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Regis Nicoll Christian Blog and Commentary

Warning: Religion is Hazardous to Your Health

"Religious belief can cause damage to society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published today."    --Ruth Gledhill, LondonTimes religion correspondent


Up in flames

What do the flat earth, the geocentric universe, absolute time, and spontaneous generation all have in common? They were all conventional views of the world that were eventually ashed in the crucible of science. Thanks to the work of social scientist, Gregory Paul, the latest paradigm to be committed to the flames could very well be the "spiritual capital" of religion.


For centuries, conventional wisdom held that "belief in God," even if based on myth, is an essential foundation to a healthy society. Even among Darwinists, the benefits of religion to evolutionary progress have been acknowledged, if begrudgingly.   But all that could change based on Gregory Paul's research published recently in the Journal of Religion and Society.


By correlating societal health as a function of religiosity, Mr. Paul shows--contrary to popular thought--that "the more secular, pro-evolution democracies" experience the best social health. Consequently, writes LondonTimes correspondent Ruth Gledhill, "belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems."


Could these findings mean it's time to cast "spiritual capital" on the funeral pyre of falsified suppositions? Could be. But before we gather the kindling, strike the match, and stoke the flames, it might be wise to examine Gregory Paul's study a little closer.


A "non-definitive" study

In his introduction Mr. Paul states, "This is not an attempt to present a definitive study that establishes cause and effect between religiosity, secularism, and societal health." Rather, the goal is to "spark future research and debate on the issue."


That sounds like a worthy, doable objective. But somehow that modest aim is lost in concluding remarks like,  "this study demonstrates that only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical 'cultures of life' that feature low rates of juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion."


After a raft of similar statements, Mr. Paul unflinchingly remarks, "Contradicting these conclusions requires demonstrating a positive link between theism and societal conditions...a doubtful possibility in view of the observable trends." In other words, the social hazard of religion is so well demonstrated now that the burden of proof rests with the proponents of the conventional view.


One gets the feeling that if we are to avoid certain doom, we should rush headlong into the full embrace of evolution and atheism, as we toss religion on the ash heap of discarded theories. So much Gregory Paul's "non-definitive" preamble.


Problems, but...

While his overarching conclusions are riddled with problems (which I will address), Mr. Paul's study does support what cultural watchdogs, like George Barna, have been saying for years: namely, that the behavioral lifestyles of individuals do not correlate well with their professed religious beliefs.


For example, in a 2004 U.S. study, the Barna Group examined of the lifestyles of evangelical Christians, non-evangelical Christians, notional Christians, Moslems, Buddhists, and Scientologists. After examining 19 lifestyle traits, the researchers concluded that, with the exception of evangelical Christians who comprise only 7% of the population, religious affiliation has little influence on personal behavior. 


Under those conditions, should we expect the social problems of America to be any different in quantity or quality from other, more secular countries? Sadly not. And that's what Gregory Paul’s data shows. The problem is with his interpretation of that data.


Stacking the deck?

It is important to note that Gregory Paul's study is based exclusively on the middle class of "prosperous developed democracies." Thus, communist countries like China, North Korea, and Russia, are blaringly absent from his study, as is the Third World. His omission of the Third World is significant for several reasons.


First, with the shift of Christianity's center of gravity to the equatorial south, 60% of Christians now live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, according to Philip Jenkins in The Next Christendom. Next, Third World Christians are more theologically conservative, adhering to more biblical literalism than the cultural accommodators of the West. Lastly, the explosive growth of Christianity in a continuing climate of oppression, martyrdom, and crushing poverty strongly suggests a religious authenticity, yet to be demonstrated in the prosperous West.


Equally significant is that while Mr. Paul addresses the health problems of homicide, child mortality, and teen sex, he makes nary a mention of the social costs of ethnic cleansing, mass murders, sex trafficking, religious persecution, and political oppression which are largely the products of the atheistic regimes which he also omits.


