Archive for May, 2011

Meeting 3.8: 5/2/11

The last forum meeting for the semester focused on the scientific article “Moral Intuitions and Religiosity as Spuriously Correlated Life History Traits” by Gladden et al. (2009). The article related life history (LH) strategies to the strength of moral intuitions and religiosity.

First, we addressed the question: what is religiosity? Our definitions spanned two categories:
1. Behavioral (ethical and associational components)
2. Cognitive (identify and explanatory theories)

Religiosity, we suggested, is the strength at which components of religion are found in an individual. With this, religion and religiosity are very similar, but the former can be considered at the group and individual level while the latter is primarily considered an individual trait.

For the study in question, a questionnaire was used to “measure” the self-reported religiosity of individuals. The questions included on the form, are as follows:

Please indicate how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statements, with disagree strongly as -3 and agree strongly as +3.

1. I’m a very religious person
2. I’m a very spiritual person
3. Religion is important in my life
4. Spirituality is important in my life
5. It is or will be important for me to send my children to religious or spiritual services or instruction
6. I closely identify with being a member of my religious group
7. I prefer to be with other people who belong to the same religion as me
8. It was or will be important for me to marry someone who belongs to my religion
9. I frequently attend religious or spiritual services
10. I frequently seek comfort through religious or spiritual means, such as praying, meditating, attending a religious or spiritual service, or talking to a religious or spiritual advisor
11. When I have decisions to make in my daily life, I often ask myself what my religious or spiritual beliefs suggest I should do
12. I frequently attend religious services
13. I frequently attend meetings of religious groups
14. I often receive unpaid assistance from religious groups
15. I devote much of my income towards contributions to religious groups
16. I receive much of my income from religious groups
17. Religion was a major influence in my home when I was growing up

We concluded that the questionnaire was primarily measuring identity, or how strongly individuals identified themselves with religiosity. In this, it seems as though question number 17 is not an accurate question for measuring religiosity. When we look at twin studies, there are three major components that can explain a given trait:
1. Genetic
Traits are considered genetic if the trait is more similar in twins than in siblings
2. Shared Environment
Shared environment helps determine a trait if the trait is more similar among siblings that grow up together. This has also been explored through adoption studies where no hereditary material is shared at all, but the trait is still similar.
3. Unique Environment
Unique environment determines a trait if there is no correlation between siblings (or adopted siblings) who share the same environment.

It has been found that religiosity relates to both genetic and unique environmental determinants, but has no relationship with shared environmental determinants. Therefore we can assume that there is a correlation between an individual’s identity and their parents’ identity, but the degree of religiosity is not influenced by parents because there is no trend among siblings.

Further discussion of the questionnaire revealed that it might actually measure how closely individuals identify themselves with the word “religion”, which is found in 14 of the 17 questions asked. This, of course, is an issue that appears with any self-report system where an individual’s perception of a given word may influence their responses. While everyone has an idea of what religion is, not everyone will have the same idea of what religion is. We hypothesized replacing the word “religious” in the above questionnaire with other words such as “athletics” or even “academics.” This might reveal cross correlations across the groups, or essentially expose whether members of any group have the same associations. However, this would be more appropriate for a study of group identity and not necessarily fit for studying religiosity. Additionally, regardless of what word we substituted into the questionnaire, we cannot avoid the use of an ambiguous expression that individuals either want or don’t want to associate themselves with.

The results for the questionnaire showed an average score of -0.41, which is close enough to zero for us to presume that the population is divided, with half identifying with religion, and half not. This, again, is contingent upon their identification with the word “religion” and not necessarily with an operational definition of religion. With this, it might be useful to perform implicit checks that do not include the word “religion” to better determine if an individual associates with what we might classify as religion.

Focusing on the paper, we see that three traits were measured:
1. Religiosity
2. Life history strategies (LHS)
3. Moral intuition

LHS is a concept from evolutionary biology which considers the allocation of resources between species. With a finite amount of resources, species will either devote them to reproduction or parenting. A gradient exists between these two, as seen below

An example of an r species would be rabbits, which produce many offspring with only a fraction of them surviving, while a K species would be elephants, which have offspring less often but are devoted to their upbringing so their chance of survival is greater. As you can imagine, humans have high K life history strategies.

Moral intuitions are those instinctual reactions that do not seem to be completely rational. An example provided by Gladden et al. is the consumption of an already deceased dog for dinner. Such an act would be considered disgusting and disrespectful without a well-articulated argument for why the action was wrong.

The paper presents three models of how LHS relates to the other two concepts.

The numbers above the arrows indicate the beta weight of the causal pathways. R (religiosity) is an aspect of belonging to a community (high investment, so low LH). MI (moral intuition) is accepting false positives and avoiding certain behaviors even if they are not exclusively bad for you. The first two models are not significant after a chi-square analysis, but the third model is significant with a chi-square value of 1.90. See Table 3 below for the complete results related to these models.

Personal responses to the paper included a desire for a physiological component of the LH measurements, such as a questionnaire asking for the number of offspring, number of siblings, etc. Additionally, the study does not measure mixed strategies, of a differential availability of resources. We also questioned why each model began with LH before realizing that LH strategies are strongly genetic. LH strategies have a 0.65 measure for heritability while religiosity has only a heritability value of 0.37.

As we wrapped up the semester, we asked the question: what is the purpose of studying religion scientifically? Our possible answers are as follows:
• Understanding of human nature, and how religion relates to other human behaviors (academic interest)
• Practical interest in human nature (possibly for manipulation)
• Political activism
• Does it fit into the story of evolution?
— If so, how does it fit into evolutionary models?
— What adaptation issue was it designed to solve?
— Is evolution the sole explanation?
• Religion is a particularly interesting case study in evolutionary biology
— Adaptive function
— Phylogenetic evolution
— Development
— Causation
• Explanation of history
• Religious skepticism
• Anti-religious skepticism (atheism)
• Perform a reality check on personal experiences

With that, we commended the course on giving us exposure to academic takes on religion and for allowing us to explore the plethora of problems associated with talking about religion. We lamented over the fact that so many questions were left unanswered and hope to address some of these next semester as our journey through chance, purpose, and progress continues.

Post Contributed by K.P.

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