Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Rise and Fall of Christian Nations?

There is an interesting article citing a more interesting study concluding that modern, prosperous societies with higher rates of religious belief are socially "worse off" than those without religious belief. ("Worse off" being defined in a variety of ways related to crime rates, teenage pregnancy, STDs, etc.)

A few points.

First, regarding the study itself, and despite its own bravado, has yet to undergo any peer review or be substantiated by similar studies, so it's too early to be making statements like

“The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted.”

Which is, er, what the study's author actually said. Nothing like the tentative nature of science, eh?

Regardless, and assuming the study is valid in demonstrating that among prosperous nations (interesting that only the prosperous are included...), the less religious the more advanced socially, I wonder:

  1. What about economic success? Given the US's persistant unchallenged dominance in this respect, is it a trade off related to wealth and class issues that drives the societal ills rather than religious belief? I suppose this question and the next are both under the heading of "causation" - as in, the study does nothing to connect the presence or lack of religious belief with the presence or lack of one more societal ills.

  2. What about population demographics? Given the relative size and diversity of the US compared to the others in the study (essentially small European countries), is there a vector of causation that explains the differences without regard to religious fervor? For example, do the lamented societal ills similar diverge between those with religious belief and those without when the demographics are homogenized?

  3. What about the recently published data that indicated Western Christians really differ very little in terms of moral behavior from their unbelieving neighbors? Perhaps the study would have to look deeper than those who accept evolution or not.

  4. On the other hand, I've long been an opponent of "hanging our hat" on evolution in Christian circles as a top-tier bugaboo. Seems to me, as it did to GK Chesterton, that it's either a harmless biological theory or popular myth, but nothing to get too upset about. I've long argued that it actually may be nothing more than a red herring by "the enemy" to keep us distracted from the real battles - things like racism, poverty, injustice, violence. You know, the things Jesus got upset about? Could this be an example of where Christians have "won the battle" in terms of keeping the public believing in some divine creation, but lost the war to win the hearts and minds of people to a new way of living in the kingdom of God? Not to go on a rant here, but could it be that part of the reason there's less violence in the UK is that weapons aren't allowed? I know, I know, guns don't kill people, people kill people. But compare the rate of handgun assault in the US to the rate of pitchforkings in the UK. Any ideas, anyone? It seems to me that this rather wrong-headed study is equating belief in evolution with non-religiousity and non-belief in evolution with religiousity. The question for the evangelical is "why would someone assume that's what makes you look like Jesus?

  5. As I said earlier, this guy is clearly tooting his horn a bit early even in scientific terms, but more than that, he's making an awfully big assumption: That the US's societal woes are arching upward as its belief is arching upward and that the others' societal gains are arching upward as their belief is arching downward. But that isn't the case at all! The US crime rate is actually dropping - and has significantly in the last two decades - whereas the religious belief waned in the middle of the last century but has regained ground in the last 20 years. Thus, for the US, increasing religious belief has been recently concurrent with declining crime rates. Now consider the UK. All would agree that religiousity has been dropping steadily and slightly for some time now - with no real indication or abatement or reversal. And what about the crime rates? Decreasing? No. Increasing. Thus, while overall crime may be higher in the US (but see my (1) and (2), above) than in the UK, for example, the comparable rates of change in crime and religiousity do not at all bear out the claims of the study's author.


Dan Sanders said...

The points that you make here are absolutely critical to the analysis of this study, as well as your "aside" about "prosperous" nations. I think this article is far less about science and far more about the author's (a) political agenda and (b) commentary on what is percived as "religiosity" - a mere belief in God (or at least saying that one believes, and subsequently having no firm definition of what that belief entails other than creationism), rather than a system of divinely-ordained moral choices and behavior patterns.

For my own "aside," I think the evolution dilemma is happily promoted by those opposed to it as a red herring - for the very same reasons, as is abortion. It's far easier to gripe about something that looms politically large than to get off your own duff and actually help someone. (So speaks the Chief of Sinners...)

Scott Freeman said...

There are some things that are non-negotiable. Matters of heaven or hell. Positions on evolution and abortion are two such examples.
As are:
kitchens in the church building
playing the lottery and other games of the devil
and the use of the Message.

Don't be caught on the wrong side on this issues, gentlemen.
In the name of Jay Utley, turn.

Scott Freeman said...

That was a joke by the way.

CJR said...

You assume, of course, that I take your comments seriously in the first place! ;-)

scott said...