Friday, April 9, 2010

Subliminal Christianity and Racism

According to the latest post on Hemant's blog,

a study published by Baylor University researchers finds that “Priming Christian Religious Concepts Increases Racial Prejudice” (PDF).

Basically, the researchers presented subjects with subliminal flashes of words, purportedly to test their ability to detect and differentiate between words versus non-word letter groups seen for only a brief period of time (less than 100ms). Some subjects saw neutral words, like butter or house, while others saw words associated with Christianity, such as Christ, faith, Bible and gospel. They then ran the subjects through a battery of situational questions designed to determine their degree of hostility towards the African Americans in the situations.

Kate Shellnutt summarized the conclusions quite nicely on HoustonBelief:

Researchers offer some possible explanations for why these Christian terms have such negative effects. They can cue fundamentalism or political conservatism, which can isolate “out-groups,” or echo the notion of the Protestant work ethic, which has been connected with anti-Black attitudes, the study said.

The researchers didn't draw any larger conclusions from this (i.e., that most Christians are racist or anything quite so extreme), though they did insist it was causal rather than correlational.

The demographics were a little weird:

A total of 73 college students (57 women and 16 men; M = 19.6 years) were recruited from introductory psychology classes to participate in a personality and language usage study. Participants were somewhat ethnically diverse (37 Whites, 13 Asians or Pacific Islanders, 13 Hispanics, and 10 African Americans) but predominantly Protestant or Catholic (n = 43, n = 17, respectively). A few participants were of other religions (Muslim n = 1, Buddhist n = 1, “other” religion n = 8 ) or had no religious group at all (n = 3).

78.1% female? That’s an awfully small male sample size. That's an awfully small overall sample size, for that matter.

However, I think the study is fundamentally flawed. To quote the abstract:

Participants subliminally primed with Christian words displayed more covert racial prejudice against African-Americans (Study 1) and more general negative affect toward African-Americans (Study 2) than did persons primed with neutral words.

The problem is pretty obvious: What’s the overlap? Which of the participants who responded with prejudice and/or negative affect after hearing the Christian words would have responded the same way to the neutral words?

Prior to arrival at the lab, participants were randomly assigned to either the Christian or the neutral prime condition.

This means there was zero overlap. How seriously should we take the claim that, within a specific individual, Christian conceptual language is tied to racial prejudice? There’s no control on an individual basis. They say they pre-screened people on their religiosity and spirituality; what about their possible existing racist tendencies?

Not to mention: They specifically picked African Americans because of the historical racism toward them in America. Couldn’t this create an exaggerated effect?

(On a side note, this concept seems to be a theme for Wade C. Rowatt (one of the researchers). He has been involved in two studies with similar conclusions in the past, according to one of his webpages which mentions that he focuses on “the psychology of religion (e.g., religion and prejudice).”)

Their conclusion:

Consistent with the Christian-racial-prejudice hypothesis, people who were subliminally primed with Christian words reported significantly more covert racial prejudice than did people primed with neutral words. Participants subliminally primed with Christian words did not self-report more cold feelings toward African Americans on the thermometer item than did people primed with neutral words. This experiment reveals an influence of Christian religion on subtle racial prejudice. Priming Christian concepts in American college students caused a slight (but significant) negative shift in attitudes toward African Americans on a covert measure. This effect remained when controlling for preexisting levels of religiosity and spirituality.

My objections:

  1. There was no control for existing racial prejudice, only for religiosity and spirituality.

  2. There was no method used to determine whether priming with Christian words would increase a particular individual’s racial prejudices.

  3. The second experiment was done to “replicate and expand the effects of priming Christian concepts on racial prejudice found in Experiment 1.” However, if you’re going to replicate the effects of an experiment, you don’t modify the experiment – you just repeat it. Otherwise you’re doing a different experiment, and its results have to be taken on their own. For example:

    Participants were asked to complete measures of general negative affect and specific negative emotions (i.e., fear and disgust …) toward African Americans. Including these measures allowed us to determine whether the slight but significant increase in covert racial prejudice observed in Experiment 1 was because of a change in a specific affective or emotional response.

    This is not the same as the original hypothesis: “activation of Christian concepts in Americans increases racial prejudice.” The new experiment tests a hypothesis based on the assumption that the first hypothesis is true, rather than attempting to confirm the original results.
Do these mean that the hypothesis is false? No; I think it's a worthwhile hypothesis to explore, but I think that a much more carefully crafted study would have to be performed. This one just doesn't cut it, in my opinion.

