This piece on “Psychology and religion” is by Muriel Fraser, from Newsline of the National Secular Society 9 April 2009, who was reviewing three recent studies on religion from </>Psychological Science.

The scientists reported brain differences between believers and non-believers and noted some causes and effects of the bonds created by communal worship.


“A drinker may engage in risky behaviour when his awareness of danger is limited by the effects of alcohol. Now comes a study which shows that drinkers are not alone. Religious believers have been found to have less anxiety than nonbelievers about making errors or facing the unknown. (The reason for this "calming effect" was not examined, though presumably it comes from the reassuring feeling of having a Powerful Friend.)

However, although the believer's certainty can offer comfort, steel resolve and prevent panic, it can also pose a danger. University of Toronto psychologist Michael Inzlicht, who led the study, warns that suppressing anxiety is not always a good idea, because it alerts us when we're making mistakes. "If you don't experience anxiety when you make an error, what impetus do you have to change or improve your behaviour so you don't make the same mistakes again and again?" (And, as we all know, politicians who are too sure of themselves to examine the facts properly can end up making their "mistakes" on a global scale.)”

Michael Inzlicht

“A second study examines "parochial altruism". Altruism is when you confer benefits on others at a cost to yourself; parochialism is when you favour those from your own group, whether ethnic, racial or religious. An extreme example of parochial altruism is the suicide attack. This combines a parochial act (the attacker killing members from other groups) with altruism (the attacker sacrificing himself for his own group).
The wide-ranging study involved Mexican Catholics, Indonesian Muslims, Israeli Jews, Russian Orthodox in Russia, Indian Hindus and British Protestants. In all cases it was found that "parochial altruism was related to attendance at religious services, but unrelated to regular prayer". (At the practical level, of course, it has long been recognised that attendance promotes group identity and this is strongly encouraged: for example, skipping weekly Mass has been considered a mortal sin.)”

HAPPY, CLAPPY PAYS.……. Scott S. Wiltermuth and Chip Heath

“The group bonds forged by collective ritual may be due in part to synchronised activities. A third recent study looked at activities like marching in step, swaying and clapping in unison and even just singing together. In these experiments the volunteers from the synchronised groups showed greater cooperation, identified more firmly with the group and also donated more money to the group.

Studies like these offer one small puzzle piece after another to put together a psychology of religion. A leading scientist in the field of evolutionary psychology, David Sloan Wilson, has summed up his conclusions so far: New religious movements usually form when a constituency is not being well served by current social organisations (religious or secular) in practical terms and is better served by the new movement. The seemingly irrational and otherworldly elements of religions [...] usually make excellent practical sense when judged by the only gold standard that matters from an evolutionary perspective – what they cause the religious believers to do.
Of course, some aspects of this have long been recognised by the powerful who know that theology can be used to control people. For millennia there have been agreements made between clerics and rulers, sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit, which amount to the holy men telling the king or dictator: "Give us privileges and we'll make your subjects obedient". (The modern version, of course, is "... and we'll get you elected".) What is different today is that the social effects of theology are not only being exploited, (as always), but are now beginning to be examined by science. Let's hope that a greater public understanding of the mechanisms of influence and manipulation will eventually enable the defenders of human rights to do a better job of exposing the attacks against them.”

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Replies to This Discussion

I'm a bit confused by this. To take the last point first... Religion has always been Political. Control, Wealth Power.

For the second point I would expect that altruism in general would be increased by attendance of mass services simply by individuals becoming more in-tune with the demands of their chosen faith. But beyond faith the same thing would apply. You are more likely to donate to a charity if you attend one of their rallies. You're more likely to give to Comic Relief if you watch the program. When someone tugs your heart-strings you're more likely to be tugged. The parochial part only arises when the preaching is of that nature. Signing up to fight in World War One under-age was an act of Parochial Altruism but no one claims that to be a religious phenomenon. Do any of you genuinely think that proportionately more Theists performed such non-religious parochial altruistic acts than theists? Common sense or a reading of Dawkins' literature will easily illustrate how the instinct to ensure survival of the group can over-ride the instinct to ensure the survival of the individual.

I also want to point out that you say the study covers people of different religious views. What about the Humanists? How does the study have a control group? How does it account for IQ, Nationalist Fervour, or Poliitical bias? How does it control plain old lying? Do I go to church? Damn right every week, says the guy who hasn't been for 3 years.

