Field of Science

Does belief in a compassionate god increase murder rates?

Azim Shariff, who's now at the University of Oregon in the USA, has taken a look at how belief in heaven and hell relates to crime rates around the world.

The basic approach was dead simple. Using data from the World Values Survey, he subtracted the proportion of people who believe in hell from the proportion that believes in heaven.

Then he took a bunch of crime stats provided by the UN (homicide, rape , kidnapping, assault, theft, drug crime, auto theft, burglary, and human trafficking), computed an overall crime score for each nation, and correlated one against the other.

The result, shown in the figure, shows a clear relationship. Crime rates are lowest in nations where equal numbers of people believe in both heaven and hell.

As belief in hell drops away, so that more people believe in heaven but not in hell, crime rates go up.

Now, if you look at the figure closely, you will see that there are some trends here - poor Muslim countries have high belief in hell and low crime rates, while wealthy Christian nations have low belief in hell and high crime rates.

Shariff adjusted for a wide range of factors, including the nation's majority religion, wealth, inequality, life expectancy, urbanisation and dominant psychologies. He also adjusted for belief in God and religious service attendance.

Doing all this had pretty much no effect - the result was just as strong and clear cut. What's more, Shariff found that countries with a high belief in God in general also had lower crime rates.

Now that's a pretty surprising result. Shariff argues that this is evidence that belief in hell reduces crime through a supernatural deterrent effect, which is possible (see Punitive Gods stop cheaters, compassionate gods encourage them).

But I would have expected any such deterrent to be relatively weak compared with the opposite effect - that high crime rates would encourage higher rates of belief in God.

That's certainly what your would expect from other studies. Daniel Treisman found that high levels of belief in hell are accompanied by high levels of fear, and Gary Jensen has found that 'passionate dualism' (characterised by high levels of belief in hell along with religious fervour) is linked to high rates of homicide.

So what could be going on here? Well, there are some strange anomalies in the data. For a start, according to these data, Sweden and Norway are among the most crime-ridden countries in the world - on a par with South Africa!

Perhaps there is a problem here with how crime is recorded. Gregory Paul, in his comment on the article, points out that there are serious problems with trying to compare cross-national crime rates:

Interpol merely gathers and reports nonlethal crime statistics provided by member nations without standardizing or vetting it. For example, assaults are reported at a rate about 6 times higher in Australia and Sweden than in Canada and France, this level of disparity is suspect. Rates of theft are reported to be twice as high in Sweden as in France; are the former actually twice as larcenous as the French, or are the latter twice as unlikely to file a report, or is the reality somewhere in-between?
Similarly suspicious discrepancies exist in International Crime Victims Survey results. Reported rates of rape are two to twenty times higher in the U.S. than in other 1st world nations, but this only means that American females report being raped at far higher rates, not that American males are more prone to committing sexual assaults.
Nonlethal crimes are difficult to compare even between the relatively uniform 1st world countries, they only grow worse when comparing 2nd and 3rd world nations with greater disparities between the quality of crime reporting.
 So part of it may simply be that crime reporting and recording is done less efficiently in nations with a high level of belief in hell. But this can't be the whole story.

That's because there is one crime statistic that is  comparable between nations: homicide. Homicide is usually reported and recorded, and is relatively easy to define in a standardised way.

And yet Shariff finds that homicide, too, is linked to belief in Heaven without belief in Hell. The effect is weaker - only about half as strong as for crime in general - but it's still there.

So how to explain the discrepancy between this result and that of the earlier studies? Well, one factor may be how Shariff has computed his measure of belief.

Shariff subtracted the percentage of people who believe in heaven from the number who believe in hell. So that means, for example, a country in which 95% of people believe in heaven and 50% in hell is scored exactly the same as a country in which 50% of people believe in heaven and only 5% believe in hell.

Yet you would expect these to be quite different countries. All they have in common is that around half the population believe in heaven and not in hell.

So perhaps that's it. It's not that belief in heaven affects crime rates, or that belief in hell does. It's that believing in a compassionate God increases crime rates.

I'm not really convinced - I think there are too many problems with the data to make strong conclusions. But it's an intriguing idea.

Shariff AF, & Rhemtulla M (2012). Divergent effects of beliefs in heaven and hell on national crime rates. PloS one, 7 (6) PMID: 22723927

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

Religious people give to religious charities

The link between religion and charity is a fascinating one - not least because the assumption that the religious not only give more to charity but are more 'generous' as a result really does beg the question. Even if they report giving more to charity, which charities are they giving to, and why?

Ben Johnson, a masters student at the University of North Carolina, USA, used data from a nationally representative sample of 5,000 families. He crunched these through some fairly hefty statistics to see which religions were associated with higher reported giving - after controlling for education, children, stock ownership, income, volunteering behaviour and other factors (full report here).

He found that the religious were indeed more likely to report donating and, on average, donated more:

On average, Catholics give $523.00 more than people with no religious preference, Jews give $2679.67 more, Protestants give $199.69 more, and non-Christians give $1425.97 more.

So far, it looks like a gold star for religion.

Then he looked at where people were sending their charity. The survey data breaks down the recipients of charitable giving into several categories: religious, combination (like the United Way), those that help the needy, health, education, youth or family services, arts and culture, neighbourhood improvement, environment, international aid and world peace, and other.

As you can see in the table, what he found was that Catholics and Protestants only gave more to religious charities, and not to secular charities. In fact, Protestants were actually less likely than the non-religious to give to cultural and environmental charities.

Jews were more generous than more on educational and cultural donations, while the non-Christians donated more to the environment - probably those damned New Age hippies!

Back in 2010, there was a similar analysis of the same survey data (although including earlier years) by Mark Ottoni-Wilhelm, at Indiana University. He found that Christians and the non-affiliated were equally likely to give to 'basic necessity' organisations (i.e. ones that help people in need of food, shelter, or other basic necessities). Jews were again more generous.

To me these results support the idea that religious generosity is really about supporting fellow members of your tribe, rather than humanity in general. A recent cross-cultural analysis found that both Catholics and Muslims report that their charitable behaviour is primarily stoked out of a sense of duty or love for their god.

In contrast, research published earlier this year suggests that when the non-religious are motivated to give, they primarily do so out of a sense of compassion.

Ottoni-Wilhelm, Mark. (2010-09-01) Giving to Organizations that Help People in Need: Differences Across Denominational Identities. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 73(1), 11-412. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-5906.2010.01518.x  

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

Do 'world religions' make cuckoldry easier?

You may have seen this one recently - perhaps under a headline such as How Religion Promotes Confidence About Paternity. It's an eye-catching headline, but that's not actually what the study showed - for a start, they didn't compare religious with non-religious people.

Actually, what the data reveal is a more complex and rather more interesting picture.

First, to summarize what was done. Beverly Strassman (University of Michigan) and colleagues have been studying the Dogon of Mali in West Africa, who practice a range of different religions. Most of them hold on to their traditional beliefs, some are Muslim, and increasing numbers have been converted to Christianity.

They've built up a large genetic database, allowing them to test 1,706 father–son pairs in 29 patrilineages to see if they match.

What they found was that the Dogon had the lowest odds of non-paternity, followed by the Muslims (although this difference was not statistically significant), while the Catholics had the highest rates of cuckoldry.

Strassman looked into several possible explanations (polygamy, poverty etc) but the one that stood out was a particular cultural practice that marks out traditional Dogon culture: menstrual huts.

Dogon women have high fertility. Typically they are either pregnant or lactating, so menstruation is a rare event that is usually rapidly followed by pregnancy. Traditional Dogon culture demands that menstruating women relocate to special huts, close to where the men of a single patrilineage live. It's an effective way to control the reproductive options for these women.

Dogon Muslims have abandoned these huts, but Muslim women must notify their husbands and are not allowed to pray. So they clearly signal their fertility.

Christians don't have any such safeguards, which likely explains their higher rates of cuckoldry.

That's not to say that Christians tolerate cuckoldry. Far from it. In fact these religions strictly forbid it and warn of supernatural punishment (certainly that's the case for Christianity and Islam).

All of this got me thinking. After all, one popular argument is that world religions helped to bring about complex societies. They did this by facilitate interactions between strangers by increasing trust - by threatening cheaters with supernatural punishment.

Maybe what we're seeing here is the flipside of that. Christianity, a religion designed for the complex urban societies of the late Roman period, has fewer rules and regulations designed at forcing honest behaviour. It relies, instead, on assumptions of trust backed up by threats of supernatural punishment.

As a result, world religions - and the  relative personal freedom they allow - actually make cheating easier, compared with the controlling traditionalist religions. Just a thought.

Strassmann, B., Kurapati, N., Hug, B., Burke, E., Gillespie, B., Karafet, T., & Hammer, M. (2012). Religion as a means to assure paternity Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1110442109

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

Christians find it harder than atheists to recognize their own faces

Christianity, many people would agree, encourages adherents to think less about themselves and more about their group of co-religionists. Yina Ma and Shihui Han, of Peking University in Beijing, China, wanted to know if these teachings actually had meaningful psychological effects.

