Field of Science

Subconscious religious predjudice in children

We know that religious affiliation is one among many markers of group identity. But if you ask typical adults, they will insist that they are not prejudiced against members of other faiths. However, if you measure their subconscious reactions, you can reveal hidden biases.

In other words, adults know they are not supposed to be prejudiced, but deep down they often are.

But what about children? Larisa Heiphetz and colleagues, at Harvard University, ran a series of studies to find out.

The basic gist of these was that they showed the kids pictures and pictures of two children - one Christian, and one either Jewish or Hindu. The children were matched (same race etc), but the stories about them were tweaked either to emphasise differences or similarities).

Then they asked the kids their opinions of the two test children. They also ran something called the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which is a test designed to uncover subconscious prejudice.

What they found was that when the characters were presented alongside an explanation that pointed out they were different (for example, by highlighting the differences between Hinduism and Christianity, or by having the Christian child say that aspects of Judaism were silly), then the children showed a marked explicit, conscious prejudice.

That's quite different to the adults, who try to maintain they have no prejudice against other religions.

When they glossed over the differences, however, the children's explicit prejudice ebbed away. But their subconscious prejudice remained - if anything it was even higher.

What Heiphertz and colleagues conclude is that these mostly Christian children, like adults, have an implicit pro-Christian bias. Unlike adults, however, they are happy to admit to their bias, when they recognise it themselves.

What was unusual, however, was that the children did not even need to understand the differences between the characters in order to show a subconscious bias. As they say:

In cases where children are asked to choose between characters whose religions are similar and familiar, the IAT may tap preferences of which the children are unaware or which they may not yet be able to articulate.

So prejudice against other faiths is so deeply ingrained that it can have an effect even when these kids can't consciously identify any important differences between children of different faiths!
Heiphetz L, Spelke ES, & Banaji MR (2012). Patterns of Implicit and Explicit Attitudes in Children and Adults: Tests in the Domain of Religion. Journal of experimental psychology. General PMID: 22905875

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

The rising tide of religious protectionism in the West

In the West these days we're used to a familiar narrative about growing rise of non-belief. Poll after poll has been clear: most countries in Europe, as well as Australasia, are either largely non-religious or becoming markedly less so. Even in the USA, there is now a clear trend towards lower levels of personal belief, especially among the young.

But that's not the full picture, not by a long chalk. There are many different ways to look at whether society is 'secular', and one of the is to consider whether religion plays a role in the public sphere.

To assess this, Jonathan Fox, a Political Scientist at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, has looked at trends in governmental religious policy over recent years (Fox was also the author of the 'clash of civilizations' study that I wrote about back in July).

When he looked at discrimination against minority religions, he found a clear trend. As shown in the graphic, the average level of religious favouritism in the west has been increasing. Fox found that:

The most common restrictions are on building, maintaining or repairing places of worship and registration requirements for minority religious institutions. Also, over a quarter of Western European countries place restrictions on proselytizing by foreigners. For example, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland, and the UK require special visas for missionaries and/or religious workers and/or have denied such entry to some missionaries or religious workers.

He also found that this trend is quite widespread. Almost all countries (including the USA) engage in at least some form of religious discrimination, and since 1990 discrimination has increased in 12 out of 27 countries assessed (and gone down in only 2).

The second of Fox's findings was that, on average, governmental support for religion has remained constant over this period - although it increased in seven countries and decreased in eight. He comments:

For instance in 2008 Spain stopped making direct payments to the Catholic Church and Sweden, in the context of removing its official religion in 2000, eliminated some laws. On the other side of the coin, Luxembourg began funding ‘recognized’ religions in 1998 and during George W. Bush’s presidency, the United States began more systematically funding faith-based charities, a trend that had begun more tentatively and with more restrictions under previous administrations.

Although Fox focuses on Western Europe, it seems like this is a worldwide phenomenon. The Pew Centre recently reported that religious discrimination, as assessed by several different measures, has increased around the world in recent years.

