With Reverence And Fear


A few studies about religious belief that I’ve read over the past couple of days.

At PsyPost: Our relationship with God changes when faced with potential romantic rejection:

New research explores a little-understood role of God in people’s lives: helping them cope with the threat of romantic rejection. In this way, God stands in for other relationships in our lives when times are tough.

Most psychological research to date has looked at people’s relationship with God as similar to a parent-child bond, says Kristin Laurin of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “We wanted to push further the idea that people have a relationship with God in the same sense as they have relationships with other humans,” she says. “The idea is certainly not new in terms of cultural discourse, but it’s not something that psychologists have done a lot of empirical work to study.”

Specifically, Laurin and colleagues wanted to see how our relationship with God changes as our other relationships change. So the researchers designed a series of studies, published today in Social Psychological and Personality Science, that experimentally induced people to believe their romantic relationship was under threat and then tested their feelings of closeness to God. They also wanted to examine the opposite idea – how people’s romantic relationships take on different meaning when their relationship with God is threatened – and tested how this dynamic changed based on the individual’s self-esteem.


Laurin’s team found that participants sought to enhance their relationship with God when under threat of romantic rejection – but only if they had high self-esteem. This fits with past work showing that people high in self-esteem seek social connection when their relationships are threatened.


Interestingly, in one of the studies, researchers looked at how people respond to a threat to their relationship with God, and they found similar trends… “We might have thought that people expect God to already know everything about them, and therefore that the concept of a ‘secret self’ that you try to hide from God wouldn’t really make sense,” Laurin says. “But we found that using that threat on people’s relationship with God worked in much the same way as it did with people’s romantic relationships.”


While the research did not specifically aim to analyze differences in this effect between religions, it did hint at some trends. In the study that included Hindus from India and Christians from the United States, the researchers found no differences when comparing the two groups; they both reacted similarly.

At Epiphenom: Turning to God for reassurance in the face of wonder:

‘Agency detection’ – seeing purposeful minds at work behind seemingly random events – is a powerful human instinct that is thought to play an important role in the generation of religious beliefs.

There’s quite a body of research that shows that a persons ‘agency detection’ can be turned up in circumstances where they are made to feel uncertain or confused. Piercarlo Valdesolo (Claremont McKenna College, USA ) and Jesse Graham (University of Southern California) reckoned that giving people a sense of awe might just unsettle them enough to start detecting agents at work in the world around them.


What they found, repeatedly, was that watching an awe-inspiring video increased the tendency to see agents at work. So, for example, they were more likely to believe that the strings of random numbers had been put together by humans…

They also measured their subjects’ tolerance of uncertainty “I feel uncomfortable when I don’t understand the reason why an event occurred in my life”. What they found was that watching the awe-inspiring videos did indeed increase their subjects’ tolerance of uncertainty.

What do these two studies have in common? Fear. Fear of the unknown, or fear of your relationship status. It seems as though we turn to our social relationships (including god) to manage how we cope with uncertainty and/or loss. What was interesting about the Epiphenom study was that awe-inspiring things seem to temper uncertainty tolerance, and uncertainty in and of itself makes people more religious. This study also might explain why people get religious experiences when seeing awe-inspiring things in nature, like a frozen waterfall.

Interestingly, the Greek word phobos means both fear and awe. Its Greek synonym deos (fear, awe; used at Hebrews 12.28 “with reverence and fear/awe”) sounds pretty close to theos (god). Probably meaning the connection between fear/awe and god-belief was well known in antiquity so much so that it affected the language.

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Posted by on April 21, 2014 in cognitive science, greek


A Little Music For Good Friday

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Posted by on April 18, 2014 in early Christianity, music


This Is Your Brain On Catholicism


Well, this is pretty interesting. Roman Catholic beliefs produce characteristic neural responses to moral dilemmas. I’m posting it without further comment:


This study provides exploratory evidence about how behavioral and neural responses to standard moral dilemmas are influenced by religious belief.

