Field of Science

Europe's religious future

Eric Kaufmann is a demographer and author of the book "Shall the religious inherit the earth?" Back in 2009 he made some demographic projections for the US and concluded that, by 2050, immigration of religious people and their higher fertility will turn back the tide of secularisation (see Secularisation in the US will be swamped by religious fertility and immigration)

Now Kaufmann has taken a look at Europe. That's a bit more of a challenge because Europe is such a patchwork, and so good, comprehensive data are not so available.

He finds, as expected, that religion has declined in Europe. It began after WWII in Northern Europe, but only really got underway in Catholic countries in recent decades.

However, in the Protestant countries of Northern Europe, secularisation seems to have bottomed out at around 5% regular Church attenders and 40-50% who consider themselves to be religious (somewhat higher numbers believe in God).

But how to project the future? Well, one aspect is fertility. The religious have higher lifetime birth rates, but on the other hand the young are much more likely to be non-religious - and so have greater potential for begetting.

Then too you have to take into account switching into and out of religion. And here's where things get interesting. It turns out that Muslims have the highest fertility rates, and also are the most resistant to switching out.

Kaufmann focussed on Austria and Switzerland, two countries with the best data. Here, the non-religious have fertility rates of around 1, Protestants around 1.3, Catholics around 1.4, and Muslims around 2.4.

Plug this into the model and you get what's shown in the graph, which shows Muslims and non-affiliated in Switzerland and Austria under two scenarios.

Under the 'expected' model (which assumes current rates of switching out of religion are maintained), growth of the non-affililiated slows to zero by 2050.

Under the 'low decline' model (which assumes, based on the experiences of Northern European Countries, that the rate of switching out will slow to zero), the non-affiliated will actually be in decline as a percent of the population by 2050.

Now, the future is notoriously difficult to predict, and Kaufman lays out some of the many factors that could change these projections:

Major geopolitical changes could ease tension between Muslims and other Europeans; liberalizing theological shifts could pave the way for an increase in the rate of Muslim apostasy. Immigration could become ethnically controlled, as in Japan or Singapore, due to a surge of ethnic nationalism, thereby slowing the demographic growth of religion. A new vogue for family life might narrow the fertility gap between the secular and the religious. These changes would set European religious decline back on its formerly robust course.

One factor that interests me is the idea that a "new vogue for family life might narrow the fertility gap between the secular and the religious". Because one of the problems with these kinds of analyses is that the religious groups examined are far from homogenous.

So it is clear that some Protestant sects have more children than others. In the same way, some atheists have more children than others. Presumably those atheists who are family oriented will pass on that mindset to their children - which could influence future birth rates.

Another recent study, by Casey Borch and colleagues at the University of Alabama, helps to flesh out the picture a little. They split out mainline Protestants and conservative Protestants (aka Fundamentalists).

That's important, because the fertility rates of the mainline Protestants are only a little higher than those of the non-religious. Conservative Protestants have a much higher fertility rate - the graph shows the trends of fertility over time for the three main religious groups in the USA.

What's interesting is that, relative to Catholics, the fertility rates of both mainline and conservative Protestants seem to be dropping very slightly. However, somewhat bigger drops are seen among the non-religious and those of 'other religions'. So the fertility gap seems to be growing.

Will we see something similar in Europe? It's hard to say. What is known is that the very low rates of fertility seen in the 1990s seem to have been reversed in recent years, particularly in Northern Europe. That's because many couples chose to delay parenthood, rather than abandon it all together. Yet another complicating factor when trying to figure out fertility trends!

ResearchBlogging.orgKaufmann, E., Goujon, A., & Skirbekk, V. (2011). The End of Secularization in Europe?: A Socio-Demographic Perspective Sociology of Religion DOI: 10.1093/socrel/srr033

Borch, C., West, M., & Gauchat, G. (2011). Go Forth and Multiply: Revisiting Religion and Fertility in the United States, 1984-2008 Religions, 2 (4), 469-484 DOI: 10.3390/rel2040469

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

Does Chinese culture reflect a lack of monotheism?

By now, most people will have heard the tragic case of Yueyue, the two-year old Chinese girl who was knocked down by two different drivers, lying for 7 minutes before any of the passers-by stopped to help. The case has caused a lot of soul-searching, in China and elsewhere. The best commentary I've read on it is this one by Lijia Zhang (who is, apparently, a rocket-factory worker turned freelance journalist!).

