Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Does Religion Cause Social Problems?

One of the arguments we Americans hear constantly from the religious right is that everything went to hell when we “took God out of the schools”. In a classic case of post hoc reasoning, they will point to all of the measures of social problems that got worse after 1962 and say, “See? When you remove God as the basis for moral behavior, people behave less morally.” Worse yet, they often say, we teach them evolution and that only adds to the problem. Teach them that they are nothing more than animals, the argument goes, and they will act like animals.

My response to this has long been that it ignores the cross-national data that suggests that the US, despite being far more religious than any other Western democracy, has far worse rates of most of those negatives than any of the rest. The rest of the “first world” has far lower rates of belief in God than we do, infinitely lower rates of rejecting evolution than we do, far higher rates of belief in eternal reward or punishment, and so forth. Yet by virtually any measure of social problems – teen pregnancy, abortion, violent crime, sexually transmitted diseases, etc – the US is far worse off than any other Western democracy. Now, it appears, there is a study to support my argument:

The paper, published in the Journal of Religion and Society, a US academic journal, reports: “Many Americans agree that their churchgoing nation is an exceptional, God-blessed, shining city on the hill that stands as an impressive example for an increasingly sceptical world.

“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 United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so.”

Gregory Paul, the author of the study and a social scientist, used data from the International Social Survey Programme, Gallup and other research bodies to reach his conclusions.

He compared social indicators such as murder rates, abortion, suicide and teenage pregnancy.

The study concluded that the US was the world’s only prosperous democracy where murder rates were still high, and that the least devout nations were the least dysfunctional. Mr Paul said that rates of gonorrhoea in adolescents in the US were up to 300 times higher than in less devout democratic countries. The US also suffered from ” uniquely high” adolescent and adult syphilis infection rates, and adolescent abortion rates, the study suggested.

Mr Paul said: “The study shows that England, despite the social ills it has, is actually performing a good deal better than the USA in most indicators, even though it is now a much less religious nation than America.”

He said that the disparity was even greater when the US was compared with other countries, including France, Japan and the Scandinavian countries. These nations had been the most successful in reducing murder rates, early mortality, sexually transmitted diseases and abortion, he added.

Now, I don’t think that it’s reasonable to conclude that religious belief causes these social problems. That would be engaging in the same sort of post hoc reasoning that I am objecting to. As we were all taught in high school science classes, correlation is not necessarily causation. The inputs into social problems such as these include a large number of potential variables, of which religion is only one and arguably not a terribly important one. If one were trying to pinpoint the causes of these negatives, one would have to look at a vast range of potential causes, from income inequality to racial issues to drug prohibition to educational problems to who knows what else. The only purpose of citing this data is to put the lie to the ridiculous notion that if people don’t believe in God they’ll behave worse. The data simply does not support that claim and it never has.

Comments

  1. #1 Dave S.
    September 28, 2005

    Whether or not religion has a hand in causing our ills, it sure doesn’t seem to cure ‘em, does it.

  2. #2 Orac
    September 28, 2005

    This particular paper was quite weak. I made most of my criticisms of it in the comments section of a post on Pharyngula in way more detail, so much so that I wonder why I bothered to contribute so much prose to someone else’s blog, rather than writing about it myself for my own!

  3. #3 Ed Brayton
    September 28, 2005

    This is a test of the typekey system. Do not adjust your set.

  4. #4 llDayo
    September 28, 2005

    First!

  5. #5 Dave S.
    September 28, 2005

    Second!

  6. #6 spyder
    September 28, 2005

    I have a hard time w/ these sorts of studies; decades of reading the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and the Journal of the History of Religions leads one to discount statistical analyses of human beliefs expressed in behaviors. I do know that a great deal of overt violence and very nasty abusive behavior has been perpetrated in the name of religion and with/by/for the authority of religious hierarchy in North America over the last four hundred years.

    As one who is constantly on a campaign to stop people from using the metaphor: “too much Kool-Aid” when referring to views to which one is opposed(i personally know most of the people who drank too much Kool-Aid in the 60′s and they are as a group amazingly successful and productive in this culture), i do also remember the Jonestown koolaid/tang incident.

  7. #7 Matthew
    September 28, 2005

    ehh.. correlation doesn’t mean causation. i think there are other reasons why we have some of those problems. namely poor education. we tell kids that sex before marriage is wrong (which is a religious position, by the way, not a secular one) and ignore trying to prevent diseases and pregnancy because that would be sending a double message (the first message is the one that is incorrect). we focus on punishment of criminals more than rehabilitation.

    i think religion is a bigger problem in developing countries. In Latin America people are even more religious than in the U.S. And you have the catholic church telling them god hates condoms so they don’t use them. I don’t think religion has such a great influence in the U.S. I think here it is more used as a tool for political agendas than the other way around.

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