Field of Science

Catholics and Muslims want democracy - but for different reasons

So, what's wrong with Muslim countries, eh? That's something I hear with increasing frequency - usually by people who are implying some kind of cultural superiority over the faithful.

After all, Muslim countries are mostly autocratic, and even after the Arab spring real democracy seems like a distant hope for most.

Among academics, there are two popular theories for why democracy does not take root in Muslim countries. The first says that it's down to a lack of modernization - stronger economies would "produce a more articulate, liberal, and tolerant public".

The second theory asserts that Islamic societies don't embrace the spirit of democracy - that is, they do not score well on essential civic values, such as interpersonal trust, social tolerance, support for political equality, and civic engagement.

To investigate these ideas, ManLi Gu and Eduard Bomhoff (Monash University, Sunway, Malaysia) analysed data from the World Values Survey, hoping to find out whether Muslims support democracy, and why. They looked at a selection of Catholic and Muslim Countries, chosen because there are a number of Catholic countries (in South America) with low levels of economic development.

They used a statistical technique to isolate clusters of opinions. In particular, they were looking at how attitudes to religion cluster with political attitudes.

The first thing they found is that Muslim and Catholic countries had similar levels of desire for democracy, and that all the countries they looked at had a sizable cluster of people who were both highly religious and very much in favour of democracy. What's more, there didn't seem to be any notable clusters of religious, anti-democratic individuals (except in Columbia and Mexico).

Incidentally, France, Spain and Uruguay were the only nations to have a sizable non-religious, pro-democracy group - presumably because the other countries had few non-religious people over all.

So, neither religions seem to form an intrinsic barrier to democracy. However, support for democracy was linked with very different attitudes among Catholics versus Muslims.

Gu and Bomhoff found that in Catholic countries there were sizeable groups of people whose support for democracy was linked to support for other liberal ideas - such as racial diversity, sexual liberation, gender equality, trust and social tolerance (see graphic).

In Muslims countries, these clusters mostly did not exist. But what did exist was the exact opposite - large groups of people who combined support for democracy with rejection of liberal values!

Further analysis showed that support for democracy in Muslim countries was linked not with liberal values but desire for prosperity and wealth redistribution. They conclude:

Support for democracy in the Catholic countries stems from a pro-democratic civic culture that embodies certain distinct attributes such as tolerance of diversity, mutual trust, and an emphasis on gender equality ... Citizens in Islamic countries, on the other hand, endorse the term democracy without necessarily embracing those liberal values that arguably are crucial for a vigorous and open democracy.

So people living in Muslim countries see democracy just as a tool that brings economic benefits. And the problem with that, according to Gu and Bomhoff, is that support for democracy won't endure in the face of economic downturns.

Now, it was not all that long ago that you could find similar attitudes in Catholic countries. After all, Spain and Latin America have had a pretty ambivalent relationship with democracy until relatively recently. However, attitudes in these countries have shifted quite dramatically in recent years. Democratization was accompanied by a surge in support for liberal values, especially among the young.

In Muslim countries, however, the young are just as conservative as their parents and grandparents (at least, according to the World Values Survey). There are no signs of shifting attitudes.

All of this leads Gu and Bomhoff to a gloomy prognosis for Muslim countries:

We concur with the Culturalist theorists that there is a cultural basis for the absence of democracy in the Muslim world — the democratic deficit has something to do with a shortfall in deeper democratic values and a lack of appreciation of freedom and openness at the mass level.

Quite why this is so is another matter. I suspect it is not due to religious differences - at least, not in any direct way. After all, both religions include traditions that could be called upon to support either liberal or conservative attitudes.

So I suspect that the difference has something to do with the cultural history, and in particular the conflict with the Christian West. Throughout most of the history of Islam, the West was culturally and materially inferior to Islam. Maybe this cultural memory has something to do with the resistance to what are seen today as 'Western' values.
Man-Li Gu, & Eduard J. Bomhoff (2012). Religion and Support for Democracy: A Comparative Study for Catholic and Muslim Countries Politics and Religion, 5 (2), 280-316 : 10.1017/S1755048312000041

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

Awe expands your sense of time - and makes you less materialistic

In a series of fascinating experiments, Melanie Rudd (Stanford University) and colleagues have shown that inspiring a feeling of awe in their subjects also made them feel that they had more time to do things, made them less materialistic and encouraged to think about volunteering their time to help others.

