SODAS Lecture: The Legacies of the Dead: Using Gravestones to Study the Causes and Consequences of Religiosity

SODAS Lecture


The Legacies of the Dead: Using Gravestones to Study the Causes and Consequences of Religiosity.


About 84% of the world's population are affiliated with a religious tradition, and in the U.S., approximately 70% of the population report that religion is at least somewhat relevant to them. It is, thus, important to understand how being religious affects people and why people become religious. In this talk, I use information extracted from the gravestone pictures of deceased U.S. citizens to derive ecologically valid insights into religiosity. First, focusing on the consequences of religiosity, I will present a series of studies showcasing how gravestone data can be used to study the link between religiosity and mortality. Using manual coding (N = 6,400) and machine learning (N > 5 Mio.), we find (a) that gravestones provide valid religiosity information and (b) that religious people enjoy longer lives, but only if they reside in religious areas. Evidently then, a longer life is not an inherent consequence of being religious. Second, focusing on the causes of religiosity, I present findings on the effects of war on religiosity. Specifically, we linked our large-scale gravestone data to a famous natural experiment: the Vietnam Draft Lottery (a random-assignment mechanism that drafted male U.S. residents into Vietnam). We find that being randomly drafted into the Vietnam War substantially increases the probability of displaying religious gravestone imagery. As such, our results suggests that war experiences make people more religious. In concert, our research speaks to fundamental questions about the nature of religiosity and showcases the potential of studying the legacies of the dead.


Tobias Ebert is Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science at the Institute of Behavioral Science & Technology at the University of St. Gallen (Switzerland). He received his PhD from the University of Mannheim (Germany) in 2020 and has been working as a postdoc at the University of Mannheim and at Columbia University in New York (USA). In his research, Tobias uses large-scale psychological data to study spatial variation in psychological attributes and the relevance of this variation for individuals and society.