Religion: Harmful for Society?

New Study Says Yes, But Its Argument Shows Flaws

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OMAHA, Nebraska, OCT. 15, 2005 ( A recent journal article questions the social benefits of religion in the United States. Author Gregory Paul argues that the regions with higher rates of religious practice — the South and Midwest — have «markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the northeast where societal conditions, secularization, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms.»

Paul’s article, «Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look,» was published in Volume 7 of the Journal of Religion and Society, an academic journal associated with Creighton University, located in Omaha, Nebraska.

Theists, Paul starts off by observing, «often assert that popular belief in a creator is instrumental towards providing the moral, ethical and other foundations necessary for a healthy, cohesive society.»

The article refers to a variety of data concerning religious beliefs and social indicators. Paul comments that the «United States is the only prosperous first world nation to retain rates of religiosity otherwise limited to the second and third worlds.»

The article also dedicates ample space to the matter of evolution, and the groups that criticize evolutionary theory in the United States. «The least religious nation, Japan, exhibits the highest agreement with the scientific theory,» Paul notes, while «the lowest level of acceptance is found in the most religious developed democracy, the U.S.»

The article claims that countries with low levels of religious beliefs have managed to deal more successfully with social problems such as homicide, abortion and sexually transmitted diseases. Paul even argues that his data contradict the «culture of life» thesis advanced by Pope John Paul II, that secular cultures aggravate abortion rates.

Critics chime in

Paul’s article won wide public attention after it was mentioned Sept. 27 in the London-based Times newspaper. A Times articles, headlined «Societies worse off ‘when they have God on their side,'» was picked up by other media sources and agencies.

Almost immediately, some commentators seized the opportunity to launch attacks on religion, basing themselves on the study. Rosa Brooks, writing in the Los Angeles Times of Oct. 1, argued: «When it comes to ‘values,’ if you look at facts rather than mere rhetoric, the substantially more secular blue states routinely leave the Bible Belt red states in the dust.»

According to Brooks, the study strengthens the position of those who maintain religion should be purely private, and who are opposed to «faith-based» social welfare programs. Moreover, she contends: «We shouldn’t shy away from the possibility that too much religiosity may be socially dangerous.»

Emily Maguire, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald of Oct. 4, argued that the study shows that «relying on religion to fix social problems is irrational.» If we want a better society, she insisted, religious believers «need to stop sermonising, get up off their knees, unclasp those praying hands and work for measurable change in the here and now.»

George Monbiot, commentator for the British Guardian newspaper, in an article published Tuesday, took advantage of Paul’s study to accuse the Catholic Church of being run by a «14th-century pope with a 21st-century communications network (that) sustains his church’s mission of persecuting gays and denying women ownership of their bodies.»

«If you want people to behave as Christians advocate,» Monbiot concluded, «you should tell them that God does not exist.»

Statistically valid?

By Paul’s own admission, his study is only «a first, brief look» at the subject. He also admits that it is not «a definitive study that establishes cause versus effect between religiosity, secularism and societal health.»

These caveats, however, appear briefly at the start of the study and in the article itself Paul frequently draws rather sweeping conclusions and generalizations based on the data.

Despite his hostility toward religion, Monbiot’s commentary provides a hint that he is not completely satisfied with the data. On the matter of religion and wealth, he notes that the United States is less keen on redistributing wealth through government taxation and welfare, compared to the more secular nations. But, he observes, the United Kingdom, one of the most secular nations in the study, is similar to the United States on the issue of wealth distribution. So there does not seem to be a link between inequality and religion.

More-detailed criticisms were raised by David Quinn, a journalist with the Irish Independent. In an article published Oct. 6, Quinn concedes that the higher incidence of social problems in the United States is certainly true, as is the greater level of religious belief.

But he asks if the two facts are necessarily connected. Other differences between Europe and the United States, such as the fact that one is a society composed of immigrants, may well be more relevant in explaining social trends. Or perhaps it is due to the higher levels of economic inequality, or the relative newness of American society compared to Europe.

«The point is that any two differences between America and Europe could be highlighted and the different rates of murder, abortion, teen pregnancy, etc., could be attributed to this difference,» Quinn argues.

Moreover, even if the United States is more religious than Europe, it is also less religious than it was a few decades ago. And it is precisely in this period that many social problems referred to in Paul’s study, such as abortion and sexually transmitted diseases, have increased sharply.

Contradictory data

And what about Ireland? Quinn asks. If religion is linked to social problems, then Ireland should be improving socially, since it is now growing more secular.

Yet the opposite has happened. «As religion in Ireland has declined, the murder rate and the crime rate [have] soared,» Quinn noted. «The marital breakdown rate has also soared, as has the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, out-of-wedlock births, suicide, drug abuse, etc.»

Paul’s conclusions also run counter to the situation in highly secularized Britain. There, the press publishes a constant stream of articles lamenting the ever-higher rates of infections from sexually transmitted diseases.

«Syphilis is back as sex diseases rise,» announced the Sunday Times on March 20. «Sex infections continue to rise,» was the headline of a BBC report published June 30. And, on the other side of the world, the Japan Times last Dec. 3 lamented the high rate of another venereal disease, chlamydia, noting that the rate of infections in Japan are among the worst among advanced countries.

More importantly, Paul’s study, and even more so the commentaries that use it to attack religion, overlook the difference between correlation and causality.

This is a common problem when statistics are used to «prove» social arguments, notes Joel Best in his 2004 book, «More Damned Lies and Statistics» (University of California Press). «Just because two things seem related does not mean that one causes the other,» Best explains. It is possible that another, completely different, factor is responsible for the effect.

To ascertain the existence of a causal effect, Best observes, we need to verify the relationship between the two sets of data. And we need to identify and eliminate other variables before jumping to conclusions. Furthermore, he insists, we need to be particularly careful when dealing with causality over time. It’s a fallacy to think that a causal relationship exists, just because one variable precedes the other. Useful advice to keep in mind.

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