Field of Science

Inteview with La revolución naturalista

The Spanish language blog La revolución naturalista has just posted a short written interview with me (in English, although there is a Spanish version). It covers some stuff on the cognitive science of religion, and on why some countries are more religious than others.

You can check it out here.

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

Goodwill to all men?

This being the season of good will to all men (at least for those of us with a Christian heritage), it's time to bring a little harmony to the most tumultuous conflict of our times. Yes, I'm talking about the war between 'new' atheists and the religious.

When you see these folks slogging it out on the internet, one regular touch point is over whether religion causes wars - or at least makes them worse.

Of course, we can all cite wars in which the two sides have different religions, but often the two sides differ in lots of other ways. Quite often, what we see is two different ethnic groups fighting. So is religion really contributing to these conflicts, or is it an innocent bystander?

Who is right in the great atheist versus religious battle? Well, the best way to bring some Christmas peace is, of course, to get science to shed some light on the matter. If in doubt, quantify!

Kürşad Turan, at the University of Ankara, has done just this using a database created by the Minorities at Risk project at the University of Maryland. Turan wanted to know whether language barriers or religious barriers were the biggest contributors to ethnic strife. Uniquely, he was able to look at the problem from the perspective of both the ethnic groups and of the State.

First he looked at the factors that contributed to protest and rebellion by ethnic minorities. Here he found that use of different languages by ethnic groups was much more likely to be associated with inter-ethnic strife than religious differences.

In fact, religious differences had a negative effect! If two ethnic groups had different religions, conflict was actually slightly less likely.

When it came to state repression, however, it was a different story. State repression is actually higher in countries where ethnic groups are separated by religion. Language had no effect on state repression. What's more, state repression of religion increases ethnic conflict, while state repression of language decreases it.

Turan concludes that religion and language play a different roles for ethnic agitators and state repressors. He thinks that states can try to subtly control language, but are more likely to try to co-opt religion.  When they repress language, people conform. When they repress religion, people revolt.

Of course, that's not to say that religion isn't a flash point between people. There's an interesting working paper produced by an EU-funded research programme into conflict (actually based at the University of Sussex, just down the road from me). It's MicroCon Working Paper 18, by Frances Stewart, at Oxford University.

She looked at recent survey conducted in four countries where there is ongoing ethnic strife - Ghana, Nigeria, Indonesia and Malaysia. There were lots of interesting findings, one of which was that religious differences and ethnic differences were about equally often cited as a rationale for violence (as shown in the graphic).

Clearly, then people can be motivated to conflict for either religious or ethnic reasons. But what determines which of the two takes hold in any given location?

Well, based on the interviews that Stewart and her colleagues counducted, she reckons the bottom line is self-interest:

"mobilisation occurred behind the identity which was thought to affect people’s material chances of securing government jobs, contracts etc., rather than behind the identity that appeared to mean most to the people."

Merry Christmas, everyone!
Kürşad Turan (2011). Language and Religion: Different Salience for Different Aspects of Identity International Journal of Business and Social Science, 2 (8), 141-152

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

Religious nonsense is easier to understand than regular nonsense

There's a particular brain wave that gets triggered when you hear stuff that doesn't make sense.

It's called the N400, and it's triggered by sentences like "I like my coffee with cream and socks". Although each individual word makes sense, and although the grammar is fine, the semantics is screwy - the meaning of those words is pretty unexpected.

Sabela Fondevila and a team from the University of Madrid wanted to find out if religious stories had the same effect. Religious stories typical have some pretty far out indicidents, of course - walking on water, that sort of thing. Are these stories nonsensical, though, or is there some kind of method to their madness?

So they got their subjects to read some carefully phrased sentences describing religious miracles, some matched sentences that had the same grammatical stucture but with random nonsensical claims, and also some completely sensible ones.

To make sure that the religious statements were unexpected and unfamiliar, they took their miracles from non-biblical texts - Hindu, Mesoamerican, Japanese, Egyptian, Greco-Roman, African, Australian, Chinese, Polynesian, and Inuit.

So, for each nonsensical religious sentence, like "Under the Earth lives the wind", there was an equivalent pure nonsense sentence: "Under the Earth lives the dining-room", and a sensible statement "Under the Earth lives the mole". Another example is "With a hook, from the bottom of the sea, he took out the islands" paired with "With a hook, from the bottom of the sea, he took out the problems". The sensible statement had him hooking up a fish.

What they found was that the size of the N400 wave was largest for the pure nonsense, and smallest for the sensible sentences. The religious statements were in-between.

This suggests is that the religious statements, although nonsensical and clearly impossible, were not such hard work to understand. For whatever reason, they seemed more sensible than the pure nonsense statements.

Just to make sure of it, they also asked a different group of people straight out: “How easy is it for you to imagine a context (books, films, newspapers, etc.) in which these statements may appear?” Sure enough, the religious statements were thought to be considerably more plausible.

