September 2, 2014

money and happiness_Economist
More on Money and Happiness
Gallup asked respondents around the world to imagine a “satisfaction ladder” in which the top step represents a respondent’s best possible life. Those being polled are then asked where on the ladder they stand (from zero to a maximum of 10), and how much they earn. Though some countries seem happier than others, people everywhere report more satisfaction as they grow richer. Even more striking, the relationship between income and happiness hardly changes as incomes rise. Moving from rich to richer seems to raise happiness just as much as moving from poor to less poor. One never really grows tired of earning more. (

Believing in Evil
Overall, people who strongly believe in an irreducible force called evil tend to believe a lot more in the use of violence to resolve conflicts (you can’t bargain with evil, after all) and less in the idea of tolerance between different groups of people. And belief in evil isn’t, as one might think, a straightforward offshoot of religious or political beliefs. Both papers found belief in evil to be a stable trait that, while correlated with conservatism and (to a lesser extent) religiosity, couldn’t be fully explained by a person’s beliefs about God or government. (Jesse Singal, Science of Us, New York Magazine)

Snap Judging Whether a Face Is Trustworthy
NYU researchers knew from previous studies that people are fairly similar when it comes to how they judge a face’s trustworthiness. They wanted to find out whether that would hold true if people only saw a face for a quick moment—an amount of time so short, in fact, that it would prevent making a conscious assessment. They found that the “human amygdala is automatically responsive to a face’s trustworthiness in the absence of perceptual awareness.” In short, we don’t have to think logically about whether we should trust someone—our brains know the instant we encounter them. (Avital Andrews, Pacific Standard)

Identifying How You Feel by How and What You Type
By measuring the way someone is typing—the speed, rhythm, and how often they use backspace—and then combining that information with an emotional analysis of the typed text, a computer program has been able to predict how they are feeling with 80 percent accuracy. (Hal Hodson, New Scientist)

Turning Mice’s Fearful Memories Into Pleasant Ones
The new experiment worked because the scientists tackled the contextual and emotional aspects of the memory separately. When the researchers activated the neurons in the hippocampus, it evoked the contextual part of the memory, while new events the mouse was experiencing rewrote the emotional part of the memory. This led to a new memory of the same place but with a different emotional association, the researchers said. (Bahar Gholipour, Live Science)

Movies and Empathy
Movies, Talma Hendler says, are a useful way to study how emotions fluctuate in real time—and what’s going on in the brain as that happens. Recently, her team has been investigating networks in the brain that appear to have a role in empathy. She’s found evidence for two types of empathy, each tied to a different network of brain regions. (Greg Miller, Wired)

Neanderthal Gorham’s Cave “Art”
The pattern was deeply incised using some sort of stone tool and was found under archaeological layers dating back at least 39,000 years—but containing stone tools that only Neanderthals made. The image is somewhat reminiscent of a 75,000-year-old geometric pattern found at Blombos Cave in Africa, and indeed the Gorham’s team argues that it is proof positive that Neanderthals were just as capable of abstract thought as modern humans. The claim is likely to attract some skepticism, however, from archaeologists who have argued that such simple patterns are poor evidence for complex symbolic expression. (Michael Balter, ScienceShot, Science)

The Human Evolution Issue
Awash in fresh insights, scientists have had to revise virtually every chapter of the human story. (Scientific American)

Abraham’s Dice Conference

Abraham’s Dice is a collaborative effort among leading scholars from around the world to explore the interplay of chance and providence in the monotheistic religious traditions. Karl Giberson and 17 contributors, who remain on the forefront of science and religion, aim to examine the significance of randomness and its intersection—or lack thereof—with divine action.

Summer Break

We’ll be back here on September 2—but you can always follow us on Twitter (@scireltoday). We’ll continue to share news and stories from around the Web there over the next couple of weeks.

Thanks for reading SRT.

August 8, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationWhy Would Affirming Belief in Scientific Progress Seem to Reduce Environmentally Friendly Behavior?
Marijn Meijers and Bastiaan Rutjens attribute these results to compensatory control theory, which states that humans have a strong desire to see the world as “meaningful, ordered, and structured.” According to this school of thought, if we’re convinced some powerful force—be it God or science—has things under control, we can comfortably remain passive. But fear of chaos leads us to take things into our own hands, increasing our motivation to take action. (Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard)

How Mobile Phones Affect Face-to-Face Social Interactions
Feelings of “interconnectedness” (rated by agreement with statements like “I felt close to my conversation partner”) were reduced for pairs in which a mobile device was placed on the table or held by one of them. Similarly, “empathetic concern” (measured by items like “To what extent did your conversation partner make an effort to understand your thoughts and feelings about the topic you discussed?”) was rated lower by pairs in which a mobile device was brought into view. (Christian Jarrett, BPS Research Digest)

Morality in the Brain
Using new technology, brain researchers are beginning to tease apart the biology that underlies our decisions to behave badly or do good deeds. They’re even experimenting with ways to alter our judgments of what is right and wrong, and our deep gut feelings of moral conviction. One thing is certain: We may think in simple terms of “good” and “evil,” but that’s not how it looks in the brain at all. (Carey Goldberg, CommonHealth, WBUR)

Daniel Dennett

Carey Goldberg: More than once lately, brain scientists have told me, “You won’t get your answer here. That’s the purview of philosophy.” The drill goes like this: They boggle my mind with the ways they’re beginning to be able to dissect and tweak the brain processes that underlie our moral selves, from decisions to judgments to feelings. I eventually ask something like, “But if it’s all the brain, if it’s all biology, then what does that mean for free will? For moral responsibility? Blame for bad deeds? Credit for good?” And they reply, a bit apologetically, “That’s not a scientific question. It’s a normative one. Try philosophy.” So I did. (CommonHealth, WBUR)

Religion Evolves

A preview EP showcasing songs from the upcoming Baba Brinkman album “The Rap Guide to Religion,” which explores the study of religious behavior from an evolutionary perspective.

