Meanings of Life

Kevin Lewis

May 23, 2023

Will Intelligent Latter-day Saints and Smart Conservatives Inherit the Earth? Differential Selection for Intelligence in the USA Based on Religiosity and Conservatism
Emil Kirkegaard & Edward Dutton
Evolutionary Psychological Science, March 2023, Pages 26-37


There is solid evidence that human populations have been selecting against intelligence-related genetic variants since the mid to late 1800s. The selection is generally weak, but varies by ethnic group and sex. Since religious teachings usually include strong pro-natalist components, we investigated whether this might also affect the selection for intelligence among different religious groups. We found that Latter-day Saints in the USA show slightly positive selection for intelligence, whereas all other religious groups examined did not robustly differ from the average. We similarly found that conservatives, in general, show a weaker selection against intelligence than do liberals.

Thinking About God Encourages Prosociality Toward Religious Outgroups: A Cross-Cultural Investigation
Michael Pasek et al.
Psychological Science, forthcoming


Most humans believe in a god or gods, a belief that may promote prosociality toward coreligionists. A critical question is whether such enhanced prosociality is primarily parochial and confined to the religious ingroup or whether it extends to members of religious outgroups. To address this question, we conducted field and online experiments with Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish adults in the Middle East, Fiji, and the United States (N = 4,753). Participants were given the opportunity to share money with anonymous strangers from different ethno-religious groups. We manipulated whether they were asked to think about their god before making their choice. Thinking about God increased giving by 11% (4.17% of the total stake), an increase that was extended equally to ingroup and outgroup members. This suggests that belief in a god or gods may facilitate intergroup cooperation, particularly in economic transactions, even in contexts with heightened intergroup tension.

Trust in God: The COVID-19 Pandemic's Impact on Religiosity in China
Rongping Ruan, Kenneth Vaughan & Dan Han
Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, forthcoming 


Emerging research shows the COVID-19 pandemic has made substantial changes to the religious climate of several nations. Surprisingly, China, the outbreak center of the pandemic, has been scarcely researched. Our study investigates how the COVID-19 pandemic has evoked new religious disaster responses and provided psychological coping mechanisms during the pandemic. We also explore how the pandemic explains surprising rates of religiosity in China. Scholars have long proposed that religious resurgence in China has been a result of individuals seeking stability in turbulent times. We bridge parallel literature in these areas and treat the pandemic as natural experiment for evaluating religious behavior over time as conditioned by heightened risk perception. Utilizing a difference-in-differences estimation strategy with panel data, our study reveals that the pandemic has led to a significant increase in religiosity in China, particularly in religious areas most affected by the pandemic. We propose that even in a highly regulative religious environment, with most of its population being religiously unaffiliated, religion is a significant resource for coping in China. We take an innovative approach to demonstrate this utilizing online search data. Our research speaks to the sociology of religion, the social psychology of risk perception, and makes application to emerging research on the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic.

Islam and human capital in historical Spain
Francesco Cinnirella, Alireza Naghavi & Giovanni Prarolo
Journal of Economic Growth, June 2023, Pages 225–257 


We use a unique dataset on Muslim domination between 711-1492 and literacy in 1860 for about 7500 municipalities to study the long-run impact of Islam on human-capital in historical Spain. Reduced-form estimates show a large and robust negative relationship between length of Muslim rule and literacy. We argue that, contrary to local arrangements set up by Christians, Islamic institutions discouraged the rise of the merchant class, blocking local forms of self-government and thereby persistently hindering demand for education. Indeed, results show that a longer Muslim domination in Spain is negatively related to the share of merchants, whereas neither later episodes of trade nor differences in jurisdictions and different stages of the Reconquista affect our main results. Consistent with our interpretation, panel estimates show that cities under Muslim rule missed-out on the critical juncture to establish self-government institutions.

