Are We Better Off Without Religion?
December 8, 2009
I read this article in The Guardian today… And, being a scientist myself, I’ve got to to say that I wholly understand the importance of Statistical Analysis within any field of experimental study. Hell… It helped me get my dissertation together and, without it, I would have simply misinterpreted the results.
So, because Statistical Analysis is considered to be a mathematical science pertaining to the collection, analysis, interpretation or explanation, and presentation of data, it precludes the ability of those initiated in its ways to understand the complex interrelationship that exists between data sets, and thus allows a person to interpreted the data correctly. This prevents one from falling into the trap of making false claims about their experimental data… After all, the first steps in avoiding a trap, are knowing of its existence. And with a sound statistical understanding one can grasp much insight into what traps to look for when correlating data.
For example… A common goal for a statistical research project is to investigate causality, and in particular to draw a conclusion on the effect of changes in the values of predictors or independent variables on dependent variables or response. There are two major types of causal statistical studies: experimental studies and observational studies. In both types of studies, the effect of differences of an independent variable (or variables) on the behavior of the dependent variable are observed. The difference between the two types lies in how the study is actually conducted. Each can be very effective.
An “experimental study” involves taking measurements of the system under study, manipulating the system, and then taking additional measurements using the same procedure to determine if the manipulation has modified the values of the measurements. In contrast, an observational study (the type that Gregory Paul probably conducted when quantifying social dysfunction with religious density) does not involve experimental manipulation. Instead, data are gathered and correlations between predictors and response are investigated.
An example of an “experimental study” is the famous Hawthorne study, which attempted to test changes to the working environment at the Hawthorne plant of the Western Electric Company. The researchers were interested in determining whether increased illumination would increase the productivity of the assembly line workers. The researchers first measured the productivity in the plant, then modified the illumination in an area of the plant and checked if the changes in illumination affected productivity. It turned out that productivity indeed improved (under the experimental conditions). However, the study is heavily criticized today for errors in experimental procedures, specifically for the lack of a control group and blindness. The Hawthorne effect refers to finding that an outcome (in this case, worker productivity) changed due to observation itself. Those in the Hawthorne study became more productive not because the lighting was changed but because they were being observed.
An example of an “observational study” is one that explores the correlation between smoking and lung cancer. This type of study typically uses a survey to collect observations about the area of interest and then performs statistical analysis. In this case, the researchers would collect observations of both smokers and non-smokers, perhaps through a case-control study, and then look for the number of cases of lung cancer in each group.
However… It is also well known that “observational studies” can sometimes overlook important factors within study groups. Thus one must be cautious when making conclusions about how and why results within an “observational study” are observed. Usually “observational studies” are great precursors to more penetrating “experimental studies,” as they set the scene and allow certain correlations between variable to come to light.
With that said and out the way, I would like to introduce the article, which came from The Guardian newspaper…
Popular religious belief is caused by dysfunctional social conditions. This is the conclusion of the latest sociological research (pdf) conducted by Gregory Paul. Far from religion benefiting societies, as the “moral-creator socioeconomic hypothesis” would have it, popular religion is a psychological mechanism for coping with high levels of stress and anxiety – or so he suggests.
I’ve long been interested in Paul’s work because it addresses a whole bunch of fascinating questions – why are Americans so religious when the rest of the developed world is increasingly secular? Is religious belief beneficial to societies? does religion make people behave better?
Many believers assume, without question, that it does – even that there can be no morality without religion. They cite George Washington who believed that national morality could not prevail without religions principles, or Dostoevsky’s famous claim (actually words of his fictional character Ivan Karamazov) that “without God all things are permitted”. Then there are Americans defending their country’s peculiarly high levels of popular religious belief and claiming that faith-based charity is better than universal government provision.
Atheists, naturalists and humanists fight back claiming that it’s perfectly possible to be moral without God. Evolutionary psychology reveals the common morality of our species, and the universal values of fairness, kindness, and reciprocity. But who is right? As a scientist I want evidence. What if – against all my own beliefs – it turns out that religious people really do behave better than atheists, and that religious societies are better in important respects than non-religious ones, then I would have cause to rethink some of my ideas.
