Field of Science

Why do the religious have a problem with outsiders

There's plenty of evidence that, at least in the Christian west, religious people are more likely than average to be hostile towards others who they perceive as being outside their group. Strangely, this isn't just hostility to people from other religions, but also encompasses hostility towards co-religionists who are sufficiently difference (racism, for example).

Partly this is simply because people with so-called "Right-wing Authoritarian" attitudes  also tend to be religious. But does religion have some additional effect? And is it just a western thing, or do other religions do this to?

To find out, a team from Singapore and the USA, including Wade Rowatt from Baylor University, conducted a study in 72 Christians and 69 Buddhists (all from Singapore). The experiment was simple: they first asked their subjects about their attitudes, then two weeks later they repeated the exercise after first subliminally priming them with religious words.

Before priming, the Christians were significantly more authoritarian than the Buddhists.

Priming, and after adjustment for authoritarian and spiritual attitudes, had little effect on religious and ethnic prejudice. Unfortunately, they don't tell us whether priming had any effect without this adjustment, but reading between the lines it I suspect the Christians had a stronger response.

Priming did, however, significantly increase prejudice towards homosexuals among both Christians and Buddhists.

That's important because there's nothing in Buddhist scriptures that condemns homosexuality. And that suggests that what is happening here is not a direct result of religious teachings, but rather a result of the cultural role of religion.

Interestingly, some earlier research found that priming Buddhists with 'The Golden Rule' had no effect on their prejudice towards homosexuals, while priming Christians with the same rule made them significantly more homophobic.

Now, this was a different sample (most of the Buddhists were western converts), which probably explains the different results - homosexual acts are illegal in Singapore.

But it does reinforce that the attitudes of the religious probably depend less on what is actually written in holy books, and more on exaggerations of 'traditional cultural values'.

ResearchBlogging.orgRamsay, J., Pang, J., Johnson Shen, M., & Rowatt, W. (2013). Rethinking Value Violation: Priming Religion Increases Prejudice in Singaporean Christians and Buddhists International Journal for the Psychology of Religion DOI: 10.1080/10508619.2012.761525

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

When people say they are 'spiritual', what do they mean?

It's fashionable these days to talk about 'spirituality' instead of religiousness. The term is designed to include people who are still basically religious, but who are, perhaps, turned off by traditional religions.

The problem is that if you thought defining 'religion' was tough, well it's a piece of cake compared with defining 'spirituality!

In the US, where most people say they are both 'religious' and 'spiritual', it seems that people use the terms to describe different aspects of religion. In essence 'religious' means you are a churchgoer, while 'spiritual' means that you feel connected to some larger, supernatural belief.

To find out whether similar ideas prevail in Europe, Joantine Berghuijs (a PhD researcher at Utrecht University) and colleagues surveyed 2344 Dutch people - a mix of men and women of all ages.

They found that only 25% called themselves both religious and spiritual, while 16% said they were only religious and 19% said they were only spiritual. The rest (40%) were neither.

They found that people who said they were spiritual did tend to hold  a bunch of non-traditional beliefs - spiritual transformation, belief in paranormal issues, monism, experiences of non-religious transcendence, paranormal experiences, and karma.

The graphic maps out how people in each of the four groups (religious + spiritual, spiritual only, religious only and neither) scored on 'religious' and 'spiritual' beliefs.

You can see that the 'spiritual only' group scores high on spirituality but low on religion (meaning things like traditional religion, such as affiliation, attendance and prayer). That's as you would expect.

However, the strange thing was that those who were 'spiritual and religious' were actually more religious than those who were just 'religious'. They were also more spiritual than those who were only spiritual.

On digging further, they found that the ‘both spiritual and religious’ group could actually be split into two: one group that combined "a strong orientation toward traditional religion with new spirituality and one that is mainly oriented toward new spirituality".

What they suggest is that, in the Netherlands at least, people who say they are spiritual are probably at a half-way point between the religious and non-religious. Calling yourself religious (and not spiritual) probably reflects a 'life orientation' rather than any particularly strong beliefs.

Whereas people who are both spiritual and religious are highly religious - they probably represent the 'new religious' movements. Some are revival movements within established churches, while others are opposed to traditional religions.

Either way, it seems that what people mean when they say they are spiritual probably depends on whether or not they also think they are religious!
Berghuijs, J., Pieper, J., & Bakker, C. (2013). Being ‘Spiritual’ and Being ‘Religious’ in Europe: Diverging Life Orientations Journal of Contemporary Religion, 28 (1), 15-32 DOI: 10.1080/13537903.2013.750829

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

What kind of person sees ghosts?

The human mind is naturally attuned to try to spot hidden agents. In fact, we're too good at it, because we tend to interpret all sorts of random environmental noise as actually being caused by someone.

It's widely thought that this tendency contributes to religious belief, and yet it's also the case that many religious people don't claim to have seen any spiritual agents directly at work - and many no-religious people see ghosts from time to time.

Kirsten Barnes and Nicholas Gibson, at the University of Cambridge, surveyed 583 people (mostly women, 50% atheist/agnostic) who were in their survey data. Most were from Britain, some from Australia and Canada, and others from all over.

