Field of Science

Atheists and rapists: you just can't trust 'em

Atheists are a pretty disliked bunch of people in North America. Most atheists will be aware of polling data that puts them at the bottom of the loathing pile.

Question is, what's driving that loathing? Will Gervais (University of British Columbia, Canada), who's previously published some fascinating research into this topic, is back with some more research (co-authored by another couple of names familiar to this blog: Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan).

Gervais' basic hypothesis is that prejudice against people who are not part of your group can be driven by different fears. For example, White Americans fear Black Americans, but view homosexual Americans with disgust. Gervais puts that together with another idea that many people have - that fear of supernatural punishment makes people more honest - to hypothesise that people dislike atheists specifically because they distrust them.

To test this, they took advantage of a clever psychological trick. Here is its original form (invented by Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman), as described recently in The Guardian:

Linda is a single 31-year-old, who is very bright and deeply concerned with issues of social justice. Which of the following statements is more probable: a) that Linda works in a bank, or b) that Linda works in a bank and is active in the feminist movement? The overwhelming majority of respondents go for b), even though that's logically impossible. (It can't be more likely that both things are true than that just one of them is.) This is the "conjunctive fallacy", whereby our judgment is warped by the persuasive combination of plausible details. We are much better storytellers than we are logicians.

In Gervais' twist on this classic study, students at the University of British Columbia were told about Richard. Here's Richard's story:

Richard is 31 years old. On his way to work one day, he accidentally backed his car into a parked van. Because pedestrians were watching, he got out of his car. He pretended to write down his insurance information. He then tucked the blank note into the van’s window before getting back into his car and driving away.

Later the same day, Richard found a wallet on the sidewalk. Nobody was looking, so he took all of the money out of the wallet. He then threw the wallet in a trash can.
So, is Richard most likely to be a teacher, or a teacher and a Christian? What about a teacher and Muslim. Or a rapist? Or an atheist?

Well, the chilling results are shown in the graphic. Atheism was up there with rapist as an intuitive fit to Richard's character. Atheists? Don't trust 'em!

Gervais and co ran another study, in which half the students were given a different version of Richard. This Richard is not untrustworthy, but he is disgusting (with horrible, flaky skin and snot all over him).

They found that that the disgusting Richard was not associated with atheism (or, indeed, with homosexuality - even though they found in a different study that homosexuals evoke disgust).

What this and some other studies they did showed is that the reason atheists are disliked is specifically because they are distrusted.

They also found that the degree of this distrust is governed by the strength of belief that supernatural monitoring helps to enforce good behaviour. Those who believe this are most likely to distrust atheists.

So although lack of familiarity with atheists increases distrust, it seems that the root of this distrust is not simple fear of the unknown, or even fear about moral corruption, but rather a genuine and seemingly deep-rooted fear that people will not behave well unless they have an invisible policeman watching over them.

Which probably says rather more about these Christians than it does about atheists!
Gervais, W., Shariff, A., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101 (6), 1189-1206 DOI: 10.1037/a0025882

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

Religious diversity linked to unhappiness

Most people - certainly most atheists - would say that one of the biggest problems with religion is that conflict you get when religion divides people who share a particular part of the world. Of course, there are plenty of examples of conflicts where religion plays a role. However, there is surprisingly little statistical evidence either way.

Part of the problem is in trying to define religious diversity. The method most commonly used in sociological research was developed by Alberto Alesina, an economist at Harvard, and is called 'Fractionalisation'. This computers a number between 0 and 1, which is basically the odds that two people picked at random have the same religion (or race, or whatever else you are looking into).

The problem is that this kind of diversity may not be the diversity that's important here. If everyone had their own personal religion well then, society would indeed be diverse - but it probably wouldn't trigger mass conflict.

An alternative measure is something called 'Polarisation'. The more evenly a country is divided into two major groups, the higher its polarisation will be.

Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn, a sociologist at Harvard, has used both of these measures to see how they interact with life satisfaction (Okulicz-Kozaryn last featured back on this blog in 2009, Happy worshippers, unhappy believers).

