Field of Science

Religion matters more than education when it comes to creationist beliefs

The USA is a conundrum when it comes to creationist beliefs. While the US comes about average in high-school science education results, staggering numbers of American adults are not only creationists but young earth creationists - believing that the earth is a mere 6,000 years old.

Now, there's quite a lot of research to suggest that this is due to widespread fundamentalist Christian beliefs. But quite how that manifests is unclear. Are fundamentalists generally ignorant of science - or is it just evolution?

A study by Leslie Rissler and colleagues at the University of Alabama suggests that it's mostly the latter - but with a few twists.

They surveyed nearly 3,000 students at their university on their understanding of evolution, and found that understanding of evolution and acceptance of evolution were closely linked. Those who could correctly answer some basic questions about how evolution works also tended to believe it to be true.

However, when they looked at the basic factors that contributed to understanding and knowledge of evolution, they found that academic level (freshman, sophomore, etc), whether evolution was taught at high school and whether or not the student majored in science were all relatively unimportant (although they all had a small positive effect).

The overwhelming factors were religious attendance and religious identification - which both had a large, negative effect.

They went on to show that, while those who took a science major had better understanding of evolution than those who did not, understanding of evolution increased similarly for all as their academic years progressed. Similarly, those who had been taught creationism improved during university - although they never caught up with those who had been taught evolution.

However, those who were frequent churchgoers were much less likely to improve their knowledge and understanding of evolution while at university.

This groovy figure is called a bean plot. The left hand side of each bean shows the scores of students before taking an introductory class in biology. They grey area on the right of each bean shows the scores after the class.

Keep your eye on the horizontal lines, which show the averages in each case. You can see that it starts higher and shifts up more for the 'hardly ever' churchgoers. Whereas it starts low and barely shifts for the frequent churchgoers.

One last thing they found was that religious students did understand that most scientists accept evolution. If they were asked what scientists think and understand about evolution, they were generally reasonably accurate.

So a major reason why they score low in tests of understanding is not that they don't get it, but that they refuse to believe it!
Rissler, L., Duncan, S., & Caruso, N. (2014). The relative importance of religion and education on university students’ views of evolution in the Deep South and state science standards across the United States Evolution: Education and Outreach, 7 (1) DOI: 10.1186/s12052-014-0024-1

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

Are religious pictures more powerful than words?

Subliminal priming is a classic way to study how religion might affect attitudes and behaviour. But previous studies have had mixed results - sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. In the last post, I described a study which found that using words to prime Muslims had little effect, but subtly playing the call to prayer did.

Maybe Muslims are different from Christians? Or maybe there is something fundamental being revealed here.

Take a look at some studies done recently by Sarah Cavrak & Heather Kleider-Offutt, at Georgia University in the USA. They looked at what happened when students were primed with religious, versus non-religious, symbols.

What they found was that graduates shown religious pictures were significantly faster at recognising religious words (they had words and letter strings flashed in front of them, and had to press a button when they recognised a word), regardless of their religious beliefs.

In the second study, undergrads were primed with religious or control pictures again, but this time had to rate the morality of a series of statements. When primed, the religious students rated the statements more harshly – they were more likely to rate statements as immoral.

Then they repeated the study using religious words as primes. This time there was an effect, but it seemed to be smaller. And what's more, there was no difference in the effect between the religious and non-religious students.

The researchers say:

These data support our hypothesis that religious icons simultaneously activate multiple aspects of religious life (including expectations of morality) which does not occur when a single word is shown, and that this knowledge is well known as they influenced both religious and nonreligious people.

So, the idea is that pictures have a deeper, broader impact than words. It's an interesting idea, and would fit with the findings about the Muslim call to prayer.

But a word of caution. This was quite a small study, and there are many ways that it could have panned out (they measured religion in three different ways, for example, but only one of them was linked to different responses). So we may be seeing here just a chance effect.

But there's something about the idea that makes sense. The religious experience is a deeply embedded cultural phenomenon. I'd like to see more priming studies using experiences, rather than words.
Cavrak, S., & Kleider-Offutt, H. (2014). Pictures Are Worth A Thousand Words And A Moral Decision Or Two: Religious Symbols Prime Moral Judgments International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 1-35 DOI: 10.1080/10508619.2014.921111

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

Hearing the Islamic Call to Prayer encourages Muslims to cheat less

People placed in religious environments tend to act more morally - but what, exactly, triggers this behavioural shift? There’s been a few recent studies which I think are really interesting, because they begin to reveal the importance of culture.

In the first set of studies, Mark Aveyard at the (American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates) tested Muslim students on their cheating behaviour.

The students were asked to undertake a computer-based maths quiz. Unfortunately, the computer program had a bug, so that it would automatically show the answer after a few seconds had passed -  unless a key was pressed. They were alone in the room, so Aveyard had to rely on their honesty to press the key and so not see the answer.

This was all a set up, of course. In fact, Aveyard really wanted to see if religious priming would affect how honest the students were.

What he found was that a priming task involving words (the subjects had to unscramble a sentence with either religious or secular meaning) had no effect on honesty.

Then he tried something different. In a follow-up study (shown in the figure), Aveyard played the students an audio recording of a busy street before they took the maths test, asking them to count the number of car horns they heard.

For half the students, the recording also had, in the background, the Islamic call to prayer (athan).

Listening to the call to prayer dramatically increased honest, as shown in the figure.

Why should a call to prayer work as a religious prime when a word task did not? One possible reason, Aveyard says, is that the religion and context matters. Maybe word primes work in the post-Christian West, but not in the Islamic Middle-East.

In the next post, we'll take a closer look at that from a Western perspective
Aveyard, M. (2014). A Call to Honesty: Extending Religious Priming of Moral Behavior to Middle Eastern Muslims PLoS ONE, 9 (7) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0099447

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