Is religion good for you?

In the things-that-make-you-go-hmm category, a new study that looked at 18 affluent democracies conducted by evolutionary scientist Gregory Paul found an inverse relationship between religious belief and societal health:


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. [LINK thanks to David Addams]
Although L.A Times writer Rosa Brooks who quotes this study admits that "correlation is not causation" -- as in there is no evidence that religious feeling causes social dysfunction, she draws a parallel to a similar Red/Blue state comparison when it comes to teen pregnancy, divorce rate etc. The kind of data that gave many of us progressives comfort in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 elections.

That's when things get a little shaky. Her initial assessment of the study's significance sounds about right: "his findings suggest that contrary to popular belief, lack of religiosity does societies no particular harm." I would also argue that it also shows that there is a weak relationship between religious belief/practice and morality. In other words, a very religious person is likely to kill, lie, or cheat as much as an athiest. And that's where the religious right is entirely wrong to conflate "values" with "faith."

But I'm a little uneasy when she starts into the kind of hyperbole that I hear on the left all the time:
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.
This in itself does not make religion worthless or dangerous. All humans hold nonrational beliefs, and some of these may have both individual and societal value. But historically, societies run into trouble when powerful religions become imperial and absolutist.
Well, I can think of plenty of bloodthirsty secular regimes led by non-believers. This is a bit like using communist Russia to argue athiesm leads to tyranny and excess -- as so many have done during the Cold War. That kind of logic is no less dubious when it's employed against the Christian right. Excess of power concentrated in any institution -- be it the government, a corporation, or the Church -- is dangerous period.

It's not just religion that has a "dark side," as Powers likes to insist. Besides, blaming a specific religion for the actions of its adherents is a bit like blaming nuclear technology for Hiroshima.

And it makes me a little unhappy when I hear a minority of educated, middle class types use words like "nonrational" to dismiss a source of comfort and inspiration to billions of human beings. Gee, too bad they're too ignorant to know religion is overrated. Yes, faith can be seen as nonrational. As can love, sacrifice, genocide and all the other phenomena that reveal the complex reality of human nature. A reality that continues to elude scientists who have to continually scramble to come up with "rational" theories for all the things that we do -- and with such erratic and contradictory results.

Besides, to insist on the absolute superiority of the science -- and pose it as the true explanation for all phenomena -- is just to exchange one God for another. What is true is that the two are part and parcel of human experience. I am fairly sure that human beings have both believed in a force greater than themselves and tried to discern/control it, all at the same time, since time immemorial.

Finally, this false dichotomy between reason and faith is an extremist's best friend. That's exactly how they want everyone to see the world. How better to force those of our fellow citizens who choose the latter to abandon the other.

P.S: Read fellow AlterNet blogger Josh Hollander's scathing assessment of Paul's study right when it came out.
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