The really amazing thing was how easy it was to instil such a sense of awe: a TV commercial, a walk down memory lane, or a story about an awe-inspiring view

In the first study, subjects watched "a 60-second commercial for an LCD television. The awe-eliciting commercial depicted people in city streets and parks encountering and interacting with vast, mentally overwhelming, and seemingly realistic images, such as waterfalls, whales, and astronauts in space."

In the second experiment, "participants wrote narratives about a randomly assigned personal experience. Participants in the awe condition read that awe is: ―a response to things perceived as vast and overwhelming that alters the way you understand the world, and wrote about an experience that made them feel awe. Participants in the happiness condition read that happiness is feeling ―contentment or joy, and wrote about an experience that made them feel happy."

And in the third experiment, "participants in the awe condition read a story about ascending the Eiffel Tower and seeing Paris from on high. Participants in the neutral condition read about ascending an unnamed tower and seeing a plain landscape from on high."

Simple things, but all were enough to significantly increase feelings of awe.

And then what happened? Well, in the first experiment, the subjects reported that they felt they had more time available. In the second, they reported feeling less impatient and this in turn led them to be more willing to volunteer their time to help others

The third experiment was particularly interesting. In this one, the participants were offered choices between material possessions and experiences (a watch and Broadway show tickets, a $10 gas card and a $10 movie theater pass, a jacket and a restaurant dinner, a scientific calculator and a professional massage, and a $50 backpack and a $50 iTunes card).

They found that people who read the story about climbing the Eiffel tower were more likely to choose experiences over possessions, but this was entirely due to their perception that they had more time on their hands.

Now, two things struck me when I read this experiment. Firstly, it seems to me that atheists have a great appetite for awe-inspiring stories - in particular, stories about great scientific and engineering feats. Could this in part be a facet of life that in other circumstances could be filled by religion?

Secondly, we know from other research that experiences give greater satisfaction than material possessions. And yet the pursuit of material possessions seem to be a major life goal for many people. Could this be due to our feeling of time depletion - and could that in turn be remedied by stoking up a sense of awe?

Could feats like the recent landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars actually reduce materialism and encourage people to do voluntary work?
Rudd M, Vohs KD, & Aaker J (2012). Awe Expands People's Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being. Psychological science PMID: 22886132

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

Recollections of childhood religion: your past becomes like your present

Trying to work out why and how religious beliefs change over their lifetime is challenging because hard data are rare. Instead, researchers often have to resort to asking adults what they believed when they were children.

Of course, everyone knows that such memories are not 100% reliable, but just how unreliable is hard to judge. David Hayward, at the University of Michigan, and colleagues, have been able to quantify it by using data from a survey that's been running in Rhode Island since 1959.

The survey was conducted in waves, starting with mothers and their infant children, and then following up with three further surveys (the most recent was in 2001). In each survey, they asked about current religious behavior ("Do you regularly go to a church or other place of worship?") and current religious identity ("Do you consider yourself a religious person?"). Crucially, they also asked about retrospective childhood religious behavior and retrospective childhood religious identity.

Comparing the earliest and last responses for each participant, they found that both current religious behaviour and current religious identity did change for around 20-30% of people. That's as you might expect: some people became less religious, some people became more religious (this was more common), but most people stayed the same.

What was interesting is that recollections of childhood religion also changed.

In fact, most people were consistent in their reports of childhood religious behaviour. Only 10% changed their minds about whether or not they had regularly gone to church. However, 25% of people changed their minds about whether they considered their childhood selves to have been religious.

When Hayward and colleagues crunched the numbers, they found that current religious identity significantly influenced changes in childhood religious identity. In other words, people tend to change their ideas about their childhood religious identity to align it with their current identity. They comment that:

This pattern of results is consistent with predictions based on self-appraisal theory. Because we are motivated to see ourselves as basically stable on important dimensions across the life course, and to reduce perceived dissonance between past and present selves, it is likely that when people reevaluate their religiousness they tend to harmonize past identities with present ones.

That wasn't the case with childhood religious behaviour. Perhaps that's because behaviour is more objective, and can be independently verified. But maybe it's also because your past behaviour is easier to explain away.

