One of the questions that I received from the studio audience asked me to comment on a survey conducted by Reginald Bibby at the University of Lethbridge (Alberta, Canada) that allegedly showed that atheist place less importance on a number of key values when compared to theists. For example, according to this survey, 95% view as very important; whereas 89% of atheists view honesty as very important.
Standards of Evaluation
One of the things that I am not going to do in response to this survey is to assert that it is flawed merely because it draws conclusions that I do not like. This is the Bush Administration method of analyzing intelligence, where intelligence that does not support the Administration’s position on attacking Iraq is, by that fact alone, assumed to be bad intelligence. It is a system where scientific studies that show that humans are contributing to global warming is considered bad science because his its financial backers do not want to be held accountable for the harms that will result, and where any evidence that can be interpreted as a problem for evolution is instantly accepted because it, too, supports a favored position.
I am quite willing to examine this survey using the same standards of evidence that are applied to scientific surveys generally. To the degree that the survey is internally and externally valid, to that degree its findings should be incorporated into our understanding of the world.
Internal validity, by the way, has to do with the way in which the survey’s conclusions are supported by the data within the survey. For example, if the survey asks an individual whether they are pleased or displeased with Bush’s job in office, and concludes from a 71% disapproval rating that this percentage of respondents were liberals, this would be internally invalid. It is quite easy for a conservative to disapprove of Bush’s job in office.
Professional researchers know many ways to get research to appear to say what the author wants it to say. For example, if one wants to show a 'positive' answer rather than a 'negative' answer, a survey simply needs to provide more positive options than negative options. Professional researchers who submit their research to peer review have a difficult time getting their tricks past professionals who are aware of, and whose job it is to catch and reject, papers that have these types of flaws.
External validity has to do with the degree to which a survey can be extrapolated across the country at large. If a survey on Bush’s popularity was taken at a pro-Bush rally, even though it may be true that “88% of respondents approve of how Bush is handling his job in office,” this finding could not be extrapolated to say that the nation as a whole approves of Bush’s job in office.
Since I do not have time to examine every study that people might take, and I do not have time to keep up on every field that an individual might write on, I use proxy standards to determine whether a report is trustworthy or not. Specifically, I look for what whether individuals who are experts in the field and who have studied issues such as internal and external validity.
This is what the peer-review process in science is about.
A few months ago, a study came out that showed that less religious societies in Europe had fewer incidents of teenage pregnancy, suicide, drug use, murder, and similar socially destructive states than America did. This study obtained credibility by being subject to a peer-review process that required that the author restate certain conclusions so that they were consistent with the data. For example, the study did not show that high religiosity caused these harms – it only showed a correspondence between high religiosity and these harms among developed countries (Europe, North America, and Japan). That is what the paper ultimately claimed.
However, I have not found any evidence that this study has undergone any type of peer-review process. I could not find mention of the study being included in any peer-reviewed publication, or of any independent assessment of its methodology and conclusions. Until such a report has been issued, it is sensible to view the study with some measure of suspicion.
Of course, in the absence of peer review, it is just as much of mistake to assume that this study is flawed as it is to assume that the study is sound. In addition, the survey provides an excellent opportunity for an ethics writer to examine the values that were a part of the survey.
One open question that reports of the survey left untouched was a question of the degree to which people should hold a particular value as important.
A good example of this is ‘patience’. It is easy to see how a group of people who have been waiting for 2000 years for their savior to return, and who will likely have to wait for a few billion more years (or until the end of human civilization whenever that may come) will find patience to be a virtue. The same is true of people who are waiting for prayers to be answered when there is no being to answer them. The church, in this case, has good reason to preach that patience is a virtue because, without patience, most of their political and economic support would pack up and walk away.
However, a more rational view of patience would categorize it as an Aristotelian virtue. Aristotle argued that virtue rests in finding an appropriate level of moderation between two extremes. Courage, for example, lies somewhere between the extremes of cowardice and foolhardiness. Temperance rests between abstinence and gluttony.
It is possible for a person to be over-demanding, insisting that things be delivered immediately that should not always be delivered immediately. A President who is impatient to receive an intelligence report on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq may rush the report and get a far lower quality product as a result.
At the same time, too much patience is also imprudent. For example, if information does not arrive in a timely manner, then it becomes useless. Also, a person who is trapped in a burning building should recognize the fact that he cannot afford to wait around all day, and insist on some measure of speed on the part of his would-be rescuers.
Too much patience has the unfortunate side effect of encouraging people to take advantage of others – namely, the infinitely patient. If there is no condemnation or negative consequences to making others wait, then individuals will have less of an opportunity to form aversion to making others wait. These people will tend to steal time from others and use it for their own projects. The remedy for this type of exploitation is to be a little less than totally patient, to be willing to say to such people, “You have taken enough of my time, now act, or get out of the way.”
Imagine two people, each with $10,000 in their bank accounts. One of them knows that this is the case – that he has $10,000, and when it is gone there will be no more. The other has $10,000, a debit card, and a false belief that he has an account without limit.
In most cases, we can expect the person with the false belief that he has an endless supply of money to squander what he has, wasting it on things that are of little value, and foregoing things that have real value in the false belief that he can get those things later. At the same time, the individual who understands exactly how much money he has will have a more accurate understanding of the true cost of things, and will be more willing to change his behavior when the cost gets too high.
The same can be expected when it comes to theists and atheists spending the ‘time’ accounts that they have available. Both of them only have this one life to live. However, the person who falsely believes that he is immortal and that the time he has available is endless can be expected to squander that time. He uses it to acquire things today that have little value, falsely believing that he can pick other things up at a later date. When somebody seeks to squander his time, he has no reason to protest – there is more where that came from (or so he thinks).
Asserting that atheists have a poorer sense of value because they place a greater value on time than the theist begs some very important questions. This is simply a case where the atheist appreciates how scarce a particular resource is, which allows him to realize how valuable it is, which will tend to make him upset with those who would insist that he waste it. This is not an example of greater Christian virtue. This is an example of greater Christian irrationality.
Over the course of the next couple of weeks I will be addressing some of the other values that showed up in that survey, and looking at what the differences in the findings say about the individuals who hold those values.