Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Better Off Without George, perhaps

There’s a ‘reprint’ of a column from The Guardian - 'Better Off Without Him?’ - by George Monibot, at AlterNet.

In spite of the fact that this guy writes a column regularly, this seems a prime example of ‘How not to write a column.’ Firstly, it constantly mixes Christian religion with religion in general. [His original words in italics]

Christian fundamentalists claim religion is associated with lower rates of violence, teen pregnancy and divorce. A new study says they couldn't be more wrong.
Are religious societies better than secular ones? It should be an easy question for atheists to answer.

Yes, it should, since it's Christians societies have founded hospitals, hospices, orphanages, and a variety of other good-dooer institutions. But as you'll note, he's switched from "Christian" to 'religious' within two paragraphs.
Most of those now seeking to blow people up -- whether with tanks and missiles or rucksacks and passenger planes -- do so in the name of God. In India, we see men whose religion forbids them to harm insects setting fire to human beings. A 14th-century Pope with a 21st-century communications network sustains his church's mission of persecuting gays and denying women ownership of their bodies. Bishops and rabbis in Britain have just united in the cause of prolonging human suffering, by opposing the legalization of assisted suicide. We know that the most dangerous human trait is an absence of self-doubt, and that self-doubt is more likely to be absent from the mind of the believer than the non-religious infidel.
Hmm...this is an interesting generalisation, that I think he might find wouldn't hold water in real terms. And we're prolonging human suffering by not letting people kill themselves?
But we also know that few religious governments have committed atrocities on the scale of Hitler's, Mao's or Stalin's (though, given their more limited means, the Spanish and British in the Americas, the British, Germans and Belgians in Africa, and the British in Australia and India could be said to have done their best).
So doesn't this contradict what he's just said in the previous paragraph?
It is hard to dismiss Dostoyevsky's suspicion that "If God does not exist, then everything is permissible."
Exactly - and this is much the same as what Chesterton said: when men stop believing in God, they start believing in anything.
Nor can we wholly disagree with the new Pope when he warns that "we are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which ... has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires." (We must trust, of course, that a man who has spent his life campaigning to become God's go-between, and who now believes he is infallible, is immune to such impulses).
Why does he keep disagreeing with himself? Making a point in one sentence and then contradicting it, or mocking it, in the next?
The creationists in the United States might be as mad as a box of ferrets, but what they claim to fear is the question which troubles almost everyone who has stopped to think about it: if our lives have no purpose, why should we care about other people's?
Now he's doing it again - the creationists are mad yet they believe something sensible.
We know too, as Roy Hattersley argued in the Guardian last month, that "good works ... are most likely to be performed by people who believe that heaven exists. The correlation is so clear that it is impossible to doubt that faith and charity go hand in hand."
He's not making much of a case against religion! And then he adds two anecdotes about the only heroes he's met both being religious.
The only two heroes I have met are both Catholic missionaries. Joe Haas, an Austrian I stayed with in the swamp forests of West Papua, had spent his life acting as a human shield for the indigenous people of Indonesia: every few months soldiers threatened to kill him when he prevented them from murdering his parishioners and grabbing their land.
Frei Adolfo, the German I met in the savannahs of northeastern Brazil, thought, when I first knocked on his door, that I was a gunman the ranchers had sent for him. Yet still he opened it. With the other liberation theologians in the Catholic church, he offered the only consistent support to the peasants being attacked by landowners and the government. If they did not believe in God, these men would never have taken such risks for other people.
Remarkably, no one, until now, has attempted systematically to answer the question with which this column began. But in the current edition of the Journal of Religion and Society, a researcher called Gregory Paul tests the hypothesis propounded by evangelists in the Bush administration, that religion is associated with lower rates of "lethal violence, suicide, non-monogamous sexual activity and abortion." He compared data from 18 developed democracies, and discovered that the Christian fundamentalists couldn't have got it more wrong.

