Is religion turning perfectly normal children into selfish, punitive misanthropes? Seems like it.

Screenshot from
Screenshot from “Children of the Corn” (Director: Fritz Kiersch, 1984)

The main argument that religious people have against atheism or agnosticism is that without a guiding deity and a set of behaving rules, how can one trust a non-religious person to behave morally? In other words, there is no incentive for the non-religious to behave in a societally accepted manner. Or so it seemed. Past tense. There has been some evidence showing that, contrary to expectations, non-religious people are less prone to violence and deliver more lenient punishments as compared to religious people. Also, the non-religious show equal charitable behaviors as the religious folks, despite self-reporting of the latter to participate in more charitable acts. But these studies were done with adults, usually with non-ecological tests. Now, a truly first-of-its-kind study finds something even more interesting, that calls into question the fundamental basis of Christianity’s and Islam’s moral justifications.

Decety et al. (2015) administered a test of altruism and a test of moral sensitivity to 1170 children, aged 5-12, from the USA, Canada, Jordan, Turkey, and South Africa. Based on parents’ reports about their household practices, the children had been divided into 280 Christian, 510 Muslim, and 323 Not Religious (the remaining 57 children belonged to other religions, but were not included in the analyses due to lack of statistical power). The altruism test consisted in letting children choose their favorite 10 out of 30 stickers to be theirs to keep, but because there aren’t enough stickers for everybody, the child could give some of her/his stickers to another child, not so fortunate as to play the sticker game (the researcher would give the child privacy while choosing). Altruism was calculated as the number of stickers given to the fictive child. In the moral sensitivity task, children watched 10 videos of a child pushing, shoving etc. another child, either intentionally or accidentally and then the children were asked to rate the meanness of the action and to judge the amount of punishment deserved for each action.

And.. the highlighted results are:

  1. “Family religious identification decreases children’s altruistic behaviors.
  2. Religiousness predicts parent-reported child sensitivity to injustices and empathy.
  3. Children from religious households are harsher in their punitive tendencies.”
Current Biology DOI: (10.1016/j.cub.2015.09.056). Copyright © 2015 Elsevier Ltd
From Current Biology (DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.09.056). Copyright © 2015 Elsevier Ltd. NOTE: ns. means non-significant difference.

Parents’ educational level did not predict children’s behavior, but the level of religiosity did: the more religious the household, the less altruistic, more judgmental, and delivering harsher punishments the children were. Also, in stark contrast with the actual results, the religious parents viewed their children as more emphatic and sensitive to injustices as compared to the non-religious parents. This was a linear relationship: the more religious the parents, the higher the self-reports of socially desirable behavior, but the lower the child’s empathy and altruism objective scores.

Childhood is an extraordinarily sensitive period for learning desirable social behavior. So… is religion really turning perfectly normal children into selfish, vengeful misanthropes? What anybody does at home is their business, but maybe we could make a secular schooling paradigm mandatory to level the field (i.e. forbid religion teachings in school)? I’d love to read your comments on this.

Reference: Decety J, Cowell JM, Lee K, Mahasneh R, Malcolm-Smith S, Selcuk B, & Zhou X. (16 Nov 2015, Epub 5 Nov 2015). The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World. Current Biology. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.09.056. Article | FREE PDF | Science Cover

By Neuronicus, 5 November 2015

TMS decreases religiosity and ethnocentrism

Medieval knight dressed in an outfit with the Cross of St James of Compostela. From Galicianflag.
Medieval knight dressed in an outfit with the Cross of St. James of Compostela. Image from Galicianflag.

Rituals are anxiolytic; we developed them because they decrease anxiety. So it makes sense that when we feel the most stressed we turn to soothing ritualistic behaviors. Likewise, in times of threat, be it anywhere from war to financial depression, people show a sharp increase in adherence to political or religious ideologies.

Holbrook et al. (2015) used TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) to locally downregulate the activity of the posterior medial frontal cortex (which includes the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex), a portion of the brain the authors have reasons to believe is involved in augmenting the adherence to ideological convictions in times of threat.

They selected 38 U.S. undergraduates who scored similarly on political views (moderate or extremely conservative, the extremely liberals were excluded). Curiously, they did not measure religiosity prior to testing. Then, they submitted the subjects to a group prejudice test designed to increase ethnocentrism (read critique of USA written by an immigrant) and a high-level conflict designated to increase religiosity (reminder of death) while half of them received TMS and the other half received shams.

Under these conditions, the TMS decreased the belief in God and also the negative evaluations of the critical immigrant, compared to the people that received sham TMS.

The paper is, without doubt, interesting, despite the many possible methodological confounds. The authors themselves acknowledged some of the drawbacks in the discussion section, so regard the article as a pilot investigation. It doesn’t even have a picture with the TMS coordinates. Nevertheless, reducing someone’s religiosity and extremism by inactivating a portion of the brain… Sometimes I get afraid of my discipline.

Reference: Holbrook C, Izuma K, Deblieck C, Fessler DM, & Iacoboni M (Epub 4 Sep 2015). Neuromodulation of group prejudice and religious belief. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsv107. Article | Research Gate full text PDF

By Neuronicus, 3 November 2015

Choose: God or reason

Photo Credit: Anton Darcy
Photo Credit: Anton Darcy

There are two different ways to problem-solving and decision-making: the intuitive style (fast, requires less cognitive resources and effort, relies heavily on implicit assumptions) and the analytic style (involves effortful reasoning, is more time-consuming, and tends to assess more aspects of a problem).

Pennycook et al. (2012) wanted to find out if the propensity for a particular type of reasoning can be used to predict one’s religiosity. They tested 223 subjects on their cognitive style and religiosity (religious engagement, religious belief, and theistic belief). The tests were in the form of questionnaires.

They found that the more people were willing to do analytic reasoning, the less likely they were to believe in God and other supernatural phenomena (witchcraft, ghosts, etc.). And that is because, the authors argue, the people that are engaging in analytic reasoning do not accept as easily ideas without putting effort into scrutinizing them; if the notions submitted to analyses are found to violate natural laws, then they are rejected. On the other hand, intuitive reasoning is based, partly, on stereotypical assumptions that hinder the application of logical thinking and therefore the intuitive mind is more likely to accept supernatural explanations of the natural world. For example, here is one of the problems used to asses analytical thinking versus stereotypical thinking:

In a study 1000 people were tested. Among the participants there were 995 nurses and 5 doctors.
Jake is a randomly chosen participant of this study. Jake is 34 years old. He lives in a beautiful home in a posh suburb. He is well spoken and very interested in politics. He invests a lot of time in his career. What is most likely?
(a) Jake is a nurse.
(b) Jake is a doctor.

Fig. 1 from Pennycook et al. (2012) depicting the relationship between the analytical thinking score (horizontal) and percentage of people that express a type of theistic belief (vertical). E.g. 55% of people that believe in a personal God scored 0 out of 3 at the analytical thinking test (first bar), whereas atheists were significantly more likely to answer all 3 questions correctly (last bar)
Fig. 1 from Pennycook et al. (2012) depicting the relationship between the analytical thinking score (horizontal) and percentage of people that express a type of theistic belief (vertical). E.g. 55% of people that believe in a personal God scored 0 out of 3 at the analytical thinking test (first bar), whereas atheists were significantly more likely to answer all 3 questions correctly (last bar)

First thing that comes to mind, based on stereotypical beliefs about these professions, is that Jake is a doctor, but a simple calculation tells you that there is 99.5% chance for Jake to be a nurse. Answer a) denotes analytical thinking, answer b) denotes stereotypical thinking.

And yet that is not the most striking thing about the results, but that the perception of God changes with the score on analytical thinking (see Fig. 1): the better you scored at analytical thinking the less conformist and more abstract view you’d have about God. The authors replicated their results on 267 additional more people. The findings were still robust and independent of demographic data.

Reference: Pennycook, G., Cheyne, J. A., Seli, P., Koehler, D. J., & Fugelsang, J. A. (June 2012, Epub 4 Apr 2012.). Analytic cognitive style predicts religious and paranormal belief. Cognition, 123(3): 335-46. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.03.003.  Article | PPT | full text PDF via Research Gate

by Neuronicus, 1 October 2015