This is where Gregory Paul and his research come in. I have often quoted his earlier, 2005, research which showed strong positive correlations between nations’ religious belief and levels of murder, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse and other indicators of dysfunction. It seemed to show, at the very least, that being religious does not necessarily make for a better society. The real problem was that he was able to show only correlations, and the publicity for his new research seemed to imply causation. If so this would have important implications indeed.
In this latest research Paul measures “popular religiosity” for developed nations, and then compares it against the “successful societies scale” (SSS) which includes such things such as homicides, the proportion of people incarcerated, infant mortality, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage births and abortions, corruption, income inequality, and many others. In other words it is a way of summing up a society’s health. The outlier again and again is the US with a stunning catalogue of failures. On almost every measure the US comes out worse than any other 1st world developed nation, and it is also the most religious.
For this reason Paul carries out his analysis both with and without the US included, but either way the same correlations turn up. The 1st world nations with the highest levels of belief in God, and the greatest religious observance are also the ones with all the signs of societal dysfunction. These correlations are truly stunning. They are not “barely significant” or marginal in any way. Many, such as those between popular religiosity and teenage abortions and STDs have correlation coefficients over 0.9 and the overall correlation with the SSS is 0.7 with the US included and 0.5 without. These are powerful relationships. But why?
The critical step from correlation to cause is not easy. Paul analyses all sorts of possibilities. Immigration and diversity do not explain the relationships, nor do a country’s frontier past, nor its violent media, and so he is led to his conclusions: “Because highly secular democracies are significantly and regularly outperforming the more theistic ones, the moral-creator socioeconomic hypothesis is rejected in favour of the secular-democratic socioeconomic hypothesis”; “religious prosociality and charity are less effective at improving societal conditions than are secular government programmes”.
He draws implications for human evolution too. Contrary to Dan Dennett, Pascal Boyer and others, he argues that religion is not a deep-seated or inherited tendency. It is a crutch to which people turn when they are under extreme stress, “a natural invention of human minds in response to a defective habitat”. Americans, he says, suffer appalling stress and anxiety due to the lack of universal health care, the competitive economic environment, and huge income inequalities, and under these conditions belief in a supernatural creator and reliance on religious observance provides relief. By contrast, the middle class majorities of western Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan have secure enough lives not to seek help from a supernatural creator.
These are powerful conclusions indeed, and if they are right the US in particular needs to take note. But are they? I still retain some caution. I keep reminding myself of the obvious point that in science it is all too easy to apply a more critical eye to research whose conclusions you disagree with. In this case the wiggly route from correlation to cause includes many questionable steps, and clearly a lot more research is needed. I was also dismayed by what might seem trivial – the appalling number of typos and other mistakes in the only version of the paper I could find – the one that is linked from the press release and several other places. There are missing words, added words, “their”s for “there”s and other errors that sometimes made it hard to follow. If the text was so poorly checked, I wondered, what about the data? Should I apply my critical concerns to those stunningly high correlations too?
I guess we’ll find out, for this is a hot topic and a thriving research area. For now we need not necessarily agree with Paul that “it is probably not possible for a socially healthy nation to be highly religious” but he has certainly shown that the healthiest nations are also the least religious.
written by Susan Blackmore
Thus Gregory Paul’s implications for human evolution i.e. that religion is not a deep-seated or inherited tendency, rather it is a crutch to which people turn when they are under extreme stress, is at best nothing more than speculation currently. BUT… And I say this with great fear about perpetuating myths – as Bertrand Russell once said, “If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.” – it is a speculation that deeply appeals to my own intuitive understanding about my own psyche, and seems to fit into other aspects of human consciousness that I have observed in others (especially those of religious standing). Thus, as a curious scientist, I would very much like to encourage a psychological study that might posit a statistical affirmation – OR denial – regarding Paul’s interesting conjecture.
And might I add… It’s not that I want this conjecture to become fact… Definitely not! It’s just that I, and others, have observed patterns of behavior that seem to point towards the idea that religious belief acts more as a “comfort-blanket” for hard times than as a real altruistic truth. If this is indeed true (for truth is the quest that I am on), then I feel we might all benefit as a planetary ecosystem by understanding it, and the implications it brings.
But… As all good scientists should know, as strong as their belief is in their work, they might not always be on the right track.
To find out more about where I sourced this article from, please click here.
To learn more about Susan Blackmore, please click here.