"With surveys showing a strong majority from conservative to liberal believing that religion is beneficial for society and for individuals, many Americans agree that their church-going nation is an exceptional, God blessed "shining city on the hill" that stands as an impressive example for an increasingly sceptical world. But in the other developed democracies religiosity continues to decline precipitously and avowed atheists often win high office, even as clergies warn about adverse societal consequences if a revival of creator belief does not occur."
- Gregory Paul
People spend a large amount of time and energy debating if faith is a good or bad thing for people in general to have. We have the arguments from belief and arguments from logic. All things being equal, well-formed logic beats belief. But both must bow before reality: logic trumps belief, but evidence trumps logic.
You can't objectively measure faith, but you can measure religion: you can count bums on seats on Sabbath days, and count how many people claim affiliation to religious groups. You can ask them to choose between evolution and a creator. And actually there is a lot of data about this around.
So a scientist called Gregory Paul asked in 2005: All other things being equal, are societies with more religion better off? By collating data from western democracies we can ask: what, if any is the correlation between levels of religiousness and social ills in these developed societies?
The results were published in The Journal of Religion and Society, in September 2005. And his verdict is that godly societies are worse off.
"In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies. ... The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, almost always scores poorly. "
"Higher rates of non-theism and acceptance of human evolution usually correlate with lower rates of dysfunction, and the least theistic nations are usually the least dysfunctional. ... In some cases the highly religious U.S. is an outlier in terms of societal dysfunction from less theistic but otherwise comparable secular developed democracies. In other cases, the correlations are strongly graded, sometimes outstandingly so."
"The United States is the only prosperous democracy where religion is really popular and we're the only nation among prosperous democracies to have really high murder rates."
- Gregory Paul
Of course the godly will try to pick holes in his arguments. Although The Times
calls him "a social scientist", his primary qualification is as a paleontologist
. He knows lots about theropod dinosaurs
. He may know about evolution
, and is clearly fed up with
", but what does he know about social science
and human population statistics
? There have been many cases of scientists getting things spectacularly wrong outside of their area of expertise.
Correlation is not causation for one, so trying to suppress religion is not the answer. I don't think he's trying to claim that religion causes problems; merely asserting that the belief that "more God is better" is demonstrably false.
"The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted."
- Gregory Paul
State efforts to actively stamp out religion have generally occurred in the failed communist eastern block, which were not correlated with positive effects on society. I have a suspicion that this happened not because the state wanted the best for the citizens, but because having a religion already got in the way of the loyalty and blind devotion to the state that was desired.
Evidence is as fallible as logic too - there seems to be good evidence, for instance, that the sun revolves around the earth. But on more detailed inspection, it's not so. In the social sciences it is particularly difficult to draw firm conclusions - one cannot conduct isolated experiments, and so must observe societies. Since they generally differ in so many ways at once, it is harder to pin down the effects of one variable.
Eighteen countries are included: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Great Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Japan, Switzerland, Norway, Portugal, Austria, Spain, Italy, United States, Sweden and New Zealand. One of the criticism is that there is no objective criteria why these "developed and democratic" countries are included and others omitted. Where exactly you draw the line can make a big difference with such a small number of samples. As can which year you pick the data from, which is not even stated beyond "from the 1990s, most from the middle and latter half of the decade, or the early 2000s". Did he carefully pick the data to find the results, or just use what was to hand?
His statistical technique has been criticised as overly simplistic, with Scott Gilbreath calling the lack of regression analysis and multivariate analyses "inexcusable".
"This is not an attempt to present a definitive study that establishes cause and effect between religiosity, secularism, and societal health. Rather, the goal is to spark future research and debate on the issue."
- Gregory Paul
In other words: if you disagree, go find your own evidence. This is progress - inspecting reality is better than crafting rhetoric or telling us what you believe as an article of faith.
Criticisms that I feel are poorly founded
Correlation is not causation
: True and well-known to all of us, including the author of the study. Yet if factor X
correlates with factor Y
, it suggest that it can be possible that one causes the other, or vice versa, and certainly casts a lot of doubt on people's claims that factor X
causes the opposite of Y
, which is precisely is commonly claimed for religion: that it makes societies and people better. The burden of proof has been shifted.
Religion can't be bad, some religious person or religious community do very good things
: This aims to be a counterargument but is in fact not relevant. It could be the case that despite the actions of small numbers of devout, the general population is worse off with religion than without. It could be otherwise, but the evidence decides.
Religion can't correlate with factor X, most religion is against factor X: Unintended consequences are everywhere, which is why evidence is a good thing.
The correlation between religion and factor X is illusionary, in fact factor X correlates well with factor Y: Another argument that is not relevant. Any correlation between factor X and factor Y does not in itself remove the correlation between religion and factor X - all three can go together. Maybe factor X causes factor Y. Maybe religion causes both factor X and factor Y. Or factor X. causes factor Y and increases the odds of being religious. Or any other combination. The evidence does not say which, it only shows either a correlation, or no correlation.
Gregory S Paul: "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look"
The Times of London article: Societies worse off 'when they have God on their side' - http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-1798944,00.html
transcript of an Australian radio broadcast interview: Study says belief in God may contribute to society's dysfunctions - http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2005/s1470370.htm
Wikipedia biography of Gregory Paul: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregory_Paul
Regis Nicoll criticies the findings: "Warning: Religion is Hazardous to Your Health" - http://www.crosswalk.com/news/weblogs/rnicoll/?adate=4/27/2006#1393761
Scott Gilbreath criticises: From our bulging How not to do statistics file: http://magicstatistics.blogspot.com/2005/09/from-our-bulging-how-not-to-do.html
George Gallup criticises: