Skepchick Quickies, 1.5


Jen is a writer and web designer/developer in Columbus, Ohio. She spends too much time on Twitter at @antiheroine.

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  1. When the “religion and self-control” business was discussed at Teen Skepchick, I noted (a) that John Tierney’s article on the subject was basically incompetent, and (b) the British Humanist Association had this to say:

    [W]hat the actual evidence (rather than the theory) seems to show is that people with high levels of spiritual belief who also have high self control tend to turn to organized religion – and that this is the primary driver of the link between religiousness and self control.

    Now this doesn’t mean that religion doesn’t increase self control. It’s just that the most important effect is probably in the reverse direction. And this has important implications for the conclusion. It’s not enough to show that religion could, in theory, have an effect on self control. If you want to draw the sorts of conclusions drawn by the NY Times reporter, you have to show that the magnitude of the effect is meaningful in the real world.

    And here’s the other thought. McCullough & Willoughby think that this provides a rationale for an evolutionary basis to religion. In other words, they argue that religion enhances reproductive fitness by increasing self control, and that this means that religiousness is selected for by Darwinian evolution.

    But to argue this, you would have to show that there is something specific about religion, as opposed to mystical beliefs or secular institutions, that enhances self control. And studies conducted mostly in the US, where the major institutional route to civic participation is religion, are not going to be able to tease these things apart.

    Did anyone else notice a few words missing from Tierney’s piece? You know, like virginity and pledge? I could certainly have done with responsible reporting on issues where religious influence matters, rather than, I dunno, vitamin pills and — fuck! — naughty language.

  2. …and of course, we should all take the word of the celibate Catholic heirarchy seriously on all reproductive matters…NOT!

    I hope one of these organizations does a “Rebecca” on their report. It could be very entertaining… :-D

  3. The Vatican says the contraceptive pill is polluting the environment and is in part responsible for male infertility.


    Birth Control Pill Slows Overpopulation. Crash of natural resources delayed by as much as six weeks. Thanks, The Pill!

  4. I meant to add:

    Seriously, even if “Vatican scientists” wasn’t an oxymoron, their “study” totally begs the question whether decreased male fertility is automatically a bad thing.

  5. Vatican “scientists” “discover” something that meshes perfectly with established church doctrine. What a scoop! Excuse me while I call up every newspaper in the country to tell them to stop the presses.

  6. Hi fellows,

    I’m writing here a few lines I wrote elsewhere on the issue of “religious self-control” (likely an oximoron), just for Fordist purposes ;-) (the snippets I comment are from the same news on the New York Times).

    “religiosity correlates with higher self-control.”

    I suppose that rules out the possibility that fanatics are religious people, which strikes me as a contradiction at the very least: the more “religious” you are, the more fanatic you become. Is fanaticism a manifestation of self-control? First news.

    “It takes self-discipline to sit through Sunday school or services at a temple or mosque”

    So, “self control” is equated to “doing things you dislike or have no interest in doing”. So, people in jails are the pinnacle of self-control.

    “Devout people were found to be more likely than others to wear seat belts, go to the dentist and take vitamins.”

    Without information as to the experimental settings, this may only mean that religious people a) are more likely to drive (which is why they also wear seat belts more often), b) more likely to have caries (which is why they would also go more often to the dentist) and c) more likely to NEED vitamins (which is why they’re more likely to take them). Plus, it is also true that religious people “obey” more, which doesn’t entail that what they obey is useful or even good (take the case of Milgram’s experiments, recently blogged on by Steven Novella). I understand that, as regards self-control, they measured how well religious people followed GOOD advice with respect to “non-religious”, but not how well they followed BAD advice, which might have shown some interesting trade-off.

