Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

The Evils of Religion

Reading the copy of the Los Angeles Times which appeared at our hotel door this morning, I found an editorial titled The Dark Side of Faith by Rosa Brooks. She draws on the study by Gregory S. Paul in the Journal of Religion and Society which has been bouncing around the blogsphere for the last few days. I first heard about it from the ever reliable Speculative Catholic.

For a solid discussion of the problems with the statistics involved, do check out Magic Statistics's original critique and follow-up.

Contrary to Shea's somewhat intemperate response "the guy who emitted this bogus brain fart masquerading as 'science' is talking just like the NCSE", I can't imagine this study will get any respect in sociology circles -- the methodology is just too poor and far from being a legitimate academic, Mr. Paul is a "freelance paleontologist" who lectures for the Council for Secular Humanism. However, it is perfect editorial fodder, and Ms. Brooks takes very few words to move on to red state bashing:

Murder rates? Six of the seven states with the highest 2003 homicide rates were "red" in the 2004 elections (Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina), while the deep blue Northeastern states had murder rates well below the national average. Infant mortality rates? Highest in the South and Southwest; lowest in New England. Divorce rates? Marriages break up far more in red states than in blue. Teen pregnancy rates? The same.

And the false dichotomy between religion and reason:

We shouldn't shy away from the possibility that too much religiosity may be socially dangerous. Secular, rationalist approaches to problem-solving emphasize uncertainty, evidence and perpetual reevaluation. Religious faith is inherently nonrational.

And finally moves in for the kill:

The claim that religion can have a dark side should not be news. Does anyone doubt that Islamic extremism is linked to the recent rise in international terrorism? And since the history of Christianity is every bit as blood-drenched as the history of Islam, why should we doubt that extremist forms of modern American Christianity have their own pernicious and measurable effects on national health and well-being?

Arguably, Paul's study invites us to conclude that the most serious threat humanity faces today is religious extremism: nonrational, absolutist belief systems that refuse to tolerate difference and dissent.

My prediction is that right-wing evangelicals will do their best to discredit Paul's substantive findings. But when they fail, they'll just shrug: So what if highly religious societies have more murders and disease than less religious societies? Remember the trials of Job? God likes to test the faithful.

To the truly nonrational, even evidence that on its face undermines your beliefs can be twisted to support them. Absolutism means never having to say you're sorry.

And that, of course, is what makes it so very dangerous.

Surely it always helps to put in a good "When did you stop beating your wife?" ending...

The methodological problems with Paul's study make it seriously questionable that he has even found a legitimate correlation, much less causation, between religious belief and social ills. (For instance, Paul assumes that there are no significant differences between countries like Brittain and the United States other than religion which might contribute to the differences in their murder, abortion, and unwed pregnancy rates.) However, let us imagine for a moment that he has found a correlation.

One possibility, of course, is that the relationship flows the other direction, that those who frequently encounter social evils are more likely to search for eternal truth than those who are happy, wealthy, and sitting in front of the television.

Another thing worth considering though, when confronted with an agnostic touting Christianity's "blood-drenched past", is the difference in worldview of he who believes in nothing beyond this physical world and he who believes in eternal life. However wrong the jihadists are with their mantra of "we love death, you love Coca Cola", they do touch on an important point.

Belief in God is a classic "dangerous idea". It enchourages people to exert themselves even unto death, to achieve greatness, and to try to change the world. It is perhaps not insignificant that the armed forces have a higher percentage of believers than the general population of similar age. Although the US Army is in no sense a crusading force with religious objectives, those with a belief in the hereafter are more willing to enter a profession that involves the inherent risk of sacrificing your life for a higher good.

If a world that believes in God is a more dangerous world, that is precisely the reason that I want to live in it.

No comments: