Category: Religion

Is death still frightening if you believe the self is an illusion? An astonishing study of Tibetan Buddhists

GettyImages-85306451.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Imagining ourselves as no longer existing is, for most of us, terrifying. Buddhism may offer some reassurance. A central tenet of the religion is that all is impermanent and the self is actually an illusion. If there is no self, then why fear the end of the self?

To find out if the logic of the Buddhist perspective eliminates existential fear, Shaun Nichols at the University of Arizona and his colleagues surveyed hundreds of monastic Tibetan Buddhists (monks-in-training) in exile in India, as well as lay Tibetans, Tibetan Buddhists from Bhutan, Indian Hindus and American Christians and atheists.

To their astonishment, the researchers report in Cognitive Science that fear of the annihilation of the self was most intense among the monastic Buddhists, and that the monastic Buddhists were less willing than any of the other groups to sacrifice years of their own life for a stranger.

Continue reading “Is death still frightening if you believe the self is an illusion? An astonishing study of Tibetan Buddhists”

Are religious people really less smart, on average, than atheists?

GettyImages-628648170.jpgBy Emma Young

Of course, there are examples of extremely intelligent individuals with strong religious convictions. But various studies have found that, on average, belief in God is associated with lower scores on IQ tests. “It is well established that religiosity correlates inversely with intelligence,” note Richard Daws and Adam Hampshire at Imperial College London, in a new paper published in Frontiers in Psychology, which seeks to explore why.

It’s a question with some urgency – the proportion of people with a religious belief is growing: by 2050, if current trends continue, people who say they are not religious will make up only 13 per cent of the global population. Based on the low-IQ-religiosity link, it could be argued that humanity is on course to become collectively less smart.

Continue reading “Are religious people really less smart, on average, than atheists?”

Researchers have tested ways to reduce the collective blaming of Muslims for extremism

GettyImages-461333672.jpgBy Emma Young

Terror attacks by Muslim extremists tend to provoke hate crimes in response. After the London Bridge and Borough market attacks in 2017, and the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, for example, there was a spike in the number of reports of verbal and physical attacks on innocent Muslims. Two weeks after the London Bridge attacks, a British non-Muslim man even drove his van into worshippers leaving the Finsbury Park Mosque in London, killing one and injuring 11.

“People have a tendency to hold groups collectively responsible for the actions of individual group members, which justifies ‘vicarious retribution’ against any group member to exact revenge,” note the authors of a new paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that explores how to short-circuit this cycle of violence.

In what the researchers dub an “interventions tournament”, they tried out various methods of reducing the collective blaming of all Muslims for attacks by individual extremists. Most failed. But there was one clear winner: an intervention that encouraged non-Muslims to see the hypocrisy in blaming all Muslims for the appalling actions of a few individuals, but not all Christians for the violent actions of an extremist few.

Continue reading “Researchers have tested ways to reduce the collective blaming of Muslims for extremism”

Psychologists went to war-torn Northern Iraq to find out why some fighters will sacrifice everything for their cause

A soldier, pictured in Iraq in 2015, from the Kurdish Peshmerga – one of the groups interviewed in this extraordinary study (John Moore / Getty Images Staff)

By Emma Young

Why are some people willing to risk their own lives – and even their children’s lives – to fight an enemy? An extraordinary study involving interviews with frontline fighters against the Islamic State, as well as IS fighters, finds that three crucial factors are at play. The most important was the strength of commitment to a “sacred” or deeply-held value or idea – but not necessarily a religious one. The findings “may help to inform policy decisions for the common defense,” wrote Ángel Gómez and his colleagues in their new paper in Nature Human Behaviour.

Continue reading “Psychologists went to war-torn Northern Iraq to find out why some fighters will sacrifice everything for their cause”

Children as young as four believe in karma – good things happen to those who do good

GettyImages-516294624-2.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Even the most scientifically trained among us have an instinct for mystical thinking – seeing purpose in nature, for example, or reading meaning in random coincidences. Psychologists think this is to do with the way our minds work at a fundamental level. We have evolved to be highly attuned to concepts relevant to our social lives, things like intentions and fairness. And we just can’t switch off this way of thinking, even when we’re contemplating the physical world.

This may explain the intuitive appeal of the Buddhist and Hindu notion of karmic justice – the idea, essentially, that you get what you deserve in life; that the cosmos rewards those who do good (variations of this idea are also spread by other religions). Indeed, in a new paper in Developmental Science, psychologists at Yale University have shown that children in the US as young as four are inclined to believe in, and actively seek, karmic justice, regardless of whether they come from a religious family or not.

“We conclude that, beginning early in development, children expect that life events are not purely random occurrences, but instead that they happen for an intended reason, such as rewarding people for their good behaviour,” said the study authors Konika Banerjee and Paul Bloom.

Continue reading “Children as young as four believe in karma – good things happen to those who do good”

Who cares more about the needy: Religious people or unbelievers?

Turkey - Society - Sacred and Secular Istanbul
Young Turks – conservative and liberal – mingle on a Friday afternoon near Eyup Mosque

By Alex Fradera

“The believer is not the one who eats when his neighbour beside him is hungry” said the founder of Islam, but many unbelievers see this as the norm: that religious people rarely do the good demanded by their faith. Some evidence seems to support this cynicism. Surveys on tackling inequality and support for welfare often find that the religious show less enthusiasm for helping the poorest in society. This would seem to reflect badly on the faithful, but new research in the Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics involving Turkish Muslims offers some redemption. The findings suggest that the religious may be taking a pragmatic approach that expresses their compassion for the needy while remaining consistent with their beliefs about a just deity … and in fact, from a practical perspective, this approach may lead to surprisingly good outcomes.

Continue reading “Who cares more about the needy: Religious people or unbelievers?”

Are these uncertain times drawing us into a cycle of dogma and prejudice?

31586456614_4a06b4b872_kBy Christian Jarrett

When all around us feels like chaos, it’s human instinct to cling to the rocks of dogma, and woe betide anyone who tries to loosen our grip. Previous studies, usually involving strong religious believers, have shown how dogmatic beliefs allay the anxiety brought on by feelings of uncertainty. In turn, any groups with opposing views are treated with suspicion and prejudice. A new study in the British Journal of Psychology broadens this out, showing these processes aren’t unique to religious believers. Dogmatic atheists too seem to be motivated by the need to cope with uncertainty, and they too are prejudiced towards threatening groups, especially during times of uncertainty. The researchers at Jagiellonian University, led by Małgorzata Kossowska, suggest their findings have interesting implications for understanding political orientations and prejudices. The world feels especially unpredictable right now. Are we all, whatever our politics, clinging to our rocks more strongly than ever?

Continue reading “Are these uncertain times drawing us into a cycle of dogma and prejudice?”

Religious and supernatural belief linked with poor understanding of the physical world

Satellite view of planet Earth
By Alex Fradera

The number of people who claim to have “No religious belief” is fast-growing in America and Europe, but the number expressing religious belief is growing faster. What’s more, the irreligious category includes fans of astrology, tarot reading or the paranormal. The tenacity of supernatural belief has prompted scientists to try understand its basis, and so far their answers have mostly implied a defect in believers: the religious have a bias in their visual attention; people with supernatural belief fall for bullshit statements. Now, in a study in Applied Cognitive Psychology, comes the suggestion that believers struggle to understand the physical world. Continue reading “Religious and supernatural belief linked with poor understanding of the physical world”

Awe-inspiring documentaries could turn people away from science

An angel came down that night
Image via KayYen/Flickr

By Christian Jarrett

Science documentaries often go heavy on awe. In his immensely popular TV shows, the pop star turned physicist Brian Cox is frequently depicted in awesome landscapes, staring into the distance, moody music in the background, reflecting on awe-inspiring facts about nature, such as that we are all essentially made of star dust. It seems like a powerful way to engage people in science. Just one problem. A new study in Emotion suggests that when people who hold religious beliefs experience feelings of awe, this makes them even less likely to believe in science as a valid way to understand the world. Moreover, feelings of awe could encourage the non-religious to endorse less credible scientific theories that emphasise order over randomness in the universe.  Continue reading “Awe-inspiring documentaries could turn people away from science”

Distrust of atheists is "deeply and culturally ingrained" even among atheists

Just as people throughout history have been subject to prejudice and persecution because of their religious beliefs, recent evidence suggests that atheists today are discriminated against because of their lack of faith. For instance, in a 2012 study, nearly one in two atheists and agnostics reported having experienced discrimination at work, in the family and elsewhere. Another US study that asked respondents to imagine their children marrying people from different social groups found that participants were most disapproving of the idea of their child marrying an atheist.

