John on November 6, 2005 at 11:20 am
In a recent article in The Journal of Religion and Society, Gregory S. Paul posits a proposition:
Data correlations show that in almost all regards the highly secular democracies consistently enjoy low rates of societal dysfunction, while pro-religious and anti-evolution America performs poorly.
Translation: Religion is bad for your health. More specifically, Mr. Paul indicates that democratic societies predominantly holding to a belief in God (read: the United States) are socially unhealthy, but democratic societies that are secular and embrace evolution (read: the majority of Western European countries) are on their way to utopia.
So who is Gregory S. Paul and what are his qualifications to opine on the salubrious quality of agnosticism? We spent a considerable amount of time attempting to discover where Mr. (Dr.?) Paul received his training in sociology and/or statistical analysis, etc. Here’s what we found:
The above blank space is not a formatting error of some kind. It is the best we could come up with to signify nada, zero, zip, bupkis, nihilo, nothing. Yes, that’s right. We found nothing. As near as we can tell, Mr. Paul has no advanced degrees in statistical analysis, demography, sociology, or any other ology. In fact, it appears as though he holds no advanced degrees of any kind. He is, in fact, an artist and freelance paleontologist who has published two books in the area of dinosaur studies that re-imagine how they may have lived and operated on this planet. And to be fair, Mr. Paul seems to be respected for this work.
He also contributed to a book co-written with Earl Cox titled Beyond Humanity: Cyberevolution and Future Minds. This volume appears to be one in a long line of books purporting to look into the future of humanity and its inevitable co-evolution with technology. Amazon has many reviews of this work, at least one of which is pertinent to the present discussion:
Paul and Cox are more on target in their discussion of the perverse backwardness of traditional religious worldviews in response to current and foreseeable progress. Christians should realize that something is wrong with their story when virgins can now routinely give birth via modern reproductive medicine, and soon without even genetic contributions from men.
This theme is echoed in the current journal article, an antagonism towards religious faith and a skepticism of things supernatural. Mr. Paul has been banging this drum since 1996 and has simply found a new outlet with this study.
Looking further, we found Gregory S. Paul listed as a featured speaker for The Council for Secular Humanism, an organization cultivating “rational inquiry, ethical values, and human development through the advancement of secular humanism. Mr. Paul is recommended as a speaker who:
is an excellent candidate to counter young-earth creationists. His book, Beyond Humanity, further equips him to speak on the role of religion in society. Because of his scientific background, Paul is also able to speak on broad debate issues, such as evolution v. creationism and the like.
So again, Mr. Paul seems to have an agenda that has been around long before this study appeared in The Journal of Religion and Society. Indeed, his list of publications reads like a satire of a student atheist one might find on The Wittenberg Door. He has a two-parter in Free Inquiry magazine titled, The Great Scandal: Christianity in the Rise of the Nazis. The article is about what one would expect based on the title, but we’ll leave that for another day.
What about the study itself? Does it hold water? Admittedly, we here at Verum Serum are not statisticians (neither, it appears, is Mr. Paul). For educated criticism of Mr. Paul’s statistical work we refer you to Scott Gilbreath, who runs the Magic Statistics blog. Scott is a statistician by trade and has done a masterful job of critiquing Mr. Paul’s work. His conclusion:
In my professional judgment, the statistical and scientific validity of Mr. Paul’s study can not be accepted.
But wait! There’s more! Here’s s the conclusion of the George H. Gallup International Institute (Gallup has been known to work with numbers on occasion) as stated in a letter from George Gallup to the London Times where Mr. Paul’s study was highlighted by a gullible reporter.
Gregory Paul’s conclusion is based on a flawed analysis according to my research associate, D Michael Lindsay, an expert in the department of sociology at Princeton University. After carefully examining Paul’s international study, Mr. Lindsay maintains that it does not pass scholarly muster.
In short, Gregory S. Paul is qualified to draw dinosaurs. He is NOT qualified to draw conclusions about the effects of religion on society. However, given that Mr. Paul is not an expert and that his study is not scholarly, our own non-scholarly response would seem appropriate and sufficient to the task of dismantling it.
The first thing that bothered us was Mr. Paul’s peculiar selectivity. If the intent is to compare societies where faith is common to societies where faith is not, why were some countries included and others excluded. Scott at Magic Statistics noticed the same thing:
The plan of the study is to gather and compare data for countries he refers to variously as prosperous developed democracies and developing democracies. India would seem to fit in with developing democracies. Why was it excluded? Not prosperous enough? Don’t know: Mr. Paul doesn’t say. Why were Russia, Poland, Czech Republic, and the rest of the new eastern European democracies excluded?