For example, if you don't go to church now, you can explain away your childhood church going as simply the result of family pressure. SImilarly, current churchgoers can justify their lack of attendance in childhood as a result of family shortcomings.

You can explain away childhood behaviour without having to disturb your precious beliefs about your own values. But you can't explain away childhood identity in this way so, in order to restore mental harmony, the temptation is to invent new memories! Hayward RD, Maselko J, & Meador KG (2012). Recollections of Childhood Religious Identity and Behavior as a Function of Adult Religiousness. The International journal for the psychology of religion, 22 (1), 79-88 PMID: 22844186

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

Religion and ethnicity reinforce each other to create distrust

It's often argued by the non-religious that religion contributes to community tensions by creating divisions. Religious people usually take a different view, claiming that religion helps to diffuse racial tensions by promoting goodwill and charitable thoughts.

Well, surprise, surprise. It turns out there is an element of truth in both perspectives.

Henning Finseraas and Niklas Jakobsson, from the Norwegian Social Research Institute NOVA, used the World Values Survey, which included one question that asked: “In general, do you think that most people
can be trusted, or can’t you be too careful in dealing with people?”

They wanted to see how trust relates to ethnic and religious divisions. They measured this in a couple of ways, but both methods basically try to capture how many ethnic (or religious) groups there are, and whether they are large or small. In a highly fractionated society, two strangers who meet are unlikely to be members of the same ethnic (or religious) group.

What they found was that ethnic divisions by themselves did not seem to be linked to more distrust.

However, when religious and ethnic differences aligned (so that people of a different ethnicity usually also had a different religion), then there were high levels of distrust.

You can see that depicted in the figure. Basically, what it shows is that as ethnic-religious 'cross-cutting' increases (i.e. as ethnicity becomes less closely aligned to religion), the negative effect of ethnic divisions on trust goes down.

In fact, in totally mixed societies where there is little or no connection between ethnicity and religion, there may even be a positive effect on trust (although this was not statistically significant).

Overall, what this suggests is that looking at societal divisions through a single prism - whether ethnicity, or religion, or something else - is not going to give you a useful picture. Rather, you need to look at how these divisions reinforce or counteract each other.
Trust and Ethnic Fractionalization: The Importance of Religion as a Cross-Cutting Dimension. (2012). Finseraas, Henning Kyklos, 19 (1), 327-339 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6435.2012.00541.x

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

Post 9/11, high religious beliefs predict more distress

In the two months following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Daniel McIntosh, a psychologist at the University of Denver, and colleagues ran an internet survey of 890 people to gauge their happiness, cognitive intrusions (flashbacks and other post-traumatic stress), and diagnoses of anxiety and depression.

They found that high levels of religious attendance were linked to more happiness (positive affect, in the jargon), fewer cognitive intrusions, and fewer cases of anxiety and depression.

People with strong religious beliefs (i.e. those who said that "My whole approach to life is shaped by my spiritual or religious beliefs" and "I try hard to live all my life according to my religious or spiritual beliefs") were also happier, but there was no correlation with anxiety and depression.

However, strong believers ("High spirituality" in the graph) actually had more cognitive intrusions after 9-11. These gradually declined over time until they dropped back to the levels of non-believers by the end of the study.

Now, the religious attendance thing you would expect. Religious people in the USA regularly report they were happier, and it's easy to believe that belonging to a group could help you cope with the trauma. There was another recent study, this one looking at Italian earthquake survivors, which also found that people who attended religious services were protected from trauma. 

But the high distress of religious believers is interesting. That differs from the Italian study, which found that religious believers were no more or less traumatised than non-believers. But it suggests that people with more religious belief felt more connected with the event in some way.

One thing they didn't look at was how religious beliefs changed after the event. There has been at least one study looking at this (which found that the most directly traumatised tend to lose religion), but other studies looking at trauma and belief have shown a mixed picture!
McIntosh DN, Poulin MJ, Silver RC, & Holman EA (2011). The distinct roles of spirituality and religiosity in physical and mental health after collective trauma: a national longitudinal study of responses to the 9/11 attacks. Journal of behavioral medicine, 34 (6), 497-507 PMID: 21344318

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