So not only has Mr. Paul omitted the largest segment of Christianity--a segment most likely to show a significant positive health correlation; he has ignored the whole range of human rights violations (and their propagators) which represents the greatest threat to social well-being.


Admittedly, Christians have failed to live up to the ideals of Jesus Christ. But the idea that Christian failure is more harmful to society than the atrocities of Godless cultures is silly. G.K. Chesterton once wrote that while is right to rebuke the moral failures of Christians, "it is absurd to pretend that they fell lower than those races and religions that professed the very opposite standards and ideals." That's well said.


Of course, Mr. Paul's omissions could be the result of honest oversight or legitimate limitations. But the tenor of his overreaching statements makes them seem more like "deck stacking."  


Correlations, correlations

According to Paul's data, approximately 30% of Americans take the Bible literally and about 40% attend church regularly, as compared with averages elsewhere of about 10% and 30%, respectively. When it is noted that the U.S. homicide and child mortality rates are substantially higher than for other countries, the not so subtle conclusion is that religion (and Christianity in particular) has just edged out global warming and saturated fat as public health hazard number one. An alarming, but shaky conclusion.


It's like the investigator who notes that country X has a high consumption of beef and a high incidence of lung cancer. Then, based on that correlation alone, concludes that lung cancer is due to beef consumption. In either haste or bias, the investigator neglected to account for the host of competing influences like air quality, water quality, cosmic radiation levels, and other dietary habits like smoking; including the demographic differences of those influences. 


Mr. Paul also notes that teen pregnancy, STD, and abortion rates are considerably higher in the U.S. than in secular countries. Although he cites research stating that sexual promiscuity among U.S. teens is not generally different from other countries (a fact with which Barna would agree), he attempts no explanation for this apparent anomaly.


But, perhaps the fatal blow to Paul's argument is his assumption that the U.S. is a religious nation. As his own data suggests, the U.S. is not a Christian nation, or even a particularly religious one; it's a secular nation. The overwhelmingly secular nature of the U.S. suggests that factors other than religion are responsible for the medley and magnitude of the social maladies cited.


Strange conclusions

But isn't that really self-evident; something we intuitively know. Which makes Gregory Paul's implications all the more strange. Does he, or anyone else for that matter, really believe that if people strictly followed the Sermon on the Mount, or the less restrictive Ten Commandments, society would be worse off? Adherence to the sixth commandment alone would eliminate our adverse murder trends.


Likewise, wouldn't the grave social impacts of sexual promiscuity be eradicated if we all lived according to the biblical principles of abstinence, marital fidelity, and human dignity at conception? No doubt they would.


The real conclusions

When one strips away the academic veneer of his research, the problem Gregory Paul reveals is not religion or religious belief; it's the gap between our belief and our behavior, between our lips and our lifestyle, between our profession and our practice. It is a reminder that the information in our heads has yet to result in the transformation of our hearts.


All the same, that incongruity no more invalidates the truth of Christianity than a child's failure to boil water in a kettle invalidates the laws of thermodynamics. To quote Chesterton once more, "The Church is justified, not because her children do not sin, but because they do." That's because the Church has it right about the fallen condition of the human heart; one which beats even within the chest of the believer.


Back in 2004, George Barna summed up our challenge well,


"[M]any Christians are hard-pressed to convert their beliefs into action. The ultimate aim of belief in Jesus is not simply to possess divergent theological ideas but to become a transformed person. These statistics highlight the fact that millions of people who rely on Jesus Christ for their eternal destiny have problems translating their religious beliefs into action beyond Sunday mornings." 


Regis Nicoll is a Centurion of Prison Fellowship Ministries Wilberforce Forum.  After a 30-year career as a nuclear specialist, Regis has worked as a freelance writer addressing current cultural issues from a Christian perspective. His work regularly appears on BreakPoint online, Crosswalk, and the Crux Project among other places.


Regis publishes a free weekly worldview commentary to demonstrate how Christian thinking can be applied to every sphere of life.   To be placed on this free distribution list, e-mail him at: [email protected]