Zhang points out, as many other commentators have, that recent legal cases have resulted in punishments for good Samaritans. Unlike other commentators, Zhang doesn't just blame this on the communist past or on the recent transition to a market economy. In fact, it seems to have deep-seated historical precedents. Here, for example, is an account by John Barrow, a member of the first British embassy to Beijing in 1792:

In the course of our journey down the grand canal we had occasion to witness a scene, which was considered as a remarkable example of a want of fellow-feeling. Of the number of persons who had crowded down to the banks of the canal several had posted themselves upon the high projecting stern of an old vessel which, unfortunately, breaking down with the weight, the whole groupe tumbled with the wreck into the canal, just at the moment when the yachts of the embassy were passing. Although numbers of boats were sailing about the place, none were perceived to go to the assistance of those that were struggling in the water. They even seemed not to know that such an accident had happened, nor could the shrieks of the boys, floating on pieces of the wreck, attract their attention. One fellow was observed very busily employed in picking up, with his boat-hook, the hat of a drowning man (p283 of Travels in China).

Barrow gives a few other examples, and explains that this behaviour is entrenched in legal customs: under Chinese law of the time, good Samaritans were held legally responsible for anyone who died in their care:

...if a wounded man be taken into the protection and charge of any person with a view to effect his recovery, and he should happen to die under his hands, the person into whose care he was last taken is liable to be punished with death, unless he can produce undeniable evidence to prove how the wound was made, or that he survived it forty days.

So it's clearly not simply a modern malaise. Zhang blames a state of mind that is common in China, shaoguanxianshi, which is loosely translated as "don't get involved if it's not your business".  As she explains:

In our culture, there's a lack of willingness to show compassion to strangers. We are brought up to show kindness to people in our network of guanxi, family and friends and business associates, but not particularly to strangers, especially if such kindness may potentially damage your interest.

Now this is something relevant to this blog, because what she's talking about here is our old friend altruism - specifically the peculiar form of altruism where people will help complete strangers even in anonymous situations. It's tough (but not impossible) to explain that in evolutionary terms, which has lead some people to propose that religion holds the key.

Basically, the idea is that the invention of monotheism allowed civilisation to step up a grade, by improving co-operation among unrelated individuals (see Did world religions help bring about complex societies?). Having a moralising, universal god encourages you to be nice to strangers, even when your evolutionarily-inspired instincts push you towards selfishness.

I've always been sceptical of the idea. Pure altruism can in fact be explained as a biological, rather than cultural, trait. But more importantly to me the suggestion seemed to smack of Western narrow-mindedness. Most psychology is done in the West, and so people who study the psychology of religion typically take our peculiar brand of religion to be 'normal'.

China, however, is a strong counterpoint to the claim that moralising, universal gods are needed for the establishment of co-operative mega-societies. Religion in China simply doe snot play the same role as it doe sin the West. Most religion is composed of a blend of philosophical life stances with localised folk myths.

And yet China is by anyone's standards an enormously successful mega-society, really without parallel in the World. As an example of large-scale co-operation among unrelated individuals, it really is a paragon of orderliness and stability.

And yet, the case of Yueye has got me thinking. I'm certainly no expert on Chinese psychology and culture. But if, as Zhang implies, there really is this profound cultural difference between China and other cultures, then maybe the type of religion really does have a meaningful effect on altruism.

To my knowledge, nobody has ever done a comparative study of pure altruism in China and the West.

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

In Toronto, Christian students are most likely to have unprotected sex

So, Christians aren't supposed to have sex before marriage (well depending on the variant of God they follow, of course). Just to be sure of it, they have an invisible policeman in the sky watching them at all times to make sure they don't deviate. On the other hand, Christian parents aren't so hot on teaching safe sex. Mash that up with university, when kids get let off the leash, and what happens? Well Trevor Hart at Ryerson University and a bunch of psychologists from the University of Toronto set out to find out.

Well, to be precise, what they really wanted to do was to separate out ethnicity and religion. The two are quite closely linked, especially in a multi-cultural place like Toronto. It's known that different ethnicities vary in their attitudes to sex, but perhaps it's really religion that's the deciding factor?

So anyway let's dig into the data. They quizzed 666 university students, most of them (nearly 80%) women, about their love lives. As you might expect, the atheists and agnostics were the most sexually active, followed by Christians and Jews, with Muslims and 'Eastern religions' (they didn't have many Buddhists, Hindus or Sikhs, so they lumped them all in together.

As far as unprotected sex (i.e. without a condom) goes, well it showed roughly the same pattern - except that the non-religious students ranked about the same as Christians and Jews.

However, all that doesn't take into account ethnicity, or indeed other factors like whether the students were in a relationship (and whether it was long term), whether they knew about HIV and that condoms reduce transmission. Throwing all this into the analysis gave some clear results.

Firstly, ethnicity isn't important. Taking all the other factors into account, Whites, Blacks, Asians, and Middle Easterns are all just as likely to have unprotected sex.