Religion and Subjective Social Class in the United States
Philip Schwadel
Sociology of Religion, forthcoming 


Subjective social class identities -- lower, working, middle, and upper -- are conditioned by culture and social interactions. I argue that conservative Christianity influences subjective class identification because conservative Christian social networks are highly insular, and its culture prioritizes lower- and working-class ideologies. Using nationally representative data, I find that conservative Christians -- operationalized with views of the Bible and religious tradition—are relatively likely to identify as lower and working class, and unlikely to identify as middle and upper class; that these associations are partially but not wholly mediated by higher education and family income; and that there are robust associations between religion and subjective class among those with a bachelor’s degree and above-average family incomes, but not among less-educated and lower-income Americans. These results indicate that conservative Christianity promotes a specific class culture, and that this class culture more closely aligns with biblical literalism than with affiliation with evangelical Protestant churches.

The Religious Right and Russia: Christian Nationalism and Americans’ Views on Russia and Vladimir Putin Before and After the Ukrainian Invasion
Samuel Perry et al.
Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, forthcoming 


Since 2016, Americans’ attitudes toward Russia and Vladimir Putin have shifted, with Republicans becoming far more supportive of both. And though condemnation of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022 remains bipartisan, many Christian-right leaders still support Putin and Russia. What undergirds this support? Drawing on three national data sets, we theorize Americans’ warmth toward Putin and Russia is reinforced by an ideology that seeks to institutionalize America's mythical Anglo Protestant ethno-culture—Christian nationalism. Though we propose Christian nationalism's relationship with Russia is more contingent on Russia's geopolitical activity vis-à-vis the United States, we theorize that Christian nationalism consistently predicts Putin support due to his authoritarian ethno-nationalism. April 2018 data show those who affirm America's Christian heritage in the past and/or present are more likely to view Putin and Russia favorably and Russia as our ally. March 2021 data also reveal a linear positive association between Christian nationalism and favorability toward Putin. And March 2022 data reveal a linear positive association between Christian nationalism and admiring Putin's leadership. They also show a U-shaped curvilinear relationship with viewing Russia as a threat. Paradoxically, Christian nationalism may warm Americans toward foreign authoritarians like Putin even when it compels Americans to perceive their nations as threats.

The power of religion
Jeanet Sinding Bentzen & Gunes Gokmen
Journal of Economic Growth, March 2023, Pages 45–78 


This paper studies to what extent religion has been used to legitimize political power throughout the world and how this matters for current institutions. Historically, some rulers have used religion to legitimize their power, while others relied on more democratic means. This tendency, termed divine legitimization, incentivized rulers to embed religion into institutions. We illustrate within a simple framework that the use of religion to legitimize power and the consequent institutionalization of religion may help explain why religion and religious institutions have persisted despite modernization. To test empirically, we combine data on pre-modern religious beliefs across 1265 ethnographic societies, various geographic data, and current data on the prevalence of religious laws in 176 countries. We provide evidence in support of divine legitimization and the resulting institutionalization of religion. For identification, we exploit exogenous variation in the incentives to employ religion for power purposes. We further document that countries that relied on divine legitimization are more autocratic today and their populace more religious. These results contribute to our understanding of the persistence of religious as well as autocratic institutions.

Race over Religion: Christian Nationalism and Perceived Threats to National Unity
Samuel Perry, Andrew Whitehead & Joshua Grubbs
Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, forthcoming 


Building on the insight that American religion is fundamentally “raced” and “complex,” we theorize American religion is so deeply racialized that seemingly “race-neutral” religious claims about national identity are ultimately more oriented toward racial rather than religious considerations. Drawing on recent, nationally representative data, we test how technically “race-neutral” measures of Christian nationalism interact with race to shape how Americans evaluate the national implications of religious and racial diversity. Though Christian nationalism predicts viewing both religious and racial diversity as national hindrances, its association with racial diversity is much stronger. This holds across racial groups, and particularly among Black and Asian Americans. In contrast, interactions show Black Americans diverge from whites in that they become more favorable toward religious diversity as Christian nationalism increases. Combining outcomes into four categories, Americans who score higher on Christian nationalism are more likely to become “Ecumenical Ethno-Pessimists” (viewing religious diversity as a strength, but racial diversity as a hindrance) than pure “Ethno-Nationalists” (viewing both religious and racial diversity as hindrances). This association is especially strong among Black and Asian Americans. Findings demonstrate even with seemingly “race-neutral” measures that would ostensibly target religious heterogeneity as the core national threat, it is racial diversity that threatens national unity.

