By JR on Monday, March 28, 2016
Are you an atheist? Non-believers 'lack empathy' while religious people are less intelligent, claims study
I have done a great deal of survey research (by doorknocking) in which religious belief was asked and the results reported below seemed wrong to me. So in my usual pesky way I looked up the underlying academic journal article ("Why Do You Believe in God? Relationships between Religious Belief, Analytic Thinking, Mentalizing and Moral Concern"). I was pretty sure what I would find and I did find it: No attempt at sampling.
The research is just a product of laziness. They used Mechanical Turk to get their test subjects. It's a great way to avoid getting out of your armchair but it gives you no generalizable data. The population accessed via MT is unknown but is probably of above average IQ and more introverted. So the data gained from MT responders enables no generalization to any known population. A representative sample could give quite different results.
There is therefore no reason to conclude that the results below accurately reflect the real world. In my experience with surveys, I have had a strong positive correlation among a non-sample turn into a zero correlation with a representative sample.
I note also that most of the correlations between belief and ability were so low as to be effectively zero for all intents and purposes -- e.g. -0.15 and -0.13. This comports with previous findings of only trivial (and possibly artifactual) ability differences between believers and unbelievers. See here and here
If you don't believe in God or a universal spirit, you're more likely to be callous and manipulative, according to a controversial new study.
Atheists exhibit more traits commonly seen among psychopaths than people who consider themselves to be religious.
However, believers aren't spared criticism - the study also found that religious people are less intelligent than their non-believing counterparts.
Religious people were found to be more caring towards their fellow humans and the researchers believe their findings may help explain why women - who tend to be more empathetic - are also likely to be more religious.
Researchers at Cape Western Reserve University in Ohio and Babson College in Massachusetts, argue that the conflict between science and religion may have its origins in the structure of our brains.
Brain scans, and experiments, demonstrate the brain has two 'networks' that are activated when we think - one analytical and critical, the other social and emotional.
To believe in a supernatural god or universal spirit, people appear to suppress the brain network used for analytical thinking and engage the empathetic network, the scientists said.
In a series of eight experiments, each involving between 159 and 527 adults, the researchers examined the relationship between a belief in God or a spirit, with measures of analytic thinking and moral concern.
In all eight, they consistently found the more religious the person, the more moral concern they showed.
Scientists have yet to discover a 'God gene' but said differences at a genetic level appeared to play a big role.
The results were part of a report called 'The Gender Gap in Religion' from Pew, a respected US-based research institute.
They discovered that both spiritual belief and empathetic concern were positively associated with frequency of prayer, meditations and other spiritual or religious practices.
The main finding offers a new explanation for past research showing women tend to hold more religious or spiritual worldviews than men, so this gap may arise because women tend to be more empathetic than men.
In contrast, the researchers said there are some similarities between atheists and psychopaths in that they both lack empathy for others.
The typical psychopath demonstrates 'an absence of emotional response to pain and suffering in others' the authors said, who also found this to be the case among people in a series of personality tests.
The research is based on the hypothesis that the human brain has two opposing domains in constant tension.
In earlier research, Dr Tony Jack, associate professor of philosophy at Cape Western used functional magnetic resonance imaging to show the brain has an analytical network of neurons that enables us to think critically and a social network that enables us to empathise.
When presented with a physics problem or ethical dilemma, a healthy brain fires up the appropriate network while suppressing the other.
'Because of the tension between networks, pushing aside a naturalistic world view enables you to delve deeper into the social or emotional side,' he explained.
'And that may be the key to why beliefs in the supernatural exist throughout the history of cultures. 'It appeals to an essentially non-material way of understanding the world and our place in it.'
He continued: 'When there's a question of faith, from the analytic point of view, it may seem absurd.
'But, from what we understand about the brain, the leap of faith to belief in the supernatural amounts to pushing aside the critical or analytical way of thinking to help us achieve greater social and emotional insight.'
His colleague Professor Richard Boyatzis added: 'A stream of research in cognitive psychology has shown that people who have faith (who are religious or spiritual) are not as smart as others. 'They actually might claim they are less intelligent.'
'Our studies confirmed that statistical relationship, but at the same time showed that people with faith are more prosocial and empathic.'
The new study is published in the online journal PLOS ONE.
The researchers said that while having empathy does not necessarily mean a person has anti-scientific beliefs, it may 'compromise' an individual's ability to cultivate social and moral insight.
However, they point out research that shows between 1901 and 2000, 90 per cent of Nobel Prize winners in science were religious, while the rest were atheists, agnostics or freethinkers.