Science on Religion

Exploring the nexus of culture, mind & religion

When a fearmonger speaks, people listen

The End is NearThe end of the world is nigh!” For millennia that spiel has attracted people to gloom and doom prophets. After all, what could be more attention-grabbing than a perpetual threat on the horizon? Less ambitious religious leaders limit their dire warnings to witches, curses, and demons, but the multitudes are still gripped by panic, regardless of the presence or absence of actual danger. Could it be that when our amygdalas squirt fear all over the place, we naturally trust the doomsayer? Pascal Boyer and Nora Parren think so. Their recent research suggests that, all things being equal, people are likely to judge someone relaying threat-related information as more competent than the bearer of boring news.

How to win friends through music and religion

Music under the treeIt's your first semester. Campus is crawling with nameless strangers. Totally invisible, you scan the chattering chaos—in a lame attempt to seem undaunted, you gaze down at your smartphone and wonder, “Will anyone like me? Why should I like any of them? How would I even know a real friend if I found one?” According to a recent study, there are three personality traits most likely to bring you and your new pal together: shared taste in music, resonant religious beliefs, and similar ethical views. If a person shares all three traits, you may become best buds forever. If they share none of these, you might want to go back to your smartphone.

Atheists think like creationists

Purpose SignThe question at the heart of the cognitive science of religion – or "CSR," for those in the know – is why people are religious. Answers usually come in one of two flavors. On the one hand, some say that religion is completely learned from people’s cultures. On the other hand, some say that biology plays an important role in religious behavior, or at least in people's openness to religious ways of thinking. People spend their entire careers exploring these options, but a group from Boston University thought, What if we looked at how atheists think? Could they help us decide between CSR’s two camps?

Religion “Cuddles Up” with Oxytocin and Increased Self-Control

Laying Hands Prayer GroupIn a recent post, I let you know about Joni Sasaki’s study that looked at people who have the versions of the dopamine receptor DRD4 that made them “susceptible” to antisocial behavior. After being primed with religion, the subjects became more prosocial. In her latest study, Sasaki has carried this research forward, looking at how religion affects people’s self-control in social situations, and how this tracks with the different alleles of both the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) and DRD4. The experiments showed that that people with OXTR alleles known to give them “susceptibility” to greater social sensitivity and empathy acted with more self-control after being primed with religion.

God’s forgiveness makes you okay with your peccadillos

Guilty Guy PrayingThe anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC, is tucked deep within the brain behind the frontal lobe, and its job is to make sure that reality matches one’s expectations. In a nutshell, the ACC detects your mistakes – which is very important for self-control. After all, if people don’t realize when something’s going wrong, they can’t control themselves and act however is best to achieve their goals, whether it be doing a puzzle, navigating a cocktail party, or diagnosing a disease. Here’s the tie to religion: people primed with religious ideas and who are more religious have more self-control. But not everyone agrees, and some are wondering, is this lack of consensus a result of different theological beliefs producing distinct effects on self-control?

Accepting mortality: How religious beliefs relieve death anxiety

Church Holding HandsOne of Benjamin Franklin’s most memorable – and most true – lines is “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Besides everybody griping during the run up to April 15th, there’s not much to help people come to terms with paying taxes, but when it comes to death, there are tons of ways to help us cope. Historically, religion has been at the top of this list. Every religion has its underworld gods and figures, and these have bled into popular culture, such as the all the personifications of death and the brand new cable show Proof. Religion and helping people to deal with death go together. Religion works for many, but how does it work? What is it about religion that helps people cope with the anxiety caused by the knowledge that they will one day die?

With God as your shepherd, you take more risks

ParaglidingReligious people aren’t risk-takers. Study after study has shown that if someone’s reminded about God or if someone’s more intrinsically religious, then they’re less likely to take a risk. Coming across religious words makes people less likely to drink, do drugs, gamble, and even speed in their cars. Thousands have put this effect to great use in programs that include acknowledging a “Higher Power” as one of their twelve steps. However, the fact is that not all risks are the same. Should we think that religion will decrease all types of risk-taking equally? Maybe not.

The varieties of religious conversion

Conversion BibleConversion is a life changer. Converts can gain new social groups and family ties, different symbols and narratives that give life meaning, and new and better behaviors from the religion’s morals and, sometimes, from the way they feel emotionally because of the conversion. This is even true when it’s not a change from one religion or denomination to another but a change in degree of belief or commitment from little or none to firm and deeply held. It's no wonder that the psychology of religion has been fascinated with conversion from the start, and there are a slew of theories that claim to explain what goes on during a conversion. Most of these theories are built on qualitative studies, but can an empirical investigation support any of them?

Religion teaches self-control, and that’s what makes kids less likely to try drugs

Dad Daughter BibleDrug and alcohol abuse by teens causes a whole set of health, developmental, and social problems. What’s not clear is what makes some kids more or less likely to even try drugs in the first place, much less go on to regularly abuse them. And when researchers do identify risks or protective factors, how and why they make kids more or less likely to try drugs usually remains a mystery. For example, religion is a well-known protective factor, which means that religious adolescents are less likely to try drugs. From a public health standpoint, the how and why don’t really matter. But for the scientific study of religion, this is the most important question. So what is it about religion that makes kids less likely to try drugs as they grow up?

Religion Can Make You Prosocial, Depending On Your Genes

Trick BikingOne of religion's most important effects is that it fosters community. There’s a lot of ways it does this. It teach people how to get along. It forms group identity. And religion gets people to donate their “time, talent, and treasure” to causes that will benefit the community. This is called “prosocial behavior.” Does religion inspire this behavior in everyone? And could your genes play a role in this?

Religious conservatives more scrupulous than religious liberals (no, that’s not a good thing)

ScrupulosityThe differences between liberal and conservative extend well beyond the political realm to the religious realm. As seen in the political realm, one of the key differences between liberals and conservatives is that conservatives tends tend to be more restricting while liberals tend to be more permitting. This difference applies also to the sphere of religion: conservatives would not permit actions that liberals would. Focusing particularly on the issue of scrupulosity, psychologist Brett J. Deacon (University of Wyoming) and colleagues found that conservative clergy treat scrupulosity differently than liberal clergy.


New religion surveys online

Check out, a website filled with fascinating, research-grounded surveys about religion, morality, and belief. Sign up to get incisive feedback about your religious motivations and inner life – and help researchers learn more about science, religion, and culture in the process.

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