Do social crises lead to religious revivals? Nah!

Back in 2010, I made a prediction: that the financial crisis of 2008 would lead to an uptick in religion. It seemed reasonable enough. After all, the study I quoted showed how, in the USA, religious beliefs and attendance acted as a buffer against the stress of poverty. And I wasn’t flying out on a limb, either. According to the blurb for the British Sociological Association’s 2014 meeting of the Sociology of Religion Study Group, “A long-standing assumption in the… Read more

What kind of woman would pray for health or use spiritual healing?

You probably have some preconceptions about the kind of person that might resort to prayer or spiritual healing as a way to treat illness. Take a moment to think about that stereotype now, and let’s see if you’re right. Angela Rao (University of Technology Sydney, Australia) and colleagues used data from a huge, ongoing study of nearly 10,000 Australian women born in the post-war period (1946–1951). The study, Australian Longitudinal Study on Women Health, is following these women over a… Read more

Can you use religion to change attitudes towards immigrants?

Migration is a hot topic at the moment. While Americans debate the infamous ‘wall’ proposed between Mexico and the USA, in Europe the language around the waves of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa is becoming increasingly inflamed. Does religion play a role in attitudes to migrants? It’s difficult to unravel because migrants often differ in both religion and ethnicity from the host countries. Does the fact that many migrants to Europe are Muslims contribute to the hostility,… Read more

Dogmatic atheism and fundamentalist Christianity: creating certainty in an uncertain world

Evidence is building up that, because religion helps people to deal with uncertainties of life, it’s particularly attractive to the kind of people who have a hard time dealing with uncertainty. But what about atheists? Some atheists seem rather fixed and absolutist in their beliefs. Perhaps they use atheism as a prop in much the same way that others use religion. To test this idea, Malgozata Kossowsk (Jagiellonian University, Poland) and colleagues ran a study on 116 local young adults… Read more

Use of prayer by African-Americans can help explain why they are more sensitive to pain

African-Americans are more sensitive to pain than Caucasian (white) Americans. That’s been shown in comparisons of much pain is experienced in illnesses such as AIDS and arthritis, after surgery, and in conditions such as lower back pain. It’s also been shown experimentally, when volunteers undergo painful experiences (like holding your hand in ice-cold water) and report how much pain they feel. Many studies have been done to try to understand why this difference exists. One important area of research has been… Read more

Do you wanna be in my clan? Moralising gods encourage long-distance sharing with co-religionists

Most gods that have been invented don’t give a damn about what us mortals get up to. Researchers think that  belief in the few that do, the ones that can be thought of as moralising gods, might have a significant effect on behaviour. For example, more complex societies are more likely to believe in moralising gods (When did Moralizing Gods Emerge?), and people living societies in which there is a level of belief in ‘world religions’ like Christianity and Buddhism… Read more

The decline of religion in Europe did not lead to a decline in moral standards

Morality is a complex notion, and means different things to different people. Still, there remains a pervasive idea that religion is linked in some general way to moral behaviour. Trying to work out from the data what truth there is in that is tough, but at least we can say with some confidence what people’s attitudes to different moral questions are. That’s due to projects such as the European Values Survey, a massive initiative that has been run at regular… Read more

Religion linked to reduced levels of stress hormones in young American Blacks

Compared with Whites, Black Americans have  high levels of an important stress hormone called cortisol circulating in their bloodstream. No-one really knows why this is, but the differences remain even after you take into account social and psychological factors. It seems likely that simply being black exposes you to a cumulative effect of increased lifetime stress. Blacks in the USA are also more likely to be religious than Whites. Shervin Assari, at the University of Michigan, and colleagues, wondered if… Read more

How religious schools led to the decline of Arabic science

The world’s first scientific renaissance took place not in Italy, but in the Arab world. The period between the 9th and 11th centuries AD, when Islam took hold of a band of territory strategy from Spain in the West through to what is now Pakistan, saw an extraordinary intellectual flowering. Scientists in the Arab world during this period made important advances in fields as varied as astronomy, mathematics, medicine and optics – advances that fed into and stimulated the later… Read more

A sense of mystery results from the brain failing to shut down flights of fancy

People who have a mystical experience might describe it as being “touched by some higher or greater truth or power”, or as “experiences felt or experienced beyond the realms of ordinary consciousness”. Psychologists define them as a breakdown in the usual sense of time or space, or of the difference between the self and the external world. Irene Cristofori (Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago) and colleagues wanted to test two competing theories of how mystical experiences are generated in the brain…. Read more

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