Field of Science

Deep thinkers are more likely to lose their faith

There's always a fair amount of interest in whether atheists are more intelligent than believers. When I've reported on this in the past, I've always been a little sceptical about whether the purported statistical association is meaningful or even real. SO here's a couple of studies that shed an intriguing light on the problem.

The first by psychologists Gary Lewis, Stuart Ritchie, and Timothy Bates at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland has provided some of the most rigorous evidence to date that the link is indeed real. They took data from the large MacArthur Foundation Survey of Midlife Development in the United States and found that high IQ was significantly associated with every one of six different measures of religion.

For the most part, this association still held even after adjusting for factors like education, sex, age and even personality - the only exception with spirituality, the weakest of all indicators of religion. Overall, link between religion and IQ was strongest for the 'fundamentalism' measure.

The authors point out that the effect is very small. And what's more, there's still no reason to suppose that atheists are less religious because of their intelligence. There might be some other factor that they didn't account for that's related to both.

And that's where the second new analysis comes in. Led by Amitai Shenhav, a psychologist at Harvard University, the team looked at cognitive style. Basically, they were interested in whether people make snap decisions based on their gut feelings, or whether they ponder things a bit more deeply.

So they asked the questions like this:

“A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

The intuitive answer (10 cents) is the wrong one. Stop and think about it for a while and you'll figure it out! You'll probably take less time than I did...

Anyway, it turned out that intuitive thinkers (who get the wrong answer) are more likely to believe in god and immortal souls. Even more intriguingly, deep-thinkers were also more likely to say that they had lost their belief since childhood.

That seems to fit with other research showing that believers in the paranormal seem to have a bunch of faulty, intuitive beliefs about how the world works.

But maybe you're thinking this isn't really about IQ? Maybe the religious just couldn't figure out the right answers (it took me quite a lot of puzzling before I figured that example question out).

Well, in one study they did measure IQ, and IQ was indeed correlated with 'thinking style' test scores. That means that cleverer people were more likely to get the answer right.

However, even after adjusting for their higher IQ, deep-thinkers were still more likely to be atheists, and to have lost their childhood religion.

Now, you can probably invent explanations for that just as well as anyone. But one implication, it seems to me, is that this might help to explain the apparent link between atheism and IQ.

You see, if cognitive style and IQ are linked, then it might be that IQ is an innocent bystander here - a case of guilt by association. How you think, and whether you take the time to ponder things through, might be all that matters.

ResearchBlogging.orgLewis, G., Ritchie, S., & Bates, T. (2011). The relationship between intelligence and multiple domains of religious belief: Evidence from a large adult US sample Intelligence DOI: 10.1016/j.intell.2011.08.002

Shenhav A, Rand DG, & Greene JD (2011). Divine intuition: Cognitive style influences belief in God. Journal of experimental psychology. General PMID: 21928924

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

Autism and atheism

A new paper on the potential links between autism and lack of god-belief has caught the attention of the blogosphere. You can read Razib's take on it over at Gene Expression.

Prof Catherine Caldwell-Harris, the psychologist at Boston University, own wrote her own very lucid interpretation of what the results mean over at Science and Religion Today. Heck you can even read the paper itself, if you're interested!

I'm not going to go into the study itself. Basically, they reviewed some online discussion forums, and then also ran a small questionnaire survey, and concluded that people with more symptoms of autism are also less likely to believe in god.

It is, as Caldwell-Harris acknowledges, only quite preliminary evidence. It would probably be wrong to read too much into it. And yet the result seems intuitively correct.

Why? Well, Caldwell-Harris explains that autistic people are less social, less likely to 'mind-read' (i.e. understand what's going on inside other people's heads), and are less bothered about fitting in.

Any or all of these could contribute to lower religious beliefs among autistics compared with so-called 'neurotypicals'. Personally, I find the mind-reading 'mentalization' argument the most compelling.

After all, we know from neuroimaging research that when people pray they use they same parts of their brain that they use when trying to interact with real people. If autistics aren't interested in making real friends in this way, why would they be interested in having an imaginary friend?

If it's hard for them to see that real flesh and blood people have a mind, then it's bound to be a darned sight harder for them to accept the idea of a disembodied, invisible mind!

