Sago Boulevard

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Warning: Religion May Be Dangerous

So concludes a survey published in the latest Journal of Religion and Society:
The study, by evolutionary scientist Gregory S. Paul, looks at the correlation between levels of "popular religiosity" and various "quantifiable societal health" indicators in 18 prosperous democracies, including the United States.
He found that the most religious democracies exhibited substantially higher degrees of social dysfunction than societies with larger percentages of atheists and agnostics. Of the nations studied, the U.S. — which has by far the largest percentage of people who take the Bible literally and express absolute belief in God (and the lowest percentage of atheists and agnostics) — also has by far the highest levels of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

As you can probably guess, the logic here isn't exactly ironclad. Particularly telling is Paul's already-skewed version of religion from the outset:
Paul ranked societies based on the percentage of their population expressing absolute belief in God, the frequency of prayer reported by their citizens and their frequency of attendance at religious services.

Notice how none of the criteria for what qualifies as "religious society" has anything to do with morality. But, as everyone knows, all major Western religions (probably all world religions but I can only talk about what I know) stress giving charity, helping the less fortunate, honoring parents, and respecting fellow human beings. If those were added to the criteria, I suspect the results would look a quite different. What Paul may conclude, if he wasn't already bent on religion-bashing, is that mere ritual observance and proclamations of faith don't correlate with such "quantifiable societal health indicators" - but that's nothing new. The Prophets of the Bible condemn ritual observance that isn't accompanied by ethical behavior over and over again.

Rosa Brooks, the article's author, predicts "that right-wing evangelicals will do their best to discredit Paul's substantive findings." Or maybe they'll just point to the Bible and say "yeah, we already knew that."

(via Jill)