Religion and Society

Recently a paper was published by Creighton University's Journal of Religion and Society that has attracted some media attention. Written by Gregory S. Paul, it is titled "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in Prosperous Democracies". And although subtitled as being only "A First Look" the author seems to indicate that where the practice of religion is more prevalent, so too is anti-societal behavior. The findings, drawn from a systematic evaluation of numerous studies made by sociologists around the US and the western world, are rather upsetting to those of us who like to think that religion is the foundation of a sound and law-abiding civilization. For example, while the USA remains the most openly religious of these modern societies, the homicide rate here tops practically all of the other countries studied, while the incidence of sexually transmitted disease, teen pregnancy, and abortion are anywhere from two to twelve times higher, depending which state is involved -- with the "Bible Belt" states leading the pack. What are we to make of these statistics? First of all, I think we should always have a healthy skepticism of statistics. While I'm in no position to contest the figures cited, one wonder if the conclusions drawn from them are accurate when the new democracies in Eastern Europe or the prospering economies of Southeast Asia, some of which are ardently religious, are left out of the picture. Second, it should be pointed out that statistical "correlations" should not be confused with causes. When it comes to the latter, it may be that societal and economic inequality, which the author points out is greater in the USA than any of the other countries studied, drives some people to crime but others to religion. Third, I would question the author's own tendency to identify religiosity with rejection of evolutionary science -- in other words, with biblical fundamentalism -- is not inherently misleading. True, fundamentalists may also attend church more regularly, but, on the other hand, why disqualify, as the author does, the fact that "the especially low homicide rates in the more Catholic European states" as being statistically suspect or insignificant? Could it be that the author instead has confused certain beliefs, like creationism -- which most Catholics reject -- with Christianity? Finally, I would like to make a suggestion that perhaps the correlations, if they mean anything at all, would not instead confirm what psychologists of religion and many theologians have long recognized. It is that there are different styles of religion that to some extent mirror stages or levels of faith. If so, then the disturbing facts unveiled in this study may not be an indication that religion fosters unhealthy or dysfunctional societies, but that religion as understood or practiced in the USA has a some way to go before it reaches the level of a truly mature and socially responsible faith or faith-commitment.

R W Kropf 11/6/05 Society.doc 05-11-06.html