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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

(As a blogger it should of course be my duty to rap the msm over the knuckles noe and then, and this is certainly a duty I have neglected. But betterment begins today.)
The Times reports today on a study which claims that Societies worse off 'when they have God on their side':

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.
. . .
“The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted.”

I have my doubts. Either way, the report in the Times is not actually helpful is it? For the most interesting aspect for me would be the question, why a decrease in religiosity would improve society causally. Simply listing statistical correlations, which is the only part of the research the Times reports here, doesn’t really get us very far in understanding the problem. I haven’t read the full article yet so at the moment, so I can’t make any statement about the article’s utility or otherwise. What I want to criticise here is they way that the Times’ religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill has reported the academic article (or maybe it was editor’s cutting?).
Her story doesn’t show up the possible causal connections between atheism and a good society made by the academic Gregory Paul. Equally she doesn’t ask or query what his statistics show or don’t show. Undoubtedly on a lot of indicators such as murder and abortion, the comparatively secular European societies perform better than the more religious US. At the moment that is. What I would need to know as a reader though is, what the rates of change are. That is what really matters. Religion has rebounded in America in the past two decades, while it has kept floundering in Europe. How have the indicators developed in that period? Did Paul make a difference between people in the US who (re)embraced religion and those who didn’t? Did the study look at differences between people who believe in the existence of God and people of a religious mentality? The two are not the same, certainly not for me. Did the study take into account other factors that would influence society’s wellbeing, such as character and extent of a welfare state?
I only mention these factors, not to disparage Paul’s research which may have serious political, social and cultural implications, but simply to question the quality of the Times’ report. Without taking stock in any way of the issues about methodology I raise above the article is clearly of little informative value. Additionally I wonder why Gledhill reports no criticism of the article which there surely is. Was there no time? Surely this news story was not such a priority that it couldn’t incorporate different views on the subject due to time constraints.
The disappointing conclusion is that the Times shouldn’t have run the article. Instead of enlightening its readers, it simply provides a possibly misleading first impression, and thus makes its readers less well informed than if the page had been left blank.

(More to follow when I have done my homework and actually read the study. . . )

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