Others on Hemant's blog have pointed out some weaknesses in my objections. For #1:
The very fact that the subjects were randomly assigned to either the neutral-word group or the Christian-word group controls for these two factors. That is, if it were merely a matter of existing racial prejudice, then that prejudice would be just as likely to occur regardless of which words were shown.
I'll concede this. Considering that the study took place in the south, which has historically had a higher baseline of racism, I don't think the degree of pre-existing racism could be the sole decider. The population randomization would also lead to less 'clustering' of people with particular views.

For #2:
By splitting the people randomly into the two groups, and still seeing a measurable difference, doesn’t that clearly indicate the causal effect of the Christian words in individuals? Even without testing anybody more than once, the study shows that, on average, flashing the Christian words will tend to make a typical individual act more racist.
I still disagree with this part. If you only test somebody once, you don't have a baseline for that individual to determine whether or not the priming with Christian words actually did increase their level of racism. You can draw a correlation between higher levels of racism and Christian word priming over the entire sample population, but you can't say with reasonable certainty that it was a causal connection for each member.

I would be interested to see the study repeated with different ideologically tied language and with other ethnic/minority groups as the 'target' of the discrimination. I can understand the idea of ideological language being linked to in-group vs. out-group thinking, but whether subliminal cues can cause an increase in that sort of thinking isn't clear to me. It's worth a further look.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Pastel Eggs and Bunnies Day!

Today, Christians celebrate Easter, the biggest day on their holy calendar. It's the day that Jesus is supposed to have risen from the dead, having completed his victory over death and offering absolution from sin to all who accepted his sacrifice and followed him.

The reason for the sacrifice was to stand in the stead of all mankind to pay for their sins, which they had inherited by virtue of the sinful nature of mankind caused by the fall in Eden. On a side note, it's debatable whether or not being dead for three days and then becoming God could really be called a sacrifice, but let's leave that alone for now.

For those who believe in the literal version of Genesis, Adam and Eve were created perfectly, but some way or another, their free will managed to screw that pooch. Their disobedience (apparently God figured it was a good idea to build that in) led to sin, which led to death, decay, suffering, and struggling in life. I can't even begin to understand how a perfect being could do anything wrong, especially when it was built to be incapable of understanding right and wrong. In fact, the whole point of the fall is that Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thus giving them insight into things that they could do wrong. They were punished for not knowing it was wrong to want to know right from wrong. Amazing.

For those who don't take Genesis literally, this presents a problem. If you accept evolution, for example, then there was no fall of man. There was no original sin. This could only mean that it was part of God's plan for mankind to have a sinful nature - after all, where else could it come from? Either we always had it, or we never had it at all (since there was no fall). That means that Jesus was sacrificed to pay the price for the way God made us. It's just God covering his ass, in the most ham-handed and irrational way possible - through human torture and sacrifice. Good one, Jehovah!

And if you believe in both evolution and hell, it's even worse! Not only do you think we always had a sinful nature, but you think God has a special place lined up for everybody! So God had to sacrifice himself... to himself... to make a loophole... for his own creation to escape the punishment he assigned... for behaving the way he intended us to behave from the beginning.

Ta da! Christianity makes so much sense. Good thing so few Christians actually buy into the whole 'hell' thing these days, or they might have some explaining to do - like, why their God is allowed any sort of moral authority when he punishes things for being broken that he broke himself.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Horror of Eternity

One of my Facebook friends just asked her 'followers' if the idea of the afterlife ever brought comfort to us. It was interesting to see some of the responses:
"The stress of wondering where I would go in the afterlife did not bring me any comfort. I don't remember when I first learned about Hell, but when I was a child, I was so afraid of it that I repeated the thought "I love God" over and over and over again in my mind."
"I never, even as a Christian, completely accepted the concept of Heaven and Hell because my dad was an atheist and I knew it. I tried my best to rationalize, though. I just couldn't understand the point of us being created only to be tortured. So no, it never brought me comfort."
"Absolutely not. I remember thinking who would want to live FOREVER? And I was maybe 7 or 8 years old."
"I was always terrified of the afterlife, particularly heaven. At a very young age, I was terrified of the thought of NEVER dying. I did not want to live forever, and worse with god. I was terrified about constantly being criticized by him. I did not truly understand what acts were sins and did not want to upset god."
Until a few years ago, the idea of the afterlife was nothing BUT comfort to me. I was raised in a liberal Christian family, and was taught that everyone was saved by grace at birth, meaning that nobody went to hell. The idea of people suffering forever wasn't even an issue for me. Everyone would go to heaven, where they could do whatever they wanted, be whoever or whatever they wanted, etc. It would just be a magical world where anything was possible. Definitely not the Biblical image of heaven, with the constant singing of praises to God.

It wasn't until I was 'saved' at age 17 that I began to think about the more orthodox idea of the Christian afterlife. it was at that moment that the idea of the afterlife ceased to be entirely comforting, and became a driving force for me to try to get other people to accept Jesus.

I think that, had I never become an evangelical, I'd still be a believer. Much of what triggered my disillusionment with Christianity was the realization that what I believed was a far cry from what the Bible actually teaches, and that what it taught was often things I found reprehensible. Had I not been 'saved', I would probably still believe.

I can't help but wonder if most Christians even consider what eternity really means. We're not talking about living for a long, long time here, folks; we're talking about forever. If you got bored, you could go and learn the properties of every fundamental particle of matter in the universe, give them names, and write a series of novels about them. Then you could scale up - name all of the quarks, the muons, the gluons, etc. Name all the atoms. Name all the molecules. And so on.

And you would still have eternity left.

You could learn the life story of every human being, alive or dead, through to the extinction of the human species.

And you would still have eternity left.

You could watch the heat death of the universe, unimaginably distant into our future.

And you would still have eternity left.

You could reach a point where there is nothing left to know; nothing left to do; nothing left to see. You could experience everything that could possibly (or even IMpossibly) be experienced.

And you would still have eternity left.

You could, as does Wowbagger The Infinitely Prolonged in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, travel throughout time and space and insult every intelligent being in alphabetical order.

And you would still have eternity left.

It would never end.

And yet, according to orthodox Christianity, the result of a meager 70 years or so here on earth is meant to determine our outcome for eternity. According to any religion with an afterlife, this is what we're supposed to desire.

I can envision the result of achieving eternal life: Madness. Unfeeling, unthinking madness. An existence with no end and a desperate desire for an end. And yet the evangelical Christian is meant to believe that this isn't a possible outcome; that we'll be content to live forever, on our knees before the throne of God, singing praise to his name.

Any being that could be content with that is not something that we could call human. That's not to say evangelicals are inhuman, but rather that I don't think they've really thought it through. The only thing that could make me desire an eternity of praise and grovelling would be a complete removal of my personality and a replacement with something else.

I'm just glad it's not true.

The Friendly Atheist - Hemant Mehta at RPI

Hemant Mehta, best known as The Friendly Atheist or The eBay Atheist, recently paid a visit to the Secular Student Alliance at Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New Yok. Hemant's original claim to fame was an eBay auction where he offered to go to the religious service of the buyer's choice for one day per $10 spent. The media spun this as Hemant "selling his soul," and after he tipped off a few key blogs and local media organizations, his auction quickly made the international news. Atheists and Christians squared off in a bidding war over the deal, and Hemant fielded dozens of questions in response, both off-the-wall and serious.

The winner of the auction, a former evangelical minister from Seattle named Jim Henderson, tweaked the deal a bit and offered to send Hemant to several different churches around the country, from tiny home churches to Ted Haggard's massive megachurch. Henderson runs an organization called Off the Map which (at the time - the focus has now changed) hired non-churchgoers to attend local churches and write up critiques of their experiences. Jim asked Hemant to do the same, and to post them online. The result surprised both Jim and Hemant: People from all along the religious/irreligious spectrum responded almost entirely positively, often finding common ground in their recognition of parts of what Hemant articulated.

In his talk at RPI, Hemant went into great detail about this project, its aftermath, and what he has been doing since then. Hemant is now chair of the Board of Directors for the SSA, a role which lets him play an active role in supporting secular student groups across the country. He is also a math teacher in the Chicago suburbs, a role which led to his coming under attack as a "dangerous influence" for kids from a extreme conservative Christian group called the Illinois Family Institute. Hemant described how that came about and how his life has changed (or not) as a result of it.

I recorded the entirety of Hemant's talk and posted it to YouTube here. The first seven minutes or so are audio-only, but the rest is both video and audio. Several members of our local atheist/agnostic meetup group attended the talk. I got a photo with Hemant, which was met on his website with shock at our size differences :)