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.
FAITH BREEDS CERTAINTY
……… Michael Inzlicht
“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.)”
COLLECTIVE RITUAL SPURS SUPPORT FOR SUICIDE ATTACKS
“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.”