We believe we can answer this question, at least in part. Based on Interpol data for the Russian Federation (year 2000), the murder rate per 100,000 inhabitants was 21.87, or approximately 3 times the rate in the U.S. Since we all know the Russian Federation (i.e. the USSR) was officially atheist for 75 years, this would seem to significantly undercut Mr. Paul’s thesis that religion is bad for your health. There is a broader issue regarding the selection of murder as the chief criteria for his study. Mr. Paul justifies this choice as a practical one. In his words:
Homicide is the best indicator of societal violence because of the extremity of the act and its unique contribution to levels of societal fear, plus the relatively reliable nature of the data.
But as we looked into homicide statistics, we discovered that it is a frequently remarked upon fact that the murder rate in the US is unusually high compared to other categories of crime. FBI statistics demonstrate that the unusually high murder rate is almost entirely the result of gang and drug-related homicides in major cities, as the chart below illustrates.
This is not to excuse the fact that the murder rate in the US is higher than in many European countries (though as noted far lower than in the former USSR). This fact is commonly used by gun control advocates to make a case for stricter, more European, gun laws. However, at some point one needs to ask how inner city drug shootings relate to religious faith in any real world sense.
We understand that establishing causation is not Mr. Paul’s goal, but a little common sense can’t hurt. Are drug lords and roving gangs of thugs spending a great deal of time in church? Or does the very nature of drug and gang-related crime, from which these murder statistics arise, seem rather to provide a case study in the Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest?
We suspect Mr. Paul chose to highlight murder because it is an outlying statistic that would therefore tend to prove his thesis. But as Mr. Paul’s own study demonstrates (with regard to suicide), there are numerous other indicators of societal health in which the United States appears to be comparable to European nations. To further demonstrate the point, we’ve put together the following charts from Interpol data:
Notice that the US ranks lower than many far more secular countries like Sweden and the Netherlands. In addition we found another recent publication called The International Crime Victim’s Survey which provides a similar view of relative international crime rates. We reproduce just a couple of the many graphs included in this study below:
So it appears to us that Mr. Paul has selected data, both in terms of countries considered and specific crimes looked at, in such a way as to paint the picture that was already on his mind. As demonstrated above, a broader look at available data presents a far more nuanced picture. But as we alluded to previously, we needn’t speculate about whether Mr. Paul’s data followed or preceded his conclusions. As it happens, Mr. Paul presented the same conclusions — sans statistical sleight of hand — in a June 2002 article in Free Inquiry magazine titled The Secular Revolution of the West: It’s Passed America by–so far:
Americans believe ardently in part because they have been warned–sometimes subtly, often stridently–by their theological and political leaders that society must adhere to faith-based values or suffer dire social and moral consequences. This claim is demonstrably false. The highly religious United States suffers from markedly higher rates of homicide, in carceration [sic], juvenile and adult mortality, sexually transmitted disease, teen pregnancy, abortion, and other social dys-functions [sic] than developed democracies where creator belief is much lower. [Note our update below for more on this]
Sound familiar? This sentiment is echoed in his book Beyond Humanity, as well as in his previously mentioned piece The Great Scandal: Christianity in the Rise of the Nazis. In the same piece quoted above, Mr. Paul makes plain what the problem is as well as what he believes is the solution:
Basically, we face an education problem: better informing Americans about the proven advantages of rationally based moral and social values may be necessary to speed up modernizing America into a normal, secularized developed democracy.
In the mind of Gregory S. Paul, nothing good can come out of Christianity and religious faith. He has believed this for many years and has done his best to make his ideas available for public consumption. In this regard, bloggers who contacted The Journal of Religion and Society where Mr. Paul’s opus was published learned that the original draft made even greater claims for the data and had to be toned down.
We can’t fault Mr. Paul for his desire to share his ideas, that is after all the reason we blog and the essence of the blogoshpere, but we think it’s important to point when something is a conclusion based on scientific principles and methodologies and when it is part of a campaign (he would dislike the term crusade). Mr. Paul is a gifted illustrator but he is not a sociologist. His study is not a dispassionate product of science but an ugly exercise in anti-theist propaganda.
Update 12/16: Mr. Paul’s 2002 statement about the social results of theism, quoted in full above, cite as their source an earlier Free Inquiry piece by George Bishop, a professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. At the time we wrote this post, we did not have a copy of Mr. Bishop’s piece. However, having recently acquired a copy, we can now add that Mr. Bishop’s piece has absolutely nothing to do with the social health of nations vis a vis theism. Mr. Bishop’s piece is about international rates of atheism and does not even use the words murder, suicide or abortion, much less assert that they vary based on rates of belief. Mr. Paul’s 2002 claims were a bald assertion backed up by a fraudulent citation.