Field of Science

That was the year that was 2011

So, farewell 2011, and hello 2012! Happy Gregorian New Year, and welcome to the wrap up of all the great science covered in Epiphenom over the past year.

Let's start with what we've learned about why people believe. Are we born religious, or do we learn it? This year there was more evidence that kids are not really innate believers in the supernatural, but on the other hand we saw some evidence that even atheists have a kind of intuition that dead people can still think. Intriguingly, the magic in religious stories seems to be tailor made to be weird, but not so weird as to be outrageous.

There was more evidence that the link between education and the strength of religious beliefs is really quite complicated, although atheists are more likely to be grammar Nazis! Perhaps more important than education is the type of thinking - it seems that deep thinkers are more likely to lose their faith.

There were some interesting studies on the link between psychiatric disorders and religion. People with religious or paranormal beliefs are also more likely to be psychotic, perhaps because they form part of a reinforcing world-view, prompted by a failure of rational thought. On the other hand, autistics are more likely than average to be atheists, perhaps because they don't have the same social drives. Dope smokers are more religious than booze drinkers, although I'm not sure what that tells us!

Your environment clearly influences how religious you become. The need to belong can increase the desire to be part of a religion - but if you fulfil that need in other ways, religious feelings decrease. Pakistani students who have been exposed to terrorism are likely to be more religious. In Europe, both financial and physical insecurity can lead to more religion. Although fear of death can make people more religious, it seems that this is really down to the associated uncertainty, rather than the idea of dying itself. In Taiwan, the risk averse are also more likely to be religious.

However, although fear and uncertainty predisposes to religion, people who have had bad stuff actually happen to them seem to be less religious. People who have sustained nasty head injuries are less likely to believe in a caring god. Similarly, the friends and families of the 9-11 dead are also less likely to be religious.

What about the effects of religion? One thing it seems to do is induce a certain amount of fatalism. For example, religious  people are better able to resist temptation, but they are also less willing to work to achieve their goals. What's more, people who have faith in god are less likely to take their prescribed medicine, are less likely to get vaccinated, and more likely to have unprotected sex. Perhaps this is why neighbourhoods in the USA with a lot of Pentecostals also have the highest infant mortality.

On the plus side, religion does seem to reduce stress. Religious people who are in it (at least partly) for the external show are less likely to get stressed out by unfortunate events. Religious people who trust in God are also less stressed.

Reduced stress could be linked to better social integration, and it brings real health benefits. The brains of people who follow a mainstream religion (mainline Protestantism in the USA) degrade slower than those of others, perhaps because they experience less social stress. In America, the reason the non-religious have a shorter life expectancy is probably because they are less socially integrated.

This social integration is more properly called social capital, and research from the US has found religion and social capital to be closely intertwined. But research this year from the less religious Europe showed that the two are not necessarily linked, because in Europe social capital is increasing, despite the decreasing importance of religion.

There was a lot of new research this year into the pro- and anti-social effects of religion. Religious people, at least, don't think much of atheists. Christians are more disgusted by The God Delusion than by the Koran, and think atheists are as untrustworthy as rapists. Readers of this blog will know, however, that you don't need god to be good. Stuart West, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University in the UK, explained the many interesting ways in which seemingly 'pure' altruism can evolve. Indeed, religious people's distrust of atheists can be reduced if you convince them that atheists are actually quite common.

Subliminal religious primes do seem to have some interesting effects on behaviour. They stop fundamentalists from telling white lies, and even atheists given subliminal religious prompts became more altruistic. The sensation of being watched makes people more censorious. Indeed, Christianity may have invented the idea of thought crime. The good news is that self-inflicted pain seems to reduce feelings of guilt.

Whether this has any meaningful effect outside the lab is hard to say. Religion seems to have no effect on dodgy company accounting, which is perhaps because belief in god can both discourage and also encourage cheating, depending on the kind of god you believe in. The precise brand of religion also matters. For example, Protestants in Germany are more trusting than Catholics.

However, there was more evidence this year that it seems to be religious service attendance, rather than beliefs, that are a crucial factor in charitable giving. And speaking of churchgoing and trust, Americans say they go to church about twice as often as they actually do - a gap between claim and reality that's much bigger than for other countries.

This year saw more evidence that income inequality increases the support for religion. But this year there was also quite a lot of evidence on the reverse effect - the link between religion and a right-wing political stance.

For example, Christians in Europe are opposed to government welfare programmes. In the USA, religious people are more likely to support torture, due to the link between religion and right-wing politics. In Europe, the link between nationalism and religion is strongest in those nations that have a dominant national religion. However, other research showed that religious fundamentalism is a different beast to right-wing authoritarianism, based on which groups are the subject of hatred (although many people have both delightful traits). Religious nations are more sexist, and of course evangelists love Walmart - probably because the company sets out to align itself with their values.

Nations that believe in tighter social control are more religious, and revolutionaries in Muslim countries actually want countries that place greater restrictions on personal freedoms - an ominous portent for the future of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Research out this year suggested that the rich use religion to keep the poor in their place - certainly, legal protections of property are weaker in more religious nations.

In fact, although religious divisions don't seem to be a particular cause of civil conflict, it does seem that governments use these divisions as a way of clamping down. In the Gaza strip, religious aggression in young boys is linked to higher testosterone levels, and so seems to be fundamentally different to antisocial aggression. Perhaps that's why societies marked by religious divisions don't seem to have higher murder rates, although they do seem to be unhappier.

The alleged connection between religion and happiness came under a lot of scrutiny this year. Religion doesn't make the English happier, and in fact the world over highly religious people are only happier than the non-religious when they live in very religious countries. However the countries with the most religious people are not happier on average, perhaps because non-religious nations have a higher quality of life. In fact, moderate believers could benefit from less, not more religion.  Perhaps all this helps to explain why some countries have high levels of non-belief - it's simply that these non-believers are among the most contented.

And lastly, what is the future for religion? Well, a mathematical model predicted that religion is on the road to extinction - at least if a few key assumptions hold! On the other hand, projections of birth rates and immigration suggest that the secularisation of Europe will stop in the next few decades, and Europe will start to become more religious.

So that's it for 2011. If you want to check out previous wrap-ups, well here's 2010 and here is 2009. Roll on 2012!

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


  1. Fantastic summary, thank you kindly.
    I will add, in my persistent manner, that generalizing about "religion" is precarious for under its umbrella fall many highly different functions.

    Most of "religion" studies are studying a specific religion in a specific area and a particular subset of believers thus grossly limiting the generalizability to "religion" as a much broader term.

    But in this excellent summary, you offer many of those caveats by naming the religious sects, the area studied and such. And these studies and your analysis does point us to the many modules and functions that are shared by the huge varieties of religions out there. Thanx

  2. "Why we believe." God has set eternity in the hearts of men.


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