A recent talk by Rebecca Watson has been sparking a bit of controversy. Though it’s not particularly related to interfaith work or atheism, it’s a topic I have some background in. So to contribute a bit to the discussion, I thought I’d be a bit self-indulgent and talk about some cool science.

Ed Clint says Rebecca’s talk is science denialism, and though I disagree with that assessment, he makes a few points that I appreciate: first, that sciences can’t be judged by their interpretations in the popular press (otherwise I’d distance myself from neuroscience like whoa), and second, that evolutionary psychology as a research program is going to be validated by the predictions it makes. Personally, I’m interested in human behavior. I don’t necessarily care if whatever feature of whatever process came from such-and-such evolutionary pressure unless that knowledge can make some novel prediction that we can go out and test.

That being said, I liked Rebecca’s talk. I’m frustrated by a lot of pop psychology, and I think there is a legitimate critique that Rebecca made quite well—media accounts of psychology research, and some psychology research itself, seriously propagate sexist attitudes. And even though I think science should strive for ideological neutrality, I support feminist critiques of science because science isn’t ideologically neutral. Contrary voices and different perspectives can help us strive towards a more objective science—especially since a lot of research is biased with the prejudices of its day, and sexism is no exception.

I wish Rebecca would have stuck her talk to those topics, instead of overreaching to criticize evolutionary psychology writ large. I think I’m going to stay out of the broader discussion on what Rebecca’s talk got wrong or right, or what makes good research in evolutionary psychology, though. If you’re interested, a lot of pixels have already been rendered on the topic: Stephanie Zvan defended Rebecca, James Croft wrote about reading and writing responsibly, and John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts has some great theoretical posts on evolutionary psychology that should be required reading for anyone interested in the topic. 

There was one specific part of Rebecca’s talk that I want to focus on, though. At around the 23 minute mark, she discusses a famous study where researchers recruited attractive men and women to approach strangers to proposition them for sex. They recorded whether the strangers accepted, and the results weren’t particularly surprising to many people: about 70% of men agreed and, to the laughter of many introductory psychology classes since, every single woman declined. This study has been generally robust cross-culturally and is often used to justify innate sex-differences in preference for casual sex.

Though Rebecca notes that she’s not a scientist, she goes ahead and points out a few potential reasons for the gender difference—namely the women might feel unsafe. The original authors of the study actually echoed this, and noted a few more explanations of these data:

Of course, the sociological interpretation—that women are interested in love while men are interested in sex—is not the only possible interpretation of these data. It may be, of course, that both men and women were equally interested in sex, but that men associated fewer risks with accepting a sexual invitation than did women. Men may be more confident of their ability to fight back a physical assault than are women. Also the remnants of a double standard may make women afraid to accept the man’s invitation.

Recent research by Terri Conley, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, explored why men and women responded differently to offers of casual sex. At the beginning, she points out such an obvious confound in the original study that I’m amazed I never realized it—the gender of the person being propositioned always co-varies with the gender of the person making the proposition. That is to say, the logic of the conclusion that men prefer casual sex more than women only really holds if propositions between both genders are interpreted in the same way. But if, as Rebecca suggests, men are perceived to be more dangerous (or sexually awkward, or emotionally cold) then the logic of the standard interpretation falls apart.

That’s exactly what Conley found. She demonstrated through a series of studies that men who approach women in the day-time to ask them for casual sex were perceived as less sexually skilled and more dangerous than women who do the same. No surprises there. She also surveyed men and women asking them about casual sex offers in their past—she found that, though men were more likely to accept than women in naturalistic settings (about 70 percent vs. 40 percent, respectively), whether men or women agreed was predicted by how sexually skilled the proposer was perceived to be. That is to say, women are turning down more offers of casual sex than men, but only because they seem to worry that they might be in danger, or that the sex won’t be a good time for them.