I look at these data and what I see is a backlash by the political establishment against the loss of religious faith. Almost all of the increase in religious legislation has been to increase state funding for religious enterprises.

Fox acknowledges this perspective, but demurs:

The simplest interpretation is that this is part of a larger trend where religion is remaining important and perhaps increasing in importance. Another interpretation is that this government sponsored support for dominant religions is a compensation for declining religiosity and religious identity. If this is the case, this would mean that politicians in democratically elected governments in supposedly secularizing societies still think supporting religion benefits their political careers. This implies that there is still a strong political base supporting these policies.

I think that's true - and you should remember that even in countries with a lot of atheists, most people are still religious and even those who are minimally religious still identify with a faith from a cultural perspective. Plus, of course, politicians are of the older generation, which is more religious than the youngsters (and, compounding the problem: young people don't vote).

So there are still plenty of votes in religion.

But what about discrimination of minorities. Well, again to me this looks like the dominant culture protecting their own. In particular, hostility towards Muslim minorities in Europe seems to be driving legislation that is specifically attacking minority faiths.

This discrimination is less about religious fervour and more about hostility to immigrants.

Fox agrees, but with some nuances:

In the case of the increasing religious discrimination, it is possible to argue that this reflects a desire to maintain the dominant culture, security concerns, and, perhaps, protect citizens from potentially dangerous and predatory ‘cults’ or ‘sects’. However, the specific restrictions do not materially add to security and by agitating minority populations they likely increase security risks ... these policies seem more consistent with a desire to protect the religious status quo.
Put differently, if religion was not important in the West, the introduction of new religions with small followings into a country should be met with apathy, not resistance

In other words, however you read these data it's clear that religion is still important in the West. In fact, religion is important enough for governments to take increasing steps to try to protect it!
Jonathan Fox (2012). The Last Bastion of Secularism? Government Religion Policy in Western Democracies, 1990 to 2008 Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 20 (2), 161-180 DOI: 10.1080/14782804.2012.685389

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

Cultural transmission of religious violence: is it inherited or diffused

In 16th century Europe, a radical new Christian movement arose - the Anabaptists. Although the history is murky, it seems that the new sect began in Zurich, and then rapidly fractured into a collection of splinter sects.

Some of these groups (around half), advocated the violent overthrow of government and existing churches to establish a theocracy. The other half, although often sharing the same ultimate goal, were non-violent.

Luke Matthews, an anthropologist at Harvard University, was interested in what governed whether a particular group was violent or pacifist.

In particular, he wanted to know if the most important factor was whether the parent group advocated violence, or whether the personal relationships between the groups that mattered more.

So he analysed the different groups, using a statistical technique borrowed from evolutionary biology, to see if inheritance was important. He also looked at whether the leaders of the congregations knew each other personally, and whether that had any influence over shared attitudes.

What he found was that, for violent beliefs, the most important factor was whether the groups shared a common inheritance. Violent groups, it seems, beget violent splinter groups.

That wasn't the case for other theological beliefs - for example, whether they observed Sabbath on a Saturday, or practised polygamy, or believed in purgatory. All of these were better explained by personal connections between group leaders.

So it seems that while religious ethical beliefs diffused from one group to another, attitudes towards violent revolution were inherited.

Quite why that would be is not clear - although to me this suggests that attitudes towards violence must define what each group is about is some fundamental way. Whereas other beliefs are up for negotiation, belief in violence or pacifism is not.

Luke J. Matthewsa, Jeffrey Edmonds, Wesley J. Wildman, & Charles L. Nunn (2012). Cultural inheritance or cultural diffusion of religious violence? A quantitative case study of the Radical Reformation Religion, Brain & Behavior, 1-13 DOI: 10.1080/2153599X.2012.707388

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

When did moralising gods emerge?

Looking at societies cross the world, you're stuck by the enormous variety of mystical beliefs out there - to the point where, infamously, even trying to come up with a definition of religion that everyone agrees on is pretty much impossible.

Yet there are common themes. Many societies do believe in some kind of chief god, and many of those believe that this god is some kind of parent or leader figure - one that takes an interest in his people, and punishes bad behaviour.

So the question is, do societies vary in some systematic way? Is it, as some people have claimed, that complex societies lead to the development of moralising gods?

Hervey Peoples and Frank Marlowe, at the University of Cambridge, have set out to test this statistically - no mean feat.

They used a something called the "Standard Cross-Cultural Sample", which was created in 1980 and which provides an unbiased sample of the worlds societies - representing every region, language family, and cultural area. They're predominantly pre-industrial.

They categorised each society according to whether they believed in an active High God (a single, all-powerful creator active in human affairs and supportive of human morality), a High God that is inactive or remote, or no belief in any High God.

Belief in an active High God was significantly greater in societies that were larger, more stratified (i.e. less equality) and societies engaged in intensive agriculture. Now, all of these things go together - you need intensive agriculture to support a large society, and large agricultural societies have the surpluses and politics that facilitate stratification.

All of this fits nicely with the hypothesis that moralising gods are an invention of large, structured societies. But what about pastoralists?

The thing about pastoralists is that they are vulnerable to the environment - herds could scatter or be devastated by drought. Lifestyles based on foraging and low-intensity agriculture are vulnerable to the same things, although it it easier for such groups to relocate.

Even more important, I think, is that pastoralists have a source of transportable wealth - their cattle. That means that they are vulnerable to attack from other pastoralists (and, indeed, can gain from attacking other groups). And that in turn means that their groups must be cohesive and well-organised to survive.

In other words, they have a very great incentive to punish free-riders and cheats. If a forager goes off the rails, no-one really suffers except him. For a pastoralist group, however, sticking together is all important.

At first blush, all of this is in line with other research that links the emergence of complex societies to the invention of moralising gods. However, that's not quite the case.

The previous research showed that 'world religions' are linked to altruism towards anonymous strangers. In practice, that means breaking down inter-group barriers.

This new research seems to show that moralising powerful gods are linked to stronger group cohesion.

Now, those two results are actually in conflict. But they do reinforce the fact that religious beliefs do not act in a straightforward way.

It seems likely that their effects are quite context dependent - a conclusion, of course, that's borne out by a lot of other research!
Peoples HC, & Marlowe FW (2012). Subsistence and the evolution of religion. Human nature (Hawthorne, N.Y.), 23 (3), 253-69 PMID: 22837060

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

Why is there something rather than nothing?

One of the perks of writing a blog is that sometimes publishers offer to send you  copies of new books. Sadly, they are mostly not the books that I actually want to read.

But here's one that was really enjoyable, but was also (tangentially) relevant to this blog. So here's a brief review - consider it an advertorial :)

The book Why does the World Exist? is framed as an 'existential detective story'. Basically what this means is that the writer, Jim Holt, has shuttled around the world chatting to a bunch of intellectuals (mostly philosophers, but the occasional scientist and even one or two theologians) who give their spin on the question.

Now, the idea that Holt set out on a pilgrimage of enlightenment in the way depicted in the book is clearly a bit of narrative fiction. It's obvious from the way he writes that the guy knows his stuff, and I'm sure he knew pretty much what he was going to hear each of them say before he met them. But it's a fiction that works well, and makes the book very readable despite what are often pretty tough topics.

The questions he starts off with were not what I was expecting at all - what is nothing, and is it actually possible for nothing to exist? What does it mean to say that A causes B, and does A have to precede B in order to cause B?

That last point turns out to be pretty critical to the whole story.You see, Holt's not interested in what caused the universe to exist - well, he is but, as the Oxford Quantum Theorist David Deutsch points, the problem with conventional explanations is that even if you find an explanation, it needs to have some context. There's always the problem of why this explanation and not some other explanation.

That, of course, is the problem with using the existence of the universe to argue for the existence of God. What explains the existence of God and, as importantly, why this God and not some other God?

