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?


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