Fondevila thinks that this is further support for the idea that religions are minimally counterintuitive. Previous research has suggested that gods, like comic book characters, tend to be mostly normal with a few special powers.

The theory goes that the most memorable stories are those that are grounded in reality, but have a few counterintuitive twists that make them stand out. And there's some evidence to support this.

So the ideal god is magical enough to make him interesting and worthy of our special attention as something that could just about be real. But not so magical as to be utter nonsense!
Fondevila, S., Martín-Loeches, M., Jiménez-Ortega, L., Casado, P., Sel, A., Fernández-Hernández, A., & Sommer, W. (2011). The sacred and the absurd—an electrophysiological study of counterintuitive ideas (at sentence level) Social Neuroscience, 1-13 DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2011.641228

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

Dope smokers are more spiritual than boozers

What's your poison? Based on some new data from a Czech study, your preferences could speak a lot about your spiritual beliefs.

For the study Radmilla Lorencova, at the University of Pardubice in the Czech Republic, interviewed 155 men and women from universities, some kind of club in Prague, and residents of a housing estate.

This being the Czech republic, half of them (74) were atheists, while 24 were conventionally religious and the remaining 57 are described as being "sympathizers with Eastern religions, religious groups or sects, or having their own religion". Eighty-one of them used both marijuana and alcohol (usually not together), while 58 stuck just to alcohol.

The dope smokers scored higher on mystical aspects of spirituality than did alcohol drinkers. What's more, when respondents associated mystical feelings with a drug, it was never with alcohol - instead they mentioned LSD and marijuana.

The most common experience that was linked to drug use was that "I have had the feeling that the secrets of the universe and of existence are opening before me". Potent stuff.

However, this link between drug use and spirituality was not seen among atheists. Atheists, as you would expect, scored rather low on measures of mystical aspects of spirituality (although they score just as high as everyone else on aspects of moral involvement and conscientiousness).

Now, the other interesting finding was that drug use was equally spread across all groups. While 60% of 'sympathizers' and 57% of atheists smoked dope, so did 50% of the religious - a small difference that wasn't statistically significant.

So it seems that there are religious (and religiously minded) Czechs out there getting powerful spiritual experiences from smoking dope, but that alcohol is free of spiritualistic baggage.

Which makes me wonder about a seemingly unrelated fact. Have you ever wondered why marijuana is illegal, while alcohol is not? You could argue that alcohol is part of the traditional culture for Europeans, but then what about tobacco?

Perhaps there is a religious subtext. Perhaps marijuana is frowned upon because of the danger of leading people away from official religions, by giving them mystical experiences not tied to the official dogma.

By the way, this is the second post about alcohol drinking in the Czech republic. In case you missed the first one (from 2008), here it is: Beer and science don't mix!
Lorencova R (2011). Religiosity and spirituality of alcohol and marijuana users. Journal of psychoactive drugs, 43 (3), 180-7 PMID: 22111401

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

Moderate believers might benefit from less, not more religion

I always enjoy analyses of religion done by people whose main research focus lies in other fields. They tend to have quite a refreshing take.

So here's a study written by three outsiders. You probably already know Dan Ariely, the author of Predictably Irrational (and if you don't, well then get out and read the book this moment!). The lead is Daniel Mochon, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Freeman School of Business at Tulane University, and the other is Michael Norton, an Associate Professor of Marketing at Harvard Business School.

So, three specialists in marketing, who have set out to discover who, exactly benefits from religion. To do this, they used an online survey company to gather responses from over 6,000 people across the UK. Their basic aim was to relate two different measures of religion: affiliation (i.e. whether they said that they were a Christian, or a Methodist, or a Wiccan etc) and religiosity (i.e. how religious they are, on a scale from 1-7).

They measured well-being by asking a bunch of questions related to life satisfaction, hopelessness, depression, self esteem, how they felt right now and in general, and how satisfied they were with their spiritual and religious life.

The graphic shows the headline results. The well-being of religious adherents follows a clear U-shape, with the least happy being those people with moderate faith.

The straight lines show the well-being of people who didn't declare a religious faith - those who said they were atheists were the happiest, agnostics were less happy, and those who were just 'none' were the least happy of all.

In addition to this plot, they also ran a bunch of simple models to explore all the different factors and to put the results on firmer statistical grounds. But these models basically confirmed the picture that's so eloquently depicted in the graph.

So the only religious adherents who are really happy are those who are very religious. Those who are only moderately fervent could benefit by ramping up their faith - but they could also benefit by toning it down still further.

If this sounds familiar, well you're right. There's already evidence that those who are firm non-believers are actually quite happy, thank you very much (see The Happiness Smile). But these new data are the strongest so far.