Conley also asked both men and women to imagine a casual sex offer from an attractive celebrity (Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp for women, Angelina Jolie or Jennifer Lopez for men) and unattractive celebrities (Donald Trump and Roseanne Barr, respectively). There was no significant difference between willingness to accept across both genders. Even more so, this study helped dismiss the simplistic notion that men want casual sex with young, fertile women, and women want a committed relationship with a high-status man—women were just as willing to reject an offer from Donald Trump as they were from a random attractive stranger, and men were just as likely to accept a proposition from Christie Brinkley, a former model nearly in her sixties, as they were from Angelina Jolie.

There were a few more conditions that further support the idea that most people have sex because it’s fun, and avoid it when it won’t be. Not only is Conley’s study a great, methodologically careful paper, but I think it’s a really great instance of good evolutionary psychology, too: she lays out a few models, works out what predictions they would make, then tests them. I encourage any interested readers to check out this in-depth analysis of the study by Yes means Yes, because there’s a lot to the study and I can’t do it justice here.

This just goes to show that there are a lot of biases and assumptions that work their way into science and science interpretation. Anything we can do to minimize this is not only good for society, but good for science, too.

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

To avoid feeling so hideously unproductive when I waste my time on the internet, I subscribe to a few psychology journals in my Google Reader feed. I try to skim through them every so often, at the very least scanning the abstracts to get a sense of what’s going on outside of my little research niche.

Reading through the other day, I found a really cool study in Psychological Science by University of Kent psychologists, Michele D. Birtel and Richard J. Crisp. There’s been a lot of research in recent years looking into how prejudice can be reduced, including a project I’m currently working on in my own lab exploring how we dehumanize the homeless and how this effect can be curbed. A lot of the work on reducing prejudice against stigmatized groups involves a positive interaction or relationship, real or imagined, with a member of the stigmatized group. Chris wrote last year that a “2010 Gallup poll demonstrated something the LGBTQ community has recognized for some time: people are significantly more inclined to oppose gay marriage if they do not know anyone who is gay.” He went on:

The disconnect is clear-when only 37 percent of Americans know a Muslim American, and 55 percent claim to know very little or nothing about Islam, the negative stereotypes about the Muslim community go unchallenged. The same logic can be extended to atheists-the fewer relationships we have with people of faith, the worse our image will be.

So we know building relationships and encouraging positive interactions with stigmatized groups is important, but this paper by Birtel and Crisp connects research on intergroup prejudice to research on treating anxiety disorders. The authors look specifically at the mentally ill, gay men, and British Muslims–groups often treated with fear or disgust. Martha Nussbaum touches on how prejudice against Muslims is rooted in anxiety and fear in her great book, The New Religious Intolerance (which I’ve been meaning to write about for a while). I’m glad to see some research validate the idea that prejudice against such groups is rooted in fear and can be treated as such.

The paper shows this connection in an interesting way–you can improve feelings towards stigmatized groups by actually imagining negative interactions with them, so long as it’s followed by imagining a positive interaction. Counter-intuitively this is more productive in reducing prejudice than just imaging two positive interactions. To the experimentally minded who might be concerned that this result might simply reflect a contrast effect, the authors found that the shift in attitude was specific to prejudiced groups. There was no similar decrease in anxiety when straight men were asked to imagine one negative then one positive interaction with another straight man, rather than simply two positive interactions.

In psychotherapy, methods like this are a common way to treat fear disorders–the fear response is activated then replaced with a new, positive, response. That is to say, for someone with agoraphobia, imagining a nice time going out into public will do a lot more to change the underlying fear response when that fear was recently present. It seems like prejudiced against certain groups might be effectively treated in the same way. If we confront and engage in stereotypes about stigmatized groups, then think about those groups in a positive way, those stereotypes might slowly be replaced.

