Home » Archives by category » Science & Research

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!


ResearchBlogging.org
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.

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.


ResearchBlogging.org
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.

Continue reading …

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


ResearchBlogging.org
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.

Continue reading …

“Theory of Mind” is the term used to describe the mental ability to put yourself inside the mind of someone else – to imagine what it is that they are thinking. Recently, there’s been some evidence that people who do not have a strong theory of mind are more likely to be atheists.

For example, studies have found that autistic-spectrum people are more likely to be non-believers, and maybe also atheists’ preferences for video games could be connected. The basic suggestion is that belief is a natural extension of our ability to recreate minds in our own head.

But it seems unlikely that atheists as a whole are weak at figuring out what others are thinking. Perhaps they just don’t fire up those mental circuits at inappropriate times. Which is what Tapani Riekki and Marjaana Lindeman (University of Helsinki), along with Tuukka Raij (Aalto University, Finland) wanted to investigate.

They took 12 believers and 11 sceptics and strapped them into an MRI machine to watch some animations.

These animations showed geometric shapes either moving randomly or acting with some kind of purpose towards each other. For example, they could be moving around as if they were children playing a game of tag.

Both groups tended to correctly rate the ‘intentional’ animations as having a purpose behind them, and tended to spot the random ones.

But believers were more likely to see purpose at work in both sets of animations – both intentional and random. You can see this at work in the brain scans. These show the brain circuits involved in Theory of Mind at work.

For the sceptics, watching the random animations drew a virtual blank , while the believers brains were firing away (the intense orange in the bottom image).

What was particularly interesting was when they contrasted brain activation in the two conditions. They found that for sceptics, Theory of Mind activation was stronger to intentional than to random movements, but for supernatural believers, this difference was missing and there was even a hint towards a reverse pattern.

The believers had a ‘hyperactive’ Theory of Mind.

What may have been going on is that, once they came to a belief that there was intention behind the movements, the believers may have begun searching to understand it – thus activating the neural circuits associated with the Theory of Mind.

All this suggests is that it’s not just ability to develop a Theory of Mind that’s linked to supernatural beliefs. Rather, what’s critical is the ability to apply it appropriately.


ResearchBlogging.org
Riekki, T., Lindeman, M., & Raij, T. (2014). Supernatural believers attribute more intentions to random movement than skeptics: An fMRI study Social Neuroscience, 9 (4), 400-411 DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2014.906366

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

Continue reading …

There’s a long-standing debate over whether we humans are naturally predisposed to believe in the supernatural, or whether it’s learned. Well, here’s a study that shows the importance of young children’s environment in determining credulity.

The basic set-up was simple. Kathleen Corriveau (Boston University) and colleagues recruited 33 kindergarten kids in the USA (that’s 5-6 year olds). Half went to state-run schools, which are mostly religion free, while the other half went to schools run along Christian lines. The state-school kids all came from non-churchgoing families, whereas the kids from religious schools all came from churchgoing families.

Then they read them a series of stories, loosely based on magical stories from the bible, but carefully disguised. They varied these stories so that sometimes they referred to magic, sometimes not.

Just to be sure of it, sometimes they changed the story a bit so that it was unfamiliar, and not recognisably biblical. For example, here’s the variants they told of the ‘Moses parting the red Sea’ Bible story:

Familiar+Magic
This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the sea John waved his magic stick. The sea separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

Familiar+No Magic
This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the sea John waved his stick. The sea separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

Unfamiliar+Magic
This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the mountain John waved his magic stick. The mountain separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

Unfamiliar+No Magic
This is John. John led his people when they were escaping from their enemies. When they reached the mountain John waved his stick. The mountain separated into two parts, and John and his people escaped through the pathway in the middle.

The point was to try to see what cues lead these children to decide if the story was fantasy or reality. Importantly, at no point did any of the stories mention God or divine intervention.

As you can see in the graphic, the secular kids were much less likely to say the stories were real. They could pick up on the cues in the story, and figure out that it must be fantasy.

And they could do that at aged 5-6!

It’s critical to realise that both groups of kids – religious and secular – knew the difference between fact and fantasy. Both groups could recognise real versus fictional characters.

And although this was a small group, it mirrors what they saw in an earlier study, in which religious kids (whether churchgoing or non-churchgoers attending a religious school) said religious stories were real and also were more likely to say that non-religious, fantasy stories were real.

The authors conclude that the reason the religious kids were more likely to believe that these stories were real is that they “have a broader conception of what can actually happen”.

Now, what this study doesn’t tell us whether a religious upbringing makes kids more credulous, or a secular upbringing makes them more sceptical.

But it does show that critical thinking is crucially influenced by environment, and from a very early age.


ResearchBlogging.org
Corriveau, K., Chen, E., & Harris, P. (2014). Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds Cognitive Science DOI: 10.1111/cogs.12138
Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Continue reading …

Religious people often seem to have strong taboos. Think of any religion, and there is usually some proscribed activities or objects, and an emphasis on purity. Maybe religion is connected to a heightened sense of disgust?

Uri Berger and David Anaki, at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, were looking to see how one questionnaire often used to measure disgust, the Revised Disgust Scale (DS-R) functioned across a diverse group of Israeli citizens. Most studies in the past have used students (and mostly women), but the 1427 participants in their study had an average age of 33, and only half were women.

The DS-R has 27 questions and, like others, Berger and Anaki found that they fell into three groups of closely related questions.

  • Core disgust: related to disease and eating
  • Animal reminder: related to sex, death, and hygiene
  • Contamination: related to, well, contamination

Overall they found that religion doesn’t really explain why some people are more easily disgusted than others. It only explained 1.4% of the variation – gender was ten times more important (women were more easily disgusted than men).

What was interesting is the relationship between religion and different types of disgust. Religious people were actually less disgusted by contamination than the non-religious, and only a bit more disgusted by ‘core disgust’.

But this was more than made up for by the disgust felt by the religious over reminders of our animal nature.

So it could be that religion changes the things that disgust us. Certainly it seems to affect the broad domains of disgust, but there’s probably more to it than that. As Berger and Anaki comment:

[It] may be that demographic elements do not modulate levels of disgust per se as much as they impact the context in which disgust is activated. For example, the dietary differences in Jewish and Hindi religions caused the variation in subjective disgust evoked in devotee’s response to a potential consumption of ‘‘forbidden animals’’; Jews who consume beef are repelled from pork consumption, while the vice versa applies for non-vegetarian Hindus. However, the level of religious devoutness may only slightly modulate the intensity of that subjective disgust.


ResearchBlogging.org
Berger, U., &Anaki, D. (2014). Demographic influences on disgust: Evidence from a heterogeneous sample Personality and Individual Differences, 64, 67-71 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2014.02.016

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

Continue reading …

And so to this thorny topic again! This time with a batch of new studies – but what light do they shed on this complicated topic?First up is a straightforward analysis of data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III)…

Continue reading …

In Scotland, they’ve been following a group of people ever since they were born in 1921 (the Lothian Birth Cohort). Cohorts like this are great to see what factors early in life affect how people turn out as adults – so long as you ask the right questi…

Continue reading …

In Scotland, they’ve been following a group of people ever since they were born in 1921 (the Lothian Birth Cohort). Cohorts like this are great to see what factors early in life affect how people turn out as adults – so long as you ask the right questi…

Continue reading …

If you read the last post you’ll know that the relationship between religion and happiness is complicated. When you look around the world, religious people tend to be happier than non-religious people. However, it’s not straightforward. The effect is b…

Continue reading …
Page 1 of 60123Next ›Last »