Field of Science

Can a pill take away the desire for religion?

Well yes it can - in a manner of speaking.

Today's study is one that was actually published in 2010, and has been languishing in my files. I just rediscovered it!

It's one of a trio from Aaron Kay and colleagues, at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. They've published a few studies before on how the need to feel in control of situations can drive a heightened sense of religiosity (e.g. here, here, here and here).

This study took an unusual approach. First they gave their subjects (37 undergraduates) a 'herbal. pill. They told them that they were going to take part in an experiment to learn the effects of this pill on colour perception. Of course, the pill was just a placebo and the experiment had nothing to do with colour perception.

And then they hold half their subjects that the pill had an unfortunate side effect - it would cause some "mild arousal or anxiety".

Next they put their subjects through some pen and paper exercises (while they waited for the pill to 'metabolize'). Half  the subjects were given a word game that implanted in their mind ideas related to randomness, by featuring words like "chance" and "random". The other half got negativity words - stuff like "poorly" and slimy".

Now, the idea of this is that priming thoughts of randomness should heighten the subjects' religiosity. And so it did.

As you can see in the graphic, if they weren't told that the pill caused anxiety, then priming with thoughts of randomness significantly increased belief in a controlling god.

However, if they were told that the pill would make them feel anxious, then the effect disappeared.

What Kay thinks is happening is that the randomness prime makes his subjects feel anxious, and they restore their sense of well being by affirming a belief in a controlling god, thereby dealing with the stress of randomness.

But the subjects who were told the pill caused anxiety had a rationale explanation for the stress they were feeling (or so they thought). Because they could explain it, they didn't need to turn to belief in a controlling god.

So there you go. A pill can reduce religiousness - so long as it's a pill that you think will cause anxiety (but doesn't really)!
Kay, A., Moscovitch, D., & Laurin, K. (2010). Randomness, Attributions of Arousal, and Belief in God Psychological Science, 21 (2), 216-218 DOI: 10.1177/0956797609357750Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Religion, self esteem and psychological adjustment

Much is made of the apparent fact that religious people are happier and better adjusted than the non-religious. However, as regular readers of this blog will know, this is to a large extent an illusion.

The problem is that most research is done in the USA, where being religious is the cultural norm. If you look further afield, you'll find that religion is only linked to happiness in countries where a lot of people are religious.

Well, here's some more on that theme. It's from Jochen Gebauer (Humboldt University, Berlin) and Constantine Sedikides (University of Southampton, UK) - who've featured here before in a couple of previous posts. This time, they've used data from the dating site e-darling - nearly 190,000 people from 11 European countries.

The beauty about these dating sites is that they ask people to fill in a lot of information about themselves.

So, for example, they were able to put together an estimate of each individual's psychological adjustment, based on the self-ratings of the degree to which they were adaptable, cheerful, optimistic, or resilient (and other similar factors). They also estimated social self-esteem, based on ratings of things like how skilled the individual perceived themselves to be in social situations, and making new friends.

They threw all these data into a multi-level model, which allows you to tease out the interrelationship of environment (i.e. national characteristics) with personal characteristics.

Take a look at the graph. Each data point in light grey represents a single country. The x-axis is the average religion in a country. The y-axis is the correlation between religion and psychological adjustment (or self-esteem) in that country.

So, on the far right, we have Turkey (represented by the letter T!). It's all the way over there because it has the highest average religion.

And Turkey also has the highest correlation between personal religion and psychological adjustment (and social self esteem).

Sweden, on the other hand, is on the far left, with the lowest average religiosity. It also has the lowest correlation between person religion and psychological adjustment.

In fact, there's a clear, statistically significant trend - the higher the average strength of religion in a country, the higher the correlation between personal religion and psychological adjustment or social self esteem.

Now, that's all very interesting and adds some more flesh to the picture which is revealed by other studies. But here's what I find particularly interesting about this graphic.

Even in the least religious countries, where even moderately religious people are in a minority, the correlation is not negative.

In other words, although non-religious people feel uncomfortable in religious countries, religious people have no problems living in non-religious countries.

And that's got to be good news for secularists (and religious people).
Gebauer, J., Sedikides, C., & Neberich, W. (2012). Religiosity, Social Self-Esteem, and Psychological Adjustment: On the Cross-Cultural Specificity of the Psychological Benefits of Religiosity Psychological Science, 23 (2), 158-160 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611427045

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

Three puzzles of non-religion in Britain

Britain, like many countries in the West, has been undergoing a decline in the numbers of religious believers. The patterns of change, however, throw up some curious anomalies. Three of these puzzles have recently been investigated by David Voas, a demographer at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex - all quite different, each of them quirky, and all of them shedding a little fascinating insight into the trends and patterns of non-belief in the UK.

