Tag Archives: religion

Like Me, Only Better

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Like Me, Only Better is a short film animation by Martin Pickles. The main character is a pencil-drawn Clive, who takes the viewer through various aspects of obsessive compulsive disorders, his experiences with Prozac and the painful architecture of his Catholic upbringing. The animation is a curious combination of entertainment and meaningful insights into things so often ignored in societies.

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You can watch the video at Drawn or at Martin Pickles’ homepage. I’m really sorry to be sending to differnt sites to watch the video, but I have struggled and repeatedly failed in trying to upload it to WordPress!

The Holy Ruhnama

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I still find myself disbelieving this.

The story goes like this: in 2001 the late president of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov wrote a book called ‘Ruhnama’, a major piece of government propaganda, which became the single most important piece of writing in the modern history of Turkmenistan. ‘Ruhnama’ was subsequently claimed to be a holy book written with the inspiration of Allah and knowledge of it became the condition of holding any state employment, passing education exams and holding a driver’s license.

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Ruhnama is mostly a collection of writings providing moral and spiritual guidance. It also contains a revisionist history of the country, which is largely dubious and disputed. From what I read so far the writings sound pretty much like you’d expect a holy book (from thousands of years ago or so) to sound.

Here’s a sample:

If [the brave man’s] wife keeps the house clean and tidy and is hospitable to visitors while he is absent because he is hunting or at war, she will undoubtedly enhance his position in society. Her own fame will also spread like her husband’s.

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To give you some background, Turkmenistan is an authoritarian post-Soviet regime with one of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves. It’s located in Central Asia by the Caspian Sea. Turkmenistan became independent from Russia in 1999 and was then taken over by the Niyazov, who virtually shut off all of its connections to the rest of the world. Niyazov, the (in)famous author of ‘Ruhnama’ died in 1996, but the subsequent government has not lessened the role of the book or its author’s ideology in the country. The regime continues to violate human rights including those of free speech and political prisoners’ treatment.

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Turkmenistan’s engagement with the outside world is rather limited. Above is a picture of its current president Berdymukhammedov shaking hands with Putin. Russia is one of Turkmenistan’s greatest oil importers as it is for several Central Asian oil-rich republics. Another rather surprising genre of business partners is a group of Western corporations ranging from Nokia-Siemens to Daimler Chrysler, whose involvement with the regime only strenghten its grip on its people. According to the CIA, ‘formal opposition parties are outlawed; unofficial, small opposition movements exist underground or in foreign countries; the two most prominent opposition groups-in-exile have been National Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan (NDMT) and the United Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (UDPT).’

What can I say, it’s pretty amazing that holy books are still produced and used to control societies in this millenium.

God (and Gadgets) of the Lonely?


I stumbled upon this blog today – praise the word!

by Chris

I’ve been hanging out with fellow atheists for a while now, and one of the more common discussions I’ve had when the topic of religion comes up is, why are people religious? The two most common answers I’ve heard from atheist friends and acquaintances are that religion is a fantasy designed to explain the mysterious and otherwise unexplainable, and that religion is a fantasy designed to make people feel less alone in the universe. As those of you who’ve been reading Mixing Memory for a while may have noticed, these discussions have led me to be somewhat obsessed with understanding the psychological origins of religion. While the final answer to why people are religious is a long, long way off, I can say with some confidence that the first of the two answers above is almost certainly wrong. People’s religious impulses stem from much more mundane sources than the mysteriousness of the world around us. That’s not to say that religion can’t serve to help explain the otherwise inexplicable, or that this isn’t an important purpose of religion, but it doesn’t seem to be one of the fundamental or original purposes of it. Instead, it seems that religion’s social functions are actually more foundational. This leads to the second answer above — the one that says religion is around to make us feel less lonely — seeming plausible. Most of the research on the social aspects of religion to date, however, has been on its function in communities. A paper in this month’s issue of Psychological Science, however, takes a more direct look at the role of loneliness in religion.