It’s certainly an idea worth trying to put into practice.
Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

Today’s post in our series of guest contributors is by Vladimir Chituc, President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale. Like previous guest contributors Lucy Gubbins and Heidi Anderson, Vladimir wrestles with the issue of how atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics and the like should approach religion and the religious, and how the larger movement might work toward establishing some shared goals. Without further ado:

divideAs a relative newcomer to the broader skeptic and humanist movement, I’ll admit that I was somewhat at a loss when Chris first approached me to write a guest post. Though I spend eleven months of every year in the implicitly secular and liberal North East, an area with an underlying atmosphere suggestive of religion and atheism as private affairs that publicly hold little importance, I was raised in a conservative and devout small town where I’ve been able to catch a small glimpse of religion’s ills so well documented and addressed by my more vocal and aggressive superiors in our movement.

I find this internal disparity even more jarring when interacting with my religious classmates that have proven to be consistently liberal, accepting of contrary viewpoints, and just generally wonderful people. So as an ardent skeptic and atheist, I find this leaves me in a somewhat interesting position in the supposed “accommodationist” vs. “confrontationist” dispute.

Where can I side on a debate so stereotypically framed as a conflict between skeptical rationality and pragmatic cooperation when I strongly value both? Do I promote rationality and consequently alienate potential local allies, or do I work to build bridges while spurning those who legitimately address religion’s ills elsewhere?

I’d like to think that these two values — skepticism and cooperation — are not intrinsically at odds. So while I, like some others, am in the process of forging my own interfaith ties and promoting rationality within my own group, I try to keep the following points in mind. I hope to share these with the humble hope that some others may find in them some relevance.

There is no set of consistent values that intrinsically unite the non-religious movement. If we are only brought together by a belief that we don’t share, should a disagreement on our values or how to implement them surprise us at all? Some of us are going to be really interested in interacting and cooperating with those of faith, while others of us are going to find the idea inane and counterproductive.

Instead of calling each other insufferable morons or atheist fundamentalists, we might consider valuing the unique perspectives we all bring to the table. My group runs that gamut from ardent anti-theists to proponents of an abstract deism perhaps recognizable only by Spinoza, and yet somehow we get past these differences and find our conversations so much more interesting despite noo unifying philosophy.

We should take deep pride in the diversity of thought and opinion that is the hallmark of a freethinking group, and not expect a completely unified position. In an open marketplace of ideas, competition and disagreement should be seen as a source of value and innovation, not as a source of bitter conflict.

Bridge-building is awesome, but we should start with each other. If we can recognize the importance of reaching out to those of faith, then we can surely recognize the importance of reaching out to our disagreeing non-religious peers as well. We so easily see the tribal in-group/out-group mentality that leads to much of the bigotry that we condemn in religion and other groups, yet it’s becoming increasingly common on both sides of the accommodation/confrontation debate to turn a blind-eye and practice that exact same thing.

When we marginalize an entire group of people simply as an “other,” we commit the egregious error of attributing the worst stereotypes of a group to the individuals of that group. P.Z. Myers becomes a monster that would punch a well-intentioned grandmother for saying “God bless you” following a sneeze, and atheists interested in interfaith work are painted as only seeking the approval of the religious while abandoning their atheist peers.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that we’re on the same side and have many of the same goals, and, though we may disagree on some finer points, we certainly both play an important role. It might behoove us to see each other as allies with different but overlapping values, while rejecting any divisive language that serves no other purpose but to alienate each other.

We’re already a small enough group as it is; do we want to make ourselves even smaller? So it might be best to follow Chris’ lead, reach out to each other, and…

Focus on the values that we do share. I know I started this piece by saying that there are no values that intrinsically unite anyone in non-belief, but I’m not contradicting myself; by being a non-believer there are no values that you must have. But I think there are still some values that most, if not all of us, can agree on — even if just pragmatically.

Though the non-religious movement may tend to branch out in different directions at its extremities, there remains a core of shared values that can be focused on. If we can find common ground with the religious, we can definitely find common ground with each other.

Can we all agree that a society based on secularism, not theocracy, is the best kind of society, and that no one should have any kind of belief forced on them? Can we all agree on the importance of science education and free thought, while denouncing compulsory adherence to preferential and localized dogma?

