Field of Science

Religious students have fewer interracial friends

Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Freshmen (NLSF), Julie Park, an educationalist at the University of Maryland, has investigated how inter-racial friendships and religious affiliation interact. The NLSF was an annual survey of White, Black, Latino, and Asian American students from 28 selective institutions that ran from 1999 to 2004.

During their fourth year of college, students were asked to “think of the four people at [your college] with whom you have been closest during your college years.” They were also asked to list the race/ethnicity of each of the friends.

What she found was that the most religious students (based on self-reported religiosity, their frequency of religious service attendance, and their religious observance) also had the fewest friends from other races.

What's more, Protestant or Jewish (but not Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist) students also had the fewest mixed-race friendships. That's probably because these are the two major religious groups.

These two effects were independent - so the most mono-cultural people were the most religious Protestants and Jews. This held even after controlling for a bunch of other factors, including the racial diversity of the college, the diversity of their previous school, and the race of the student.

And on top of all this, belonging to a religious club reduced the chances of inter-racial friendship still further! That wasn't the case with other clubs (except explicitly ethnic clubs - and even here the effect was smaller than for religious clubs).

Now, the interesting thing about these three factors - religiosity, religious denomination, and membership of a religious club - is that they weren't highly correlated. That means that they seem to have independent, additive effects. Park concludes that:

While all of these dimensions certainly overlap and are difficult to disentangle, there are likely distinct facets of each one that may contribute to a student being less likely to form close interracial friendships during college ... It appears that there is no single reason why religion appears to lower the probability of interracial friendship during college, but a combination of affiliation, involvement, and specific involvement in religious peer environments lowers the likelihood of close interracial friendship.

Park has a positive message for university administrators. While the linkage between racial division and religion is problematic, it reflects wider society - and so there is an opportunity here for universities to break the cycle:

University educators are in a prime position to challenge students to harness the elements of religion that “unmake” prejudice or students’ hesitation to cross racial/ethnic boundaries. They can partner with those who often have closer contact with students’ religious lives during college—campus ministry staff and local houses of worship—to discuss possible linkages between race and faith during the college years.
When they see racially homogeneous religious student organizations, they can inquire into whether a specific purpose exists in the demographic composition of the group (such as supporting students’ ethnic identity development) or whether the demography is more a byproduct of a group’s hesitation to address race.
Finally, given that many students of different races may share a particular religious faith, they can consider how faith can be used to unite students across racial/ethnic lines instead of divide them. Religion may be the most racially divided arena of life in the U.S., but the university is a rare opportunity to break the cycle of segregation in America.
Park, J. (2012). When race and religion collide: The effect of religion on interracial friendship during college. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 5 (1), 8-21 DOI: 10.1037/a0026960

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

Fear of death is highest among Muslims

Many people assume that religious people are less anxious about death than the non-religious. After all, the most popular religions (Islam and Christianity) explicitly hold out the promise of eternal rewards for the faithful.

However, it's not quite that simple. After all, traditional versions of these gods are also pretty vengeful, and if you believe in a vengeful god, then you have to face the distinct possibility of some pretty nasty experiences after death. After all, even holy people usually have some guilty secrets.

However, there's very little international data on the relationship between religion and anxiety. A new study by Chris Ellis, along with colleagues at the University of Malaya, have gone some way to filling this hole, and the results are pretty intriguing.

They interviewed nearly 5,000 people (mostly at Universities) in 3 countries: Malaysia, Turkey, and the USA.

The results for Malaysia were striking. There was a clear linear relationship between religiosity and fear of death. There was a similar relationship in Turkey, although less strong (they interviewed far fewer people in Turkey, however).

Even more striking were the results in the USA. Here, there was a curvilinear relationship - death anxiety was highest in those with average religious feelings.

The reason for these differences is probably down to differences in religious beliefs between Muslims and Christians. Muslims had the highest fear of death - the lowest fear of death was seen in the non-religious in America and Christians in Malaysia.

This tallies with an earlier study, which a few years ago reported that Muslims in the UK are more anxious about death than are Christians and people with no religion.

The authors explain their results in terms of a theory called "death apprehension". This says that religion can have varying effects on death anxiety, depending on the actual beliefs held: belief in a demanding and vindictive God and the certainty about the reality of an afterlife can both lead to more anxiety. On the other hand, abiding by religious teachings and believing in divine forgiveness can reduce death anxiety.