What did matter was religion. Christianity, and especially Catholicism, was the biggest risk factor. Atheism too, but to a much lesser extent. Jews, Muslims and 'Eastern religions' were all similarly safe.

Part of the reason for this is that Muslim students and those of Eastern religions just don't really fornicate much. When they restricted the analysis just to those students who were sexually active, then they found that Christians were about twice as likely as the non-religious to have unprotected sex.

So what this study shows is that religion does actually seem to stop kids from having unprotected sex by scaring them off sex altogether - but only for Eastern religions and for Muslims.

Christian kids are trapped, however. They live and participate in a liberal, permissive society, but their upbringing doesn't prepare them for it. As a result, they are placed at high risk for unsafe sex.
James, C., Hart, T., Roberts, K., Ghai, A., Petrovic, B., & Lima, M. (2010). Religion versus ethnicity as predictors of unprotected vaginal intercourse among young adults Sexual Health DOI: 10.1071/SH09119

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

For atheists, the dead can live - but only if there's no corpse

In a fascinating new study psychologists Kurt Gray (University of Maryland), Anne Knickman and Daniel Wegner (Harvard University) have shown that people regard brain-dead individuals as less mentally aware than individuals who are completely, stone-cold dead. That's weird enough, but the interaction with atheism is weirder still!

They ran a few experiments, all with a similar set up. People were told about two different dead people, one in a persistent vegetative state (i.e. brain dead), and the other one dead and buried. For example, David has a car accident, and then either dies, or his "entire brain was destroyed, except for the one part that keeps him breathing. So while his body is still technically alive, he will never wake up again."

People tend to accept that the dead are likely to be mentally impaired. They're less likely to be aware of their environment, have emotions, a personality, to remember events from their life, be able to influence current events, know right from wrong.

Bizarrely enough, however, the dead score higher on all of these than the brain dead. In the words of Gray et al, the brain-dead are more dead than dead!

Of course, not everyone thinks this way, and here's where it gets really interesting.

Instead of just saying that David died in the car accident, they embellished the story to go into details of what happened to the body: "After being embalmed at the morgue, he was buried in the local cemetery. David now lies in a coffin underground." And they also asked people how religious they were.

The graphic shows the results. For the religious, it didn't matter whether they just said David was dead, or went into details about the corpse. Religious folks thought that David's mind survived regardless - except course, if he was brain dead. Dead people have a mind, brain-dead people don't.

For the non-religious, the corpse mattered. If there was a corpse, then David's mind was dead - just as dead as if he was brain dead. That's good - that's what the non-religious are supposed to say. Dead people don't think.

But if they didn't mention the corpse, well then even the non-religious were tempted to say that David's disembodied mind persisted somehow. They weren't as confident as the religious, but there seems to be a nagging suspicion that David's mind lingered on after death.

Gray and colleagues conclude that this is more evidence that we have an instinctive belief in mind-body dualism. Because brain dead people still have a living, breathing body, our instinctive thoughts about the mind become confused, and we get to thinking that the mind has been destroyed in some way that's even more severe than actual death.

The non-religious, like the religious, tend to think of dead people having a mind. However, "Emphasizing the body of the deceased allowed non-religious participants to understand death as a state without mind"
Gray, K., Anne Knickman, T., & Wegner, D. (2011). More dead than dead: Perceptions of persons in the persistent vegetative state Cognition, 121 (2), 275-280 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.06.014

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

Religion stops authoritarians from telling white lies

Is it ever OK to lie? If they are honest, most people would say "yes". After all small lies, done for the greater good, are what lubricates many social interactions. In fact, lying is probably one of the key things that sets us apart from other animals.

Of course, lying is also socially destructive, which is why there are strong cultural pressures against lying. That creates a quandary, since you have to use your judgement about when to contravene social norms.

Vassilis Saroglou and Matthieu Van Pachterbeke, psychologists at Université catholique de Louvain, have previously shown that authoritarians (people characterised by conservative ideology and submission to established authorities) tend to disapprove of lying even when it might result in benefit to an associate and no overall harm to wider society.

So, they wanted to know whether religious people are the same and, even more importantly, whether there was an interaction between religion and authoritarianism. You see, religiosity and authoritarianism quite often go hand-in-hand, so it's not clear which is having the effect on lying.

The experimental set-up was straightforward. First the subjects (who were recruited by a student asking around friends and neighbours!) were given a word search puzzle to do.

This word search either had religious words to find, or non-religious words. That way, half the subjects were primed with religion, and half were not.

