Countries free of religion are the most socially advanced, data show

  Yesterday the international polling organisation WIN/Gallup released the results of a massive new survey into religion worldwide (here’s their press release). You’ve probably seen the news reports, mostly talking about which countries have the most (or fewest) religious people, and speculating what that might mean. Some other important data come out just last week – the latest update of the Social Progress Index.This also is a mammoth undertaking, painstakingly assessing the nations of the world against a battery of… Read more

The science is in, and God is not the answer

The Canadian news and current affairs magazine Maclean’s has just run a glowing article claiming that science says ‘God is the answer’ to teen anxiety and health problems. It’s basically a promotional piece for a new book by Lisa Miller, Director of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College. To give you a flavour of the article, take a look at these excerpts: An intensely felt, transcendental sense of a relationship with God, the universe, nature or whatever the individual identifies as… Read more

Religious authority increases the number of donations but decreases the value

In a run-down market place in Kabul, Afghanistan, groups of men hang around hoping that someone will offer them a job for the day. But today is different. Today they get an unusual offer. Somebody is willing to pay them a whole days wage (about $9) just to fill out a survey. Of course, many agree, and are taken by bus to the survey station. Once the survey is complete, they get handed their money in a blank envelope. Before… Read more

Did belief in ghosts help kick-start civilization?

In a remote highland region of south-eastern Turkey lies the remains of what is possibly the world’s old temple. Dating to 11,000 years ago, it predates even the rise of agriculture – as far as we can tell, it also predates the first complex societies. Now, not all religions are the same. Some (a minority, in fact) believe in gods that not only care about what people do, but promise rewards to those who behave well to strangers and punish… Read more

Secular community groups are just as effective as religious ones in stimulating concern for others

Researchers around the world have found that subliminal reminders of religion can have some fairly profound effects (for example, encouraging honesty, obedience, revenge and staying power – and, as we saw in the previous post – even risk taking). But is this specifically about religion? Perhaps being reminded about god makes people virtuous – but if that’s right, how come the effect seems to work just as well on atheists? Nicholas Thomson, at the University of Durham in the UK,… Read more

Thinking about God causes people to take bigger risks… wait, what???

A team from Stanford University Graduate School of Business has just published a nice series of studies showing that priming people with the idea of god can increase their appetite for risk. Over at the Friendly Atheist, Rachel Ford did a good write up, leading with the headline conclusion that thinking about god actually causes people to take bigger risks. Slate had the same take, claiming that Thinking about religion makes people take risks. Regular readers of this blog are… Read more

Suicide in Northern Ireland is not linked to religious affiliation

Conventionally, religious affiliation is supposed to reduce the risk of suicide. In fact, the worldwide data show a rather patchy picture, probably because the effects of religion on suicide risk depend on the social context. One of the godfathers of the sociology of religion was a guy named Émile Durkheim. At the tail end of the 19th century, he reviewed the scarce statistics available to him and came to the conclusion that Protestants were less likely to commit suicide than… Read more

Is belief in moral progress a substitute for religion?

There’s a well studied phenomenon called Terror Management Theory which basically says that, when people are reminded of their own death, their beliefs change in certain predictable ways.  People cling more strongly to beliefs that make the future seem more controllable and comfortable – and that includes turning to religion (see: Religion, Patriotism and Death). Bastiaan Rutjens (University of Amsterdam) has previously found that reminding people of death reinforces their belief in progress. What he wanted to find out was… Read more

Most supernatural beliefs are about avoiding harm, not bringing benefit

A survey of supernatural beliefs across cultures around the world has found that beliefs involving hazards and harms were about 50% more common than beliefs about benefits, opportunities and other good things. Daniel Fessler, at the University of California, and colleagues searched a representative dataset of 60 cultures held at the Human Relations Area Files and identified a total of 219 supernatural beliefs (there were more than that in total, but they just took a few from each culture). They… Read more

Wealth and enlightenment in the Ancient World

The period between the 5th and the 3rd century BCE was a fertile time for the world’s religions. In India, Buddhism and Jainism began to take hold. In China, Confucianism and Daoism likewise attracted mass appeal. And Europe saw the golden age of Greek philosophy. What these movements have in common is that they all emphasize spirituality, self-discipline, and selflessness. And in doing so, they all are heavily moralizing. According to a new study by Nicholas Baumard (University of Pennsylvania)… Read more

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