Does religion cause societal ills?

"In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies (Figures 1-9). The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is exceptional, but not in the manner Franklin predicted. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly. The view of the U.S. as a 'shining city on the hill' to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health. Youth suicide is an exception to the general trend because there is not a significant relationship between it and religious or secular factors. No democracy is known to have combined strong religiosity and popular denial of evolution with high rates of societal health." Paul, Gregory S., "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies", Journal of Religion and Society, Vol. 7 (2005).

"He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts - for support rather than for illumination." -- Andrew Lang

Gregory Paul, a paleontologist who was troubled by the rise of increasingly vocal and influential conservative Christian politicians and educators who discount the science of evolution, has published an interesting study, which suggests that the societal ills in the United States can be linked to a belief in God. His report looks at several factors of societal health and shows that while the United States is the only Western democracy that has a strong belief in God, it is also the Western Democracy with the highest rates of homicide, abortion, STD infection and teen pregnancy.

Not that I want to slay the messenger, but one must always remember the words of Aaron Levenstein: "Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital." The statistics, in this case, are rather general. If accurate (and assuming for the moment that they are), they show that there certainly are more homicides per capita in the United States than in other countries (the U.S. averaging more than 6 homicides per 100,000 while most of Western European countries are less than half of that figure). But does this show that the Western Democracies in Europe or Japan are better because they are less religious? Hardly.

Consider that the statistical averages shown make no distinction between who is committing the murders. Are the murders being committed by believers in God simply because the United States has the highest number of people who believe in God? Hardly. This view is incredibly simplistic, and fails to take into account the large number of factors that should be included in any study of crime rates. For example, a comprehensive research study regarding the correlation between gun ownership, gun control and crime was done by Jeff Miron, a professor at Boston University. In this study which examined homicide rates in 44 countries, he included a diverse range of factors including gross domestic product per capita, urbanization, population density, schooling, the death penalty, and the percentage of young males in the population. Did he include religious belief? Not that I am aware, but even if religiosity is a factor, it isn't the prime factor in crime.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 95, Iss. 7, (1995) contended that the main factor in the rise of criminal conduct is not religious belief, but relative poverty. As the report from the study says: "Our findings suggested that the links between deprivation and both violence and adolescent births reflect the destructive psychosocial and behavioral effects of inequality. As Luker put it, it is 'the discouraged among the disadvantaged' who become adolescent mothers. Gilligan and others pointed out how often violence among young men is triggered by humiliation and disrespect." Thus, it certainly is more probable than not that their are other factors that influence the crime rate and that the correspondence between the high homicide rate (which has been largely declining for the past 30 years or so) and the fact that most people in this country still confess a belief in God (or a god or gods) is more coincidence than correlative. (In fact, a cursory review of some of the other issues Mr. Paul examined shows that similar objections can be raised to the areas of increased teen pregnancy, increased abortion, etc.)

But if you read only the headline from the Los Angeles Times about this study, you would think that a definitive link had been established. According to the L.A. Times article entitled "The Dark Side of Faith" by Rosa Brooks, "IT'S OFFICIAL: Too much religion may be a dangerous thing." Do you see how this is simply erroneous? Yet, if you don't look at it critically, you would think that we now had scientific proof that religion was dangerous for societies. The author of the L.A. Times article is wrong on another count, also, when she says in her article: "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." What she says is true, but among the nine states with the lowest homicide rates were the "red" states of North Dakota, Iowa, Utah, Idaho, South Dakota, and Montana. So, what does that prove? Nothing. Plain and simple.

Addendum: The Joy of Curmudgeonry has also written a brief analysis of this study, and he makes two comments that I think are worthy of noting here. He says:

Now, as anyone who has ever been able to tell the difference between a scattergraph and a blunderbuss should know, correlation is a measure of association, not causation; * * * For associations themselves to be meaningful within statistical analyses, it is necessary to take into account the manifold factors that could plausibly impinge on the data; otherwise the associations may be meaningless. Mr Paul, however, though he has been careful to stress only association and not causation, has singularly failed to consider other factors that might plausibly affect his data . . .

And . . .

Without a proper statistical analysis of the data, an association can be found between almost any two variables. * * * If Mr Paul cannot subject his data to the statistical analyses necessary for an understanding of the strength of correlation between religious belief and social dysfunction, what then is the point of his research? He claims that it is “not an attempt to present a definitive study that establishes cause versus effect between religiosity, secularism and societal health”, but since he has made no serious attempt to demonstrate an association between these things, we are left with the suspicion that it is little but fodder for the causal ruminations of newspaper columnists.

I tried not to pursue the author of the study and his motives, but I think that what this blogger says makes great sense as to the purpose of this study. Is it just another half-baked effort to bash Christians? It may be.


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