Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Cause and Effect

After the cultural conservatives admit to you under their voices that they don’t believe in anything either, they invariably fall back on the claim that religion is necessary to promote social cohesion. This theme is so commonplace that one has to be reminded that there isn’t much evidence that faith improves people’s lives. A recent paper by Gregory S. Paul in the Journal of Religion and Society points to the opposite conclusion. In well-off modern nations at least, the rates of violent crime, drug use, teenage pregnancy, and even abortion are negatively correlated with secularism—it isn’t the people who believe in evolution who act like animals. Indeed, the more faith, the more violence. Although Paul admits that the associations he describes are far too weak and general to prove anything positive, they certainly tend to disconfirm the pragmatic justification for traditional religiosity. The absence of faith of the Spaniards and Swedes may not disincline them to manslaughter, but it hasn’t prevented them from living together much more peaceably than the much more religious and much more murderous Americans. All of which is congruent with the observation, easily reached after even a quick perusal of the Statistical Abstract, that it isn’t the faithless Blue States but the fervent Red States that have the high crime rates and general levels of social disorganization.

I don’t think one can draw very many conclusions from the kind of statistical studies that underlie Paul’s paper—in the social sciences descriptive statistical methods are much useful than inferential ones because societies are surely too diverse to be validly compared as if they were patients in a drug trial—but even if the sample sizes and correlations were on the up and up in this study, an association of religiosity with crime and other measures of social disorder would not establish that belief causes violence. I expect that the reverse is more often true. Sick people without health insurance fall back on cheap forms of self-medication like drugs and alcohol even though these expedients may well make them worse off. Poor and frightened people in societies that don’t take very good care of their members fall back on irrational systems of belief in order to get temporary relief from their miserable situations even though the cure often exacerbates the disease or at least fails to address its real causes.

It is sometimes implied that secularism is a mere default, what you believe when you no longer believe, the credo of Nietzsche’s last man. I don’t buy this theme any more, but it has at least this much going for it. Disbelief is not something achieved so much as something allowed. In the absence of fear, want, and political pressure, one naturally falls back on the truth, which, because it is largely negative, is utterly obvious. It takes ingenuity and a lot of heavy lifting to make a case for impossible conclusions. One relaxes into the acknowledgement of realities. I have to remind myself that being able to dispense with religion is a consequence of my own relatively happy situation. Like everybody else, I entertain myself with the fantasy that I live in an especially glamorous state of existential extremity; but I’m actually so unthreatened by the world that can afford to believe things simply because they are apparently true. By the same token, I’m as vain about the blackness of my heart as any television evangelist, but as a matter of fact I don’t have any serious inclination to harm anybody. The categorical imperative if not mere inertia suffices to keep me out of night court. No doubt I couldn’t and wouldn’t maintain these complacencies under less favorable internal and external circumstances any more than the orderly and rational societies of Europe and Oceania will retain their secularism if things go to Hell.

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