Religion: Blight Upon Humanity?
Originally written April 11th, 2006
blight n. – Something that impairs growth, withers hopes and ambitions, or impedes progress and prosperity.
The question is simple – to paraphrase Bertrand Russell, is religion the dragon that needs slaying in order to facilitate the societal progress that will benefit all of humanity? I’m not entering into this discussion with a solution in mind. I know that I have fairly heretical views (okay, very heretical views) regarding religion, but this post isn’t a rant, nor is it meant to offend. I think that you would have to either blind or willfully ignorant to not be aware of the societal problems that face us on a massive scale. Disease, violence, and poverty – to name just a few. And I think that you would have to possess a character of malice or be genuinely apathetic not to think, even just every so often, about what can be done.
What I am referring to is a journal article, published in 2005 in the Journal of Religion and Society entitled “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look” by Gregory S. Paul. As the title implies, Paul takes census data from the 1990’s and 2000 and references that against measures of societal health (i.e. Murder rates, suicide rates, infant mortality rates, life expectancy, STD transmission rates, teenage abortions, and teenage pregnancies / births) to see what the picture looks like. Now that that’s out of the way, onto the fun stuff:
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…
I think that put it quite nicely. Here’s some more:
A few hundred years ago rates of homicide were astronomical in Christian Europe and the American colonies (Beeghley; R. Lane). In all secular developed democracies a centuries long-term trend has seen homicide rates drop to historical lows ( Figure 2 . The especially low rates in the more Catholic European states are statistical noise due to yearly fluctuations incidental to this sample, and are not consistently present in other similar tabulations (Barcley and Tavares). Despite a significant decline from a recent peak in the 1980s (Rosenfeld), the U.S. is the only prosperous democracy that retains high homicide rates, making it a strong outlier in this regard (Beeghley; Doyle, 2000). Similarly, theistic Portugal also has rates of homicides well above the secular developed democracy norm. Mass student murders in schools are rare, and have subsided somewhat since the 1990s, but the U.S. has experienced many more (National School Safety Center) than all the secular developed democracies combined. Other prosperous democracies do not significantly exceed the U.S. in rates of nonviolent and in non-lethal violent crime (Beeghley; Farrington and Langan; Neapoletan), and are often lower in this regard. The United States exhibits typical rates of youth suicide (WHO), which show little if any correlation with theistic factors in the prosperous democracies (Figure 3). The positive correlation between pro-theistic factors and juvenile mortality is remarkable, especially regarding absolute belief, and even prayer (Figure 4). Life spans tend to decrease as rates of religiosity rise (Figure 5), especially as a function of absolute belief. Denmark is the only exception. Unlike questionable small-scale epidemiological studies by Harris et al. and Koenig and Larson, higher rates of religious affiliation, attendance, and prayer do not result in lower juvenile-adult mortality rates on a c ross-national basis.<6>
Although the late twentieth century STD epidemic has been curtailed in all prosperous democracies (Aral and Holmes; Panchaud et al.), rates of adolescent gonorrhea infection remain six to three hundred times higher in the U.S. than in less theistic, pro-evolution secular developed democracies (Figure 6). At all ages levels are higher in the U.S., albeit by less dramatic amounts. The U.S. also suffers from uniquely high adolescent and adult syphilis infection rates, which are starting to rise again as the microbe’s resistance increases ( Figure 7 ). The two main curable STDs have been nearly eliminated in strongly secular Scandinavia. Increasing adolescent abortion rates show positive correlation with increasing belief and worship of a creator, and negative correlation with increasing non-theism and acceptance of evolution; again rates are uniquely high in the U.S. ( Figure 8 ). Claims that secular cultures aggravate abortion rates (John Paul II) are therefore contradicted by the quantitative data. Early adolescent pregnancy and birth have dropped in the developed democracies (Abma et al.; Singh and Darroch), but rates are two to dozens of times higher in the U.S. where the decline has been more modest ( Figure 9 ). Broad correlations between decreasing theism and increasing pregnancy and birth are present, with Austria and especially Ireland being partial exceptions. Darroch et al. found that age of first intercourse, number of sexual partners and similar issues among teens do not exhibit wide disparity or a consistent pattern among the prosperous democracies they sampled, including the U.S. A detailed comparison of sexual practices in France and the U.S. observed little difference except that the French tend – contrary to common impression – to be somewhat more conservative (Gagnon et al.).
I take it that the main methodological strength is the data that Paul uses – census data from eighteen different countries for the measures of societal health and social survey polls for the rates and religious belief that includes some 23,000 respondants. It’s truly a massive data set that is surprisingly consistent, given that subjects in “prosperous democracies” are the only ones included. Also, only prosperous democracies are included in the analysis. In other words, the number of possible confounds for this type of an analysis are at a minimum (e.g. your data for infant mortality isn’t skewed by, say, Darfur).
No study is without them. I think the first thing that should be pointed out here is that the data and the analysis are correlational in nature – that is, they do not show causation; they merely indicate a relationship between mutliple variables. Take coffee drinking and heart attacks – there is a correlation there. Researchers a while back took that to mean that coffee drinking could cause heart attacks. Unfortunately for them, many coffee drinkers also smoke (which is strongly correlated with heart disease – and is what I’m doing now). A third variable could be influencing the results. Alternatively, correlational data does not show the direction of a causal relationship – to bastardize the results of this study, do rising theism rates cause measures of societal health to decline or is it the other way around? I think an argument can be made either way.
In addition, no statistics are actually presented nor were more advanced statistical methods undertaken other than simple correlation. Paul writes that this was done to avoid influencing the results and because of the high degree of variability in the correlations. Even so, it would have been nice to see some raw data. Figures are nice, but they don’t give me the same gritty feeling that I get from wrecking my eyes while pouring over tables of actual data.
So what can we draw from this study? I’d say, first and foremost, that the US is in piss-poor shape with regard to measures of societal health when compared to other prosperous democracies. I think that might actually point to one of the big confounds in the analysis, actually. Just look at Figure 2:
We’re #1! Oh wait, that’s homicide rates – nothing to be proud of. I think it’s pretty intuitive, at least for those of us who’ve traveled abroad, that there is something fundamentally different about the United States. In many of the figures, the US looks to be bordering on outlier status.
In short, I think that, based on this data, drawing any conclusions based on what religion actually does for societal health is foolish at best. However, I think this study helps illustrate what religion does not do: namely, that theism is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a healthy society. Whether or not theism is actually a blight upon humanity, well…that’s a question that deserves further scientific investigation.