That was the year that was 2012

That was the year that was 2012 January 5, 2013

So, how was it for you? For me, 2012 was quite a tough year, for personal reasons, which is why the blog has been a bit sparse of late. On the plus side, that means only 70 posts to recap this time!

But that’s still quite a haul of great research into religion and non-belief, and one that shows some interesting changes in research focus. In particular, we’re now seeing more research than ever into non-belief, and also into the nuances of how particular ways of thinking are linked to different kinds of belief.

So let’s get going!

How thinking styles affect belief – and non-belief

One of the big stories of 2012 was the finding that instinctive thinkers more likely to believe in a personal god – and less likely to be atheists. In other words, conventional intelligence (problem solving, understanding words) was a less important factor than having a considered, deliberative approach to problem solving. We also learned that simply being made to use our brains is enough to decrease reported belief in god. In a similar vein, ambidextrous people are more likely to reject magical thinking and accept evolution.

There were several studies into the psychological biases that predispose some people to see magic in the world around us. For example, believers in religion and the paranormal are more likely to see faces in pictures of everyday objects, and Hare Krishna devotees are prone to jump to conclusions. We also learned that repetition makes magical rituals seem more effective, and that just thinking about being clean can make people feel more religious!

What’s more, although scientists are more rational than the average person, under pressure even they are likely to say things exist for a purpose (rather than as a result of causes) – showing just how widespread these biases are. What seems to make the difference is not so much that sceptics don’t have these psychological biases, but more that they subconsciously repress supernatural thoughts.  Your genes play a role too – research this year showed that people with a particular gene variation have a bigger response to religious primes.

Researchers are also becoming increasingly sensitive to the reality that religion is a very diverse beast. Take hyperactive agency detection (HAD), which refers to the way we are prone to see invisible spirits at work in the world around us. Research this year showed that the link is not to religion in general (since people with low HAD are equally likely to be religious), but specifically to a sense of connection or oneness between self, God, and/or the physical world. Meanwhile, other research has shown that there is no such thing as a ‘god spot’ in the brain. Instead different parts of the brain linked to religious practice, spirituality, and fundamentalism.

So how do people become religious?

Upbringing also makes a difference. We learned in 2012 that kids have to be taught about the supernatural, and also that children brought up in a religious background understand the concept of omniscience earlier.

On an international level, education may be one of the most important factors explaining the falling away of religion – although once a high level of disbelief has been achieved, it seems that the main effect is to change the kind of god people believe in.

Anxiety and death!

There was more evidence that people turn to religion when reminded about death is that it’s part of their ‘world-view defence’, rather than increased belief in the supernatural.  For the non-religious, this means that they actually become more hostile towards religion (although it does ratchet up their superstitious instincts).

In the US, belief in life after death is linked to belief in a just world and lower anxiety. But believing in god does not necessarily make you more relaxed about death. For example, fear of death is highest among Muslims – probably because they are more likely to believe in the afterlife, and in a demanding and vindictive God.

An interesting study found that people given a pill which they thought caused anxiety did not become religious when stressed – a strange result which actually suggests that people turn to religion when they anxious but don’t know why.


There were three studies on how disasters affect believers and belief. Although Norwegians who lived through the terrifying events of the 2004 Tsunami did not change their religious beliefs in any meaningful way, those who were most traumatised were more likely to change their religious beliefs – although the effect could go either way.

After the 2009 earthquake in Italy, people with stronger religious beliefs suffered less distress. After 9/11, however, religious believers were more distressed!

Effects of religion

Things we learned this year: that religion boosts self control, people say they’re good if they think they are being watched (and for religious people that includes being watched by a god), people who eat junk food are subsequently more likely to believe in an everlasting soul, and praying reduces how much pain people report, but doesn’t seem to ease the physiological stress of being hurt.

Religion seems to be something of a double-edged sword when it comes to health. Data from Norway found that regular churchgoers had lower blood pressure. But data from the USA educated people who go to church often are actually more likely to die young!

Religious people are less likely than the non-religious to donate their bodies to science and organs to other people, and they’re also less likely to want a donated organ. And when it comes to financial charitable donations, although religious people do tend to give more that’s only because they give more to charities that promote religion.

Crime and punishment

We also learned that belief in a compassionate god is linked to higher murder rates, and that people who believe in God are inclined not to put punish offenders – they prefer to let god do it for them!

Evidence suggests that moralising gods emerged alongside the development of complex, stratified societies, but the effect on behaviour probably was not straightforward – cuckoldry among the Dogons of Nigeria is less common among those who follow their traditional religion than among Christian converts  (perhaps because the Christians believe in letting God do their punishment for them!).


It turns out that there is something of a love-hate relationship between religion and democracy, and that’s because religious belief and religious involvement have opposite effects. What’s more, although both Catholics and Muslims want democracy – they want it for different reason.

When financial inequality increases, support for religious politicians rises, especially among the poor. However, another study revealed that Christians tend to believe that Jesus supports a more extreme version of their own core beliefs.


There was a lot of research this year into the links between religion and so-called ‘in-group favouritism’. For example, religious students have fewer interracial friends, and simply being near a church makes people more hostile to outsiders.

Even Christian children have an implicit pro-Christian bias – although, unlike adults, they’re happy to admit it!  Strangely enough, it seems that Christians find it harder than atheists to recognize their own faces, perhaps because they had a relatively low opinion of their own specialness.

To some extent, religious identity and national identity are interchangeable. Perhaps this explains why hostility to migrants in Europe is strongest among the ‘culturally Christian, and that British citizens who believe that “Christianity is important for being truly British” are also the people who define Christianity in ethnic, rather the spiritual terms.

It also appears that religion and ethnicity reinforce each other to create distrust.

In the second half of the 20th century, wars have become increasingly religious in nature. However, this is not a result of some clash of civilisations, but rather due to the importance of Islamic ideology in civil strife.

Being atheist

There’s also been an uptick in research into what life is like for atheists. We learned that in highly religious countries, religious people tend to have higher social self-esteem and better psychological adjustment. Another study found that, in almost every country, being religious leads to more social recognition, in turn leading to more happiness – and that this effect is much stronger in the more religious countries.

The good news is that distrust of atheists is reduced if people have confidence in law and order.
Also the apparent link between depression and non-religion is probably simply due to the fact that depressed people stop going to church. And there was a couple of studies showing that secular alternatives to religious gatherings (sporting events and choirs) can improve well being.

Interestingly, for less-religious Americans, compassion significantly affects prosocial behaviour (for religious Americans, compassion is less influenced in this way)

Is the world getting more religious?

Analyses of worldwide opinion polls suggests that there’s no overall trend. What there does seem to be is a balancing out, with highly religious countries becoming less religious, but with a trend towards more religion in the highly secularized West.
 It also seems that there has been a rise in state support for religion in the West, especially increased state funding for religious enterprises.

And lastly, research into fertility rates in the USA suggests that the drop seen in recent decades is largely driven by dwindling fertility among people who were highly open to new experiences, rather than among cultural conservatives. This might well explain the higher relative fertility of the religious that we see today.

Stand by for 2013!

Well, that was 2012, and you can find summaries here for 2011, 2010, and 2009.
So here’s to 2013. I have a number of great studies already lined up to blog about, when I get the time. Hopefully, I’ll be posting at least once a week from now on, more often if I can. So stay tuned!

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

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