Sunday, October 02, 2005

Religion vs. Secularism in Society: The Consequences

It is a well known fact that Conservatives such as Dennis Prager insist that religious values are necessary for civilized society. Prager, in particular, in his "The case for Judeo-Christian values" series of columns, provides numerous examples of rather dubious moral positions supposedly the result of secular thinking (See for example here and here). On his radio show, Prager harps on Europe's moral spinelessness versus the relative moral courage of the United States to stand up against evil in the world and argues that the United States has moral clarity due to its religious values whereas Europe is morally confused due to its secularism. Furthermore, Prager and other Conservatives insist that only a return to greater adherence to religious values will solve the many domestic social ills that pervade our society such as crime and drug use.

However, a recent story in the London Times discusses an academic research paper (hat tip Paul at Noodlefood) which sheds some empirical light on the question of what exactly religious societies are like in comparison with secular ones. As discussed in the Times the research paper argues that:
RELIGIOUS belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published today.

According to the study, belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems.
Actually, the paper is a bit more cautious than that, though it does show the correlations implied. Keeping in mind that correlation does not equal causation, it seems nevertheless true that an absence of correlation would seem to be strongly suggestive of an absence of causation. The Conservative claim that religious values are necessary becomes a lot more dubious. Here's the relevant discussion from the paper itself:
If the data showed that the U.S. enjoyed higher rates of societal health than the more secular, pro-evolution democracies, then the opinion that popular belief in a creator is strongly beneficial to national cultures would be supported. Although they are by no means utopias, the populations of secular democracies are clearly able to govern themselves and maintain societal cohesion. Indeed, 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. The least theistic secular developing democracies such as Japan, France, and Scandinavia have been most successful in these regards. The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted. Contradicting these conclusions requires demonstrating a positive link between theism and societal conditions in the first world with a similarly large body of data - a doubtful possibility in view of the observable trends.
And as always, it all depends on the data and here it seems that while the paper admits that the "study is a first, brief look at an important subject" and that it "is not an attempt to present a definitive study that establishes cause versus effect between religiosity, secularism and societal health," the data used to establish the correlations does appear extensive.

Data sources for rates of religious belief and practice as well as acceptance of evolution are the 1993 Environment I (Bishop) and 1998 Religion II polls conducted by the International Social Survey Program (ISSP), a cross-national collaboration on social science surveys using standard methodologies that currently involves 38 nations. The last survey interviewed approximately 23,000 people in almost all (17) of the developing democracies; Portugal is also plotted as an example of a second world European democracy.
The rest of the data comes from the UN Development Programme and other sources. There is however one proviso:
Regression analyses were not executed because of the high variability of degree of correlation, because potential causal factors for rates of societal function are complex, and because it is not the purpose of this initial study to definitively demonstrate a causal link between religion and social conditions. Nor were multivariate analyses used because they risk manipulating the data to produce errant or desired results,<5> and because the fairly consistent characteristics of the sample automatically minimizes the need to correct for external multiple factors (see further discussion below). Therefore correlations of raw data are used for this initial examination.
I'm not an expert in statistics so I'm not sure how much this undermines any of the conclusion. The paper was written by Gregory S. Paul, a researcher based in Baltimore, Maryland who does not seem to be associated with any University. It was published in the Journal of Religion and Society, "a cross-disciplinary, electronic journal published by the Rabbi Myer and Dorothy Kripke Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Creighton University."

No comments: