Field of Science

Religious belief and religious involvement have opposite effects on support for democracy

One of the challenges with doing surveys is that the answers you get can depend on the order in which you ask the questions. For example, if you ask people about their religious beliefs, then their minds will be primed to respond to later questions in a way that fits with their beliefs.

This is a problem for surveys, but it also offers a novel research opportunity, as a recent study by Ben-Nun Bloom and Gizem Arikan, political scientists at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has shown. They're interested in how religious beliefs affect support for democracy - I blogged a study of theirs back in October.

They recruited university students from Israel (all of them Jewish) and Turkey (all Muslims), and asked them about their religious belief, religious social behaviour, and support for democracy (using standard questions pulled from the World Values Survey).

But the cunning thing was that they varied the order in which they asked the questions, ending up with three different groups who had each been asked a different set of questions first.

What they found was that asking questions about religious belief (i.e.belief in God, heaven, life after death, etc) first significantly reduced support for democracy - and this effect held regardless of how religious the individual was.

On the other hand, asking questions about religious social behaviour (i.e. attending services, having friends of the same religion, etc) first increased support for democracy! Again, this was independent of how important religion was to the individual's social life.

The positive effect of religious behaviour on support for democracy was a little stronger in Turkey than Israel, but otherwise the basic trends were the same in both countries.

So this puts an additional twist on their earlier results - which used data from the World Values survey to show that religious beliefs decrease and religious socialisation increase support for democracy.

What they suggest is that continual exposure to religious ideas and messages results in a kind of life-long priming. Religious socialisation encourages group cohesion, which might affect support for democracy. Religious beliefs trigger thoughts of traditionalism, security, conformity - which might act to reduce support for democracy.

Clearly, religion and democracy are both complicated beasts, and so there is not going to be a straightforward relationship between the two!

But this study also just goes to show how malleable is the link between beliefs and behaviours. Back in 2009, I reported on another study which found that what people tell you about their attitudes to risk depend on whether you ask first about their religion and gender.

If you ask these questions first, they will give you an answer about attitude to risk that fits the social stereotype. But if you ask about attitude to risk first, you get answers that are far less stereotypical!

Now, social scientists and psychologists are well aware of these issues, and in the studies I review on this blog they are usually careful to ask about religious beliefs after the experiment, and not before.

But I do often wonder about all those studies that use data from large surveys. Usually the questions on religion are buried within questions on all sorts of other topics. So who knows how reliable they are!
Ben-Nun Bloom, P., & Arikan, G. (2012). Priming Religious Belief and Religious Social Behavior Affects Support for Democracy International Journal of Public Opinion Research DOI: 10.1093/ijpor/eds030

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

Is education the main reason why some countries are less religious?

There's no shortage of hypotheses for why some countries are religious and others are not. Sometimes it seems like everyone has a different idea - coming up with hypotheses is easy. It's testing them that's the tricky bit!

Part of the problem is that you need a lot of data for a rigorous test, but many of the data we have are not very good. You can, if you look hard enough, pull out huge numbers of different datasets with information that might possibly be relevant, but how do you figure out which ones to choose. Whatever you do is going to be arbitrary.

Claude Braun, a psychologist at Université du Québec à Montréal has approached this problem basically by pulling together a vast mound of information, and then engaging in a kind of statistical fishing expedition to see what bites.

He begins by listing out 16 different explanations that have been put forward to explain variations in religiosity - things like material wealth and security, cultural factors such as freedom and permissiveness, birth rate, gender equality and education.

For each of these, he put together a selection of potentially relevant measures, and then tested to see which, if any, correlated with religion.

He found that almost all the different variables, and hence all the different explanations, correlated in the expected way with national variations in religious fervour. The exceptions were 'prophylaxis' (the idea that religion impedes risky health behaviours) and 'the value of human life' (taking in factors like suicide rates, capital punishment, abortion and murders).

But of course correlations can occur for all sorts of reasons. The question is, which of them really matter? Braun tackled this question in two ways.

Firstly, he used a technique called factor analysis. This picks out variables that tend to vary in unison, and lumps them together in one or more "factors".

Doing this, he found the most important factor, which explained around half the variation of religion around the world, was made up of Global Mortality, Child Mortality, Education, and Purchasing Power. He called this factor "material/intellectual wealth".

The second factor was made up of variables like Religious freedom, Empowerment, Workers rights and Political prisoners. But this factor, which he called "liberty/justice", explained only 15% of religious variations.

