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A brief history of 2009

A brief history of 2009 January 1, 2010

Happy (Gregorian) New Year everyone! Let’s kick off with a traditional round-up – 2009 was a great year for new research into belief and non-belief, and here’s some of the highlights!

First up, brain scans. Neuroimaging studies are starting to get under the skin of religious beliefs, and several this year showed the religious beliefs seem to tap into the neural pathways used for everyday life. For example, one showed that praying to God is much the same as interacting with another human.

We also learned that God wants the same thing as you happen to want, and also that people seem to create god in their own image. Sam Harris and colleagues showed that religious brains work in a pretty similar way to non-religious brains.

What are the effects of religion? Well, research this year showed that religion acts like an antidepressant, reducing anxiety over mistakes. We got some insights into the link between religion and homophobia, and found that religious prompts make people more obedient.

Spiritual guidance doesn’t reduce substance abuse. Praying can reduce your own anxiety, but praying for sick people doesn’t have any effect.

There were a raft of studies showing that, contrary to expectations, religious beliefs don’t seem to have much effect on behaviour. Rather, the important factor seems to be the social side – attending religious meetings, for example.

Religious attendance, but not beliefs, were linked to a improved health, a reduction in suicides, and increased marital fidelity. Christians behave better, but only on Sundays.

On the down side, religious services – but not religious beliefs – also increase hostility towards people outside your group. And Church goers are more likely to steal newspapers.

So much for the effects of religion, are we any closer to understanding why religion is still so popular? I think so. In 2009, we learned that God is the ultimate attachment figure, and that people get more religious when they feel events are out of their control (although not if you first make them feel good about themselves). What’s more, God is someone to blame when disaster strikes.

The highlight for me was my own paper. This added to the growing body of evidence that social conditions – particularly ones that increase feelings of insecurity – are a major reason why people turn to religion. A paper from Greg Paul also showed a link between religion and societal ill health. The Global Peace Index for 2009 was published, and the countries with the most atheists also scored the best.

And why do people become atheists? The reason young adults are less religious than children and older adults might be to do with cognitive abilities. The correlation between atheism and IQ was discussed in at least one controversial paper. Education increases church attendance, but decreases religious beliefs, and simply reading a couple of paragraphs by Dawkins can make you less religious.

So as society becomes more secure, you might expect more people to lose their religion. Sure enough, the ARIS survey in the USA and the British Social Attitudes Survey both showed religion is continuing to decline.

How will society look with more atheists? Well, one of the first studies to look at atheists (rather than the non-religious) finds that they are a happy bunch after all! Perhaps this is because, although transcendental spirituality did not increase happiness in children, ‘personal’ and ‘communal’ spirituality does. What’s more, atheists also experience a sense of awe and wonder.

Atheist parents are more likely to tolerate divergent opinions from their children. In the US, atheists are notoriously the least trusted minority. But new research shows that this is probably simply because they are ‘unknown outsiders‘, and that this fear can be reduced simply by atheists being open. In fact, the least religious societies are also the ones with the highest levels of trust.

And finally, we all know that university academics are a pretty irreligious bunch, but which discipline has the most godless? That prize goes, perhaps unsurprisingly, to the psychologists! (Although new research that came out in December suggests that philosophers probably trump the lot!)

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

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