Eleven Catholics and thirteen Atheists (all female) [my emphasis] judged 48 moral dilemmas. Differential neural activity between the two groups was found in precuneus and in prefrontal, frontal and temporal regions. Furthermore, a double dissociation showed that Catholics recruited different areas for deontological (precuneus; temporoparietal junction [TPJ]) and utilitarian moral judgments (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex [DLPFC]; temporal poles [TP]), whereas Atheists did not (superior parietal gyrus [SPG] for both types of judgment). Finally, we tested how both groups responded to personal and impersonal moral dilemmas: Catholics showed enhanced activity in DLPFC and posterior cingulate cortex [PCC] during utilitarian moral judgments to impersonal moral dilemmas, and enhanced responses in anterior cingulate cortex [ACC] and superior temporal sulcus [STS] during deontological moral judgments to personal moral dilemmas.

Our results indicate that moral judgment can be influenced by an acquired set of norms and conventions transmitted through religious indoctrination and practice. Catholic individuals may hold enhanced awareness of the incommensurability between two unequivocal doctrines of the Catholic belief set, triggered explicitly in a moral dilemma: help and care in all circumstances –but thou shalt not kill.

Actually I do have a comment: There’s probably a reason why they went with an all female sample group.

(h/t Scott)

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Posted by on April 15, 2014 in cognitive science


Buddhism and Modern Psychology

So I’m taking a course on Coursera called Buddhism and Modern Psychology. As the course title might suggest, it’s a course about the intersection of Buddhist thought and modern findings in psychology. It’s a pretty interesting course, piquing my interest in Buddhism (again) and also learning some neat new stuff about psychology and meditation.

My first homework assignment is due pretty soon, so I thought I’d reblog (so to say) the work I’m going to submit here on my blog. The assignment:

The Buddha makes the claim, which may draw some support from modern psychology, that the self does not exist. Describe the self that the Buddha says does not exist and explain the Buddha’s principal argument against it. Do you agree or disagree with the Buddha’s argument that this kind of self doesn’t exist? Or are you unable to take a position? Give two specific reasons for your view, and explain your reasons support either the existence of the self or the non-existence of the self, or why they explain why you are unable to take a position on the question.

The Buddha’s main argument is premised on his conception of the makeup of a person. That makeup is composed of the five aggregates. The five aggregates are form (physical body) feeling, mental formations (emotions, desires), perception, and consciousness (subjective awareness). Buddha goes through the qualities that are thought to be associated with the aggregates and says that the “self” cannot be made up of them.

Impermanence is his main argument against the self, so he must have thought the self has a sort of persistence; something that does not change through time and space. Additionally the Buddha thought of the self as being associated with being under control, however the Buddha argued that the self cannot control feeling or form (e.g. you can’t will yourself to be happy, or decide to grow an extra arm), or any of the other aggregates, so therefore the self as he conceived of it does not exist.

On the other hand, the self or something like it has to exist if you are being “liberated”. So it is argued that the Buddha wasn’t speaking literally about the self not existing but argued more from an instrumental perspective. In order to get someone to actually accept the impermanence of things, one has to understand the impermanence of the individual “parts” of a person like their form or mental formations. Indeed, the Buddha teaches that the self exists for karma purposes when making ethical pronouncements.

The Buddha’s formulation of the self as being composed of five aggregates matches with modern psychology’s view of the mind and brain. The brain might also be composed, not of five aggregates, but of modules; each module having a specific function. Beyond this, there doesn’t seem to be any further overlap. The modular mind view in psychology is much more specific than the Buddha’s general five aggregates; though both systems make it hard to pinpoint where exactly a “self” would reside. In both modern psychology and Buddhism, there seems to be a rejection of the Cartesian theater model of the self that most everyday people have of themselves.

I would have to say that I am convinced by the Buddha’s argument that the self doesn’t reside in any of the five aggregates, but not because the aggregates lack persistence over time. Even without his rationale that the self is supposed to have a sort of permanence or has the quality of being “under control”, it would be hard to locate a sort of CEO, king, or even Cartesian theater version of the self in any of the five aggregates. This is not the Buddha’s argument (or if it is, I’ve not heard it yet) but it very well could be that your form affects your feeling and mental state, or your mental state affects your consciousness/awareness and perception. Each of the five aggregates can influence any of the other aggregates so it would be hard to cordon off one aggregate and claim that that one in particular is where the self resides.