The paper, by Epley et al.(1), starts with the hypothesis that people may use religious thinking and other examples of perceived agency (e.g., in pets or gadgets) to reduce their feelings of loneliness. Epley et al. note that, for example, that people outside of committed relationships are more likely to have personal relationships with god, that “insecure and anxious attachments to others” are associated with stronger religious beliefs, and that the death of loved ones can increase the strength of religious beliefs. That religion serves a loneliness-reducing function seems a reasonable hypothesis, then.

In their first study testing this hypothesis, Epley et al. gave participants descriptions of four “technological gadgets,” and then asked them to rate the gadgets on five anthropomorphic dimensions (whether the gadget “had ‘a mind of its own,’ had ‘intentions,’ had ‘free will,’ had ‘consciousness,’ and ‘experienced emotions,’ p. 115) and three non-anthropomorphic dimensions (“attractive, efficient, and strong”). Then participants then completed a loneliness scale with questions like, “How often do you feel isolated from others?”

The prediction of the loneliness hypothesis is, of course, that people who score higher on the loneliness scale will give higher anthropomorphic ratings to the gadgets than lower scorers on the scale, but that the non-anthropomorphic ratings will not be influenced by high or low loneliness. And that’s what they found: the correlation between anthropomorphic ratings and loneliness was quite high (r = .53), while the correlation between loneliness and non-anthropomorphic ratings was non-significant (r = .25).

This suggests that loneliness may prime agency detection, and since our hair-triggered agency-detection mechanism is thought to underlie much of religious cognition (as I’ve discussed before), it further suggests that loneliness may also prime religious thoughts. So, Epley et al. conducted a second study in which they first gave participants a long personality questionnaire, and then gave them predictions about their lives that they were told were based on their personality scores. Some of the participants were told things like, “You’re the type who will end up alone later in life,” which should induce feelings of loneliness or desire for social connections, while other participants received statements like, “You’re the type of person who has rewarding relationships throughout your life” (p. 116), which should make them feel more socially connected. After reading the predictions, participants were asked to rate how much they believed in supernatural agents like ghosts, God, the devil, etc., as well as in supernatural events like miracles and curses.

Consistent with the loneliness hypothesis, participants who’d been given the loneliness-inducing predictions gave higher belief ratings to the various supernatural agents and events (mean of 4.35) than those who’d been given the socially connected predictions (3.71). Thus, the second study provides initial evidence that loneliness and religious belief may be connected.

Finally, in order to rule out a potential alternative explanation of the results of the first two studies, that negative feelings, and not loneliness specifically, may lead to religious thoughts, Epley et al. conducted a third study contrasting fear (an obviously negative feeling) and loneliness. This time, participants watched movie clips, one of which (from the movie Cast Away, poor bastards) was loneliness-inducing, one of which (from Silence of the Lambs) was fear-inducing, and one of which (from Major League, for some reason) was supposed to be non-fear or loneliness inducing. Then the participants indicated how much they believed in supernatural agents and events, as in the previous experiment. As in the second experiment, the loneliness-inducing condition caused the participants to give higher belief ratings for supernatural agents and events (though this may have been because they wanted god to help them turn off the god-awful movie clip). The fear condition did not lead to higher belief ratings relative to the control condition.

Obviously, these studies are not conclusive. For one, most of the participants come into the lab with religious beliefs, and while some of their participants did say they were not believers, Epley et al. don’t break down the data by pre-experimental belief, so it’s impossible to tell whether loneliness makes disbelievers more likely to think religious thoughts. It’s therefore difficult to say whether loneliness is an originating impulse for religion, or if it instead simply uses existing religious thoughts. Still, this is a nice initial set of studies on the loneliness hypothesis, and I think all of those people who’ve told me over the years that religion is born of (existential) loneliness and alienation can feel somewhat vindicated.

1Epley, N., Akalis, S., Waytz, A, & Cacioppo, J.T. (2008). Creating social connection through inferential reproduction: Loneliness and Perceived Agency in Gadgets, Gods, and Greyhounds. Psychological Science, 19(2), 114-120.