First off, why are baby girls more likely to be religious than baby boys? If that question at first sounds nonsensical, it's because the UK census asks parents to state the religious affiliation of their children. The result is a small sex difference - one or two extra girls out of every hundred are labelled as being 'Christian' compared with boys.

The reason, Voas found, is probably because dads are less likely to be religious than mums. The child is given the religious affiliation that matches their same-sex parent. And so the gender gap is the biggest for families with a non-religious dad and a religious mum.

For the second puzzle, just take a look at this graph. It shows the change in religious affiliation since 1915 among graduates and non-graduates.

Affiliation has declined in both groups, but it's been much faster among the non-graduates. As a result, although non-graduates were more religious than graduates at the start of the last century, now they are actually less religious!

It seems that this is probably because graduates are much more passionate about their beliefs - either religious or non-religious. Non-graduates are more likely to be in the fuzzy middle - nominally religious but not really devout.

Now, both nominal and devout religious will put themselves down on the census as 'Christian'. However, as society as a whole becomes less religious, those who were formally nominally religious will now be completely non-religious. Those who once would have been strongly religious (many of whom are graduates) will now more likely be nominally religious - but still list themselves as Christian.

In other words, this is another artefact of the crude measure of religion used in the UK census. Because it only records broad affiliation, it misses the subtleties.

The last puzzle surrounds the patchiness of religious affiliation in Britain. If you look at a very fine level (at the level of individual local council wards), the percentage of people saying that they don't identify with a religion ranges from 1.9% all the way up to a most godless 42.4% (this godless epicentre is actually a place in Brighton, just down the road from where I live).

Voas found that this variation can only partly be explained by factors such as average age and professional status. An additional major factor was the number of religious people in neighbouring wards.

So it seems that religion and non-religion tends to aggregate into clusters, although what causes this aggregation is hard to say, but Voas suspects that factors like social history and local economic factors probably play a large role.

On top of this, some areas have a strong local culture. Brighton, for example, has a long tradition as venue for a bit of escapism from the moral straitjacket of London soceity - as a result, the place is now full of counter-cultural Bohemians of all types! (And me...)
Voas, D., & McAndrew, S. (2012). Three Puzzles of Non-religion in Britain Journal of Contemporary Religion, 27 (1), 29-48 DOI: 10.1080/13537903.2012.642725

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

The handedness of belief

People who are ambidextrous are more likely to have magical beliefs. That's something that was known before but has recently been confirmed by Gjurgjica Badzakova-Trajkov and team from Auckland University, New Zealand.

The figure on the right shows how high their subjects scored on a 'magical ideation' scale, which asks questions such as "Some people can make me aware of them just by thinking about me" and "I think I could learn to read other’s minds if I wanted to".

Handedness was assessed just by asking their hand preferences for a variety of tasks, like throwing or using scissors. As you can see, those people without a strong hand preference were also the most likely to have magical ideas.

So you might think that ambidextrous people are more likely to be religious? Well hold on.

A few years ago Christopher Niebauer, at Slippery Rock University in the USA, showed that ambidextrous people are more likely to believe evolution (in the USA at least). [That paper was sent to me last year, but I can't remember who sent it. If it was you - well thanks!]

The explanation seems to be that mixed-handed people are more open minded and more creative. So they are more likely to shake often creationist dogma, but also more likely to take other 'heretical' thoughts seriously. Incidentally, in a later paper Niebauer also showed that ambidextrous people are more gullible!

Why should this be? Well, one theory is that the brains of ambidextrous people are wired up differently. Not only are their hands less one sided, but their brains also may be more even across the two hemispheres - less 'lateralized'.

And that's where Badzakova-Trajkov's research comes in. She showed that the brains of people who think magically were just as lateralized as the brains of more rational thinkers. What's more, when she measured handedness by a proper test - rather than just asking people about their preferences - the relationship with magical thinking disappeared.

She concludes from this that the connection between ambidexterity and magical thinking is behavioural, not neuropsychological. What's probably happening is simply that those people who are open to magical thinking, and who are willing to take on-board radical ideas such as evolution, are also more open to the idea of using their non-dominant hand to do normal daily tasks.

These people are just iconoclasts by nature!

ResearchBlogging.orgBadzakova-Trajkov, G., Häberling, I., & Corballis, M. (2011). Magical ideation, creativity, handedness, and cerebral asymmetries: A combined behavioural and fMRI study Neuropsychologia, 49 (10), 2896-2903 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2011.06.016

Lee Niebauer, C., Christman, S., Reid, S., & Garvey, K. (2004). Interhemispheric interaction and beliefs on our origin: Degree of handedness predicts beliefs in creationism versus evolution Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain and Cognition, 9 (4), 433-447 DOI: 10.1080/13576500342000266

Christman, S., Henning, B., Geers, A., Propper, R., & Niebauer, C. (2008). Mixed-handed persons are more easily persuaded and are more gullible: Interhemispheric interaction and belief updating Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain and Cognition, 13 (5), 403-426 DOI: 10.1080/13576500802079646

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

How the 2004 Tsunami affected the religious beliefs of Norwegian tourists

Does a traumatic experience encourage people towards religion, or does it have the opposite effect? In a previous post, I ran through the evidence that Americans who had lost a relative in the 9-11 terrorist attacks tended to become less religious afterwards.

