Live blogging the NSRN

Live blogging the NSRN December 11, 2009

Today I’m in Wolfson College, Oxford, for the first conference of the Non-religious and Secular Research Network. Now the plan is that I’m going to live blog this – i.e. I’ll keep returning to this page to post updates through the day. hmm, let’s see how that goes, shall we!

The first presentation will be by David Voas, a demgrapher at the University of Manchesster: “Who are the non-religious in Britain and where do they come from?” The room’s filling up – looks like there’ll be around 50 participants.

So, who are the non_religious in the UK. Here’s the topline:

Ethnicity: In the last census, over half of people with Chinese ethnicity sad they had no religious affiiliation. For whites and Afro-Carribean descent, that drops to 10-15%. But there are virtually none among those of Bangladeshi or Pakistani descent.

Age: religion declines from over 80% in people born in 1910, to 40% of people born in 1980.

Gender: women are mmore religious, and this gap is stable with age. There’s interesting evidence thaht this is due to social pressure. It seems that the drop in religion lags men by 10 years. what’s more, the gap also appears in newborns (girl babies are more likely to be labelled religious than boy babies).

Jedi knights. around 3% of young men, and around 1% of young women classified theselves as jedi kniht.

Education: Although historically educated people are less religious, this appears to be switching for youn adults today.

Marriage: non religious women are more likely to be alone. Same for young men, though not older men. This could be cultural (acceptability of living alone).

Non religious are less authoritarian (although this gap is smaller in younger people) and less political. They are more hedonistic but less happy.

And the most religious regions in England and Wales: Norwich, Cambridge, Rhonda Valley and, at the very top, my home town Brighton!

Kirsten Barnes, a PhD student at Cambridge, presented her research into “hyperactive agency detection”. This involved showing a small group of atheists and Christians images of random noise, and asking if they see any patterns (faces in the clouds).

Turns out there was no differences between the groups. This is surprising, because this sort of agency detection is supposed to be a trigger for religion. Turns out that there were several difference between he two groups. The atheists were younger, more paranoid, more psychotic, and more neurotic. Strangely, however, there was no correlation between paranoid ideation and seeing images. Perhaps the groups were too small.

Interesting presentation from Miguel Farias, a psychologist at Oxford. He’s found that, when relating life stories, atheists are more likely to report personal relationships as the most important events in their lives. They have more perceived control over their lives, and generally a more hedonistic attitude. Interestingly, they are also more likely to believe that the fantasies described in the da Vinci code are true!

Ryan Cragun, over from Florida, is presenting on predjudice in the USA. First some demogra,hics. The nonreligious are not different from religious on education or marital status (after adjusting for age). They do tend to earn slightly more though.

He’s looked at whether people who are self-declared atheists, rather than non-religious. It turns out that atheists face twice the level of discrimination as the non-religious. This is particularly acute in the social setting. Cragun thinks this because they are “out and proud” – i.e. identify as members of a minority and proud of it. Others have shown that these are the people who face greatest predjudice (because they are perceived by the majority as a threat).

In questions, it’s been suggested that the people who state their religion as “atheist” may be more combative.


John Lanman has presented a theory that links the cognitive science to societal level differences in religiosity. The key ingredient is that threat drives people to increase their religious actions (devotions, attendence). The other ingedient is what’s called “credibility enhancing displays”. This is the idea that in order to believe what people tell us we need to see them act according to their beliefs – they need to walk the talk.

In low religious countries, such as Sweden, what happened was that threat was reduced (limited ethnic diversiy and high social welfare). People didn’t stop believing, but they did stop acting on their beliefs. As a result, their children didn’t really believe them when they talked about god. Hence religion did not get passed on.


Well that’s it, all over now and I’m on the train home. The last presentation was by Colin Campbell, the doyen of sociological studies of the non-religious. He’s incensed by the theory put forward by Miller and Stark that claims men are less religious then women because they have different attitude to risk – specifically because they’re less able then mwomen to ‘delay gratification’ (i.e. undergo hardship now for rewards in the future).

This theory is flawed in all sorts of ways, most of which I covered in a series of blog posts earlier this year. Campbell seized upon the fact that this is basically a dressed up version of Pascal’s Wager. On top of that, most religious people in the West don’t even believe in Hell. In which case what, exactly is it that non-believers are at risk of?

I hope that’s given a flavour at least of this rather remarkable conference. There’s been some fascinating stuff presented, most of which I haven’t been able to cover. Now at least I can put some faces to some of the names on the papers I’ve been reading!

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

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