I realize that I’m not an expert or an authority so I don’t have these answers, but I think this is a job that the leaders of our movement can work together on. Because if we talk to each other and find this common ground, then while we are in the process of drawing out this picture of our values with their own relative hues of importance, we can subdivide ourselves further based on whatever weight we choose to give any one in particular, be it skepticism, cooperation, or something else entirely.

If we all know how we fit into the broader non-religious picture, then we can work toward our own values while keeping in line with those that we share. So long as we all can work toward forwarding and promoting these common values, I don’t think any of us can say that anyone else is doing it wrong.

VladVladimir Chituc is a junior at Yale University and the President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale. A self-identified skeptic, atheist, and secular humanist, he’s currently majoring in psychology and studying philosophy in order to better understand religious thought and its origins.

It’s been a long minute since I’ve done one of these, so I’m bringing it back. Below, some recent highlights (and lowlights) relevant to secularism, interfaith and religion:

psych todayWill Atheism replace religion? That’s the claim made by Nigel Barber over at Psychology Today. What do you think? His points are well made, but I don’t agree with all of them. Religion meets some fundamental needs and is continuing to adapt to contemporary context, as it always has. His portrayal of religion as “[requiring] slavish conformity to unscientific beliefs” does not accurately represent the way that religion functions today. That aside, a myriad of psychological studies demonstrate that religion has become an integral component to individual and communal identification for many (as I learned in my second Psychology of Religion course this last semester) and is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Ultimately, the relationship between religion and psychological wish fulfillment is a bit more complex than this article would like to make it seem. As a starting point for a more well-balanced counter-argument, check out this brief introductory piece on ways in which religion is psychologically beneficial.

Everybody’s Talkin’ ’bout Chalkin’ as the “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” (EDMD) debate continues. After my blog post on the campaign a couple weeks ago, I’ve been working closely with the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) on how secular folks who penaren’t interested in engaging in this campaign can best respond in light of the awful vitriol it has inspired on the internet. The Young Turks took on IFYC’s Eboo Patel’s post that went up on the Huffington Post, Sojourners and the Washington Post (in which my blog post on the controversy was given a nod). The critiques they make of Eboo’s blog can essentially be boiled down to: “You’re offended? Get over it.” I find this operating position, which I identified as a common problem in our community in my initial post on EDMD, to be arrogant and demonstrative of a lack of personal responsibility. Additionally, The Young Turks raise the comparison of EDMD to drawing offensive images of African Americans and say that it isn’t an appropriate parallel because Blacks have faced a history of violence and subjugation in this country. But this point collapses in on itself precisely because Muslims are a minority group in America that is a frequent target of oppression. This is an important point to remember as we consider this issue. Our free speech does not occur in a vacuum; in fact, activities such as EDMD are innately and intentionally public. It is our responsibility to acknowledge context and weigh our actions in light of it. I have so much more I could say on this subject, but since I already said my peace, I’ll stop here — for now. For more information on this issue, check out IFYC’s resource (which I helped write and which borrows its title from my blog post).

The rest: First off, I can’t recommend enough a piece up over at the New Republic called “Another Kind of Atheism”  by Damon Linker. Read it and let me know what you think. After that, I’m happy to report that Bill Maher got schooled on his miss usaantagonistic Atheism – I’ll try to hide my grin. Secular Student Alliance intern Nate Mauger got interviewed by Bridge Builders about the guest piece he wrote for us on interfaith cooperation. I “interviewed” homosexuality and the Bible documentary Fish Out of Water director Ky Dickens for The New Gay (part 1 went up last week, part two goes up next). On less exciting fronts, tensions are high in France as they prepare to ban the Burka. In spite of what a good story it would make, the majority of mainstream media ignored the fact that the man who stopped the Times Square bomber is himself a Muslim. The political Right is up in arms over Muslim Miss USA Rima Fikah. And, finally, the angry robocallers struck again last Wednesday with three calls in one night. I’m still no closer to finding out who they are and feeling more and more like I have a stalker — especially since they called me back right after I tweeted about them saying they read my tweet. So I blocked the number. What now, robocallers?