He found a small relationship between Fractionalisation and unhappiness, and a somewhat stronger relationship between Polarisation and unhappiness (it's this that is shown in the graphic).

The effect got stronger when he took into account other factors that can affect unhappiness, such as age, marital status, and national wealth.

In fact it got even stronger after accounting for other religious variables, such as whether people attend services (increases happiness), think that religion is important (also increases happiness) or believe in God (which decreases happiness).

Once you account for the positive and negative direct effects of religion on personal happiness, then it becomes clear that religious diversity is linked to increased unhappiness. And that's true whether you measure relisiong as Fractionalisation or as Polarisation.

It's a big effect, too, as Okulicz-Kozaryn says:

...if a country’s fractionalisation index goes up by 0.25, say from the level of 0.57 for Japan to 0.82 for the United States, then life satisfaction for everybody in a country would drop by 0.25 on scale from 1 to 10. This is a big effect – it is similar to shifting 5% of a country’s population from the mildly satisfied category (6) to most dissatisfied category (1). In case of Japan it would be six million people
He's careful to point out that this does not mean that religious diversity is a bad thing. For example, other factors that encourage diversity (openness to other cultures, freedom of speech and expression) could increase happiness.

But it does support the belief that many people have: that religion can often serve to reinforce and even create barriers and mutual suspicion.
Okulicz-Kozaryn, A. (2011). Does religious diversity make us unhappy? Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 1-14 DOI: 10.1080/13674676.2010.550277

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

Does Christianity make mere thoughts into crime?

Does religion actually make any difference? By that I mean, does the brand of religion that takes hold in a particular region (Islam, Buddhism, Animism etc) actually change the culture in any meaningful way.

Of course, we know that there are real, measurable differences between adherents of different religions. But is that caused by the religion, or is it simply that cultures differ and that the local religion moulds itself to the local culture?

Adam Cohen, at Arizona State University, thinks that religion can change culture, and he's written an excellent, plain English introduction to his research in the open-access journal "Readings in Psychology and Culture".

A key point that Cohen makes is that Jews and Christians differ on whether simply thinking something wicked is as bad as actually doing something wicked.

So, for example, he found that Christians were more likely than Jews to believe that a man who thinks adulterous thoughts has done something wrong. And not just adultery either - there were similar differences of opinion over a student who fantasises about poisoning his Professor's dog after getting a bad grade.

In another test, he asked Jews and Christians to:
Imagine a son, Mr. K., who does not like his parents very much, because they have very different personalities from him. That son can either pretend to like his parents, or he can ignore and neglect them. If he doesn’t like his parents inside, does it mean anything for him to behave nicely toward them?

As the figure shows, Jews and Christians see Mr. K the same if he both inwardly dislikes his parents and also neglects them in reality (the 'Sincere condition' in the graph). But Jews, in contrast to Christians, were much more likely to think favourably of Mr K if he pretends to like his parents.

Cohen attributes these differences to differences in their respective holy books. For example, Jesus explicitly condemns thought crime ("You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart."). In contrast, Cohen says,

...the Jewish attitude is that it is better to override your temptations out of obedience to God. True virtue is doing what God says even if you don't internally want to.

All of this puts me in mind of George Orwell's novel, 1984, in which he wrote about thoughtcrime:

The thought police would get him just the same. He had committed - would have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper - the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it.

Now, Orwell was an atheist, and his book had a pretty big impact on me when I was a kid. All of which set me to thinking: is thinking bad thoughts a crime for atheists, or are they more like Jews? Even more interesting, are Atheist Jews different from Atheist Christians in this regard?

There is one study out there, which I wrote about last year, which found that Protestants were more likely than Atheists to conflate thinking and doing (Protestants tempt fate, but atheists don't!)

I'd love to hear your perspective, though. Should you feel guilty about thinking nasty things someone and then lying to them? Is that kind of dishonesty bad? If not, why not?