Muslims seem to be more likely to believe in a vindictive god, and less likely to believe in a forgiving god. The authors put this down to fundamental differences in Islamic and Christian religions.

That's possible, but I'm also inclined to think that Christianity has reinvented itself over the past 100 years. As social structures have evolved, the idea of god as a punisher has fallen out of fashion - indeed, many modern Christians don't have any meaningful belief in Hell at all.

Whatever the cause of this difference, however, it's likely that this explains the different relationship between religion and death anxiety in these nations.

There's another interesting implication of the findings of this study, and that's the observation that the non-religious have a very low fear of death. Other studies have also shown that the non-religious have a higher suicide rate. Could these two observations be linked?

ResearchBlogging.orgEllis, L., Wahab, E., & Ratnasingan, M. (2012). Religiosity and fear of death: a three‐nation comparison Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 1-21 DOI: 10.1080/13674676.2011.652606

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

Reminders of death make the non-religious more hostile to religion yet more accepting of beliefs

There's quite a lot of research showing that subtly reminding people of death can make them more religious (here's an example). But what's not clear is why that should be - and in particular whether non-religious people also become more religious.

Jonathan Jong, a new PhD from the University of Otago in New Zealand, has conducted a series of fascinating studies to investigate just this. You can find his thesis here - there's a lot in it, but here's two key studies that will make you think.

In the first study, Jong asked students to write either about what they thought would happen to them when they die (the death condition), or about watching TV (the control condition). Then he asked them a series of questions about religious beliefs (with a Christian slant) - the Spiritual Belief Scale (SBS).

You can see in the figure that religious people have, as you would expect, high levels of belief in the supernatural - and this increases still further in the 'death' condition versus the TV condition.

Non-religious people had lower beliefs to start with, and they got lower still after death reminders. They become stronger in their rejection of religious beliefs.

OK, so far so good. But this is just what people are saying - and what people say and what they think instinctively are not necessarily the same.

So then Jong ran a version of the Implicit Association Test. This is basically a computerised quiz in which you have to classify words into different groups. Some classifications go against your instinctive beliefs - and these classifications will make you stumble a little, and so take you a little bit longer.

So, in this case, the subjects had to classify supernatural (Angel, Devil, God, Heaven, Soul, etc), real (Eagle, Helicopter...), and imaginary (Batmobile, Fairy, Genie, Mermaid, Narnia) entities as either real or imaginary. For the the non-religious, being asked to classify supernatural and real objects together as real, and distinct from imaginary objects, is tough to do. It goes against their instincts, and so they took significantly longer to do it.

However, if they were primed with death thoughts before hand, they found the task easier. In fact, the improvement in speed was pretty much as large as it was for the religious. What this suggests is that the idea that supernatural entities are real is easier to contemplate for everyone - including the non-religious - if they have been thinking about death.

Jong thinks that what we're seeing here is evidence that reflective, conscious thoughts can be decoupled from instinctive, implicit beliefs.

What may be happening is that all of us - religious and non-religious alike - have a kind of innate response to the fear of death that makes us more accommodating to the idea of supernatural beings (at least, those ones that are culturally accepted as possibly real and not complete fantasies).

Countering this, on the other hand, is something called Worldview Defence. This is the well-known phenomenon that when we are reminded about death, we tend to cling onto comforting, reassuring beliefs about the world. We become more positive about our own ethnic group or nation, for example, and more hostile to strangers.

For the religious, this also includes a heightened attachment to religion. For the non-religious, however, the reverse effect seems to occur.

For the non-religious, being reminded of death makes them instinctively more superstitious, but also overtly more hostile to religion!

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

Hostility to migrants in Europe is strongest among the 'culturally Christian'

There are many types of religion. In Europe, most people when asked would call themselves 'Christian', even if  they rarely (if ever) go to church, and have only a shaky grasp of the core Christian beliefs (you might have seen the recent survey commissioned by the Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science looking into this very issue).

These people are quite different from the dutiful Christians who go to Church and, you know, believe in god and all that stuff.  Earlier this year I wrote about some research by Ingrid Storm, at Manchester University in the UK, who showed that observant Christians in Britain are less likely than 'nominal' Christians to think that immigration is a threat to national identity.