August 7, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationBrain Mechanisms of Determining Punishment
New research illuminates how the human brain decides the severity of a criminal’s punishment, scientists say. Several brain regions do battle in determining the appropriate level of justice, depending on the person’s level of guilt, a study has found. Often, people demand swift and severe punishment, particularly when the crime involves bodily harm to others and is relayed in gruesome detail. Yet certain brain regions can override this gut emotional response when the harm was not intentional, regardless of how shocking the incident was. (Christopher Wanjek, Live Science)

Judging the Trustworthiness of Faces (That Aren’t Consciously Perceived)
The human brain can judge the apparent trustworthiness of a face from a glimpse so fleeting, the person has no idea they have seen it, scientists claim. Researchers in the U.S. found that brain activity changed in response to how trustworthy a face appeared to be when the face in question had not been consciously perceived. Scientists made the surprise discovery during a series of experiments that were designed to shed light on the neural processes that underpin the snap judgments people make about others. (Ian Sample,

Is a One-Way Mission to Mars Insane?
Here’s how Mason Peck responded to the question: “There are many motivations for becoming one of the first settlers on Mars, none of them insane in my opinion.” (Vince, Mars One Exchange)

Rosetta Spacecraft Arrives at Its Comet Destination
(and Is Already Sending Back Amazing Images)

For more than a year, it will take pictures and gather data, and it will also send a lander down to the surface, all in a quest to help us understand the origin and evolution of the solar system. In so doing, it will tell us something of our own origins. (Tom Yulsman, ImaGeo, Discover)

The Leftovers

On mainstream television, “religious,” and especially “Christian,” is usually a euphemism for well-behaved and mildly inspirational, as in shows like Touched by an Angel or 7th Heaven. But six episodes into its first season, The Leftovers, the HBO drama, has proven itself to be the exception: It is a show whose central concerns are not just religious but theological. It asks the question, what would have to happen for us to take religion seriously again? And would the world be better off if we did? (Adam Kirsch, New Republic)

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Expert Opinion

From Gregory Paul, an independent paleontologist and researcher who examines the relationship between religion and society:

In recent years, there has been lots of discussion and debate about whether atheism or theism is on the rise around the world. A good deal of the answer can be found in results from the International Social Survey Program. In its Religion II survey conducted in 1998 and Religion III survey sampled in 2008 and just released (why the ISSP is so tardy in releasing its results is obscure), the ISSP asked the same set of questions in 28 countries, allowing assessment of gross longitudinal trends over a decade (because their Religion 1 poll in 1991 asked different questions in far fewer countries, it is not very longitudinally useful).

% Don’t believe in God % Theists overall % No doubt God exists
1998           2008 1998          2008 1998           2008
Great Britain 9.6              17.7 46.2           36 22.5            16.8
Austria 6.8              9.3 51.3           40.8 32.4            20.8
Netherlands 17.2            19.8 44.2           36.7 26.4            21.1
Australia 10.2            15.6 52.2           43.5 28.6            25.1
Norway 11.7            17.7 42.5           37 18.4            15
Ireland 2.4              4 77.3           67.5 49.8            45.1
New Zealand 7.9              12.5 52.9           46.4 30.9            28.2
Spain 8.6              9.7 64.7           59.5 45.8            39.2
Italy 4.1              5.3 73.5           69.5 48               42.9
Sweden 16.8            19.5 25.8           24.9 12.3            10.3
France 19.1            21.9 38.8           37.3 20.1            17.5
Denmark 14.7            18.4 34              33.4 13.6            13.4
United States 3.2              2.8 77.5           78.2 62.8            61.3
Switzerland 4.3              8.5 44.5           45.1 28.3            28.8
Germany west 12.1            10.5 41.3           48.1 23.4            27.2
Germany east 54               53 15.7           16.5 9.4              8
Japan 10.6            8.7 13.2           16.4 4                 4.4
Northern Ireland 3.7              6.8 74.4           67.4 50               45.2
Portugal 1.9              4 84.8           72.9 60               54.4
Czech Republic 20.3            37.3 30.4           23.9 17.1            23.9
Hungary 12.8            15.3 51.6           42.4 31.1            23.2
Latvia 9.2              18.3 38.9           36.9 22.9            21.7
Poland 2.4              3.3 81             76.4 70.5            62.9
Russia 19.7            6.1 40.2           58.2 23.8            33.9
Slovakia 11.1            10.4 56.7           59.8 40.8            41.6
Slovenia 14.2            13.6 39.4           40.7 22.9            24.2
Chile 1.5              1.7 91.4           90.5 81.4            82.3
Cyprus 1.6              1.9 84.8           70.2 65               59
Philippines 0.7              0.8 82.3           92.5 79               82.7

(Note: Bold lines indicate an increase in atheism. First World countries are ordered starting with largest decrease in overall theists and progressing downward.)

A complaint I have about the new ISSP survey is that it failed to requery on opinion on the Bible in a large number of countries, including the United States (!), leaving us unable to reaffirm the Gallup record of a strong long-term decline in American biblical literalism. Nor did it repeat the question on regular attendance at religious services, another serious loss of longitudinal sampling that will hopefully be corrected in 2018.

Because there are only two samples, at each end of the 10 years, the trends for a given country must be taken with a dose of demographic salt, especially when the difference is not statistically significant. Even what looks like a major shift in a particular nation may be a statistical fluke. If there were no general overall pattern apparent, there would be little change to report.
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Is Atheism Increasing at the Expense of Theism?

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