Religion: Harmful for Society?
Quinn concedes that the higher incidence of social problems in the United States is certainly true, as is the greater level of religious belief.
But he asks if the two facts are necessarily connected. Other differences between Europe and the United States, such as the fact that one is a society composed of immigrants, may well be more relevant in explaining social trends. Or perhaps it is due to the higher levels of economic inequality, or the relative newness of American society compared to Europe.
"The point is that any two differences between America and Europe could be highlighted and the different rates of murder, abortion, teen pregnancy, etc., could be attributed to this difference," Quinn argues.
Moreover, even if the United States is more religious than Europe, it is also less religious than it was a few decades ago. And it is precisely in this period that many social problems referred to in Paul's study, such as abortion and sexually transmitted diseases, have increased sharply.
And what about Ireland? Quinn asks. If religion is linked to social problems, then Ireland should be improving socially, since it is now growing more secular.
Yet the opposite has happened. "As religion in Ireland has declined, the murder rate and the crime rate [have] soared," Quinn noted. "The marital breakdown rate has also soared, as has the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, out-of-wedlock births, suicide, drug abuse, etc."
Paul's conclusions also run counter to the situation in highly secularized Britain. There, the press publishes a constant stream of articles lamenting the ever-higher rates of infections from sexually transmitted diseases.
"Syphilis is back as sex diseases rise," announced the Sunday Times on March 20. "Sex infections continue to rise," was the headline of a BBC report published June 30. And, on the other side of the world, the Japan Times last Dec. 3 lamented the high rate of another venereal disease, chlamydia, noting that the rate of infections in Japan are among the worst among advanced countries.
More importantly, Paul's study, and even more so the commentaries that use it to attack religion, overlook the difference between correlation and causality.
This is a common problem when statistics are used to "prove" social arguments, notes Joel Best in his 2004 book, "More Damned Lies and Statistics" (University of California Press). "Just because two things seem related does not mean that one causes the other," Best explains. It is possible that another, completely different, factor is responsible for the effect.
To ascertain the existence of a causal effect, Best observes, we need to verify the relationship between the two sets of data. And we need to identify and eliminate other variables before jumping to conclusions. Furthermore, he insists, we need to be particularly careful when dealing with causality over time. It's a fallacy to think that a causal relationship exists, just because one variable precedes the other. Useful advice to keep in mind.
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Religion, Paul, Society, Family
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