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How religion affects behaviour

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Scientists study how religion affects behaviour

Emerging scientific field studies how belief in God can promote intolerance or altruism

Wency Leung

Vancouver Sun

Friday, December 29, 2006

VANCOUVER - The science of religious belief is a relatively new field of study that is gaining in popularity as researchers seek to explain behaviour such as violent martyrdom, or altruism, University of B.C. professor Ara Norenzayan said in recent interview.

Norenzayan, a social psychologist who has been studying behaviour related to religious belief for five years, said scientists are interested in finding explanations for peoples' belief in religion, and in determining the consequences of faith.

Norenzayan's work is spotlighted in The Next Big Thing in 2007, and Beyond, UBC's annual survey of experts.

"My research doesn't really speak to [the question], 'Is religion true?'" he said. "I don't think science can really answer that question."

However, he said, science can try to explain what motivates faith. He and fellow researchers have been conducting experiments to test how and if belief in God can promote religious hatred or apparently irrational behaviour.

Psychologists and philosophers have long linked religious belief with people's anxieties about mortality, Norenzayan said, but recent scientific studies have been able to demonstrate that link, he said.

Research participants, who were reminded of their mortality either by writing about what happens when they die, or by reading stories in which the character died, were more inclined to believe in religious or supernatural explanation, he said.

And reminders of mortality, such as seeing death on television, or passing a funeral parlour, "can temporarily elicit religious sensibility in people," Norenzayan said.

The science of faith and spirituality is growing at a time when fundamentalism is on the rise across the spectrum of religions, including Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism, he said.

He also noted that the U.S., the most powerful, and among the most highly educated countries in the world, is also one of the most religious, with over 80 per cent of the population believing in God.

There's a growing need for an understanding of fundamentalist movements based on observation, rather than on intuition or faith, because of fundamentalism's apparent link with violence, Norenzayan said.

"Here, it becomes really critical to break down religion to its components -- what aspect of it, if any, leads to violent behaviours," he said.

From Norenzayan's research, he found faith in God does not make people less tolerant of those who don't share their beliefs.

Rather, so-called "boundary-setting" tendencies, or dogmatism, seem to be the culprits, he said.

Research participants who agreed with the statement: "My God or belief is the only true one," were more likely to support violence.

In another study, Norenzayan and fellow researchers found that Muslim Palestinians who prayed frequently were no more or less likely to support suicide attacks than those who did not.

However, he wrote in the UBC report: "Those who frequently attended mosque were more likely to endorse violent martyrdom."

Norenzayan said attendance at a synagogue or mosque likely contributes to boundary-setting.

"It's 'my group versus the other group,' whereas prayer [itself] doesn't have that affect on people," he said.

Secularization, however, doesn't make people more tolerant, he said, especially if they are emphatic in their belief that God does not exist.

"Are we better off in a world where people believe in God less? I don't think so," Norenzayan said.

He added that in other experiments on altruistic behaviour, reminders of the presence of God increased people's generosity toward strangers.


© The Vancouver Sun 2006

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