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

In the West, religious nations are more sexist

This post is number 57 (I'm guessing!) in our series on "religious countries are...", in which I run a correlation between the numbers of religious people in a country and some other national characteristic.

This time it's the turn of sexism. You might expect that religious countries are more sexist, and you'd be right (with one caveats - but I'll deal with that later).

The data come from Mark Brandt, a sociologist at DePaul University in Chicago. I compared this with the number of people who say that religion is either important or very important in their lives (the data for this come from the World Values Survey).

First of all, let's look at the correlation with a straightforward measure of whether women can be leaders, which was assessed by asking the level of agreement with two questions: “On the whole, men make better political leaders than women do” and “On the whole, men make better business executives than women do.”

Overall, there's a fairly good correlation. But there is an exception, and that's Asian countries.  There are only a few Asian countries in the sample, so it's hard to draw sweeping conclusions. But they are all very sexist, whether their citizens are religious (Thailand, Taiwan) or non-religious (China, Hong Kong, Japan)

So I took these countries out of the analysis - in fact, what's shown in the graphic is only those countries with a predominantly Western, Christian culture (i.e. North and South America, Europe, and Australia).

In these Westernised countries there's a strong, linear relationship between religion and sexism.

In fact, if you narrow the sample a bit more to look only at European countries the fit is even cleaner (I haven't shown this, but it's a remarkably straight line).

You get pretty much the same results when you look at Brandt's other measure (the UN's gender empowerment score). That's important because this is a measure not of attitudes, but of practical effects. Brandt's main point in his paper is that sexist attitudes translate directly into sexist practices.

And the same relationship is seen with religion. The more religious countries also have lower gender empowerment, meaning fewer seats for women in parliament, fewer women in economic decision making positions, and lower female share of income.

Now, the reason for this, it seems to me, is that religion tends to be tied to 'traditional values'. What this analysis suggests is that these traditional values can persist in the absence of religion, but that getting rid of traditional religion seems to be a prerequisite for ditching sexism!
Brandt, M. (2011). Sexism and Gender Inequality Across 57 Societies Psychological Science, 22 (11), 1413-1418 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611420445

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

What kind of insecurity turns Europeans on to religion?

As Europe staggers towards financial apocalypse, one question that's almost certainly not in the minds of Merkel, Sarkozy, and Papandreou is what effect all the turmoil will have on people's religious beliefs. After all, there's been a bunch of research linking anxiety and insecurity to heightened religious beliefs, and earlier this year there was more evidence linking religion to economic insecurity.

But a lot of these studies have been pretty broad brush. They look at average conditions and average levels of religion among a wide basket of countries. Tim Immerzeel and Frank van Tubergen, at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, wanted to dig a little deeper (you might remember van Tubergen from an earlier study looking at income inequality and Church attendance).

They wanted to separate out the effects of an individual's insecurity from the effects of simply living in a country which is, well, less secure. They wanted to separate out the effects of what has happened in the past, from the effects of the current situation. And they also wanted to separate out financial insecurity from existential insecurity (e.g threats to your life).

They did this by looking at the European Social Survey, which interviewed people in 32 European countries and Israel in several rounds from 2002-2009 (actually, they could only use data from 25 countries because several countries [Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia, Latvia, Portugal, Romania, and Ukraine] didn't ask all the questions).

They found some interesting things. Firstly, people who are in good health are less religious - although they are more likely to attend Church (perhaps because it's easier for them to get there). Widows and widowers are more religious (people who are divorced are the least religious, however).

People who have experienced war in the past, or the threat of terrorism now, are also more religious.

Financial security also matters, although here it gets a little bit complicated. People in stable employment now are less religious (as are educated people), suggesting that current financial security dampens enthusiasm for religion. However, people whose parents were unemployed when they were kids are actually less religious!

They also found a weak link between the strength of individual religious beliefs and the economic environment. In countries with a high unemployment rate, people were more likely to go to Church but were actually no more religious. Probably they go to Church as a kind of social insurance.

