The Dark Side of Faith

You know those folks who like to blame all the ills in the world on feminism, contraception, religious tolerance and liberalism? Well, they’d be wrong.

Paul ranked societies based on the percentage of their population expressing absolute belief in God, the frequency of prayer reported by their citizens and their frequency of attendance at religious services. He then correlated this with data on rates of homicide, sexually transmitted disease, teen pregnancy, abortion and child mortality.

He found that the most religious democracies exhibited substantially higher degrees of social dysfunction than societies with larger percentages of atheists and agnostics. Of the nations studied, the U.S. — which has by far the largest percentage of people who take the Bible literally and express absolute belief in God (and the lowest percentage of atheists and agnostics) — also has by far the highest levels of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

As Rosa Brooks points out, we see this “values” hypocrisy right here at home:

Murder rates? Six of the seven states with the highest 2003 homicide rates were “red” in the 2004 elections (Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina), while the deep blue Northeastern states had murder rates well below the national average. Infant mortality rates? Highest in the South and Southwest; lowest in New England. Divorce rates? Marriages break up far more in red states than in blue. Teen pregnancy rates? The same.

Brooks doesn’t point this out in her article, but it’s also worth noting that anti-choice red states notoriously dedicate less funding to things like head start, childhood nutrition programs and social programs for low-income families. Women in those states tend to be less educated and earn less than women in pro-choice states.

Although correlation is not causation, Paul’s study offers much food for thought. At a minimum, his findings suggest that contrary to popular belief, lack of religiosity does societies no particular harm. This should offer ammunition to those who maintain that religious belief is a purely private matter and that government should remain neutral, not only among religions but also between religion and lack of religion. It should also give a boost to critics of “faith-based” social services and abstinence-only disease and pregnancy prevention programs.

Well… you would think that both empirical and scientific proving that such programs don’t work would have been enough. But that doesn’t cut it with the religious right.

We shouldn’t shy away from the possibility that too much religiosity may be socially dangerous. Secular, rationalist approaches to problem-solving emphasize uncertainty, evidence and perpetual reevaluation. Religious faith is inherently nonrational.

Yep.

To the truly nonrational, even evidence that on its face undermines your beliefs can be twisted to support them. Absolutism means never having to say you’re sorry.

Couldn’t have said it better. It’s about damn time to get religion out of politics and social policy.


Similar Posts (automatically generated):

Post navigation

32 comments for “The Dark Side of Faith

  1. October 5, 2005 at 10:13 pm

    It’s about damn time to get religion out of politics and social policy.

    But are you certain about that? If so, you’re an absolutist. And the statement that there is “both empirical and scientific evidence proving that such programs don’t work” also constitutes absolutism.

    The problem with religion is not that lacks “uncertainty” or that it’s “absolutism.” The only problem is that it is non-rational, anti-rational and false. Doctors are “certain” that insulin treats diabetes, and are in fact “absolutists” about that fact, but that’s a good thing, because their belief is true and provable as opposed to idiotic and contradicted by all the evidence.

    Religious tolerance is indeed a problem, because it is precisely what has forced the government to pretend to be “neutral” to religious theories indistinguishable from astrology or numerology. But religious tolerance is promoted primarily by the left, not the right. That tolerance — tolerance of stupidity — is what permits the religious right to be intolerant about their stupidity. But in both cases the problem is the stupidity, not whether people are being tolerant or intolerant. We should be tolerant of good things and intolerant of bad ones.

    Another problem with praising “uncertainty” and condemning “absolutism” is that it forces you to remain “open” to baselesss claims about rewards and punishments in the afterlife. The entire argument about the “harm” caused by religion evaporates if you allow for the possibility that eternal torture actually awaits those who engage in what otherwise appears to be harmless or even helpful behavior. If you’re only measuring the harm by what happens in this life, you’re jumping to conclusions before all the evidence is in.

  2. October 5, 2005 at 11:11 pm

    RA, you vote a Republican ticket, right?

  3. October 6, 2005 at 12:01 am

    My vote is issue-based rather than party-based. Obviously as someone who pro-life and pro-gay there’s always a dilemma and I am rarely completely satisfied.

