religious (blue) and non-religious (green) rated their positive emotions in the best 25% of nations - places like Sweden, Japan and France. You can see that religion has no effect in these well-off nations. The next pair of columns show the result for the bottom 25% of nations. Here you can see that the religious have more positive emotions.

Looking at negative emotions, you can see that in the best nations, the non-religious actually have fewer negative emotions than the religious! In worse nations, the non-religious have more negative emotions.

It also matters whether you live in a religious country. In highly religious countries, the non-religious tend to be unhappy. But in least religious countries, the non-religious actually have fewer negative emotions than the religious!

Diener and co. also went on to examine why people in poor societies benefit from religion. Using a sophisticated model that took into account both their personal and societal circumstances, they were able to show that these people felt they had more social support and more respect.

In good societies, there was no advantage to being religious - both religious and non-religious reported feeling respected and having high levels of social support, and as a result both had high levels of happiness and well-being.

They also showed that all religions seemed to be pretty much alike. Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam all had a similar relationship with happiness and well being - suggesting that religion, at least in this respect, is a true universal.

So, to sum all this up.  Religion doesn't necessarily lead to happiness. In countries where there are relatively few religious people, and in which living conditions are generally good, religion doesn't improve well being and religious people may actually be less happy.

And what makes people religious is not their direct experience, but rather the society that they live in. As a result, societies tend to be relatively homogeneous when it comes to religion. Some societies (and these tend to be the tough ones) are religious, and if you're not religious then you will be unhappy.

Some societies (and these tend to be the better places to live) are not religious, and there is no happiness advantage to being religious. As a result, people don't bother with it.

And this I think really puts a great perspective on this old question. Now the next question is: what does this all mean for those theorists who like to tell us that religion is innate to the human condition?

Diener, E., Tay, L., & Myers, D. (2011). The religion paradox: If religion makes people happy, why are so many dropping out? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0024402

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

Religious differences and murder

Most research into religion looks at how it influences attitudes towards co-religionists. But the flip side to religion is that it can also serve as a foundation for social divisions, in a similar way to ethnic and language barriers.

You might think this could increase social tensions, but new research by Don Soo Chon, at Auburn University at Montgomery, Alabama, suggests that this may not be the case. He looked at how the level of ethnic, linguistic, and religious fragmentation relates to homicide rates in around 130 nations worldwide

He found that countries with a more diverse religious landscape did not, in fact have a higher homicide rate. However those with ethnic and linguistic divisions did.

He ran some simple models which adjusted for GDP and income inequality (low GDP and high inequality are both strongly linked to higher homicide rates), but this didn't change the basic findings.

So Chon's analysis suggests that ethnic and language barriers can increase murder rates, but religious differences do not. However, there are a few caveats.

The first is that we're looking at individual homicides here, not full-on wars or inter-communal violence. What's more, it could be argued that religious divisions exacerbate tensions mainly when they're aligned with ethnic and linguistic fault lines - they crystallise and fortify existing divisions.

It's also likely that countries with a diverse religious landscape actually have fewer religious tensions than countries that are dominated by two competing religions. As Chon says:
The probability of conflicts among different religious groups may be low when a democratic society guarantees free exercise of religion for all denominations, like in many Western countries. Instead, religious conflicts are likely to occur when two dominating religions in a country, such as Christianity and Islam, compete for dominance. However, the study does not test the competition between two dominating religious groups in a country.

And lastly, there's a fundamental problem with the data that Chon uses to measure religious diversity. It's the well-known (and widely used) 'fractionalization index' developed in 2003 by the Harvard economist Alberto Alesina, and one of the problems with it is that it takes no account of the fact that religions come in groups. So the different flavours of Protestantism are regarded as different religions in their own right - and just as different from each other as they are from, say, Hinduism and Islam.

So while this is study is a useful take on the problem which suggests that religion divisions don't increase social stress in the same way that ethnic and linguistic divisions do, there's still a lot more work needed to tease these issues out.
Chon, D. (2011). The Impact of Population Heterogeneity and Income Inequality on Homicide Rates: A Cross-National Assessment International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology DOI: 10.1177/0306624X11414813

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

Do the rich use religion to keep the poor in their place?

In the previous post, I took a look at the fairly substantial weight of evidence linking religion to inequality, specifically income inequality, with religion. The most unequal countries also tend to be the most religious, even when you take into account a variety of other factors.

Why should this be? There are a number of theories. One is that unequal societies also tend to have a lot of other problems, and the stresses that these cause may turn people to religion.

Frederick Solt and colleagues from Southern Illinois University wanted to test an alternative theory - that the rich and powerful use religion as a tool for social control to keep the poor in their place. They call this the 'Relative Power' theory. Not a new idea, of course, but they came up with a couple of novel ways to test it.

Firstly they looked at data from the World Values Survey, which allowed them to examine how religiosity varied with wealth in different countries.

What they found (after adjusting for a bunch of other factors) was that, in the most unequal countries, both the rich and the poor were more likely to be religious. In fact, and rather remarkably, inequality seemed to have a bigger effect on the rich than on the poor.

So, for critical measures like whether a person considers themselves to be religious, or whether they believe in an afterlife, the rich in equal countries are less religious than the poor - as you would expect.

But in highly unequal countries the rich are actually more religious than the poor!

