Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Will the Surgeon General place health warnings on churches?

Well, this clarifies things a lot:

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.

The quote is from a paper by Gregory S. Paul published in the latest issue of The Journal of Religion and Society. Paul examines the statistical correlation between religiosity and indicators of society’s health and the finding... well, it’s contained in the quote. There’s also a short article in The Times which covers the basics but I think that the original paper is short and simple enough to be looked at (unlike some monstrous academic papers which leave you wondering what’s going on).

My biggest worry with the study is that in doing a nation by nation comparison of mainly first world nations Paul is left with a very small sample of rich, religious democracies, i.e. just the US. However, reading closely, it does seem that while the US is an ‘outlier’, the correlation between religiosity and social dysfunction can also be seen in the other countries. The other thing is that Paul looks at a wide range of indicators of social health and the finding is quite robust in that where there is any correlation (a big majority of cases) it is between religiosity and dysfunction.

The implications are striking. As Paul points out, the prevalent and often deeply held popular assumption is that religiosity leads to positive social effects. So, finding that the opposite is true shakes at the tree of popular beliefs. Of course, Paul’s study is only, as he puts it, ‘A First Look’. Much more needs to be done, in particular, Paul (unlike the articles commenting on his paper) is careful to point out that he has not shown that religious belief causes social ills so more studies have to be done to understand the causal connection. I suspect that the causes are going to be complex seeing as how in some of the societies Catholicism and in the others Protestantism are the historical norms.

One thing, however, is very clear. This study shows the lie that secular societies are less healthy than religious ones. That’s assuming that one doesn’t count religiosity as the one overwhelming indicator of social health that trumps such minor things as “homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion”. So, the next time someone tells me that the world is coming to an end because of a lack of religion, I will have the statistical study to show that it ain’t necessary so. Of course, you know what’s going to happen next. Some crackpot will start popularising the notion that statistics is just a theory and that in fact hunches are a much better ‘scientific’ method for ‘analysing’ data.

One final quote from Paul (I like that, now atheists have their own Paul to quote from):

The data examined in this study demonstrates that only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical ‘cultures of life’ that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion.

So, will the Surgeon General act to place health warnings on churches?

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Does this work?

I’d been tossing around the idea of writing something like this for a while now and am still not sure if it works or if it's just obnoxious. Read the whole thing before you arrive at any conclusions -

There’s been a lot of talk about what to do about people who pursue particular ‘alternative lifestyles’. There have been suggestions made that their lifestyles should be criminalised, as they were in many countries in the past and as they still are in some. Now, even though I find their ways utterly foreign, I would defend their right to live their lives as they wish.

The task is made more difficult by the way they treat anyone different as someone who needs to be made like them. How else to understand their constant displays of their ‘identity’ with the use of particular modes of dress, symbols, ways of speaking and choice of vocabulary? What else could be the aim behind their insistence on organising large public gatherings in the centres of our towns, during which they make public avowals of their life choices? Don’t they realise that, if everyone lived the way they think is best, humanity would come to an end?

The important thing to realise is the issue of choice – they are in a different category from people who are of a different race, as their difference is due to a decision. Of course, much has been said and written recently about their predilections being inborn but I find it difficult to believe as there are societies which are practically free of their kind. So, it has to be acknowledged that they have made a choice to be what they are. That’s assuming they were adults when they became what they are. However, if one looks at the statistics it becomes clear that instead of their lifestyle being the result of an adult choice, for most of them it is due to childhood indoctrination. Most are the way they are because of how they were brought up by the people who had been supposed to protect them. And this is where the hardest question has to be asked – can we afford to let them bring up another generation of children to be like them? A consenting adult has the right to do what they will with their mind but children are all too easily misled. So, I think that, even while we have no right to stop them from spending Sundays in whatever way they see fit, we have to seriously ask if we, as a society, can stand idly by and watch young children having their minds warped with a false ideology that runs counter to everything that we stand for. But, if we are to do something, what is to be done? After all, a modern, liberal, multicultural and pluralist society can not simply institute the compulsory castration of Christians.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

What should you do when you have no time?

Why, start reading the old time classic, in the annotated edition, of course. The Sceptic’s Annotated Bible is an amazing resource, lots of valuable links and a careful analysis of the text. Someone has put a lot of work into it. The only thing that I find grating about it is that it is written from a point of view that seems fairly ignorant of much of the important Bible research that has been done recently. It would be good to have the historical input that this research allows and which, if anything makes the point even more strongly than the purely ahistorical analysis that is offered at the site.

Today, it will be Genesis 1. Nice and short.

Do you like green eggs and ham?

My little tyke is turning one in a couple of weeks. “I can hardly believe it” is the clichéd, yet completely apt response. It will not surprise that I think she is a particularly bright cookie but I am hardly the only one (and not everyone else who thinks that is related to her). She already had a fair understanding of what is being said to her and, if you say a word, will try to repeat it. Which, most of the time, means that she says the first syllable. So, her favourite toys are ‘Boo’. No guesses? Books. She loves them. Brings them round for me to show her the pictures. Doesn’t yet have the patience to sit while I read the stories to her. Is able to point to things if you name them... sometimes.

I don’t have full control over the books she gets given so she has a few that are filled with soppy ‘princess gets married’ stories. A good example is the sheer awfulness of Thumbelina. Hans Christian Andersen has a lot to answer for, I think. I mean, what will my tyke think once she understands the ongoing story of the matrimonial woes of that silly and useless angel? Early preparation for a life-time reading about J.Lo’s love-life in the glossies? No thank you. So, I try to open up to her the joy that is Dr. Seuss. Crazy, slightly wicked stories that are just right for little kids, with pictures that are a wonder to look at. Yes, definitely The Cat in the Hat is much better for her than another story about some good-for-nothing princess waiting for her prince to save her. Seriously, there is something about those books which works far more on what I imagine is the child’s level than the dumbed down grown-up stories with their fixation on well-disguised sexual mores and trenchantly laid-out plots. Thankfully, there plenty more where Dr. Seuss came from. For example, the absurd take on marriage one gets in The Owl and the Pussycat. Or, the silliness of The Grufallo. Lots of good stuff out there, so long as you have plenty of money, wrapped up in a five pound note.

Which brings me to another thing that I’ve been doing. I have been introducing my little one to lots of traditional rhymes and songs like The Grand Old Duke of York and Old MacDonald – a favourite for the animal noises. When I start singing to her she now stands up and starts wiggling on the spot – her take on dancing – and, if the song calls for it, tries to clap.

What particularly bothers me is that some busy-body bought her “A Children’s Bible” with big pretty pictures of Christ doing his thing. I was staggered when I found it on her book-shelf one day. My wife, of course, doesn’t see anything wrong with it. Of course, for the moment, there is nothing wrong with it – the book could be anything and it wouldn’t mean anything to my tyke – but one day she will be able to understand and I absolutely object to her having her head filled with that drivel before she can make any judgement. Perhaps I should buy “A Children’s Koran” and a collection of Greek, Roman, Etruscan, Babylonian, Egyptian and any other myths I can get my hands on to put on the shelf right next to this and the Andersen and the Dr. Seuss. On the other hand, I could just take the book and say that I do not wish my tyke to be exposed to religious materials till she is in a position to have a critical attitude to them. I have no idea what I will do but, as I have grown accustomed to expect, no solution seems altogether happy or natural to me as whatever I do will be seen as unreasonable and grandstanding. Certainly, it seems to me that there are people in my daughter’s family who are not playing fair. I mean, what would they think if I bought her “A little atheist reader” for her first birthday – the idea is preposterous!

My little tyke is turning one in a couple of weeks and I fear what time will bring.