    In New York the candidates from both parties are generally pro-choice and pro-gay, so my choice between them doesn’t hinge on those issue. Even where if candidate were pro-life it wouldn’t necessarily be determinative since in most cases he or she would be helpless to have any effect on the issue (especially if running for dog-catcher). Similarly, anti-gayness isn’t necessarily a deterrent because that issue is pretty settled here. And there are dozens of other issues that often assume special importance in a particular election (often budgetary) that sway me toward one candidate or another.

    In the upcoming NYC mayoral election I’ll vote for Bloomberg, the pro-choice, pro-gay Republican simply on the basis of proven competence. The label “Republican,” however, is meaningless in his case since he was a life-long Democrat who changed parties just to get on the ballot.

  4. October 6, 2005 at 12:08 am

    >>Religious tolerance is indeed a problem.

    So you agree with the Christian Right about imposing “truth” on public policy. I’m just glad the First Amendment prevents you from acting on it.

  5. October 6, 2005 at 3:30 am

    We should be tolerant of good things and intolerant of bad ones.

    Ah, to be that certain again.

  6. October 6, 2005 at 8:22 am

    The article makes the all-too-common mistake of confusing “religion” with a specific brand of Christian fundamentalism:

    Of the nations studied, the U.S. — which has by far the largest percentage of people who take the Bible literally and express absolute belief in God

    If that’s how we’re defining “religious democracies”, the study is pretty useless.

  7. Thomas
    October 6, 2005 at 8:27 am

    RA, that answer is a dodge. Who was the last Democrat you voted for?

  8. October 6, 2005 at 8:35 am

    David,

    I agree with imposing the truth on public policy, regardless of who is proposing the truth. To the extent the religious right or left (or the secular right or left) insists on imposing policy based on lies I am opposed to it. Are you in favor of imposing lies?

    Whether a law is “Constitutional” is as important to me as if it is “Biblical.” I’m no big fan of the First Amendment, to the extent that Free Exercise clause singles out religion for special attention and treatment that other, saner ideologies do not receive. The First Amendment bestows special privileges upon people who subscribe to delusional, sky-god, baby-talk beliefs, among other things, permitting parents to deprive their children of simple life-saving medical care so long as they get a note from a preacher. And the Establishment Clause, as Justice Thomas correctly noted in the last pledge case, was only intended to stop the federal government from imposing religion. The states are perfectly free to establish theocracies; it’s simply that in recent times judges have taken the Biblical approach and stopped reading the Consitutional literally.

    Robert,

    Socrates said that the wise man knows that he knows nothing at all. By that criterium, you are truly wise.

    I understand the bliss that ignorance brings, and your nostalgia for a time that you actually knew good from bad and were certain about anything. If your sigh was intended as criticism of what I said, though, you should keep in mind that your admission uniquely disqualifies you from disputing anything anybody says.

  9. October 6, 2005 at 8:37 am

    Thomas,

    Gore.

  10. Pingback: Sago Boulevard
  11. October 6, 2005 at 10:00 am

    Well, I do care whether a law is constitutional, partly because I like our Bill of Rights a lot, and find the constitution a nice check on the government running over individual rights, and also because I care about some sort of orderly rule of law, and having a system where judges pay attention both to the constitution and to precedent (together with a constitution that can be amended) ensures that. You know, the old quote from Man For All Seasons about the advantages of giving the devil the benefit of law.

    Aiming for some imaginary singular correct reading of the constitution is another matter. The document was written with language general enough that it’s interpretation should be expected to shift with time (“cruel and unusual punishment” being the most obvious example).

    And we should be tolerant of some bad things, as well as good, because there are certain things that are better done, however badly, by the individual concerned, than done, however well, by someone else.

  12. Pingback: Liberal Serving
  13. October 6, 2005 at 10:20 am

    Similarly, anti-gayness isn’t necessarily a deterrent because that issue is pretty settled here.

    Same New York where a court just punted on the gay marriage question last month?! The “issue” is hardly settled here.

    In the upcoming NYC mayoral election I’ll vote for Bloomberg, the pro-choice, pro-gay Republican simply on the basis of proven competence.

    So Bloomberg is pro-gay just because he says he is and panders to gay PACs? Are you certain about that? If so, you’re a “sucker.” If he were sincerely interested in furthering gay rights he would not have appealed the Febuary 2005 Ling-Cohan ruling that denying gay marriage is unconstitutional. If he had not done that I would have a license right now.

  14. October 6, 2005 at 10:53 am

    Although correlation is not causation, Paul’s study offers much food for thought.

    The thought I’m feeding on right now is “isn’t it more plausible that the high level of poverty in the red states mentioned, and the relative wealth of New England, a better explanation for the differences in violent crime rates?”

    Another nitpick: Nevada did go red, true, but Clark County, which contains Las Vegas, probably one of the most godless cities on earth (unless you worship Elvis), and where much of the violent crime in Nevada takes place, went for Kerry (279k to 253k, according to USA Today). I suspect that that’s true of many “red” states–the urban areas, where much of the violent crime takes place, usually go for the Democrats.

    Not to say that I think religion is a good thing to have. I just don’t think its this study that proves it.

  15. Dan
    October 6, 2005 at 11:02 am

    I haven’t read Paul’s study but I have read Brooks’ op-ed piece and it’s unpersuasive in the extreme. Poor people have high infant mortality rates and various indicia of dysfunction! Wow, that’s insight! If you want to see if there is a correlation between religous belief and dysfunction, let’s compare rates of sexually transmitted disease between these two groups: (1) pro-life, orthodox Catholics who earn over $100,000 a year and (2) east coast liberals who profess to be atheists and earn over $100,000 a year. I’d also be interested to see how those two groups compare in terms of time given to charitable work for the poor.

  16. October 6, 2005 at 11:18 am

    So Dan, only rich christians are real christians? I think the effect of religion on poor communities is more important to examine than it’s effect on rich people anywhere.

  17. October 6, 2005 at 11:19 am

    Other Ryan,

    Bloomberg is pro-gay because he supports gay marriage. John Kerry opposed it, saying it was between a man and a woman.

    I agree that Bloomberg made a terrible strategic mistake in appealing the decision. But I think he was sincere (although mistaken) in his belief that the law would be struck down anyway and the quickest method would be through the legistlature. Assuming the Court of Appeals does strike it down, I think Bloomberg will be more effective pushing the legislature than Ferrer will.

    I agree the marriage issue isn’t settled here but the state knocked out the sodomy laws some 26 years before the United States Supreme court did and gays have more protections here, especially in the City, than just about anywhere else. We even had a gay mayor for twelve years (and maybe even now).

  18. October 6, 2005 at 11:39 am

    I can already hear the stampede of religious red staters coming over to our side on this and numerous other issues. I just can’t understand why they’re carrying pitchforks and torches.

    They’re pregnant teens, divorced, and diseased. It’s hardly any wonder why they turn to God before they die. It’s easy to see also why compassion for them is hard to come by. Still, it seems to me, compassion from us is what they really need.

    That and condoms with instructions attached.

  19. Dan
    October 6, 2005 at 11:48 am

    No, on the contrary, poor people tend to be better Christians, actually (“blessed are the poor”) even though they have more problems — infant mortality, crime, etc. But to point to things that are obviously associated with poverty and then say that religion is the cause is a pretty unimpressive argument, to say the least. If religion, as opposed to poverty, caused say, crime, you’d find higer crime rates at all levels of society among the religious. This is obviously not the case.

  20. October 6, 2005 at 11:59 am

    I think you’re missing the point of the study and getting bogged in details. They’re looking at the big picture and saying that a culture in general that is more religious has more crime, not that religion causes crime in individuals. The less religious countries they point to also have lower poverty rates.

    I don’t think the revelation is that religion causes crime, but rather that it does nothing to reduce it, for all the hot air spewed trying to convince us otherwise.