As for the first point. I totally disagree with it. Whilst I can understand the concept that those of Faith can approach the unknown with apathy of 'my faith will protect me', those of us who are critical thinkers will approach the unknown with a certain joy in so far as that is where we live. It's what we live for. The Theist has to approach it as something outside their framework, something their good book does not allow for and as such can only be covered by the general rule of 'God will do what's best'. That does not necessarily make for a calmer mind and less anxiety. An Atheist will accept death with the certainty and lack of anxiety that knowing the Universe does not care brings while the Theist will shit themselves with anxiety over whether they go to Heaven or not - for example. :)

I don't necessarily disagree with the points made but I can only judge from my own anecdotes. I'm just getting pretty fed up of bad science and statistics being thrown out for mass consumption around here.

As always I'm happy to be proven wrong but proof is first and foremost the burden of the declarer.
I wouldn't call this bad science. The results may not be world-shaking but read the press release of the first study. There is a control group, controls for cognitive ability and personality (although I don't know how that is measured), and they note that the religious folks actually made fewer mistakes.

The other studies are similar enough and fairly simple although the parochial altruism article has an unfortunately sensationalist title.

It's all pretty new science and psychology studies always have difficulties with respondent bias and lying, etc. Doesn't mean that the results are worthless, though.
I'll agree entirely with your distaste and distrust of headline grabbing statements that don't represent good practices for science journalism. However, I believe that's just a presentation flaw, not a flaw in the research itself. I think we're in agreement on this and it's just a matter of emphasis. Cheers.
"'God will do what's best'. That does not necessarily make for a calmer mind and less anxiety."

I so agree with you. If I think there is a god, then I get angry that he did not make life more fair. If there is no god, ...then I feel lucky!
To Mr. Kwong Fong Lo

I have little knowledge in the realm of academic psychology but I do feel that it is a tricky subject which is a young research field with a long way to go. There are so many uncertainties, as Mark Stanbrook has touched upon with regard to the remarks made by Muriel Fraser about the research matters raised in the journal Psychological Science.

You ask: " Assuming all the findings have been proven to be true in strict sense of scientific research, do you think they suggest that there are "born" difference in brains of believers and non-believers?"
I would answer at this stage "Not proven".

That is not to deny that frontal-lobe epileptics, suffering depressants, and some others might be predisposed to 'experience' fancies of 'spiritual enlightenment', etc, which they sadly assign to divine intervention--- but that is another matter.
Babies are born innocent, but they are not all born equal as to social, economic and environmental factors---still less as regards their IQ potentialities. Among those born with low IQs, some children (thence adults) may more easily be misled when subjected to proselytizing influences, but the same can be said of seemingly cleverer children too.
It could be that during the 180,000 to 200,000 years since the appearance of homo sapiens, evolution has curried greater survival favors on people who are more prone to accepting spiritual beliefs, but this could be another fallacy too. Survival in a difficult world seems to favor those who "follow the herd", because of the danger of otherwise being cast out. Most of us do not want trouble so follow the path of least anxiety, for there are always present people who, for their own gain, choose to rule if not by regal leadership then by leadership arising from invented faiths in non-existent beings.

On the other hand, I cannot assume your theoretical premise that "all the findings have been proven to be true in strict sense of scientific research".
! The politician and priest are after the same thing- but the priest is always the mystic.
To play devil's advocate: The impetus is the desire to be better. Recent psychological theory embraces the concepts of promotion and prevention focus. What you describe is the former, what I describe is the latter.

Disclaimer -- not a fan of regulatory focus models.
Hi Terence,

I've seen blog comments, from Muriel Fraser, that clearly reveal her humanist perspective -- not that there's anything wrong with that. The point is that the 3 articles she collected all conform to her perspective and, thus, betray a bias.

Her bias also happens to be mine . . . so I'm happy to see she has gathered ammunition against religiosity. However, as a freethinker, I feel it's necessary to note bias: whether or not I favor it.

I read the links she provided in her article but found them all to be brief synopses that don't really explore details in depth. I agree with the study findings, as far as they're revealed, but don't feel satisfied that this level of information would stand up to scrutiny. Her article left me hungry for more details.




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