I'll leave the last words to the study authors:
Were we to place our own children in the distribution of religiosity, the option with the highest expected well-being would entail enrolling them and encouraging them to believe strongly; were we not certain that our children would attain sufficient levels of belief, however, we might prefer them to remain unaffiliated.
Indeed, the non-linear relation between religiosity and well-being suggests that many moderate believers would benefit from reducing their level of religiosity rather than increasing it.
Mochon, D., Norton, M., & Ariely, D. (2010). Who Benefits from Religion? Social Indicators Research, 101 (1), 1-15 DOI: 10.1007/s11205-010-9637-0

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

Nonreligious girls are the most athletic

When I first read of this study, I was intrigued. According to this news report (which seems to have been picked up by a few other places over the last few days), "children with no religious background tend to be the most skilful athletes".

So I contacted Andreas Krebs, the study lead, and got hold of a copy of the original report (it's available online here - in German). You probably won't be surprised to hear that the results don't exactly support the news headlines, but they're all the more interesting for that.

The study basically records the athleticism of first-grade school kids (7-8 years old) in the small Swiss city of Winterthur. The battery of tests included things like running, jumping, stretching and tapping (yeah, beats me too).

They broke down the results in a few different ways - religion is just an incidental part of the report, near the end.

The figure shows the results: boys at the top, girls at the bottom. The separate bars show the results for 4 sequential years.

The non-religious kids are in the middle. To the left are the Muslim kids, to the right are Protestants and then Catholics. The size of the bars shows the z-score - basically how far above or below average that sub-group is, relative to the group as a whole.

So, non-religious boys actually have average athletic ability, while non-religious girls are above average.

Why should that be? Well, I think the clue is in the particularly low scores for the Muslim girls (and other minor religions). These girls are often restricted by their culture from fully participating in sport.

Does the same apply to Christians, but to a lesser extent? If so, then that would explain the results.

It could simply be that religious parents - both Christian and Muslim, have sexist attitudes towards kids and sport. Muslims tend to discourage kids from sport, but especially girls. Christians tend to encourage kids, but especially boys.

Non-religious parents, on the other hand, seem to be not particularly sports-minded, but are completely non-sexist when it comes to encouraging their kids. As a result, their boys have only average ability, but their girls are way above average.

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

Why do the religious give to charity: learning from Taiwan

It seems likely that religious people in the West give more to charity - in the narrow sense of financial donations, at least (see Atheists are generous - they just don't give to charity for more details).

But what is it about religion that has this effect? Is it that the fear of being watched makes people behave nicer. Perhaps it's that religious teachings simply encourage charity. Or maybe it's being in a religious congregation and having someone demand that you hand over cash.

One way to dig into this is to take a look at other cultures. Taiwan is a good case study, because it has a good mix of folk religion, atheists, and world religions (Buddhism and Christianity).

Hiewu Su and colleagues, from the National Dong-Hwa University in Taiwan interviewed 410 Taiwanese about their charitable and religious habits, among other things.

Christians gave the most, followed by Buddhists, then Folk religionists and finally those with no religion.

These were not large differences, and indeed they also found that giving is a "rational and planned behavior for both religious and nonreligious people". In other words, regardless of religion, what people give can be predicted on the basis of their income, age, and whether they felt that charities were open about how they spent their money.

There was one other, crucial, factor that affected charitable giving (the most important, in fact), and that was religious service attendance.They found that religious service attendance was the most important factor determining whether and how much people gave to charity - even for people with no religion.

However, there were big differences here between the religions. Buddhists who went to religious services were 2.4 times as likely to give to charity, and Christians were 2.2 times as likely. However, folk religionists and atheists who went to services were only 1.7 times as likely to give as those who did not attend.

When it came to the amount of giving, they found that this was significantly increased for Christians and Buddhists who went to religious services, but not for folk religionists and atheists.

What I take from this is that we can discount simplistic ideas that a watchful 'eye in the sky' encourages us to give more. After all, it doesn't seem to encourage folk religionists to give.

On the other hand, religious gatherings do seem to encourage charitable giving. That might be because people are actually encouraged to give on the spot, or it might be that giving to co-religionists is easier than random giving, or it might be something to do with religious teachings.

And with that last idea in mind, I find it fascinating that the effect of religious gatherings is largest for Christians and Buddhists. These are two very different religions - about the only thing they have in common is that they are both "World Religions".

What that means is that they are religions that ahve been adopted by people from a wide variety of different cultural backgrounds. As a result, they have special features that make them especially attractive to people who live in large, organised mega-societies. The kinds of societies in which dealing with strangers is commonplace.

Previous research has found that world religions are linked to the emergence of ideas of fairness to and sharing with strangers. This research adds to that, suggesting that it's only in the religious congregations of these world religions that charity gets a boost - it's not an intrinsic consequence of religion in general terms.
Su, H., Chou, T., & Osborne, P. (2011). When Financial Information Meets Religion: Charitable-giving Behavior in Taiwan Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, 39 (8), 1009-1019 DOI: 10.2224/sbp.2011.39.8.1009

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