Then they went on to look at how religion, overall wealth, and inequality have changed in the USA since the mid 1950s. The USA is one of the few countries in the world with enough data to do this, but even so the religion data they had to use were a bit cobbled-together. Still, they used a sophisticated statistical tool called vector autoregression, which allows you to see how the variables seem to influence each other over time without making any underlying assumptions about cause and effect. It can even help uncover whether the relationship is circular.

Now, the USA over the past 50 years has been characterised by increasing wealth, increasing inequality, and decreasing religion. What Solt found was that a rise in inequality one year tended to lead to a increase in religion the next. This was offset by the fact that rising wealth tended to lead to less religion.

However, the opposite did not happen. Changes in religion did not have any effect on later levels of either inequality or wealth.

Solt and colleagues interpret this as more evidence for their 'Relative Power' theory. They point out that high levels of inequality in a democracy are difficult to understand using ideas based on rational self interest (the so-called 'median-voter' models of democracy) and conclude that:

...many wealthy individuals, rather than simply allowing redistribution to be decided through the democratic process as such median-voter models assume, respond to higher levels of inequality by adopting religious beliefs and spreading them among their poorer fellow citizens. Religion then works to discourage interest in mere material well-being in favor of eternal spiritual rewards, preserving the privileges of the rich and allowing unequal conditions to continue.

Strong stuff, but I'm not sure I'm entirely convinced. After all, doesn't the fact that changes in income inequality precede changes in religion suggest that it's the stress and anxiety that are causing religion - rather than religion causing inequality?

But the increased religiosity among the rich certainly is food for thought. Even that is not proof, however. As the epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett point out in their book The Spirit Level, in highly unequal societies everyone suffers - rich as well as poor.

Still this is the first really solid, empirical evidence that the rich use religion as a tool to keep the poor in their place. Tea Party, anyone?
Solt, F., Habel, P., & Grant, J. (2011). Economic Inequality, Relative Power, and Religiosity* Social Science Quarterly, 92 (2), 447-465 DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2011.00777.x

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

Well that settles it: income inequality really does go hand in hand with religion

Long-time readers of this blog will know that the link between inequality and religion has a particular fascination for me. In fact, the blog started while I was doing background research into a paper I wrote in 2009, on the link between income inequality and religion in countries around the world.

The idea was first put forward in rough form in an earlier book by Pippa Norris and Ronald Ingelhart. My paper took that a modest step further, by showing that income inequality really did seem to be an independent factor helping to explain why people in some countries pray more often than in others.

But you should always treat any particular piece of research with a healthy pinch of salt. All too often, promising findings tend to evaporate on closer examination. You can only be confident that the effect is real if it holds up when you kick the tyres a bit and test out the hypothesis in different ways.

Which is why it was good to see another paper, later in 2009, which used different (more sophisticated) statistical tools to showed a link between inequality and Church attendance. That was good corroboration, because it used a different set of data and compared it with a different aspect of religion.

And now, a new paper by Nigel Barber has, to my mind, sealed the deal. One of the challenges in this kind of research comes in choosing the data. For example, you would like to look at as big a set of countries as you possibly can. The problem is that, as you move away from the wealthy democracies, the quality of the data becomes increasingly patchy.

You could use a small set of high quality data - but then the problem is that you won't get a good sample of poorer countries. Or you could throw your net wide, and run the risk of including some dodgy data.

Ideally, you should do both, and Barber's paper is the first to take the latter approach. He uses data on the prevalence of atheists around the world originally put together by Phil Zuckerman, who compiled it using a mixed bag of surveys and opinion polls. Not the most robust dataset, but it did mean that Barber could look at religion across a whopping 137 countries, representing every part of the globe.

The second challenge comes in figuring out whether the correlation is real, or just a coincidence due to some third factor. For example, the numbers of cars and the numbers of televisions in a country is quite well correlated - but not because cars 'cause' televisions. In fact, they're both a product of a third factor - wealth.

So you need to include other factors in your analysis that could reasonably also explain differences in religion between countries. Not too many though! Simply throwing variables into the pot will create spurious results. You have to choose your variables carefully, based on sound reasoning.

Barber choose to include a set of variables that were mostly different to those that have been used before. That's useful because it effectively means looking at the problem from a fresh perspective. More kicking of the tyres.

[Geek note: Jerry Coyne wrote a review of this paper, but complained that it was a flawed study because it didn't use multiple regression. He must've misread Table 2 in the paper, because that's where the multiple regression results are presented - complete with estimates of variance inflation to check that there were no issues of multicollinearity]

So, Barber found that countries with more Muslims, a larger agricultural workforce, and more infectious diseases had fewer atheists. And countries that were once communist, had more education, and had higher taxation had more atheists.

But even after taking all this into account, those countries with higher income inequality still had fewer atheists.

That's a remarkable result, especially when you consider that one of the main ways to reduce income inequality and its bad effects is to increase taxes. So those countries that raise taxes without fixing income inequality are still going to be more religious.

I think now we really can be pretty confident that income inequality is in itself strongly and directly related to religion. But the question is why, and how? Which way does the effect run? Does more income inequality mean more religion? Or is it that religion increases income inequality?

Well, long-time readers of this blog will also know that's a big question. But there's another new paper out that digs into this issue in a really clever way. But that's the topic for the next post!
Barber, N. (2011). A Cross-National Test of the Uncertainty Hypothesis of Religious Belief Cross-Cultural Research, 45 (3), 318-333 DOI: 10.1177/1069397111402465

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