  21. October 6, 2005 at 12:26 pm

    One very religiously-led country in the Middle East, Iran, just hung a couple of gay guys for allegedly raping someone or something. All the credible reports from the area point out that, in fact, the real reason the kids were persecuted was becuase the government wanted to set an example in its anti-gay crusade.

    Secular, rationalist approaches to problem-solving emphasize uncertainty, evidence and perpetual reevaluation. Religious faith is inherently nonrational.

    The inherent irrationality breaks down into what I see as the ability to use the guise of a higher power or self-righteousness to indemnify those people in power from any of the bad decisions they make, or any of the poor consequences thereof. Furthermore, even when those with counterevidence and who employ tools of reevaluation present their case, the other side’s irrationality is what leads them to, to quote the president, “stay the course”.

    The power of denial allowed by infusing religion strongly into a government is frightening. It’s happening in Iraq, and the same freedom that we delivered to Iraqis is being strung around young mens’ necks in Iran and hanging them. To quote myself, “[Q]uit acting like God is on our side all the time, thus absolving us of any responsibility for our collective actions. “God Bless America” is an appeal to the higher power to not screw our shit up too bad, not a demand that we be sanctioned by the Almighty.” And it pervades our society, as well-documented above.

    (I’m also not saying that religion is bad, but that the denial of reality that it allows a government means that government + religion == trouble.)

  22. October 6, 2005 at 1:10 pm

    From a logical, statistical perspective (and speaking as a non-believer), this study’s methodoloy and sweeping conclusions are amateur bullshit. Here’s why.

  23. Dan
    October 6, 2005 at 1:20 pm

    Robert expresses concern about “infusing religion strongly into a government” and others here seem to echo that concern. That concern is quite bizarre given that we have one of the most secular governments in the history of the world. Remember that part of the First Amendment called the Establishment Clause? It has been very rigorously enforced — and expanded — in the last 50 years, to the point where our government has been purged of religion well beyond the intent of the Founders.

    It is evident that the real concern here is not the Establishment Clause but sex. The pursuit of sexual pleasure has become so important to so many that they equate political freedom and liberty with sexual license. This has become so much the case that the Democrats in the Senate, to ensure conditions necessary to bedhopping, will fillibuster a Supreme Court nominee if he or she openly commits to reversing Roe v. Wade.

  24. October 6, 2005 at 1:20 pm

    I wonder if the line of causation runs the other direction — that is, the more screwed up and uncertain life is, the more the people turn to religion to cope with it.

    Either way, though, it is a poor argument for using religion to set policy for a multi-faith, secular society.

    Whether doing so
    – leads to bad results,
    – fails to produce the needed results, or
    – is not suited to prevention, being a coping mechanism for _individuals_ to deal with _existing_ social and personal stress,

    it seems that there are better, fairer ways of addressing social ills that don’t impede on citizens’ civil rights (such as the right to believe what they will, without either government sanction or persecution).

  25. randomliberal/Robert
    October 6, 2005 at 1:22 pm

    Moving back up the thread a bit:

    And the Establishment Clause, as Justice Thomas correctly noted in the last pledge case, was only intended to stop the federal government from imposing religion. The states are perfectly free to establish theocracies; it’s simply that in recent times judges have taken the Biblical approach and stopped reading the Consitutional literally.

    Sadly, no! While that may well have been the original intent of the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment, the 14th Amendment extends the Establishment Clause to the states, along with most of the other Bill of Rights’ protections. It’s interesting that Thomas of all people does not remember that, since the 14th Amendment is one of the three civil rights amendments adopted immediately following the Civil War.

  26. October 6, 2005 at 4:51 pm

    The major religions of the world do not speak about using faith to drive a country, but to use it to examine oneself. The kind of religiosity you describe is, indeed, destructive.

    I have a great respect for the emotion of uncertainty. It is at the root of our science: there’s always the chance that the course of scientific knowledge will change (but contrary to some, it never does a complete about face so that all that we thought we knew becomes irrelevant). It’s also an attitude to take on when it comes to spiritual questions. As an agnostic, I plainly state that ~I cannot know for certain if there is or isn’t a God~ because I am a limited human being. I am limited to my senses. Could it be that I just can’t detect something that is right there in front of me? ~I don’t know~ and I am comfortable with not knowing.

