Conspiracy theories flourish when people feel like things are slipping out of control

You young ‘uns may not remember the dark days of 1999, when the imminent arrival of the millennium was met with a fair degree of fear and trepidation. And it wasn’t just your usual end-times hysteria. There was actually some real concern that a software bug – the infamous Y2K bug – a could cause all sorts of problems with the software running vital systems. In the dying days of 1999, a survey was undertaken of people’s perceptions and beliefs… Read more

Make people uncertain then remind them about God, and they become more fearful of sin

There’s plenty of research about suggesting that feeling uncertain can increase the strength of belief in god in different ways. But what’s not clear is whether belief in god reduces the ill effects of uncertainty, or is a response to it. One theory is that a belief in God provides a kind of reassurance, which reduces anxiety. The research is by no means clear-cut, however. Some research has found the opposite (see: God prompts can scare us into trying to… Read more

Subliminal religious prompts might not make people nicer after all

Back in 2007, right when I was starting this blog, a ground breaking study revealed an extra-ordinary finding. What the researchers had discovered was that just giving people subliminal reminders of religion was enough to make them be more generous in a something called the dictator game. The really extraordinary thing was that the same effect was seen in both religious and non-religious people. When I blogged about it at the time, I was a little sceptical about that. It… Read more

What kind of countries go to war?

Since 1963, the Correlates of War project has been systematically accumulating and documenting data on international warfare. Today, it provides a massive database on who fought, when, and all kinds other facts and statistics for every conflict since the Napoleonic era. Just recently, a paper popped up on Archiv that uses some sophisticated data analysis to delve into the political, economical, and religious factors that are connected with emergence of conflicts and wars between countries. The author, Igor Mackarov, finds… Read more

America is finally losing its religion – and that’s a good thing!

Editor’s Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on the Future of Faith in America: Humanism. Read other perspectives here. When it comes to religion, the USA is an oddball. The populations of most wealthy nations underwent a massive loss of religion over the course of the 20th century. But, for some reason, that never happened in the USA. Why? Well, social scientists in the US, such as Peter Berger, have trumpeted the values of a free… Read more

What do people think God is actually like?

The ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes once scathingly pointed out that people imagine god to be pretty much like themselves: But mortals suppose that gods are born, wear their own clothes and have a voice and body. Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black; Thracians that theirs are are blue-eyed and red-haired. Christian tend to depict their god as a bearded white guy in the sky, and Jesus as a blonde Caucasian. And yet the ‘theologically correct’ Christian god… Read more

In a just world, how you act depends on who you think delivers justice

Many years ago I worked a couple of seasons as a porter on the now-defunct hovercraft service across the English Channel. One of the old hands used to tell me regularly that “what you lose on the swings, you make up on the roundabouts” – a phrase that’s stuck with me ever since. What he meant was that things have a habit of evening out in the end – that life, in other words, was basically just. The odd thing… Read more

Does more education mean more, or less, religion? It depends whether you take intelligence into account.

It’s pretty well established now that there is a statistical connection between intelligence and non-belief. The effect is small, but it’s consistent and has been shown many times. Education, however, is a different matter. Some studies show that educated people are more religious, while others find they are less religious. Now there’s an obvious problem here because educated people also tend to be more intelligent – so it’s not clear what’s driving what. To illustrate this, take a look at… Read more

Ask students about religion, and they’ll tell you they drink less

Religious people tend to drink less than non-religious people. We know that because, well because when you ask them, that’s what they tell you. But here’s the thing. We know that what people tell interviewers can vary with the circumstances that they find themselves in. Indeed, it can vary quite a lot from reality. People don’t exactly lie. It’s just that how they remember what they do is influenced by their own self image. If they see themselves as a… Read more

Surprisingly, belief that God is in control increases support for government welfare programmes

There’s an enduring puzzle about religion and government, and it’s about what effect religions have on government welfare policies. That’s down to an intriguing observation: that more religious countries tend to have a weaker welfare state. Quite why this is so is a matter of dispute. After all, given religion’s association with altruism, you might expect that religion to encourage people to be in favour of having the state give a helping hand. One possibility is that if people feel like… Read more


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