But this wasn't the question that the column was asking....
"In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion ... None of the strongly secularized, pro-evolution democracies is experiencing high levels of measurable dysfunction."
So is this researcher saying that the US is a Christian nation? He doesn't tell us. What the researcher has plainly failed to take into account is that the US is anything but a Christian nation. It has claims to being one, but the majority of people in the country believe in God barely at all, in fact.
Within the United States "the strongly theistic, anti-evolution South and Midwest" have "markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the Northeast where ... secularization, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms."
I think the research data is flawed: we don't know at all what questions the researcher asked, and the conclusions are extremely broad.
Three sets of findings stand out: the associations between religion -- especially absolute belief -- and juvenile mortality, venereal disease and adolescent abortion. Paul's graphs show far higher rates of death among the under-5s in Portugal, the U.S and Ireland and put the U.S. -- the most religious country in his survey -- in a league of its own for gonorrhea and syphilis.
Now comes the crunch surely: in pro-Islamic nations, then, it ought to follow that they also have higher infant mortality, and huge rates of gonorrhea and syphilis. This is where we find again, that the writer isn't talking about religious nations at all, but about Christian ones....supposedly.
Strangest of all for those who believe that Christian societies are "pro-life" is the finding that "increasing adolescent abortion rates show positive correlation with increasing belief and worship of a creator ... Claims that secular cultures aggravate abortion rates (John Paul II) are therefore contradicted by the quantitative data."
This has to be balderdash. New Zealand has an extremely high rate of abortion, yet no one would call it a Christian nation anymore. Or wasn't New Zealand included in the data?
These findings appear to match the studies of teenage pregnancy I've read. The rich countries in which sexual abstinence campaigns, generally inspired by religious belief, are strongest have the highest early pregnancy rates. The U.S. is the only rich nation with teenage pregnancy levels comparable to those of developing nations: it has a worse record than India, the Philippines and Rwanda. Because they're poorly educated about sex and in denial about what they're doing (and so less likely to use contraceptives), boys who participate in abstinence programmes are more likely to get their partners pregnant than those who don't.
I think this is where he reveals his true colours. This is typical Family Planning Assn propaganda. Boys who participate in abstinence programs get girls pregnant more than boys who have no morals? Yes, I believe the abstinence thing doesn't entirely work - but the reason in part is that the society around the boys and girls is so sex-ridden in its thinking that it's hard for anyone to stay pure.
Is it fair to blame all this on religion? While the rankings cannot reflect national poverty -- the U.S. has the world's 4th highest GDP per head, Ireland the 8th -- the nations which do well in Paul's study also have higher levels of social spending and distribution than those which do badly. Is this a cause or an association? In other words, are religious societies less likely to distribute wealth than secular ones?
I'm not sure where this comes from. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with his original argument.
The broad trend, however, looks clear: "the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have ... come closest to achieving practical "cultures of life."
Case not proven, methinks.
I don't know whether these findings can be extrapolated to other countries and other issues: the study doesn't look, for example, at whether religious belief is associated with a nation's preparedness to go to war (though I think we could hazard a pretty good guess) or whether religious countries in the poor world are more violent and have weaker cultures of life than secular ones.
Since he hasn't actually given us any real findings, just a bunch of poor extrapolations, based on no figures that we can glean from his article, we can't really hazard any good guesses whatsoever. He's taken a few assumptions and generalisations (perhaps loosely based on the research done) and come up with some 'facts' to fit his own preconceived theory.
Nor -- because, with the exception of Japan, the countries in his study are predominantly Christian or post-Christian -- is it clear whether there's an association between social dysfunction and religion in general or simply between social dysfunction and Christianity.
Again that wonderful assumption that the only 'religious' countries are Christian. The Muslims don't get a look in, perhaps because they muck the figures up too much.
But if we are to accept the findings of this one -- and so far only -- wide survey of belief and human welfare, the message to those who claim in any sense to be pro-life is unequivocal. If you want people to behave as Christians advocate, you should tell them that God does not exist.
Ah.....right....yes we should. The message is definitely unequivocal: get a decent piece of research done, include all those who actually make the thing sensible, and don't start basing your thinking on poor assumptions - as Kinsey and Co did and produced some of the worst nonsense ever perpetrated in research history.

Following the reprint of this article, more than 200 comments were uploaded. Of course, many of them picked up on the anti-Christian bias of the article, and went for Christians, hammer and tongs. A couple, which I've added below, made some more sense, without needing to get involved in bias at all.

Selwynn wrote: The caption of the article reads: "Christian fundamentalists claim religion is associated with lower rates of violence, teen pregnancy and divorce. A new study says they couldn't be more wrong."Wow, aren't non-religious folks supposed to like, value reason and truth more than "religious" folks? That's what non-religious folks always tell me. Well here's the study [Click here] And here's a quote from the study:"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.."The study does not show causal links between anything. Correlation does not equal causation. People who are attempting to use this study as a "proof text" against "religion" are acting exactly like fundamentalist dogmatists. Its funny, there are as many secular fundamentalists as there are religious fundamentalists, and they're just as dishonest, just as disengenuous, and just as willing to lie about the truth if it serves their purposes and worldview.

And another writer Juergo says: As personally satisfying as essays like this one are for me to read as a staunch secularist, it's a little sketchy to make overgeneralizations and logical extensions like some of the ones I see here. An important thing to remember here is that Gregory Paul, whose study is the only one cited, is a paleontologist--not a social scientist. Alternet's own Joshua Holland wrote a nicely scathing review of Paul's study shortly after it was published. Alfie Kohn's 1990 book, The Brighter Side of Human Nature, cites plenty of well-reviewed social studies (on individuals, not societies) shattering misconceptions about religion and morality. As Holland's article mentions, poverty (more specifically wealth distribution) is a much better predictor of the societal ills cited. These studies DO NOT show that religion is bad for you or your society.What these studies DO show is that "faith" does not equal "values," and that lack of religion is not inherently harmful.
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