Monday, October 17, 2005

How many angels can dance in a just society?

Keep coming across references to the Gregory Paul article on the correlation between religion and social dysfunction in all of the usual leftie, anti-religious places. Good thing! The latest person to discuss it is George Monbiot in The Guardian. He raises a couple of important questions but then fails to properly deal with them. The first is “Is it fair to blame all this on religion?” As Monbiot points out, social spending is lower in the countries which are worse off. Which means that three things are statistically connected to some degree: religiosity, low social spending and social dysfunction. The link isn’t exact as the example of UK shows with its low social spending, low religiosity and medium level of social dysfunction. Perhaps being religious leads to dysfunctional societies or, perhaps, dysfunctional societies lead to religious belief. Maybe, low social spending causes religious feeling or, maybe, religious feeling brings about low social spending. The question of what the causal connection is between these three is got to be complicated, with the general theme probably being ‘positive feed-back’. Any which way it turns out, it doesn’t look good. Which actually makes me wonder about a feasible (but unconvincing) conspiracy theory – Are religious figures conspiring to keep societies dysfunctional, with large scale suffering, poverty and injustice, in order to maintain the atmosphere for religion? Did the Catholic Church oppose Liberation Theology to keep the South Americans poor, downtrodden and, therefore, Christian?

The second question Monbiot raises is also very interesting – the significance of people whose religiosity leads them to a heroic defence of the rights of others. Of course, individual cases are just that – they are not proof of a general conclusion. Still, the idea that religious beliefs such as the belief in the existence in heaven make people more willing to act altruistically shouldn’t be discounted. Indeed, it needn’t be discounted. What needs to be compared, after all, is not the behaviour of individual people but the overall functioning of the society. Therefore, just as individual charity in the US is drastically less effective at lowering poverty than state programmes in Norway, so individual piety and heroism is less effective in creating a functional society than an generally pragmatic attitude, it seems. Of course, one may be saddened to see a lack of such individual bravery but then, in a properly run democratic state, all that is required is the normal, everyday willingness to participate in the broadly-construed political process. Even that sometimes calls for bravery and definitely does require persistence and a number of other virtue.


Post a Comment

<< Home