In a second study, she compared four North European nations - Britain, Ireland, The Netherlands and Denmark. Britain is unusual among these nations for the high level of hostility towards immigrants. And while in all nations, non-Christians are the least hostile towards migrants (this group includes the non-religious but also Muslims, Jews etc), the difference between nominal Christians and observant Christians is only obvious in Britain and Ireland.

However, when Storm crunched the stats she found that, even in The Netherlands and Denmark, regular churchgoers were a little less hostile to immigrants than non-churchgoers.

Interestingly in Ireland, but not in Denmark or the Netherlands, those who were hostile to atheists were also less hostile to immigrants.

Overall, the numbers show a complicated picture. Clearly, religious people are more hostile to immigrants in all nations, but this seems to be mediated by beliefs that being Christian is integral to national identity. So, for example, members of the Danish Folk Church are particularly hostile to immigrants.

But it also seems to be mediated by a fear of Muslims. Hostility to Muslims helped to explain the religion-anti-immigration attitudes in Britain, The Netherlands, and Denmark, although that wasn't the case in Ireland. Maybe that's because Ireland has relatively few immigrants, and especially few Muslim immigrants.

So although religious people in these countries tend to be hostile to immigrants, it doesn't seem to have much to do with their religious beliefs, as such. Rather, it's because religion is used as a tool to separate 'us' from 'them'.

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

Are religious Americans more careful with money?

Dan Hess, at Seattle Pacific University, has looked at whether US cities with more religious people also tend to have fewer people getting into debt trouble.

He analysed data from 120 "Metropolitan Statistical Areas" - places with an average population of 1.7 million. You can see a least of the top 10 most religious, and top 10 least religious, in the box.

Overall, more religious metropolitan areas also had better credit scores, fewer foreclosures (by around two-thirds) and fewer bankruptcies (by around 50%).

These were all significant even after adjusting for other local factors, such as the total population of the area, average income, education, age, and the proportion of ethnic minorities. Hess even adjusted for the percentage of Republican voters in the area.

Hess puts this down to a direct and indirect effects.

Firstly , he proposes a direct effect, saying that:

Christian and Islamic scriptures espouse prudence and speak against carrying debt. For example, “The wicked borrows but does not pay back, but the righteous is generous and gives” (Psalms 37:21); “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed. Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:7, 8). The Quran states, “If the debtor is in distress, then let there be postponement until he is in ease” (2:280).

Secondly, he says, religion is specifically sought out by "risk-averse individuals who are trying to reduce the anxiety about risk and uncertainty in their lives". As a result, they are naturally less likely to take financial gambles.

Now, both of these could plausibly influence attitudes to financial risk. However, I can't see how the second would have any affect on the average debt levels in a county. Assuming, that is, that there are the same proportion of risk averse people in each area.

Which brings me to another point. Eyeballing that list, it seems to me that the two groups of cities have some pretty major cultural differences - of which religion is a part, but surely not the whole story. It strikes me that the least religious metropoli are well, more cosmopolitan.

By that I mean that they are more culturally diverse and culturally dynamic. They are the sorts of places that might attract risk takers. They also seem to be the sort of places to attract people for whom external show and image are important (extrinsics, in the jargon).

However, my knowledge of American geo-culture is not so hot, despite years of avid telly watching. So I can't really put my finger on what it is - but those cities are just very different!
Dan W. Hess (2012). The Impact of Religiosity on Personal Financial Decisions Journal of Religion & Society, 14 (Link)

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

Are religious identity and national identity interchangeable?


Kenneth Harttgen (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) and Matthias Opfinger (Leibniz University Hannover) have developed an index of National Identity based on survey responses to eight questions. Things like interest in politics, confidence in the parliament and justice system, and interest in politics - as well as more obvious things like willingness to fight for your country, and national pride.

Using this index, they set out to discover which factors were most closely linked to a high level of national identity (here's their Working Paper).

Some factors are interesting, but fairly readily understood. High levels of democracy promote national identity (not surprising, given the definition), as do good roads and lots of phones (this is independent of wealth, and is probably to do with the ease that communication within a country). More populous countries also have a higher national identity.

But they also found that religious diversity was linked to increased national identity. On the other hand, religious polarisation (when a country is split into 2 or three large religions) was not.

Now, the really interesting thing was that the strongest link was not between current diversity and national identity, but between religious diversity in 1900 and current national identity. This is evidence that high levels of religious diversity in the past actually seem to strengthen national identity now (or, alternatively, given the number of new countries over the past 100 years, that only a really strong national identity can forge a new nation in the face of religious diversity!).