So what about a different country, and a different trauma? Ajmal Hussain, at the Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies in Oslo, quizzed 1,000 Norwegian tourists who were in South East Asia at the time of the 2004 Tsunami - a major disaster that killed over 200,000 people.

The survey was run 2 years after the disaster, at which time 8% reported their religious beliefs had strengthened since before the disaster, and 5% reported that their beliefs had weakened.

Those whose beliefs strengthened also tended to report they had pre-tsunami mental health problems, felt that their life was threatened more, that they had lost a family member or close friend, that they had suffered injuries themselves, and that they had experienced post-traumatic stress and post-tsunami adverse life events. However, after putting all the different factors into a statistical pot (including factors like age, sex and education), only two factors remained important: pre-tsunami mental health problems (which increased the chances of becoming more religious by 80%) and with post-traumatic stress (which increased the chances by 62%).

However, those whose beliefs weakened also tended to report that their life was threatened more, and that they had post-traumatic stress and post-tsunami adverse life events! They also tended to be younger - and both age and post-traumatic stress remained important after adjusting for other factors.

Hussain conclude that living through the terrifying events of the Tsunami did not have much effect on the religious beliefs of Norwegians (they were, after all, repatriated within days of the event and, apart from this event, live mostly trauma-free lives).

However, those who were the most traumatised were more likely to change their religious beliefs - but the effect could go either way. To me, this suggests that whether trauma makes you more or less religious probably depends a lot on your cultural background.
Hussain, A., Weisaeth, L., & Heir, T. (2010). Changes in religious beliefs and the relation of religiosity to posttraumatic stress and life satisfaction after a natural disaster. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 46 (10), 1027-1032 DOI: 10.1007/s00127-010-0270-7

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

Over at, Austin is running the 2012 Readers Choice Awards. Like last year, there are a number of categories, so head on over and nominate your favourite (you have until Feb 15, with voting starting on Feb 22nd).
  • Best Agnostic or Atheist Book of 2011
  • Best Agnostic or Atheist Blog
  • Best Agnostic or Atheist Podcast
  • Best Agnostic or Atheist Website
  • Best Agnostic or Atheist Community
  • Best Agnostic or Atheist to Follow on Twitter
  • Best Agnostic or Atheist Facebook Page
  • Best Agnostic or Atheist Ad
While I have you here, though, I'd be interested to hear what the readers of this blog think are the best in each of these categories.

Personally, I think the best Atheist Community is the one over at reddit (I just love reddit in general). I don't really have a favourite blog, although the one I read most regularly is the one over at Science and Religion Today.

But what are you reading - when you can tear yourself away from Epiphenom, naturally!

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

Simply being near a church makes people more hostile to outsiders

Priming studies (in which you plant thoughts or topics in people's minds without their being aware of it) typically take place in laboratories. But you can get the same effects in the real world too. So, for example, people will vote differently depending on the location of the polling booth (in a Church, in a school, etc).

In a recent study, Jordan LaBouff (University of Maine) worked with colleagues at Baylor College to discover whether attitudes to different groups are affected by subliminal Christian priming.

Now, this could go either way. Most modern Christianity is at pains to be inclusive, spreading the message that all men are equal. On the other hand, we know that high religious fervour is often associated with distrust of outgroups and people who are, well, different.

So what effect does religious priming have on ordinary people? To test this, LaBouff stopped people at random outside a church in the Netherlands (and, to check if the effect was culturally specific, a few people outside Westminster Abbey in London). He asked them a series of questions, including asking them to rate their attitudes to different groups on a 1-10 scale.

He also stopped some other people in a location that contained only civic buildings (in England, the location chosen was the Houses of Parliament).

The mix of people was pretty typical for the area - 39% nonreligious, the rest Catholics and Protestants with a few religious minorities. They were pretty international too - only 28% were Dutch.

But, as you can see from the graph, attitudes towards every single group were more hostile when people were asked outside a church. All the differences are statistically significant (except the difference in attitudes towards Christians).

What I find remarkable about these results is how consistent they are. Sure, attitudes to Africans, Asians, Arabs and gay men take a hefty knock, but then so do attitudes towards the poor.

Not at all the effect that pious surroundings are supposed to induce!
LaBouff, J., Rowatt, W., Johnson, M., & Finkle, C. (2011). Differences in Attitudes Toward Outgroups in Religious and Nonreligious Contexts in a Multinational Sample: A Situational Context Priming Study International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 22 (1), 1-9 DOI: 10.1080/10508619.2012.634778

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