Then they were given a series of nine moral dilemmas to answer. Here's one, for example:

You visit a friend who has been hospitalized for one year due to late-stage cancer. He spent his life running a small industry. He is very proud of it, having started it from nothing and expanding it to having, one year ago, 60 workers in a familial atmosphere. The person handed the management of this firm on to his son just after his cancer diagnosis, hoping that his son would carry on his work. The patient asks you for news about the firm. You know that, aiming gains, his son sold the firm to a multinational that restructured it. Do you tell the patient or do you lie?

They weren't all explicitly about lying, although they did involve breaking the rules and not telling the whole truth in some minor way (like not reporting an acquaintance who is a foreign student to the police who are looking for him to deport him following a car accident).

Anyway, what they found was interesting, and the graphic basically tells the story.

For people who didn't get the religious prime, authoritarianism didn't matter. Authoritarians and non-authoritarians were equally comfortable in being a little bit disopbedient.

For non-authoritarians, the religious prime didn't matter. Religious priming didn't make non-authoritarians obey the rules any better.

But for authoritarians, there was an effect. Priming them with religion made them significantly more likely to obey abstract social norms, even to the detriment of their associates.

Now, it wasn't a huge effect, but then you wouldn't really expect to see a large effect from such a trivial set-up.

But it is a critically important effect. What it says is that religious activates authoritarianism - at least for these Belgians. Unprompted, the moral decisions of authoritarians and liberals were similar.

Subtly remind the authoritarians of religion, however, and they ramp up their moral righteousness!
Van Pachterbeke, M., Freyer, C., & Saroglou, V. (2011). When authoritarianism meets religion: Sacrificing others in the name of abstract deontology European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.834

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

Supernatural explanations just don't occur to kids - they need to be taught them

It's pretty much taken as an assumption these days that human beings are 'natural-born believers'. Ask a cognitive scientist who specializes in religion, and they will tell you that our brains are predisposed to all sorts of supernatural concepts.

One consequence of this consensus is a vast outpouring of articles and books pondering over what the evolutionary advantages of religion are. A lot of these explanations are pretty tendentious, and to me it has never seemed likely that this was the whole story.

One popular way to investigate the 'naturalness' of religion problem is to see if supernatural concepts are hardwired into children - as you would expect if religious ideas are intuitive and naturalistic ideas have to be learned. Perhaps surprisingly there are very few studies to support this idea - the same 'classic' studies keep getting recycled in each new article or book.

And when independent researchers outside the core groups test the hypothesis, they often get results that don't fit the story. That's the case with a new study by Jacqui Woolley, a psychologist at the University of Texas.

She and her colleagues read some short tales to a bunch of kids (67 in total) aged 8, 10 or 12, and also 22 adults. All the stories illustrated a 'difficult to explain' event.

For example, one featured a guy who steals a little money regularly, until he has enough money to buy a really fast car - which he promptly crashes. Another featured a terminal cancer patient whose cancer went away 'miraculously'. And another featured a woman who jogged regularly, and yet on her wedding day she tripped and hurt her leg badly - thus making her miss her wedding and also stopped her running. The stories were designed to illustrate events that could be ascribed to moral justice, divine intervention, or luck/fate.

So they read these stories and then asked the listener how the event could be explained. The surprising thing was that the kids hardly ever offered up supernatural explanations. Instead, they would say that maybe the cancer patient slept a lot, which helped her get better. Or, for the athletic woman who tripped on her wedding day, “because she tripped over a rock while she was walking. People usually trip over stuff and fall.”

Adults, on the other hand, readily offered up supernatural explanations. There was a clear trend, too, as you can see in the graph - the older the child, the more likely they were to explain these strange happenings by recourse to the supernatural

Then Woolley and Co. put some suggested explanations to them. The kids tended to agree that god or other supernatural explanations were plausible (although they felt that god explanations were more likely for stories with happy outcomes). So it's not that they aren't aware of the concepts - it just that they don't occur to them spontaneously.

Crucially, even the religious kids were more likely to provide naturalistic explanations than supernatural ones. They were, it's true, more likely to give supernatural explanations than the non-religious, and they were also more likely to give god-based explanations - but according to Woolley even this relationship only becomes significant at around age 12.

This doesn't of course, mean that humans are not predisposed to think supernaturally. Clearly, in some circumstances we are - and it seems likely that some people are more predisposed to think supernaturally than others.

But what this, along with other evidence, does show is that it is far too simplistic to argue that we are 'born believers'. In fact, we are born with a wide range of tools with which to understand the world around us, and culture is critical for shaping how those predispositions are shaped into beliefs.

ResearchBlogging.orgWoolley, J., Cornelius, C., & Lacy, W. (2011). Developmental Changes in the Use of Supernatural Explanations for Unusual Events Journal of Cognition and Culture, 11 (3), 311-337 DOI: 10.1163/156853711X591279

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