They recruited pairs of students: 10 pairs of atheists, and 10 pairs of Christians. All the pairs were matched for age and gender, and each pair of friends had known each other for at least two years during which they were roommates or classmates.

The did two tests, on of which was quite straightforward. They flashed up photographs of either the subjects own face, or their friend's. The task was to recognised them by pressing an appropriate key: fast reactions on this one indicate that it was easy to recognize the face.

The second was a version of the Implicit Association Test. In this test, the subjects had to match either their own or their friend's faces with positive (e.g. "good") or negative (e.g. "bad") words.

The theory goes that if you have a good opinion of yourself, or your friend, then you will find it easier to match the face with a positive word, and harder (i.e. take longer) to match it with a negative word. So this test is a measure of your gut feeling towards them.

Ma and Han found that atheists and Christians were equally fast at recognizing friend's faces. Atheists were faster at recognizing their own faces but, remarkably, Christians weren't.

They also found that atheists and Christians had equally positive feelings about their friends. However, while atheists were even more positive about themselves, Christians weren't.

They went on to show that the results of the Implicit Association Test explained the results on the first test. In other words, the relatively low opinion Christians had of themselves was linked to their relatively tardy reactions on the self recognition test.

Ma and Han note that previous research has shown that Christian belief and practice that
emphasize human sinfulness seems to weaken positive attitudes toward the self, and suspect that this is what their results have shown:

...our results suggest that the implicit positive view of the self can be reduced by Christian belief and practice that repudiates the distinctness of the self and friends and this in turn can eliminate the advantage of self-face over friend-face in the believers.

Of course, Christianity is very much a minority religion in China, and Chinese have a collectivist culture, compared with Western individualism. So we can't necessarily extrapolate these results to Christians and atheists elsewhere in the world.

Nor can it be assumed that all Christian sects have the same effect. Other research has shown that Calvinists seem to be ulta-individualistic compared with both atheists and Roman Catholics, for example.

However, it is intriguing to think about these results in the light of theories which propose that religions were invented as a tool to increase group cohesion.
Ma Y, & Han S (2012). Is the self always better than a friend? Self-face recognition in christians and atheists. PloS one, 7 (5) PMID: 22662231

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

In the US, belief in life after death is linked to belief in a just world and lower anxiety

Religion and afterlife beliefs are pretty tightly bound together, and there are several ideas why that might be. One is that belief in an afterlife might make help people to be more relaxed about threats and adversity in the here-and-now.

Kevin Flannelly, at the Spears Research Institute in New York, and colleagues assessed data from the 2010 Baylor Religion Survey to see whether belief in the afterlife was linked to different world views.

He found that positive beliefs about the afterlife (belief that the afterlife means a union with God, a reunion with loved
ones, and/or a life of eternal reward or eternal punishment) increased the likelihood of believing that this world is just.

In other words, people who believed in an afterlife were more likely to think that "Anything is possible if you work hard" and that "Everyone starts out with the same chances in life." They were less likely to agree that "The world is controlled by a few powerful people" or that "Finance is a field where people get rich without making a real contribution to society."

Flannelly also found that people who believed in a just world had less anxiety and other psychiatric symptoms such as paranoia, obsession and compulsion.

Plugging these results into a statistical model, he found that the lower level of psychiatric symptoms seen in religious people in the Baylor survey can be explained as a result of their belief in the afterlife, moderated by its effects on their beliefs in a just world. He interprets this in terms of Evolutionary Threat Assessment Theory, which hypotheses that hypersensitivity to threats in your environment (real or imagined) is a fundamental cause of many psychiatric symptoms.

Now, these results are interesting for a few reasons. Firstly, they support other results which suggest that religious people are more likely to believe that the world we live in is just - that people succeed or fail because of their own attributes, and dumb luck has little influence (and that, in turn, may help to explain the link between religion and opposition to the welfare state).

Personally, I'm not convinced that this is caused by belief in the afterlife. It seems to me that these attitudes are more likely to come about through a belief that a god is intervening in this world - and that any beliefs in the afterlife are part of the package, rather than a direct influence.

The other interesting thing to speculate about is how these beliefs might play out in other parts of the world. Although in the USA, modern Christianity has reshaped itself to pretty much guarantee a life of eternal bliss to all believers, that isn't the case for religion in other parts of the world.

Muslims are pretty freaked out by their prospects in the afterlife, for example!
Flannelly, K., Ellison, C., Galek, K., & Silton, N. (2012). Belief in Life-After-Death, Beliefs About the World, and Psychiatric Symptoms Journal of Religion and Health DOI: 10.1007/s10943-012-9608-7

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