(Note: I didn’t put the hyperlinks in the one I actually submitted)

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Posted by on April 12, 2014 in buddhism, cognitive science


Ara Norenzayan: Religion and Prosociality

This is a lecture given by Ara Norenzayan describing some of his findings about the sociology behind religious beliefs.

Some of the things he touches on briefly in his lecture (which he said he goes into more depth in his book Big Gods):

Whether religions are the result of a cognitive byproduct model or an evolutionary/sociological adaptation/benefit model. The cognitive byproduct model I first read about in Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, though psychologists and sociologists are coming more in line with the evolutionary adaptation model of religion (though the two aren’t necessarily in opposition). The adaptation model of religions is where religion isn’t a fluke of human cognition, but was specifically selected for by evolution. Or rather and more simply, that religious people had more reproductive success than the “non-religious” (whatever that would mean in the Pleistocene). And, it wasn’t just any old religion; it had to be a religion that promoted prosociality.

As an example of a successful religion vs. an unsuccessful religion, Norenzayan compares the Mormon church with the Oneida Perfectionists, who both started around the same time in the same location in the US. Mormonism had a growth rate of about 40% per decade (about the same rate as original Christianity), while the Oneida perfectionists only lasted about 30 years before disbanding; the remnants went on to become a silverware company.

Norenzayan then lists some reasons for why religions become successful:

  • moralizing god spread over increasing individualism to combat the observation that proximity + diversity = war
  • extravagant displays or synchronous behaviors/rituals
  • inculcate self control
  • moral realism: Our morality is the true morality
  • high fertility rates

Norenzayan also mentions that the more abstract ones conception of god is, the less they think said god cares about morality and/or punishes bad behavior. So someone who believes in a completely abstract “ground of being” god more than likely also believes that this god doesn’t care too much about morality. Whereas someone who believes in a god that cares a great deal about morality simultaneously believes that said god is also much more anthropomorphic. At one end of the spectrum is the god of the philosophers/Sophisticated TheologiansTM, at the other is the god of fundamentalists.

Other points:

* Small foraging societies typically don’t have moralizing gods. Big societies generally have moralizing gods. Causal or correlational?

* Economic games and small/big religions: Big religions, that is, the world religions, show more cooperative behavior in economic games. Small religions are more selfish. Again, causal or correlational?

* Belief in god in and of itself doesn’t correlate with any behavior in monetary generosity (belief in god per se doesn’t lead to moral behavior; you need to go to church to reap the benefits! And you get those same benefits being an atheist in church). Though in the context that Norenzayan was mentioning this fact, it was in the context of religious priming. Just declaring theism didn’t make someone more cooperative, but religious priming does. On the other hand, being non-religious makes you sort of impervious to religious priming; though secular priming has the same cooperative effect on the non-religious.

* Prosocial behavior correlates with a belief in a punishing god. Belief in a forgiving god correlates with cheating. Same for hell/heaven belief, respectively (though belief in hell seems to make people less happy).

* Religions are also correlated with extreme rituals for possibly belief in belief (i.e. costly signaling) reasons.

* Religious communes last longer than secular communes; religious ones are more strict. Again… causal or correlational?

* The more that the state/secular institutions provide the things that religion usually provides, the less religious that society. I’ve also read about similar things.


Oxytocin: A Love/Hate Relationship


It looks like oxytocin is a double edged sword. I’ve written before about how oxytocin is the bonding hormone but it also seems to promote behavior that’s not so becoming, like collectivism and other sorts of in-group bias. Of course, collectivism is correlated with conservatism, religiosity, and racism.