The theological explanations (from Richard Swinburne and John Leslie) were not terribly convincing. But what I liked about this book is that Holt treats all the arguments put forward with a great deal of sympathy. He carefully explains why it is that they might be right - sometimes to the point where I was on the verge of putting the book down in exasperation - before methodically pulling the arguments to pieces!

If you are into this sort of stuff, then many of the themes (Anslem's and Goedel's arguments, the many worlds hypothesis, platonic forms etc) will be familiar to you. But even when I knew the philosopher and the argument, I found myself enjoying the ride because Holt really has a gift for writing about these topics. There are some tough concepts to digest, but Holt paces it well and keeps it interesting.

 I'm sure I won't be spoiling the story if I reveal to you that, sadly, Holt does not reveal the mystery of existence at the end of the book.

However, he does get rather closer than I was expecting. At least now I have some idea what kind of explanation could possibly suffice. And that's got to be a step forward!

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

The war on atheism - bucking the social norm leads to social rejection and unhappiness

Take any given country, and religious people tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives than the non-religious. Quite why this is so is a matter of debate, but there's increasing evidence that part of the explanation is that happiness stems from believing yourself to be 'normal' - that you fit in with your community.

Olga Stavrova, at the University of Cologne in Germany, is an expert on how social norms affect individual happiness. For example, she's recently shown that unmarried couples are less happy than married couples only in those countries where cohabitation is disapproved of (thus showing that there isn't anything intrinsic to marriage that leads to happiness).

Now, along with colleagues, she's taken a look at how attitudes to the non-religious affect their happiness and life satisfaction (these are two closely related measures - but happiness tends to reflect how you feel right now, whereas life satisfaction reflects longer-term feelings).

Using data from the World Values Survey, Stavrova assessed how desirable it was to be religious in each country. She based this on three factors: proportion of the population who were religious, the proportion that thought that non-religious politicians were unfit for public service, and the proportion that thought that children should be encouraged to learn a religious faith at home.

You can see the results in the first graphic. In countries where there is a strong religious social norm (solid line), there's a strong relationship between and individual's religious belief and their life satisfaction.

In countries with a weak religious social norm, the relationship is still there - but it's much weaker (dashed line). (You'll also see in this figure that countries with a weak religious social norm also tend to have higher life satisfaction for all people, religious or not - but that's a different story!)

But is this because of active prejudice - or is there something else going on? To answer this, Stavrova turned to the European Social Survey.

The questions in this survey include several that address social inclusion, asking respondents whether they feel that others treat them with respect, whether they feel that they are treated fairly, and whether they feel they get recognition for the things that they do.

Overall, she found that religion was linked to social recognition, and that this did explain some of the happiness benefit to being religious (about 17% of the effect on happiness and 14% of the effect on life satisfaction was due to social recognition.

However, that varied a lot by country. In the graphic, you can see how religion relates to happiness in each country (ranging from the least religious countries on the left, to the most religious on the right), split out into three factors.

The top portion of the bar (light blue) shows the direct effect - in every country, religious people tend to be intrinsically happier, although this effect is larger in the more religious countries.

The bottom portion of the bar (dark blue) shows the indirect effect. Again, in almost every country, being religious leads to more social recognition, in turn leading to more happiness. This effect is much stronger in the more religious countries.

The one exception is the least religious country, East Germany. Here, being religious actually leads to social disapproval - it's the one country where you could argue that there is a 'war on religion'!

This research extends some earlier work which also found that religion only makes people happier if they are living in a country where religious people predominate. And there was another paper earlier this year which found that religious people have higher self esteem - but again only in countries that are highly religious.

These new data fit in nicely with those findings, and also suggest that the non-religious suffer ill effects from social exclusion in religious countries.

And the stress of that might explain why the brains of the non-religious seem to age and atrophy quicker!
Olga Stavrova, Detlef Fetchenhauer, & Thomas Schlösser (2012). Why are religious people happy? The effect of the social norm of religiosity across countries Social Science Research DOI: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2012.07.002

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