But what does this tell us about atheists in general? Well, not a lot, I think. It's not easy to get a good handle on how common autism is - a lot depends on how you define it and how thorough people are in trying to identify it. Even in the USA, which has the highest reported numbers, it's still fewer than 1%.

And yet in the countries of Northern Europe, non-belief rates are currently hitting 50%. Given that two-thirds of the autistics in Caldwell-Harris' sample were believers, then autism clearly is a minor factor.

This is still a fascinating piece of pychological research. Caldwell-Harris wants to do some more research into just why autistics are less interested in religion. And that research could throw an interesting perspective onto why religion is quite so popular!

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

Religion seems to undermine property rights and the rule of law

One of the arguments given for religion is that it is supposed to promote social cohesion by making people behave better - God, so the theory goes, acts like an invisible policeman living inside your head. It's an intriguing, and intuitive theory, and it's backed up by a few lab experiments.

Real-world evidence, however, has always been harder to find.

One example of this was a study I blogged about in 2009, on the link between atheism and trust. Niclas Berggren (The Research Institute of Industrial Economics, Stockholm, Sweden) and Christian Bjørnskov (Aarhus University, Denmark), showed that countries with more atheists actually show higher levels of trust.

Well, now they're back with another study, this time looking at property rights and the rule of law. These are pretty nebulous concepts, but they analyse them in microscopic detail. They looked at both what was enshrined in the national constitution - the fundamental, law-given rights - as well as actual practice. Actual practice was measured as 'property rights' as assessed by the right-wing US think tank The Heritage Foundation (who are pretty fruit-loopy on the subject of climate change, so I never thought I'd end up citing them!), and the World Bank's World Governance Indicators, which is a measure of the quality of institutions protecting property rights.

The headline result was that the actual property rights prevalent in a country were lower the more religious the citizens of that country were. They controlled for a whole bunch of factors - too many to list, but including stuff like the dominant religion, level of trust, Scandinavian countries, and post-communist countries. Even so, the relationship still held.

Critically, the relationship was much stronger in more democratic countries. In other words, when citizens have freedom of expression and the right to vote, then atheism is linked to better property rights and stronger legal protections.

Now, you're probably wondering about the whole 'direction of causality' thing,but they looked at that too. They used a statistical technique that involves substituting religious beliefs for a surrogate measure (they used 'confidence in religious institutions' and 'Nordic countries'). The relationship still held, which suggests that religion really does undermine property rights.

But here's the strange thing. The relationship for constitutionally-enshrined rights was exactly opposite. More religious countries had more and stronger constitutional provisions intended to protect property rights.

Why should this be? Well, they offer a couple of potential reasons. Firstly, they say, "In some political cultures, formal rules are, by general consent or through the actions of political elites, ignored; in other places, they are seen as symbolic, malleable and open to interpretation". Secondly, they point out that constitutions are often written in the distant past - they may not reflect actual practice in the modern-day country.

What ever the reason, their data show that religious countries were in theory more law abiding (if you looked at their constitution), but in practice were actually less law-abiding!

Bjørnskov, Christian and Berggren, Niclas, Does Religiosity Promote or Discourage Property Rights and the Rule of Law? (2011). APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN:

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

Is The God Delusion more disgusting than the Koran?

Ever wondered why we get disgusted by things that taste bad and also by things that are morally outrageous? Well, it seems that they really are connected in a very deep way - moral disgust seems to have evolved as an extension of physical disgust.

And that means you can play a neat trick: you can measure moral disgust indirectly by looking to see how it affects our physical sense of disgust.

Ryan Ritter and Jesse Lee Preston at the University of Illinois have been doing just that. The basic set up was to get students to taste-test a drink as part of what supposed to be part of a marketing survey. They tasted two drinks - although of course they were actually the same drink (made up of 1 cup of lemon juice in 1 gallon of water - rated as 'moderately disgusting'!).

In between the two tests, they did some filler tasks (to allow their taste buds to clear, you see). To start with, they had to copy out a passage of text - it just so happened that some had to copy out a passage from the Bible, some a passage from the Koran, and some a passage from Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion.