The third factor was relatively unimportant (7% of the variation), and was made up of a mixed bag of variables (Inequality of purchasing power 2012, Ratio of men to women, Armed conflict, Religious freedom and Purchasing power). Pretty hard to interpret what that means - probably nothing, in my opinion.

The other technique Braun used was multiple regression. Basically you start with the strongest single correlation, and then keep adding in other variables to see if you can make the correlation stronger (and then check to see if you can take any of the earlier variables out.

Doing this, he found that 70% of the international variation in religion can be explained using just three variables. In order of importance they are: Education, Fertility and Worker rights.

What to make of this?

Well, for a start, this is easily the most comprehensive analysis of possible explanations for global differences in religion that has ever been published. And it shows that education is clearly the single strongest correlate.

This certainly supports the idea that, although things like wealth, security and freedom are relevant, education and intellectual development is the most important factor. That's interesting, because that's a hypothesis that has fallen out of favour in recent years.

I do have some niggles with this analysis. The idea that fertility "causes" religion in the same way that education "causes" non-belief is a bit silly. So including it in the analysis could be obscuring things a little. A few of the other explanations Braun includes suffer from the same confusion.

Then too this is, at the end of the day, a fishing exercise. You will always find one variable that is more strongly correlated than others with the topic of interest, but you can never really be sure why that is (perhaps it's just that education is a better measure of material security than things like average wealth, or social spending).

But on the whole this is a really strong analysis, simply by virtue of the fact that it is so comprehensive and methodical.

So the observation that education is such a potent predictor of international differences in religion has surely got to give even the most opinionated internet pundit pause for thought!
Claude M.J. Braun (2012). Explaining Global Secularity: Existential Security or Education? Secularism & Nonreligion, 1 (14)

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

Do traditional Chinese death beliefs increase superstition and anxiety about death?

In the west, fear and anxiety over death can heighten the desire to cling onto traditional culture and beliefs, and people also often report being more religious.

But what about in the East? In China and many Asian cultures, religion plays a role that is at once similar and different to the role played by the monotheisms popular in the West.

So Shui Hung Wong of the University of Hong Kong set out to discover whether Chinese people who fear death were also more superstitious or had stronger traditional Chinese beliefs about death.

Chinese death beliefs (e.g. that “Thinking or talking about death can bring bad luck”), have previously been found to be greater in people who fear death more. Wong explains:

Many of the Chinese death beliefs aim at avoiding terror of inauspicious events (e.g., visiting others’ homes in early bereavement would bring bad luck to others, and discussing death in front of dying persons would speed up their deaths). Such death beliefs and rituals are deeply rooted in minds and observed by Chinese fearing the potential negative consequences in violating the cultural practices.

Wong interviewed 126 students at the University of Hong Kong over their anxieties about death and also their superstitious beliefs. He found that yes, stronger superstition and Chinese death beliefs was associated with greater fear of death, but the relationship was only strong for particular beliefs about death.

So, greater fear for significant others was not linked to higher superstition. Nor, particularly, was fear of the dying process itself.

There was some link to non-supernatural threats – fear of being destroyed, and fear of premature death. But, perhaps surprisingly, the link was fairly weak.

But what was strongly linked to superstition was fear of dead people, and fear for your own body after death.

So people who worry about zombies and the living dead turn to superstition to ward off these supernatural threats.

Running through the stats, Wong found that superstitions were the strongest predictor of death anxiety - even after controlling for death beliefs and other variables. In fact, once you take supersition into account, death beliefs don't actually correlate with death anxiety.

Wong shows that one possible explanation is that death beliefs increase supersition, and that superstition is actually what causes the anxiety about death.

That's unusual. In the West, typically what's found is that people who cling to their deep-rooted cultural beliefs about death (i.e. religion) are protected against anxiety.

What Wong suspects is happening is that superstition is acting as a kind of addictive drug. At first it relieves anxiety, but the effect wears off and the hapless suffer is sucked into a cycle of ever more supernatural fears and superstitious remedies:

"Getting indulged in superstitions is like taking drugs, [in] that their minds could never set free from the thoughts and resulted in even higher anxiety."
Wong, S. (2012). Does Superstition Help? A Study of the Role of Superstitions and Death Beliefs on Death Anxiety amongst Chinese Undergraduates in Hong Kong OMEGA--Journal of Death and Dying, 65 (1), 55-70 DOI: 10.2190/OM.65.1.d

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