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Is that so? Then why am I grouchy today?

I recently came across an article titled “Population Secularity and Individual Religiosity Predict Human Flourishing.” The purpose of this survey of studies, written by Dr. David Meyers of Hope College and published in the Spring 2010 edition of the official newsletter of the Journal of the Psychology of Religion, American Psychological Association Division 36, was to explore the fundamental claim of New Atheists that religion is innately problematic and whether such claims were reflected in psychological findings and confirmed by survey data. His question:

“Is religion ‘dangerous’ and associated with dysfunctionality, misery, and bigotry (as the new atheists have argued) or is it associated with health, joy, and altruism? [Of course,] in various times and places it has been associated with both; religion comes in both healthy and toxic forms. But on balance, is religious engagement more strongly associated with human degradation or human flourishing?”

In his survey, Dr. Meyers encountered two “striking and paradoxical” findings: that “religiosity is negatively correlated with well-being across populations, and positively correlated across individuals.”

One survey he references is a recent Gallup poll from a first-ever-in-history survey that is supposed to be representative of the entire world’s population. This survey polled around 350,000 people in 152 countries and found that nations where the majority of individuals indicate that religion isn’t an important part of their day-to-day life and places where the majority haven’t attended a religious service in the last week report higher quality of life.

This is localized within the United States as well. Dr. Meyers highlights: “The Southern states all have higher religious-adherence rates than do the West Coast states. They also have slightly higher divorce rates, and much higher crime, teen birth, and smoking rates. So, by some measures, it again looks like the least religious places are the healthiest and most civil.”

So far, this data seems to bolster the New Atheists position, right? Well, not so fast. Before we secularists get all “I told you so” up in here, there are other nuances to consider.

Making the case that there is more to consider in this analysis – essentially, that correlation does not necessarily imply causation – Dr. Meyers continues:

“States and countries vary in many ways, including not only religiosity but also literacy and education, culture and ethnicity, and income and financial security. [Psychologist] Ed Diener, who has noticed the same negative religiosity-well-being correlation across populations, tells me it disappears when controlling for income. The Princeton economist Angus Deaton is also mining the Gallup data, and similarly finds that the cross-country correlation essentially vanishes when controlling for education. Moreover, the great irony is that the correlation reverses when computed across individuals. Religiously engaged individuals tend to be… healthier, more generous, less crime-prone, and less often involved with premature sexuality and pregnancy.”

This is in line with other studies that suggest a correlation between healthy behavior and religious belief. But what about attitudes and mental health?

To contextualize that question in less words: are you non-religious and unhappy? You’re not alone. Quoting the aforementioned Diener, Dr. Meyers highlights the common finding in studies on religiosity and happiness that “religious people have higher life satisfaction in most every nation.” Dr. Meyes cites the National Opinion Research Center’s surveys of 47,909 Americans to confirm this claim. He also adds that “the most religiously engaged Americans have been half as likely as never-attenders to be divorced and about one-fourth as likely to smoke or [have] been arrested (despite highly religious states [having] substantially higher divorce, smoking, and arrest rates).”

Ultimately he concludes, like many such reports do, that more research into the matter is required. While he says that these studies “do not validate religion” in and of themselves, he posits that they “challenge the anecdote-fueled new atheist argument that religion is an overriding force for evil,” and references Bruce Sheiman’s book, An Atheist Defends Religion (who I was lucky enough to interview for this blog a few months back).

For me this study, in spite of some obvious limitations, raises a lot of questions. I totally buy that religion makes a lot of people happier – but why? What is it about religious beliefs that bring people increased satisfaction? Is it the sense of security found in community and in establishing a systematic, structured set of ethics? Because, if so, those are activities that secular folks absolutely can engage in – if only we will.