Oh, and did I tell you that they specially recruited only Christian students?

On the second taste test, the students that had to copy a passage from the Koran or The God Delusion rated the beverage as significantly more disgusting (even though it was identical). Their moral disgust at having to write out this stuff translated into physical disgust.

Both the Koran and The God Delusion are equally disgusting to Christians, by this measure at least.

In another twist, Ritter and Preston got their students to do another marketing test - after copying out the passages but before the second taste test. This time, they had to rate some handwipes - you know, those moist, antiseptic wipes that come in a plastic packet.

Half of them had to rate the wipes by just looking at the packet, but half were asked to actually wipe their hands.

Well, what do you know. The simple act of wiping their hands made the second drink seem less disgusting. It wiped out the effect of copying out the Koran or the God Delusion, and those lucky Christians who were tasked with copying out the Bible and then wiped their hands seemed to have positively enjoyed the second drink! You can see how the different groups rated the second drink compared with the first in the graph.

This ties in nicely with some earlier research showing that hand washing seems to link cleanliness with morality. Cleanliness really is next to godliness!
Ritter, R., & Preston, J. (2011). Gross gods and icky atheism: Disgust responses to rejected religious beliefs Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (6), 1225-1230 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.05.006

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

Are educated people really just as religious?

You may have seen in the news recently some reports about a new study with an intriguing finding. Here's the Discovery Channel, for example, telling us that education may not dilute religious beliefs. Hmm. I think they've got their headlines wrong, but it's not entirely the media's fault in this case. I think that, in this case, some of the conclusions that the researcher has drawn aren't really justified by the data.

Philip Schwadel, a sociologist at the University of Nebraska, has done a careful and rigorous analysis of data from the 1998 General Social Survey in the USA. He looked at the link between education and a variety of religious beliefs.

In many ways, he found exactly what you would expect: that educated people are less religious. For example, they are less likely to say that any one religion has 'the Truth', they're less likely to think that the Bible is the actual word of a god. They're less likely to think that you should follow religious teachings, and more likely to oppose praying and Bible reading in school.

On the other hand, educated people are more likely to read the Bible and to pray frequently. They're more likely to go to Church and do voluntary religious work, and less likely to say that religious leaders should stay out of politics. And although they switch among religious affiliations, they are no more likely to switch out of a religious affiliation altogether. They still say they belong.

What this tells is is that educated Americans are more liberal and open-minded in their religious beliefs, but more dutiful and community oriented. That's pretty much what you would expect.

But what about the nub of the matter - actual belief in God? Well, here's where it gets a little bit more complicated - and where I start to disagree with Schwadel's conclusions.

To understand why, you need to understand the difference between the size of an effect (so-called 'effect-size') and it its statistical significance. The bottom line is that if you look at very large samples of people, you can pick out even tiny effects (in this case, the amount of change in religion associated with an increase in education). Even though the effect is tiny, it could still be statistically significant.

On the other hand, if you have a small sample of people, then you might miss even quite large effects. It's not that they're not there, it's just that there's not enough data points in your sample to smooth out the background noise and let them shine through.

Take, for example, the question of whether people believe in God. According to Schwadel, educated people still believe, it's just that they say they believe in a 'higher power' rather than in a personal god. That's because his data shows that this link is statistically significant. But when you look at the effect size - i.e. the correlation between education and belief, well then the link is just as strong between education and 'Don't believe'.

In other words, we can't really be sure that educated people aren't less likely to believe. It may simply be that the sample of non-believers was not big enough for us to tell.

Now, this doesn't mean that education is linked to disbelief, but it does suggest that any link is complicated. That's not too surprising because there's an awful lot of variability in what you get when you sign up for 'education', after all.

Some colleges are overtly religious, of course. But more important than the nature of the college is the nature of the subject and the nature of the experiences. Other studies have shown that the studying humanities is particularly likely to lead to loss of belief.

It ain't that education leads to loss of belief. It's more opening your mind to other perspectives that does it!
Philip Schwadel (2011). The Effects of Education on Americans’ Religious Practices, Beliefs, and Affiliations Rev Relig Res : 10.1007/s13644-011-0007-4

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