Some Reasons for Religiosity

In science, when data show as much scatter about a proposed theory as is shown in the first plot below, it suggests that the theory needs serious revision. After commenting on the first plot, I’ll suggest other possible reasons why people are religious.

The data shown in the first figure are from the latest (2007) results in the Pew Global Attitudes Project. I’ve copied the figure from the Project’s most recent report, which summarizes data from 45,239 interviews (!) in 47 “publics” (46 nations plus the Palestinian territories). For this figure, “Religiosity” was measured as follows: “Respondents were given a ‘1’ if they believe faith in God is necessary for morality; a ‘1’ if they say religion is very important in their lives; and a ‘1’ if they pray at least once a day.”

Legend notes (additional color codes): Green – Mid-Eastern Countries (Israel being the “outlier” with high GDP and low religiosity); Orange – Latin America; Brown – Asia (including Muslim Indonesia down to mostly secular Japan and China); one dark-blue dot (on the trend) is Canada; the other (the “outlier”) is the U.S. (as indicated on the graph).

The following are some obvious features of and questions about the above plot.

• The U.S. data (far right) seem anomalous (compared, e.g., with Canada and West Europe): I expect that during the coming decades, Americans will become either less religious or less wealthy.

• I expect that data for West Europe reflect influences from the Enlightenment and capitalism and that data for East Europe reflect remnants of communism (low religiosity and struggling economies).

• Illustrated especially with Africa but also with most of South America and the Middle East (except Kuwait – and no doubt, Saudi Arabia, if data had been collected), the poorer the people the stronger their religiosity: when reality is harsh, it’s easy to slip into a dream world with a promised paradise. Exceptions for their geographical areas are Israel, Japan, and China.

More generally, with so much scatter in the plot, the question arises: why plot religiosity against wealth?

To illustrate another possibility, the figure below shows religiosity against scores on the most recent (2006) international test for “science literacy” for 15 year olds as given in the left-hand column (“combined scale”) of Table 2 of the report for the Program for International Student Assessment (U.S. Department of Education). I’ve used data only for nations also sampled in the Pew Survey; in the case of China (without distinction from the Pew Survey), I’ve assigned the “three Chinas” (Taipei, Hong-Kong, and Macao) all the same “religiosity” for China as given in the Pew Survey (17%). Also, for illustrative purposes, I’ve first normalized the science-test scores and then plotted their anti-logarithm (on a logarithmic scale); so, the science scores appear as they would on a linear scale. In turn, I chose the logarithmic scale as most convenient to display the range of religiosity given in the Pew Survey. Their measure for religiosity is given in the table on p. 33 of the referenced Pew Report: importantly, it’s the percentage of interviewed people who agree with the statement that a person must believe in God to be moral.

On this plot (click to enlarge it), the U.S. again seems to “buck the trend”, as does S. Korea: people in both countries are apparently more religious than would be expected based on their science-test scores. In contrast, the former Soviet countries Poland, Russia, and Bulgaria seem less religious than one might have expected based on their science-test scores.

But this plot, too, raises a host of obvious questions.

• How much of the better-than-expected science-test scores for the U.S. and S. Korea (“better than expected” based on their religiosity – even though the U.S. test scores are a disgrace!) might be attributed to “teaching to the test” rather than teaching to develop critical-thinking skills of the students?

• How much of the worse-than-expected science-test scores for former communist countries can be attributed to poorly financed and organized school systems?

• How much of the increase in religiosity of American and S. Korean adults is from their childhood indoctrination in religion?

• Correspondingly, how much of the decrease in religiosity of adults in former Soviet nations arises from their lack of religious indoctrination?

And more significant than any of the above questions is the obvious criticism: the plot is silly! That is, the measure used for religiosity (the percentage of people who agreed with the statement that one must believe in God to be moral) is just an inverse measure of a part of scientific literacy: no student who has at least a little competence in biology would agree with such a stupid statement!

Thus, a scientifically literate student would know that moral values (e.g., as recently reviewed by Stephen Pinker, “including a distinction between right and wrong; empathy; fairness; admiration of generosity; rights and obligations; proscription of murder, rape and other forms of violence; redress of wrongs; sanctions for wrongs against the community; shame; and taboos…”) are “an innate part of human nature.” They’re encoded in our DNA, because they promoted our survival – they’re not supplied by some giant Jabberwock in the sky! Like dolphins and monkeys, humans are social animals: dolphins will periodically swim beneath a wounded cousin, lifting it to the surface, so it can get some air; monkeys “scream bloody murder” when they “discern” injustice – and they then proceed to try to punish the “cheaters”. Therefore, the second plot suggests that American students aren’t being exposed to basics about evolution, courtesy science teachers who are incompetent (religiously indoctrinated?), intimidated by the “Religious Reich”, or whatever.

All of which then exposes failures to address the basic question: Why are people religious? Alternatively, revealing my bias better: Why do so many people believe in such clearly invented balderdash? Elsewhere, I’ve commented on a few such possibilities, including (listed alphabetically):
Addiction, Animal-training, (seeking) Answers, (out of) Arrogance, (wanting) Assurance, (feeling) Awe, (feeling) Betrayed, (desiring to) Belittle (others), (seeking) Career-advancement, (seeking) Certainty, Childhood Conditioning, (seeking) Comfort, (seeking) Company, (seeking) Control, Cowardice, Credulity, (seeking) Customers, (fearing) Death, (lost in) Dreams, Egomania, Epilepsy, (seeking) Eternal Life, (out of) Fear, Following (leaders), Foolishness, (seeking) Friends, (out of) Frustration, (desiring) Goals, (out of) Greed, (seeking) Guidance, (out of) Guilt, (to get out of the) Gutter, (seeking) Happiness, Herd instinct, Hero worship, (seeking) Hope, Hypnosis, (unconstrained) Imagination, Ignorance, Indoctrination, (out of) Inquisitiveness, (lacking) Judgment, (seeking) Kinship, (desiring) Kindness, (seeking) Knowledge, (intellectual) Laziness, (out of) Loneliness, (searching for) Love, Megalomania, (seeking a) Mate, (searching for) Meaning, (out of) Misery, Narcissism, (fear of) Ostracism, (an) Opiate, Pack instinct, Parental pressure, (seeking) Peace, Political (purposes), (some other) Psychosis, (seeking) Purpose, (unanswered) Questions, (sheer) Rationalization, Revelation, Savagery, Schizophrenia, (seeking) Security, Selfishness, Selflessness, Socialization, (seeking) Support, (following) Tradition, (simply) Training, Tribalism, (unease caused by) Uncertainty, (to relieve) Unhappiness, (because of) Visions, (marriage or other) Vows, (out of) Weakness, (seeking) Wisdom, (living on) Wishes, Xenophobia, Yearnings (for assurance, brotherhood, comfort, development, empathy, friends, guidance, heaven, insight, justice, kindness, love,…), Zonked out (on drugs).

To determine the relative importance of such reasons (and surely childhood indoctrination and poor training in critical-thinking skills will be found to be two of the most important reasons) will require much more thorough surveys than those conducted in the Pew Global Attitudes Project. Yet, I sincerely congratulate the people associated with the Pew Research Center and their sponsors (The Pew Charitable Trusts and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation) for their good start.


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