Religious belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published today.
According to the study, belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems.
The study counters the view of believers that religion is necessary to provide the moral and ethical foundations of a healthy society.
It compares the social peformance of relatively secular countries, such as Britain, with the US, where the majority believes in a creator rather than the theory of evolution. Many conservative evangelicals in the US consider Darwinism to be a social evil, believing that it inspires atheism and amorality.
Many liberal Christians and believers of other faiths hold that religious belief is socially beneficial, believing that it helps to lower rates of violent crime, murder, suicide, sexual promiscuity and abortion. The benefits of religious belief to a society have been described as its “spiritual capital”. But the study claims that the devotion of many in the US may actually contribute to its ills.
It's worth remembering that correlation does not necessarly imply causation. It could well be that some aspect of American society is responsible for both our elevated levels of religiousness, compared to other industrialized Western countries, and for our elevated levels of social problems (as detailed in the part of the article I didn't quote), so I don't I really buy that religousness causes those problems, although I can certainly believe they're in some way related.
In general religion has been in the past a method for people to determine (or attempt to determine) how the universe works, but that aspect of it has been entirely, and rightfully, supplanted by science, the most powerful engine for uncovering facts about the natural world that we've ever invented. In The Astonishing Hypothesis (1994), Francis Crick wrote:
[H]ow did [religious beliefs] originate in the first place, and why do they so often turn out to be incorrect?
One factor is our basic need for overall explanations of the nature of the world and of ourselves. The various religions provide such explanations and in terms the average person finds easy to relate to. It should always be remembered that our brains largely developed during the period when humans were hunter-gatherers. There was strong selective pressure for cooperation within small groups of people and also for hostility to neighboring, competing tribes. ... Under such circumstances a shared set of overall beliefs strengthens the bond between tribal members. It is more than likely that the need for them was built into our brains by evolution. Our highly developed brains, after all, were not evolved under the pressure of discovering scientific truths but to enable us to be clever enough to survive and leave descendants.
From this point of view there is no need for these shared beliefs to be completely correct, provided people can believe in them. ... The very nature of our brains -- evolved to guess the most plausible interpretation of the limited evidence available -- makes it almost inevitable that, without the discipline of scientific research, we shall often jump to wrong conclusions, especially about rather abstract matters.
Religion has also been, and continues to be, a powerful force for spreading the basic moral values upon which society is based, and without which (encoded either in religious behavioral strictures, like the Ten Commandments, or in our system of laws) we couldn't continue to hold together.
Unfortunately, religion is also a powerful force in another way -- it encourages (and indeed, demands) faith, which is antithetical to rational thinking.
Another member of the religious meme complex is called faith. It means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the face of evidence. The story of Doubting Thomas is told, not so that we may admire Thomas, but so that we can admire the other apostles in comparison. Thomas demanded evidence. Nothing is more lethal for certain kinds of meme than a tendency to look for evidence. The other apostles, whose faith was so strong that they did not need evidence, are held up to us as worthy of imitation. The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.
Faith is such a successful brainwasher in its own favour, especially a brainwasher of children, that it is hard to break its hold. But what, after all, is faith? It is a state of mind that leads people to believe something -- it doesn't matter what -- in the total absence of supporting evidence. If there were good supporting evidence then faith would be superfluous, for the evidence would compel us to believe it anyway. It is this that makes the often-parroted claim that 'evolution itself is a matter of faith' so silly. People believe in evolution not because they arbitrarily want to believe it but because of overwhelming, publicly available evidence.
Faith cannot move mountains (though generations of children are solemnly told the contrary and believe it.) But it is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that faith seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness. It leads people to believe in whatever so strongly that in extreme cases they are prepared to kill and to die for it without the need for further justification ... You see lots of these people on the evening news from such places as Belfast or Beirut. Faith is powerful enough to immunize people against all appeals to pity, to forgiveness, to decent human feelings. It even immunizes them against fear, if they honestly believe that a martyr's death will send them straight to heaven. What a weapon! Religious faith deserves a chapter to itself in the annals of war technology, on an even footing with the longbow, the warhorse, the tank, and the hydrogen bomb. [The Selfish Gene (1989)]
I think the overall equation is perhaps a bit more complicated than indicated in the Times piece. After all, the European countries that the U.S. is being compared to also have their basis in Christianity, and are still, to some extent, less than totally secular in their governance and social structure -- so how do you separate out the effect that religiosity has (and has had) on the stability and qualities of those societies from the negative effect it has in, for instance, discouraging rational thought?
I don't doubt that religion can be a destructive and negative force, but I also don't believe that determining its influence is such a black and white matter.
[Thanks to Shirley for the pointer to the Times piece]
Update (10/4):Matt Yglesias comments on this as well, with reference to the "fallacy of composition."
hostile to science
lacking in empathy
lacking in public spirit
out of control
Thanks to: Breeze, Chuck, Ivan Raikov, Kaiju, Kathy, Roger, Shirley, S.M. Dixon
i've got a little list...
Steven Abrams (Kansas BofE)
Howard Fieldstead Ahmanson
Roger Ailes (FNC)
Alan Bonsell (Dover BofE)
Bill Buckingham (Dover BofE)
George W. Bush
Bruce Chapman (DI)
The Coors Family
William A. Dembski
Leonard Downie (WaPo)
John Gibson (FNC)
Fred Hiatt (WaPo)
James F. Inhofe
Philip E. Johnson
by Joel Pelletier
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Stephen C. Meyer (DI)
Judith Miller (ex-NYT)
Sun Myung Moon
Elspeth Reeve (TNR)
Martin Peretz (TNR)
Richard Mellon Scaife
Susan Schmidt (WaPo)
John Solomon (WaPo)
Richard Thompson (TMLC)
Bob Woodward (WaPo)
All the fine sites I've
Be sure to visit them all!!
Arthur C. Clarke
Daniel C. Dennett
Philip K. Dick
Stephen Jay Gould
"The Harder They Come"
Ursula K. LeGuin
The Marx Brothers
Michael C. Penta
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
"The Red Shoes"
"Singin' in the Rain"
Talking Heads/David Byrne
Hunter S. Thompson
"2001: A Space Odyssey"
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