What Harttgen and Opfinger propose is that religious identity and national identity are flip sides of the same coin. When you have a country with mostly a single religion, people define themselves in terms of a shared religion. But in countries where your neighbours are likely to be of a different religion, religious identity becomes less important, and so people begin to identify themselves in terms of their shared nationality.

However, another interesting finding was that there was no link (positive or negative) between ethnic diversity and national identity. Their explanation for this doesn't make sense to me:

Two simple examples can make this more easily understandable. First, take two persons of the same nationality, say German. These persons will identify with their religious group as long as they adhere to the same denomination. They share a common set of values, which is based on their religious beliefs. Two persons of the same nationality might not be able to identify with their religion if they adhere to two different denominations, say Protestant and Catholic. Hence, higher religious diversity decreases the importance of religion. But still these people share a broader set of values or cultural beliefs which are based on their national heritage and lets them form a national identity. As a consequence, higher religious diversity, which leads to less importance of religion, increases national identity.

As a second example, consider two US American citizens where one is Caucasian and the other is African American. No matter what their religion is these persons can at least identify on a national level. They share a common set of values which is based on being a US national. This example can help understand why ethnic differences might not affect the formation of a national identity.

Just swap 'ethnicity' for religion in the above and you'll see what I mean. It makes just as much sense (or as little, depending on your perspective). Nevertheless, it does seem to be the case ethnic diversity does not affect national identity (since other studies have found something similar), whereas religious identity does.

It's also hard to reconcile these findings with previous research that found that religious fervour and national identity were closely linked in countries with a low religious diversity.

I suspect that the somewhat odd definition of 'national identity' used in this study is skewing the results!

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

Church and freedom from depression: cause or effect?

That churchgoers in the USA are less likely to be depressed than non-Churchgoers is pretty well established now. However, what's always been unclear is whether this is down to cause or effect.

Does going to Church reduce your risk for depression? Perhaps the social interaction help to prevent it, or perhaps the spiritual beliefs are a buttress against depression.

Or is it simply that depressed people tend to stay indoors and become reclusive?

One way to find out is to follow people over time. See whether depression precedes a loss of religion, or vice versa.

One recent study followed 114 30-year olds living in New Haven Connecticut. When questioned 10 years after the initial interviews, they found that among the 72 individuals whose parents had suffered depression, those who had said that religion or spirituality were very important to them were the least likely to have become depressed.

But, strangely, there was no effect of churchgoing. What's more, there was no effect in those individuals whose parents did not suffer depression.

The second study was much larger. They followed 2,000 people in Rhode Island for nearly 20 years. Joanna Maselko, the lead author on the second study, has done some previous research on this topic (I covered one study back in 2008 (Being closer to god linked to more depression).

What they found that, for women at least, those who had been depressed before age 18 were much more likely to stop going to church when they were older.

In fact, after adjusting for other factors, these women were 40% more likely to stop attending religious services. For men, however, there was no effect.

So, why did these two studies come up with such different findings?

Well, the first study was pretty small, and you should always be sceptical of small studies. But there were some key differences in the way they approached the problem.

The first study looked at older people (aged 30), while the second looked at younger people (aged under 18).

The first study sought out people whose parents were depressed, while the second study looked at a more random selection of people.

But probably most importantly, the first study looked at beliefs, while the second study looked at behaviour.

Could it be that spiritual beliefs help to defend against depression, but not churchgoing or socialising? Unfortunately the second study didn't examine beliefs. And, frustratingly, neither of them looked at the reverse of their original hypothesis (i.e. whether depression was linked to future spirituality in the firs one, or whether religious people are less likely to become depressed in the second).

So these studies join what is a very patchy picture overall. There does seem to be some link between religion and depression. But what that link is, I can't say!
Miller, L., Wickramaratne, P., Gameroff, M., Sage, M., Tenke, C., & Weissman, M. (2011). Religiosity and Major Depression in Adults at High Risk: A Ten-Year Prospective Study American Journal of Psychiatry DOI: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2011.10121823 

Maselko, J., Hayward, R., Hanlon, A., Buka, S., & Meador, K. (2012). Religious Service Attendance and Major Depression: A Case of Reverse Causality? American Journal of Epidemiology DOI: 10.1093/aje/kwr349

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