On the oxytocin promotes ethnocentrism front:


Grounded in the idea that ethnocentrism also facilitates within-group trust, cooperation, and coordination, we conjecture that ethnocentrism may be modulated by brain oxytocin, a peptide shown to promote cooperation among in-group members. In double-blind, placebo-controlled designs, males self-administered oxytocin or placebo and privately performed computer-guided tasks to gauge different manifestations of ethnocentric in-group favoritism as well as out-group derogation. Experiments 1 and 2 used the Implicit Association Test to assess in-group favoritism and out-group derogation. Experiment 3 used the infrahumanization task to assess the extent to which humans ascribe secondary, uniquely human emotions to their in-group and to an out-group. Experiments 4 and 5 confronted participants with the option to save the life of a larger collective by sacrificing one individual, nominated as in-group or as out-group. Results show that oxytocin creates intergroup bias because oxytocin motivates in-group favoritism and, to a lesser extent, out-group derogation. These findings call into question the view of oxytocin as an indiscriminate “love drug” or “cuddle chemical” and suggest that oxytocin has a role in the emergence of intergroup conflict and violence.

Meaning that getting a feel good hug from someone might simultaneously make you subconsciously distrust black people.

Oxytocin also promotes lying for the group you identify with:

According to a new study by researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and the University of Amsterdam, oxytocin caused participants to lie more to benefit their groups, and to do so more quickly and without expectation of reciprocal dishonesty from their group.


“Our results suggest people are willing to bend ethical rules to help the people close to us, like our team or family,” says Dr. Shaul Shalvi of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Department of Psychology and director of BGU’s Center for Decision Making and Economic Psychology.

Dr. Shalvi’s research focuses on ethical decision-making and the justifications people use to do wrong and still feel moral. Specifically, he looks at what determines how much people lie and which settings increase people’s honesty. Very little is known about the biological foundations of immoral behavior.

“Together, these findings fit a functional perspective on morality revealing dishonesty to be plastic and rooted in evolved neurobiological circuitries, and align with work showing that oxytocin shifts the decision-maker’s focus from self to group interests,” Shalvi says.

This isn’t really surprising, given the purpose of oxytocin. It seems to be zero sum: The more you bond with someone/some group, the less you bond with the real or hypothetical “other”. I’m wondering if oxytocin would also promote increased religiosity in the same way that being prompted about death makes people more religious; that collectivism or “fear of strangers” link is there so it seems plausible.

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Posted by on April 3, 2014 in cognitive science


Life From Above


I was looking through some old posts of mine, searching for the word ἄνωθεν::anothen that’s used in the double meaning in John 3 but I couldn’t find what I was looking for. The closest I had was this post on Justin Martyr’s use. I assume I must have written what I’m about to write here in an IRL letter to someone instead of on my blog.

Anyway, anothen is defined at Perseus as meaning “from above, from on high”. The author of John uses this word as a double entendre in John 3.3, 16; evidencing that the conversation must have occurred in Greek since such a double meaning doesn’t exist in any other language. Here it is, in the author’s context:

John 3

3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.

3 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ: ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ.

I had done a word search of the word anothen in the NT that returned only 13 results; and in the vast majority of instances it is used to mean “from above”. Like in Mark 15.38 // Matt 27.51, where the curtain of the temple rips in two from top to bottom (εἰς δύο [ἀπ'] ἄνωθεν ἕως κάτω). Three are used in the epistle attributed to James to mean “from above” as well. Five of them are found in John, three in chapter 3 and two in chapter 19; the three in chapter 3 are used in the double meaning sense. The ones in chapter 19 are meant in the from above sense.

Paul uses anothen to mean “from the beginning” in Galatians 4.9, and Luke/Acts uses it in the same manner at Luke 1.3 and Acts 26.5. This fits the evidence that Luke and Acts were written by the same hand, and maybe even had some sort of relationship to Paul… though that would be irresponsible to conclude that just from the use of this one word.

I suppose the English metaphor “taking it from the top” fits how anothen was used in antiquity; it could mean literally taking it from somewhere really high up or starting from the beginning. The metaphor might even be due to the nature of writing itself. If you read this blog post from the top you are also reading it from the beginning, and I assume that ancient Greek playwrites also wrote from the top to the bottom and is why the word anothen has both meanings in Greek.

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Posted by on April 1, 2014 in greek

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