They asked them whether they had ever had a spiritual, religious, supernatural or paranormal experience. For those that had, they asked to describe the experience - what happened, where they were, how they felt at the time, etc. And they asked them to complete a battery of personality tests.

They found that those who had had some kind of supernatural experience were also more likely to have had other unusual experiences (meaning ones where the person sensed or felt odd, but not necessarily supernatural), and were less neurotic (although this link was weak and may have been spurious).

Intriguingly, given the study I covered in my previous post, people who had had a spiritual, religious, supernatural or paranormal experience in the past also scored higher on empathy and trust.

However, when they looked solely at experiences that involved a supernatural agent, this link disappeared. This suggests that the link between empathy and religion is not down to the ability to "read minds".

Whet do they mean by supernatural agent? Well, here's a couple of verbatim examples given by participants:

“I went to the prayer room where I really had a physical sense of God’s presence—I remember reaching out my hand to feel it”
“In a house I used to live in, I was usually visited by a being that took the form of a pre-teen girl. She was lithe, pale skinned and had straight, dark colored hair”

They found that, relative to other kinds of supernatural experiences, non-religious, supernatural agents (AKA ghosts) were more often seen when the environment was secluded, dark, quiet, and threatening. Those who had seen ghosts also reported being anxious or upset at the time. That wasn't the case for religious supernatural agents.

The authors found that people who see ghosts are inclined to magical thinking, which may explain the link. Or it could be that people with no religious framework are more likely to report these experiences as threatening. Or it might simply be that people remembered the experience as threatening, and only later came to remember their surroundings at the time as being threatening.

What this suggests is that anxiety and distress combine to make it more likely that people will see ghosts, but that this relationship doesn't hold for religious experiences.

It';s interesting to contrast this with other research showing that anxiety and uncertainty can make people see things that aren't there, and also that religion is more popular in environments that are threatening or dangerous.

Maybe turning to religion is one way to reduce the distress caused by supernatural experiences that are caused by threatening environments!
Barnes, K., & Gibson, N. (2013). Supernatural Agency: Individual Difference Predictors and Situational Correlates International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 23 (1), 42-62 DOI: 10.1080/10508619.2013.739066

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

Atheists lack empathy and understanding

This is actually a study from the middle of last year that I never got round to covering (there was a run of studies from the same team, and this one ended up at the bottom of the pile!). But I'm glad I did.

The study leads were Ara Norenzayan and Will Gervais at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, and they collaborated on this one with Kali Trzesniewski at the University of California, USA.

They were intrigued by an earlier study which found that autistic people were more likely to be atheists. They wanted to know if this was true and, if it was true, they wanted to know why.

So they ran four separate studies. The first matched a small group of autistic individuals with a group of neurotypicals, and found that the autistic individuals were less religious.

The second looked at a group of Canadian students, and found that those who reported more symptoms of autism were also less religious. Study Three broadened this out to a group of 725 American Adults recruited via Amazon's Mechanical Turk, while Study Four looked at a different sample of 425 Adults (they were part of a paid survey panel).

Again and again, they found that symptoms of autism correlated with lack of belief in God.

But their analyses went further. They also asked them about their empathy (using questions like "I often find it difficult to judge if someone is rude or polite" and "I am good at predicting how someone will feel.").

They found that empathy also correlated with belief. Not only that but, using a statistical technique called "bootstrapping",  they found that the most plausible explanation for the correlation was that autism was related to a lack of empathy, which in turn was related to lack of belief (see the figure).

In other words, lack of empathy was the 'in between' factor that mediated the relationship between autism and lack of belief.

Now, they tested a bunch of other potential explanations too. For example, they also measured something called systemizing, which is all "about aptitude for, and interest in, reasoning about mechanical and physical objects and processes", and is measure using questions like "‘‘I am fascinated by how machines work," and "I find it difficult to understand information the bank sends me on different investment and saving systems".

Like empathy, systemizing is correlated both with being male and the degree of autism (although in the opposite direction: autistics are better at systematizing than neurotypicals). But, unlike empathy, it wasn't found to "mediate" the effect autism on religion.

They also looked at aspects of personality (Agreeableness and Conscientiousness), and assessed whether church-going was relevant - the idea here being that going to church with a group of other people might simultaneously improve empathy and increase belief in God. But none of these could explain the effect.

In the fourth study, they also tested another measure of mind-reading. In this one, the participants were shown pictures of eyes and asked to pick out which words best describe what the person in the picture is thinking or feeling. Again, high ability on this task was found to mediate the relationship between religion and autism.

So, in the end, this is really good evidence that, at least in the kinds of religion favoured in the USA, an inability to empathise and read other peoples minds is linked to decreased belief in personal gods. But why might this be?

Well, actually it fits well with other research which finds that loneliness can increase belief in the supernatural. And it also fits with brain imaging studies that found that highly religious people who engage in personal prayer use the same parts of their brains as they would when talking to a good friend.

So it seems that an essential part of the belief in a personal God is the ability to relate to it as a personal friend. It perhaps then isn't surprising that people whose minds don't work that way are less likely to believe.
Norenzayan, A., Gervais, W., & Trzesniewski, K. (2012). Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God PLoS ONE, 7 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036880

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