Monday, September 26, 2005

Religion damages society?

Some nights, my mind reels after wending my way around the internet. Take, for instance, this story from The Times, "Societies worse off 'when they have God on their side':" (Hat tip Lucianne.com)

RELIGIOUS belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published today.

According to the study, belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems.

The study counters the view of believers that religion is necessary to provide the moral and ethical foundations of a healthy society. [...]

[The author] said that most Western nations would become more religious only if the theory of evolution could be overturned and the existence of God scientifically proven. Likewise, the theory of evolution would not enjoy majority support in the US unless there was a marked decline in religious belief, Mr Paul said.

“The non-religious, proevolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator.

“The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted."

My first reaction was that the researcher, Gregory Paul, had confounded causation with correlation. The reporter certainly seems to have fallen for that fallacy! So I went looking for the journal article itself.

If you're so inclined, the full article is "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look", published by the Journal of Religion and Society, Volume 7 (2005). The abstract posits:
Cross-national comparisons of highly differing rates of religiosity and societal conditions form a mass epidemiological experiment that can be used to test whether high rates of belief in and worship of a creator are necessary for high levels of social health. Data correlations show that in almost all regards the highly secular democracies consistently enjoy low rates of societal dysfunction, while pro-religious and anti-evolution America performs poorly.
In the article proper, Mr. Paul states that "it is not the purpose of this initial study to definitively demonstrate a causal link between religion and social conditions." (paragraph 12). Phew!

I can't help thinking, though, that he's asking the wrong questions about the wrong populations. Data in the aggregate about the different nations is one thing, but I don't see that he has looked for data on the behaviors of religious and non-religious sub-populations within those countries. For example, he makes the following observation (para. 16):
Increasing adolescent abortion rates show positive correlation with increasing belief and worship of a creator, and negative correlation with increasing non-theism and acceptance of evolution; again rates are uniquely high in the U.S. (Figure 8). Claims that secular cultures aggravate abortion rates (John Paul II) are therefore contradicted by the quantitative data.
What are the adolescent abortion rates among active church-goers? Among Catholics? Among Protestants, Jews, Muslims, or Wiccans? What about correlations by ethnic population, socio-economic classes, or political persuasion? How do all those compare to the aggregate abortion statistics? Has he controlled for the cultural and racial cohesion of countries like Japan and Switzerland versus the ethnic stew of the United States?

The article concludes:
There is evidence that within the U.S. strong disparities in religious belief versus acceptance of evolution are correlated with similarly varying rates of societal dysfunction, the strongly theistic, anti-evolution south and mid-west having markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the northeast where societal conditions, secularization, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms (Aral and Holmes; Beeghley, Doyle, 2002). It is the responsibility of the research community to address controversial issues and provide the information that the citizens of democracies need to chart their future courses.
He does ask some interesting questions, wondering why when the US is so rich it still has "deep social problems". I just don't think he's going to find useful answers using religion and evolution frames of reference.

OTOH, for a strong anecdotal case that religion can adversely affect culture, check out item #10 from the Carnival of the Insanities, posted over at Dr. Sanity:
10. World's highest child mortality rates; 70% of women illiterate...but why bother to change priorities? This is more important. Or this.
I wonder how Mr. Paul's survey results would change if these countries were included? Especially when you have Top ten reasons why sharia is bad for all societies.

[Update] I posted more on this topic in "Religion Damages Society? Take 2".