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Religion: Harmful for Society?

10/16/2005 - 6:30 AM PST

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New Study Says Yes, But Its Argument Shows Flaws

OMAHA, Nebraska, OCT. 16, 2005 (Zenit) - A recent journal article questions the social benefits of religion in the United States. Author Gregory Paul argues that the regions with higher rates of religious practice -- the South and Midwest -- have "markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the northeast where societal conditions, secularization, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms."

Paul's article, "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look," was published in Volume 7 of the Journal of Religion and Society, an academic journal associated with Creighton University, located in Omaha, Nebraska.

Theists, Paul starts off by observing, "often assert that popular belief in a creator is instrumental towards providing the moral, ethical and other foundations necessary for a healthy, cohesive society."

The article refers to a variety of data concerning religious beliefs and social indicators. Paul comments that the "United States is the only prosperous first world nation to retain rates of religiosity otherwise limited to the second and third worlds."

The article also dedicates ample space to the matter of evolution, and the groups that criticize evolutionary theory in the United States. "The least religious nation, Japan, exhibits the highest agreement with the scientific theory," Paul notes, while "the lowest level of acceptance is found in the most religious developed democracy, the U.S."

The article claims that countries with low levels of religious beliefs have managed to deal more successfully with social problems such as homicide, abortion and sexually transmitted diseases. Paul even argues that his data contradict the "culture of life" thesis advanced by Pope John Paul II, that secular cultures aggravate abortion rates.

Critics chime in

Paul's article won wide public attention after it was mentioned Sept. 27 in the London-based Times newspaper. A Times articles, headlined "Societies worse off 'when they have God on their side,'" was picked up by other media sources and agencies.

Almost immediately, some commentators seized the opportunity to launch attacks on religion, basing themselves on the study. Rosa Brooks, writing in the Los Angeles Times of Oct. 1, argued: "When it comes to 'values,' if you look at facts rather than mere rhetoric, the substantially more secular blue states routinely leave the Bible Belt red states in the dust."

According to Brooks, the study strengthens the position of those who maintain religion should be purely private, and who are opposed to "faith-based" social welfare programs. Moreover, she contends: "We shouldn't shy away from the possibility that too much religiosity may be socially dangerous."

Emily Maguire, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald of Oct. 4, argued that the study shows that "relying on religion to fix social problems is irrational." If we want a better society, she insisted, religious believers "need to stop sermonising, get up off their knees, unclasp those praying hands and work for measurable change in the here and now."

George Monbiot, commentator for the British Guardian newspaper, in an article published Tuesday, took advantage of Paul's study to accuse the Catholic Church of being run by a "14th-century pope with a 21st-century communications network (that) sustains his church's mission of persecuting gays and denying women ownership of their bodies."

"If you want people to behave as Christians advocate," Monbiot concluded, "you should tell them that God does not exist."

Statistically valid?

By Paul's own admission, his study is only "a first, brief look" at the subject. He also admits that it is not "a definitive study that establishes cause versus effect between religiosity, secularism and societal health."

These caveats, however, appear briefly at the start of the study and in the article itself Paul frequently draws rather sweeping conclusions and generalizations based on the data.

Despite his hostility toward religion, Monbiot's commentary provides a hint that he is not completely satisfied with the data. On the matter of religion and wealth, he notes that the United States is less keen on redistributing wealth through government taxation and welfare, compared to the more secular nations. But, he observes, the United Kingdom, one of the most secular nations in the study, is similar to the United States on the issue of wealth distribution. So there does not seem to be a link between inequality and religion.

More-detailed criticisms were raised by David Quinn, a journalist with the Irish Independent. In an article published Oct. 6, ...

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1 - 1 of 1 Comments

  1. Albert J Rogers
    5 years ago

    It is my tentative hypothesis that an organization with a reputation for "doing good" will attract people who like to do good into joining it.

    This might very well account for the good behavior observed in many Christians, without its having anything to do with the truth or falsity of the doctrines supposedly believed.

    Hypocrisy, on the other hand, as Jesus himself warned His followers, is liable to exclude anybody from the kingdom of God, no matter whether that be on this Earth or in Heaven.

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