    Whether it comes from Fundamentalists or atheists, I find this “Does God exist” talk wasteful. It doesn’t matter to me becaus what counts first is taking care of myself and second being there for others when I have the energy to do so. I can live with uncertainty. I don’t need to rush out to find pieces of Noah’s Ark because that isn’t what spiritual quest should be about and I don’t jump to conclusions because my senses can’t detect things. I accept that Science can go only so far and past that point is Uncertainty.

    Some will argue that the evidence of our senses is enough and I suppose their senses are as good for securing their belief in absolute truth as the more limited senses of a sponge work for it.

  27. kate
    October 7, 2005 at 9:15 am

    “The pursuit of sexual pleasure has become so important to so many that they equate political freedom and liberty with sexual license. This has become so much the case that the Democrats in the Senate, to ensure conditions necessary to bedhopping, will fillibuster a Supreme Court nominee if he or she openly commits to reversing Roe v. Wade.”

    I don’t think any major candidate has ever campaigned on a platform of “bedhopping”. It’s not just swinging single sluts who get abortions – women who wanted babies but have life-threatening complications of pregnancy do, women whose babies die in utero do, victims of statutory and forcible rape do too. And some of those swinging single sluts never have abortions.
    As for sexual liberty, yeah, I think raunch culture has gone too far, but I’m pretty uncomfortable with the government going into people’s bedrooms.
    If you have any concrete data for STDs, I’d like to see it. Actually, Massachussetts, home of the east coast liberals, has the lowest rate of divorce in the country. As for religion equalling morality, I’d also factor in religious hypocrisy. Anyone remember Henry Hyde, Newt Gingrich, Tim Hutchinson and Bob Livingstone during the Clinton impeachment scandal? Or the numerous televangelist sex scandals?

  28. kate
    October 7, 2005 at 9:17 am

    Dan – you probably won’t listen to me but I’d recommend that you read/skim “Reviving Ophelia” by Mary Pipher or “Female Chauvinist Pigs” by Ariel Levy. Both of those women are liberal feminists, but they articulate many of the concerns about a sex-saturated culture that religious conservatives do too.

  29. kate
    October 7, 2005 at 9:38 am

    I’m also personally offended that you imply liberals and seculars are selfish.
    My net worth is in the low four figures and I donate over a hundred dollars a year to the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. (DISCLAIMER: I’m not a perfect example of a secular liberal. I’m pretty conservative compared to the Democratic base – but probably somewhat to the left of the country as a whole. I don’t belong to any organized religion, but I believe in God.)
    Selfishness knows no political litmus test – there are no doubt selfish liberals, moderates and conservatives. After Hurricane Katrina, both liberal and conservative bloggers showed the angels of their better nature and raised money for relief.
    Also, where do you get your idea of liberals from anyway?
    Can you name one politician/policymaker who’s campaigning on godlessness and selfishness?

  30. Dan
    October 7, 2005 at 10:46 am

    Kate, here’s some replies to your comments:

    “It’s not just swinging single sluts who get abortions – women who wanted babies but have life-threatening complications of pregnancy do, women whose babies die in utero do, victims of statutory and forcible rape do too.” This is true, but the examples you cite constitute at most 1% of abortions. Let’s agree that we should ban the other 99%, and then let’s discuss the other 1%.

    Female Chauvinist Pigs” by Ariel Levy — I read a review of this book recently in the New York Times. Yes, I and others like me agree with her observation that our culture degrades women by turning them into sexual objects. I don’t recall if the review said what her proposed solution is though. I find it a little bit annoying that when a feminist raises this issue she gets the full attention of the media as though it is something new, when the Church has been saying this all along and is derided for doing so. Karol Woytla, for example, in the 1950s while a priest and university professor in Poland wrote a book called “Love and Responsibility” that is a profound examination of human sexuality and discusses at length the problem of making an object of the other person. He followed up on this while Pope with a series of Papal audiences that are collected under the title “The Theology of the Body.” I have read some (admittedly not alot) of stuff by modern feminists about sex and none of it in my opinion approaches the sophistication that the Pope brought to bear on the subject. Yet if you know what is going on only by reading the New York Times you probably know none of this. A book that would be an equivalent of Levy’s book — say, David Morrison’s “Beyond Gay” (which is the account by a gay man who embraces the Church’s teachings on sexuality) — doesn’t get published by a mainstream publisher and doesn’t get reviewed by the New York Times or LA Times or any other ordinary newspaper.

    You should not personally take offense at anything I said — none of it is directed at you personally. There is however without question an element of selfishness in modern feminist ideology. There are in fact studies that demonstrate that church-goers devote more money and time to charitable causes than non-church-goers. I’m not big on generalizations though — I used them only defensively, when people start casting dispersions on Christians as a group.

    You ask where I get my ideas about liberals. Answer: from myself and most of my friends. For many years I was a standard liberal. I voted Democratic for many years. Virtually all my friends are still hard core Democrats. However when I began to think about abortion seriously I became horrified at the positions the Democrats take on the issue, and Democratic politicians lost all moral authority with me. I thus stopped voting Democratic. I don’t vote Republican either because I’m still an old-fashioned FDR type Democrat. But the Democratic party is no longer the party of FDR. It is now obsessed with making the sexual revolution the cultural norm.

  31. kate
    October 7, 2005 at 1:43 pm

    Dan – I’m a feminist, because I believe that men and women are equal in worth and should have equal opportunities in society. How is that selfish? To be selfless, do I have to consider myself to be inferior to men?

    Oh, and about Levy, I think that she got so much press because she is both a feminist and one who criticizes oversexualization of the culture. A lot of feminists now, and she talks about them in her book, are generally pro-prostitution and pro-sexual liberation, very “if it feels good do it.” And religious conservatives generally do criticize the vulgar media, so it’s not news if one of them does. (Like if a dog bites a man that’s not news, but if a man bites a dog, then it is.)

    Secular liberals may not donate to church, but if they are economically liberal (pro-social program) then they see their tax dollars as contributing to a good cause. Within the Democratic Party, there are social justice pro-lifers, who disagree with their party on abortion but are with them on most other issues, just like in the Republican Party there are libertarian pro-choicers.

    And if you think Republicans have a monopoly on morals, I’ll include this unrelated tangent.
    “The tests include a 2002-04 study by University of California-San Diego in which chloropicrin, an insecticide that during World War I was a chemical warfare agent, was administered to 127 young adults in doses that exceeded federal safety limits by 12 times.” (NY Times)
    It gets worse:
    “…in October of last year, [EPA nominee Stephen] Johnson strongly supported a study in which infants will be monitored for health impacts as they undergo exposure to known toxic chemicals for a two year period. The Children’s Environmental Exposure Research Study, dubiously known as CHEERS, will analyze how chemicals can be ingested, inhaled, or absorbed by children ranging from infants to three year olds. The study will analyze 60 infants and toddlers in Duval County, Florida who are routinely exposed to pesticides in their homes. Yet the E.P.A. acknowledges that pesticide exposure is a documented risk factor for some types of childhood cancer and the early onset of asthma.” (Intervention magazine).
    I do not understand how this is pro-life.
    This amendment would have limited that sort of testing:
    http://www.senate.gov/legislative/LIS/roll_call_lists/roll_call_vote_cfm.cfm?congress=109&session=1&vote=00162#state

    It was opposed only by Republicans and most if not all of those Republicans are “pro-life”, including theocon posterboys Frist and Santorum. (Note: pro-lifers Coburn, Dewine, Ensign, Graham, Isakson, McCain, Nelson, Pryor, Reid, Smith, Talent and Thune supported this amendment. So I won’t tar all pro-life senators with the same brush.)

    Again, please name one mainstream Democrat who is “obsessed with making the sexual revolution the cultural norm.” I know that most of them are supportive of the Lawrence v TX ruling, but I think it’s more because they are uncomfortable with the idea of cops going into people’s bedrooms and believe that consenting adults should be able to make their own decisions. Or at least, that’s what I believe.

Comments are closed.