Religion, society and bad science

28 September 2005

Apparently, according to a survey published today, religious societies are worse off than non-religious ones. From the article:

Religious belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published today.

It’s already appeared in plenty of blogs and linklogs, with many comments, some along the lines of “hmm, this is interesting”, but many willingly take the causation line as gospel.

However, this falls into the exact same trap of bad science that pro-scientists all too frequently bemoan. For starters, it’s neatly smoothing over the difference between correlation and causation. It’s not entirely implausible that the causation is in fact the other way round – social problems and the suffering they cause will mean more people resort to religion, both for spiritual reasons and for the social bonds it forms – a hypothesis which is ignored. Secondly, once you actually read the article in question and look at the data, you’ll see many of the graphs produced are highly scattered and correlation is quite weak – no statistical tests of correlation are provided (in fact, the author explicitly avoids them). In many cases they are a close-knit jumble of points, and the only point which clearly matches the hypothesis is the United States. This perhaps suggests that religion is not the most relevant variable to consider here, and instead America’s problems are unique and specific to that country.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not especially pro-religion – I’m an atheist, and believe very strongly in a secular state that does not promote or favour any religion at all. But I do find it disturbing that in the attempt to rescue science and rationality from the jaws of fundamentalism, supposedly pro-science people are willing to throw out rationality and jump on to any old rubbish that is published.


6 Responses

James

I still think part of the problem here is a misuse of the word ‘religion’ when what is generally being discussed is theocentric monotheism. Theravada Buddhism has more in common with European existentialism than it does with, say, Catholicism or Shia Islam. Confucianism incorporates a supernatural cosmology, but is in other ways closer to secular pragmatism than to, er, Thomism (excuse the random examples…) At the same time, as John Gray (I think) has pointed out, the teleological drive of western rationalism is far closer to the world-view of conventional monotheism than many people would care to admit. The language of science versus religion both simplifies and confuses things. In reality, it is a conflict between pluralism (and the acceptance that truths are always to some degree contingent) and the insistence that – ultimately – truths converge (be that on a singular and knowable God or on a vision of radically secular rationality). While rational and considered debate is needed, satire (which I guess the ‘gerin oil’ essay is a rather lame stab at) certainly has its place. Anyway, if faith begins where reason ends, then there are times when a bit of silliness on the side of the godless is no bad thing.

Ian

In addition to the above comment, you could expand “religion” to include any dogmatic political treatise, many of which base themselves on disproven and out of date philosophies, ignore scientific facts, and refuse to engage in rational debate.

All western societies have done is replace the “third world” dogma with pseudo-political rhetoric, be it communism, environmentalism, Thatcherism or whatever, and probably that includes atheism as well.

A Reader Writes...

I’m an atheist, and believe very strongly in a secular state that does not promote or favour any religion at all.

Then you’re living in the wrong country then. To advocate the seperation of Church and State, you would have to advocate either a) the removal of the Monarch as head of the Church of England, and the Disestablishment of the CofE or b) the removal of the Monarch as head of State and the Disestablishment of the CofE.

Either way is treason, even if advocated by entirely democratic means.

The United Kingdom is not neutral on the subject of religion and is not a secular state, despite the pretentions of the Ruling Party (of whatever kind that is) to give the impression otherwise (this is except for viewers in Northern Ireland, who are under no illusions on this point)

James

Atheism can’t really be a dogma as such, though, since it only implies a lack of belief in something – not a positive belief in something else. Of course, atheism has been harnessed to secular dogmas (such as Soviet communism), but in itself it is like saying ‘I don’t like football’ as opposed to choosing whether you support Chelsea or Man City. You can’t be a fan of not-football, if you see what I mean… (and to push the analogy – perhaps too far – it is religious ‘hooliganism’ that is the problem)

Either way is treason, even if advocated by entirely democratic means.

No it isn’t. The 1848 Act has been superseded by the Human Rights Act. Old laws don’t have to be repealed in order for them to no longer have legal force. And I don’t think supporting disestablishment was ever considered treason, in any case.

no james, i think the addition of the hooligans to your analogy is really apt and made me look at the situation in a different way. thanks