Building on these kinds of past results, most of which stem from the US, a new British study published in The International Journal for The Psychology of Religion, has found that many people’s distrust of atheists seems to be deeply held, and what’s more, even many atheists seem to have an instinctual distrust of other atheists. For background, Britain is a country where 13 per cent of people today consider themselves convinced atheists.

Leah Giddings and Thomas Dunn recruited 100 participants from Nottingham Trent University: their average age was 21 and 70 were women. Forty-three per cent were atheist, 33 per cent were Christian and the remainder subscribed to other faiths. The researchers presented the participants with a vignette about a man who one day backed his car into a van and failed to leave his insurance details, and later on, when he found a wallet, he removed the money from it for himself. In short, this chap wasn’t very trustworthy or moral. Next, half the participants were asked to say whether it was more probable that the man was (a) a teacher or (b) a teacher and religious (let’s call this the teacher+religious condition). The other half of the participants had to say whether they thought it was more likely that the man was (a) a teacher or (b) a teacher and an atheist (the teacher+atheist condition).

Logically speaking, in both conditions the correct answer is always (a) because (b) is a subset of (a) and therefore less likely by definition. However, it’s well known in psychology that many people struggle to answer these kinds of questions logically because they’re swayed by the connotations of the secondary category that’s mentioned in (b) – an error that’s known as the conjunction fallacy.

What was particularly revealing in this study is that participants in the teacher+atheist condition were much more prone to committing the conjunction fallacy (66 per cent of them did so), than the participants in the teacher+religious condition (just 8 per cent of participants in this condition fell for the conjunction error). These results suggest that at a superficial level, the description of the distrustful man sounded to many of the participants like a typical atheist, and hence many of them said they thought it more likely that he was both a teacher and an atheist than a teacher.

To test the strength of this apparent prejudice towards atheists, the researchers asked the participants the same question again, and they also presented them with information about the proportions of the population who are religious or atheist. To participants in the teacher+atheist condition, this barely made any difference to their answers, suggesting their instinctual prejudice towards atheists was robust. Even though they were given a chance to think more rationally, they still fell for the fallacy. By contrast, the participants in the teacher+religious condition committed the conjunction fallacy even less often when they were asked the question for a second time.

The prejudice shown towards atheists in this study was more pronounced among those who professed a stronger belief in God, but it was also present, albeit to a lesser extent, among the non-religious. Another thing – the non-religious participants, like the religious, showed more instinctual distrust toward atheists than towards religious people (that is, they committed the conjunction fallacy more often in the teacher+atheist condition than the teacher+religious condition).

The researchers said their findings “suggest anti-atheist distrust is deeply and culturally ingrained regardless of an individual’s group membership”. This raises the question – why are people, at least in the UK and the US, so distrustful of atheists? The researchers speculated that it may be because most people assume that religious folk believe they’re being monitored by a higher being, and that this will therefore encourage these people to behave morally, whereas this supervision is absent for atheists. Also, perhaps people’s distrust of atheists stems from the fact that, unlike religious people, atheists lack a coherent set of known moral rules (of course they have their own individual moral code, but as a group they don’t have a code that they all follow).

“Looking to the future,” the researcher said, “it is also important to explore how these perceptions and attitudes toward atheists manifest behaviourally, whether people act on these prejudices and in what contexts. It is only once the nature and extent of the issue is better understood that we can take measures to address it.”


Giddings, L., & Dunn, T. (2016). The Robustness of Anti-Atheist Prejudice as Measured by Way of Cognitive Errors The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 26 (2), 124-135 DOI: 10.1080/10508619.2015.1006487

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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