Friday, December 16, 2005

Sound Reasoning Regarding Religiosity and Social Ills

MSNBC News recently uploaded a story that provides yet another example in which many members of the religious right are exhibiting an inability to understand basic moral concepts.

In the Journal of Religion and Society, Dr. Gregory Paul of Baltimore published a paper on the "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies." In this paper, Dr. Paul of Baltimore compared such statistics as homicide rates, teen pregnancy and abortion with the importance of religion in the lives of the people.

He discovered a correlation between these social ills and religiosity such that the more religious the people of a nation claimed to be, the greater the degree to which it was plagued by these social ills. The United States, being the most religious of these prosperous democracies, had the highest rates of homicides, venereal disease, teenage pregnancies and teenage abortions, At the same time, more secular countries such as France and Japan suffered less from these problems.

This is not the proof of immorality that I was talking about. The paper merely identifies a statistical correlation. Anybody fond of logic knows that a correlation does not imply causation. Every day, within minutes to hours after I get out of bed, the sun comes up. Yet, my getting out of bed does not cause the sun to come up.

The fundamental evidence of immorality that I am talking about is in the reaction that many on the religious right have had to this study. The article cited above lists many of these responses.

The First Wrong: Intellectual Recklessness

The first of the wrongs associated with this response is minor. Two others, I will show, are far more significant.

The first wrong concerns the fact that some people on the religious right have condemned Dr. Paul for claiming that religious belief causes social ills. This is wrong mostly because Dr. Paul never made that claim. This represents a moral flaw on the part of those who make this claim because they did not live up to their responsibility to determine what the truth of the matter was before they spoke. They saw a reason to hate, and they jumped on it, without checking to make sure that the reason they were given was well founded.

Dr. Paul was careful to report that his research only provided a correlation. He made no claims about causation. The crime of saying that this shows that religiosity causes these social ills rests on the shoulders of The Times of London, who made these unwarranted inferences and attributed them to Dr. Paul. For this, The Times of London and those who followed its lead deserve to have their knuckles soundly rapped with a ruler.

The Second and Third Wrongs: Hypocrisy and Hate Mongering

The second wrong starts with hypocrisy. Understanding the hypocrisy exposes a deeper wrong of hate mongering.

People on the religious right have been blaming secularism for society's ills for decades. From teen pregnancy to murder, they have claimed that these crimes were the effect of kicking God out of our schools and out of the public square.*

Now, many of these same people are complaining that others are using this report to draw an unwarranted conclusion that religiosity is the cause of these social ills.

For decades, the Religious Right has been saying that secularism is the cause of all of our problems, based on what evidence? They did not even have as much as a statistical correlation to support their claims. They had nothing. Yet, they saw nothing wrong -- nothing worthy of condemnation -- in launching a campaign of hostility and antagonism centered around groundless claims that these "others" they disliked were responsible for these social ills.

Now, a researcher shows that the correlation that they have been asserting actually goes in the opposite direction. Societies that are more secular tend to have a lower murder rate, a lower rate of teen pregnancy, and even an lower abortion rate. Now, they are up in arms protesting that others are making unwarranted claims about the negative effects of religiosity.

This is hypocrisy in the first degree. This is such blatant and open hypocrisy that those who are committed to it cannot even pretend to hide from it.

More importantly, this hypocrisy is found in a campaign of inciting hate and hostility towards others. The words and tone that the Religious Right have practiced for decades, that they now condemn in others, is that of using faulty evidence to secure a conclusion that some "others" are deserving of society's hatred and hostility.


This argument implies that any who have used Paul's research paper to condemn religiosity are guilty of the same moral crime. These people are also promoting hatred an animosity towards others based on research that does not support those conclusions. It can be said in their favor that at least they have something pointing in the right direction. However, they are drawing conclusions that are far in excess of what that something legitimately allows.

Anybody secularist who draws a causal connection between religiosity and these social ills is committing the same wrong that secularists have been victims of for decades. It is still wrong, regardless of who does it.

However, if you know of somebody who is defending, funding, soliciting funds for, or promoting histility towards secularists on the basis that it is causally responsible for these social ills; and in particular if you can identify any individual or specific and identifiable group that has made this argument but protests that it is wrong to draw unwarranted conclusions from Dr. Paul's study, you you would be standing on very strong moral ground to condemn them.

I would recommend taking advantage of the opportunity.


* A decent respect for truth requires that I insert a comment here. The fact of the matter is that God was not being kicked out of anything. The policies that the Religious Right were complaining about involved using government power to coerce citizens into participating in the religious rituals of somebody else's church.

Some churches sought to compel attendance in their religious services by holding those services in areas where others were forced to attend, such as public schools during class time. They also sought to compel attendance by making that attendance a pre-requisite to attending a town hall meeting or other civic events.

These were the tactics that others were protesting.


Anonymous said...

"Anybody secularist who draws a causal connection between religiosity and these social ills is committing the same wrong that secularists have been victims of for decades."

Correction: Anybody secularist who draws such a causal connection based solely on Paul's study...

Tim R

Anonymous said...

There are many reasons to hypothesize a causal connection between religiosity and a wide variety of social ills, including the small subset studied by Dr. Paul. And there are mechanisms by which the causation can be accomplished.

For instance, religious indoctrination of children tends to stifle their critical thinking skills to the point where they are in fact incapable of recognizing a moral dilemma presented to them. Such indoctrination also tends to produce absolutist thinking, resulting in a black and white view of the world.

Tim R

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Tim R.

Your addendum is accurate. However, I would like to advise that anybody who does draw such a causal connection have the studies to pack it up.