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Religious believers prefer dogs over cats — by a lot

Photo by Anusha Barwa on Unsplash
  • A 2019 study in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion found that religious believers are more likely to own dogs than cats.
  • Researchers found that hardcore evangelicals are less likely to own pets than more the progressive religious.
  • Pet ownership also skews political: Democrats prefer cats while Republicans choose dogs.

Bastet was the daughter of the sun. The ancient Egyptian goddess was originally a fierce lioness warrior—a strong woman with the head of a big cat. Over time, her image morphed into a recognizable house cat until, as domestication commenced, her role disappeared altogether. I suppose it's difficult treating the furry purring machine rubbing up against your leg as an all-powerful solar goddess.

Strangely, there aren't a ton of feline deities. Bastet is by far the most famous. There's Dawon, the tigress that carries the fierce goddess, Durga, into combat; Bali's panther god, Barong Ket; Ovinnik, the black cat that chases away evil ghosts on Polish farms; and China's Li Shou, also revered by farmers for decimating mice and rats. Given their ubiquity in our world, you'd think cats would have a more religious presence.

Perhaps we can point to believers' lack of appreciation for cats. That's the topic of a 2019 study, published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. University of Oklahoma associate professor, Samuel Perry, and Eastern Illinois University assistant professor, Ryan Burge, wanted to gauge pet ownership among church goers. The religious prefer dogs by a wide margin: 74.9 percent to 40.3 percent.

Americans love dogs. With over 70 million claimed, we own 2.5 times as many canines as the runner-up, China. We also love spending money on pets: over $72 billion in 2018. That's more than on all sports combined.

Previous research points out religious tradition and biblical literalism don't necessarily predict pet ownership, though the team did discover that evangelicals are less likely to own a pet than progressive faiths. That's also true for people that attend church most often.

Jackson Galaxy's Top Tips For Cat Owners | My Cat From Hell

For this study, Perry and Burge used a 2018 survey with 2,348 respondents. Half replied to questions about pet ownership, with mean average of 1.72 pets per household. They broke down statistics on the three largest religious groups: evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Catholics.

Biblical significance only affects evangelicals. Since the Bible isn't exactly PETA-friendly, with all the directives about lording over the kingdom, hardcore religious appear less likely to support animal rights and are more likely to tolerate cruelty toward other species.

On a related note, pet ownership is political: dogs are more likely to live in rural, Republican-leaning regions, while cats dominate urban, Democratic strongholds.

The most interesting aspect of their study involves speculation about pet owner psychology. Apparently, the most religious households think about what a pet can do instead of adopting them for what they are.

"We would expect that Christian conservatism―as indicated by evangelical affiliation and more literalist interpretations of the Bible―would predict the ownership of family pets that have more practical utility such as dogs, but not necessarily cats."

Cat owners are often considered isolated, neurotic individuals, whereas "dog people" are social and extraverted. Indeed, dog park visits and walking around the neighborhood appear to be motivating factors for owning a dog. Larger families tend to be more religious and own more dogs as well.

The antisocial aspect of cat owners has recently been downplayed. A few crazy ladies can't ruin the image for the rest of us. Pet ownership is psychologically healthy: Having an animal reduces your anxiety and depression, as well as increases self-esteem among adults and children.

dog lying on carpet with paw on top of cat

Photo by Tatiana Rodriguez on Unsplash

After over two decades of living with cats, there are two personal notes I have of this and related studies.

While cats are independent animals, they are not antisocial. My wife and I have three cats. Every evening, three cats surround us on the couch; this is an actual photo she snapped while we were watching a movie. Hardly a night passes without all three sleeping on our bed—socially distanced, as cats do. Two hang out in my office daily while I'm writing; the third has claimed a cubby just outside my office door.

Like other animals, cats respond to how you treat them. If you act as if they're antisocial, they'll respond in kind. If you regularly play with and hold them, especially from an early age, you've got a companion for life. As they are extremely territorial creatures, if you construct a living environment conducive to their needs—lots of places to climb up high and look out windows—they're going to love living in that environment. Adopting one and refusing to meet them on their terms guarantees antisocial behavior.

The other comment is more speculative. Western religion is based on top-down authority. God gives directives; humans follow. This plays well with the psychology of dogs (which, to be clear, we also love). Dogs understand reward and punishment. If they could read, they'd love the Bible.

Punishment doesn't work on cats. They're not designed that way. If you scream at a cat while he's urinating on your carpet, he's going to think, "Why is this ape yelling?" not "I shouldn't be doing this." You probably shouldn't own a cat if you can't come to terms with this feature of their psychology.

Cats understand rewards, which is why clicker training is so effective. They'll never realize that urination + carpet = bad, but they will get that urination + litter box = treat, especially if you tether the treat to a clicker. (Clicker training also works for dogs, horses, and other animals.)

If you're trained to believe in a god that doles out punishment to criminals and rewards the faithful, you'll inherently understand dogs. By contrast, domesticated cats are the offspring of nature's fiercest killing machine. They have no need for your punishment or deities, but they will accept your treats. Think of it as tithing.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter, Facebook and Substack. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien himself hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

An eight-metre-long Whale shark swims with other fish at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium on February 26, 2010 in Motobu, Okinawa, Japan.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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