Ramadan fasting increases leniency in judges from Pakistan and India
Sultan Mehmood, Avner Seror & Daniel Chen
Nature Human Behaviour, forthcoming


We estimate the impact of the Ramadan fasting ritual on criminal sentencing decisions in Pakistan and India from half a century of daily data. We use random case assignment and exogenous variation in fasting intensity during Ramadan due to the rotating Islamic calendar and the geographical latitude of the district courts to document the large effects of Ramadan fasting on decision-making. Our sample comprises roughly a half million cases and 10,000 judges from Pakistan and India. Ritual intensity increases Muslim judges’ acquittal rates, lowers their appeal and reversal rates, and does not come at the cost of increased recidivism or heightened outgroup bias. Overall, our results indicate that the Ramadan fasting ritual followed by a billion Muslims worldwide induces more lenient decisions.

Religion and terrorism: Evidence from Ramadan fasting
Roland Hodler, Paul Raschky & Anthony Strittmatter
Journal of Peace Research, forthcoming 


Do intense religious experiences increase or decrease terrorism? We argue that fasting during the month of Ramadan offers an ideal setting for studying this question empirically. Reasons are twofold: first, daily fasting from dawn to sunset during Ramadan is considered mandatory for most Muslims. Second, the Islamic Hijri calendar is not synchronized with the solar cycle. Therefore, the daily fasting duration during Ramadan is exogenous once we control for latitude and the seasonality of Ramadan, which we can do by using district and country-year fixed effects. Focusing on predominantly Muslim countries, we document three main findings: first, longer and more intense Ramadan fasting has a robust negative effect on the likelihood of local terrorist events and terror deaths over the next year. Second, this negative effect is particularly pronounced for operationally more difficult attack types, which are more dependent on public support for terrorism. Third, using survey data, we show that longer and more intense Ramadan fasting lowers the share of respondents who consider religiously motivated violence to be justified. These findings imply that intense religious experiences may not be a breeding ground for terrorism. Quite the opposite, they can decrease public support for terrorism and, consequently, terrorist attacks.

Supernatural explanations across 114 societies are more common for natural than social phenomena
Joshua Conrad Jackson et al.
Nature Human Behaviour, May 2023, Pages 707-717 


Humans across the globe use supernatural beliefs to explain the world around them. This article explores whether cultural groups invoke the supernatural more to explain natural phenomena (for example, storms, disease outbreaks) or social phenomena (for example, murder, warfare). Quantitative analysis of ethnographic text across 114 geographically and culturally diverse societies found that supernatural explanations are more prevalent for natural than for social phenomena, consistent with theories that ground the origin of religious belief in a human tendency to perceive intent and agency in the natural world. Despite the dominance of supernatural explanations of natural phenomena, supernatural explanations of social phenomena were especially prevalent in urbanized societies with more socially complex and anonymous groups. Our results show how people use supernatural beliefs as explanatory tools in non-industrial societies, and how these applications vary across small-scale communities versus large and urbanized groups.

Religion and Derivative Use: Evidence from the Hedge Fund Industry
Junyong Lee, Kyounghun Lee & Frederick Dongchuhl Oh
Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, forthcoming 


We examine how local religions influence derivative usage in the hedge fund industry. Measuring religiosity by the ratio of religious adherents in the county of a U.S. hedge fund headquarters, we find that religiosity is negatively related to the probability of hedge funds using derivatives for speculative purposes. In contrast, funds in regions with higher ratios of Catholics to Protestants are more likely to engage in speculation-based trading of derivatives. Finally, we show that the effects of local religion are more pronounced if the hedge fund size is small. Overall, our study highlights the significant role of local religion in shaping the purpose of hedge fund derivative usage.


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