And, unlike what others have found, there was not really very much effect of social welfare spending on religion. No effect on religious beliefs, and only a marginal (negative) effect on Church attendance.

In fact, Immerzeel and van Tubergen found, in general, that the characteristics of the country didn't have all that much effect on an individual's religion - the individual's specific personal circumstances was at least as important.

Now that might sound like a no-brainer, but in fact it differs from what other studies have suggested. In fact, it directly contradicts two studies from earlier this year. The first, from Ed Diener, showed that religion only improves well-being in tough societies. The second, from Frederick Solt and colleagues, found that in unequal countries both rich and poor are more religious.

Maybe that's because Immerzeel and van Tubergen only looked at European countries (and the wealthier ones at that - remember they had to drop some of the poorer ones out). So all the countries were pretty similar, in terms of social insurance and income inequality. Maybe they didn't find a difference simply because there weren't all that many differences to find.

So, not a reason to throw out the idea that general economic malaise can make people less religious, but food for thought.

Their take home is that both economic and existential insecurity can increase religion. More importantly, perhaps, current financial insecurity can indeed lead to stronger religious fervour. Coupled with fertility and immigration trends, this is yet another sign that Europe's secularisation may yet turn a corner.
Immerzeel, T., & van Tubergen, F. (2011). Religion as Reassurance? Testing the Insecurity Theory in 26 European Countries European Sociological Review DOI: 10.1093/esr/jcr072

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

Deliver us from temptation (and take care of everything else, too)

According to some new research, your ideas about gods can significantly affect your approach to life. Lead researcher Kristin Laurin (at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada) and colleagues Aaron Kay and Grinne M. Fitzsimons (Duke University) ran a series of priming studies, in which the subjects had to form sentences from scrambled sets of words or read a passage about god as part of a bigger study (so they didn't cotton on to the fact that they were being primed). By carefully choosing the words, the researchers could subliminally prime the subjects (all undergraduate students) with different ideas about God.

What they were interested to know was whether reminding people about God can make people less interested in actively pursuing goals (perhaps because they think that God will take care of everything for them) or better able to resist temptation (perhaps because they think God is watching them and will frown upon moral weaknesses!). What they found was that both things can happen, although which effect you see depends upon the type of God that you prime.

So, for example, when they primed the students with a passage describing a controlling God who “understands what it is like to be in our shoes”, they found that the students subsequently expressed less interest in signing up to additional study to attain career goals (such as becoming a lawyer, nurse or stockbroker). However, other students primed with the same god concept declared that they were more able to resist the temptation to hang out and have fun with their friends on an evening when they should be studying for an important exam that was a required step in attaining that career.

In other words, if you pump up people's idea of god as controlling, then they feel more able to resist temptation, but less inclined to work hard to achieve their goals!

As you can see in the graph, other ideas about god had intermediate effects, compared with the control condition in which the student's weren't primed with any god concept at all.

In other studies, they dug into other facets of this relationship. They found that students primed with the idea of god valued achieving just as much, it's just that they were less inclined to put the effort in.

Participants who had read a short passage about God subsequently ate fewer cookies than did those who had read a control passage about a topic unrelated to God. Resistance to temptation was particularly strengthened in students who read passages describing God's omniscience.

The researchers conclude that reminders of God can influence real world goals in both positive and negative ways. What the overall effect will be will depend on what exactly the task in hand is - whether it requires self control or the drive to achieve. It also, they say, depends on what kind of God you have in mind:
If, on the one hand, a person is reminded of God, and this activates the representation of an omnipotent, but not omniscient, external force (whether as a result of features of the reminder itself or as a result of how the person represents God), the net influence on the person’s self-regulation might be negative. If, on the other hand, a person is reminded of God, and this activates the representation of an omniscient, but not omnipotent, external force (whether as a result of features of the reminder itself or as a result of how the person represents God), the net influence on the person’s self-regulation might be positive.
Laurin, K., Kay, A., & Fitzsimons, G. (2011). Divergent effects of activating thoughts of god on self-regulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0025971

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