  7. Oh, by the way, some more lines on the same issue (too much woo-woo for a Monday morning):

    “In a study published by the University of Maryland in 2003, students (…) subliminally exposed to religious words (…) were slower to recognize words associated with temptations (like drugs or premarital sex). (…), when they were primed with the temptation words, they were quicker to recognize the religious words. (…) “When temptations cross their minds in daily life, they quickly use religion to dispel them (…)””

    Psycholinguistic experiments have consistently and repeatedly shown that prime words make you quicker at recognizing related words based on frequency of use (pure statistics- if a competent speaker of a language is presented with the word “nurse”, the word “doctor” will then be recognized more quickly). So, the non-mystical explanation for these facts is that hearing temptation words makes you faster at thinking of religious terms because you don’t hear of temptation terms but at church, whereas you also hear and read religious terms elsewhere (on dollars, for instance), which means that they won’t be as strongly correlated with words you hear only at church. It’s just about conditional probability. Try to write “In premarital sex we trust” on dollars and see what happens.

    “(…) try replicating some of the religious mechanisms that seem to improve self-control, like private meditation or public involvement with an organization that has strong ideals.”

    Obviously, once you reach this conclusion, the “religion” part no longer makes any sense. Any organized human group will serve. If they make the same kind of “self-control measurement” comparing people a) working at a company and having a fixed schedule with b) freelance people having their own schedule, they’ll also notice that the first are more “self-controlled” in the sense that they obey more. The same applies to the army: you would get astonishing “self-control” brain activity in this case, I’m sure.

    “People can have sacred values that aren’t religious values (…) Sacred values come prefabricated for religious believers”

    And they come together with delusional mysticism, fanaticism, intolerance, sectarism and, if required, bloodlust. Sure the human being has evolved religion for self-controlling itself. No matter how strongly religion correlates with self control, it will always correlate even more strongly with self-deception.

  8. From the Expelled article : “I told Ruloff I agreed with him on many issues, including that most science departments are extremely poor at metaphysics.”

    I bet most science departments are also extremely poor at fashion design, video editing, and stock broking. WTF?

  9. “For good self-control, try getting religious about it”

    Let’s try this: The more peers you have, the more peer pressure you feel.

  10. Well, if the pill is really involved in the “sperm crisis” (almost impossible regarding the environmental pharmakokinetics involved), then the contraceptive effect is amplified and overpopulation would be finally prevented.

  11. The impact of the Pill of male biology is going to run and run. At least until there are a couple of dozen studies showing no link.

    The trouble is there’s been a very similar claim made before about Phthalates in plastics with both sides (without much in the way of evidence) making claim and counter claim which no one really paid any attention to until someone showed that exposure to phthalates pre-puberty stunted penis growth (and then it became important really quickly)

    Personally, I’d like to see some decent studies about the impact of the Pill on Male biology. Everyone who says it’s not an issues never says (or at least its never reported) which studies they have to back up that claim.

    I have a sneaky feeling that there could be a bioaccumulation in fat cells taking place from repeated micro-dosing. We know from the lastest ultra-HPLC equipment that downstream of water treatment plants there are low conc quantities of the most widely used pharmaceuticals (or their metabolites)

    It’s a genuinely interesting area all round.

  12. Re the Walt Ruloff article: The article is a waste of time, but the comments are worth all the time it takes to read them.

  13. Sheesh! The Vatican is getting as goofy as the fundies in the Bible belt.

    The Prophetic Powers of Mike Judge are coming of age! The Idiocracy has begun to establish itself within the Catholic church! We should run for the trash mountains and smash our laser printers!

    To arms, everyone! Take up your staplers!

    Hey, if the Vatican can be in the business of FUD, so can I.

  14. It seems the Vatican will happily say anything to get people do to what they want. I remember doing research on this for a presentation I had to make and was really surprised to find out that estrogenic compounds are everywhere. Don’t worry about hormones from the pill, more think about agricultural waste or soy milk. I also found that despite quite a lot of research that there isn’t really any evidence that the exposure that humans get does any real harm. The only example of negative effects on the environment I can remember was pulp mill waste disrupting the sex live of fish.

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