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Michael Shermer Focuses on the Family

John on November 13, 2006 at 5:13 pm

A reader tipped me off to Michael Shermer’s latest article for Scientific American. It begins:

Is religion a necessary component of social health? The data are conflicting. On the one hand, in a 2005 study published in the Journal of Religion & Society–”Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies”–independent scholar Gregory S. Paul found an inverse correlation between religiosity (measured by belief in God, biblical literalism, and frequency of prayer and service attendance) and societal health (measured by rates of homicide, childhood mortality, life expectancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and teen abortions and pregnancies) in 18 developed democracies.

Regular readers know that Scott and I looked very closely at Paul’s study shortly after it was published last year. Our effort, while not perfect, did uncover some serious problems with his methodology. Put simply, Paul pre-selected those countries and crimes which would skew the results toward the conclusion he wanted, a conclusion which he had published sans statistical sleight-of-hand almost three years earlier. Michael Shermer may not be aware of these problems, or the fact that George Barna has specifically repudiated Paul’s work as faulty. I will be e-mailing him to make him aware.

That said, there is no question that some of the issues raised by Paul are valid. The US murder rate, in particular, is simply higher than most developed nations. The infant mortality rate is also unusually high. Paul tries to lay these problems at the feet of religion. I don’t think this makes sense, but I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Shermer goes on to review some contrary evidence about the societal benefits of religion. To his credit, he notes the evidence that church-goers tend to be more communal and to give more of their time and money than secularists. He could also have noted a number of studies which suggest Christians divorce less often, have happier marriages, have more children, and live longer. These facts don’t get a mention, but they should.

In any case, Shermer concedes that religion seems to have some social benefits. He quotes the author of a new book called Bowling Alone:

By providing community meeting places, linking neighbors together, and fostering altruism, in many (but not all) faiths, religious institutions seem to bolster the ties of belonging to civic life.

I agree that church life fosters these things. I also think there is a strong case to be made that secular life tends toward disintegration. In other words, it’s not just that religion fosters certain behavior about which secularism is neutral. Secularism is subtly hostile to all kinds of communal life. This is why there are, relatively speaking, no secular charities. The only secular activity that draws secularists together is the one that makes up the core of Michael Shermer’s magazine: bashing religion.

In the end, Shermer gives three possible reasons for religion’s seeming inability (again this is based on Paul’s study) to solve the problem of murder, abortion, STDs and teen pregnancies:

Three reasons suggest themselves: first, these problems have other causes entirely; second, secular social capital works better for such problems; third, these problems are related to what I call moral capital, or the connections within an individual between morality and behavior that are best fostered within families, the fundamental social unit in our evolutionary history that arose long before religions and governments. Thus, moral restraints on aggressive and sexual behavior are best reinforced by the family, be it secular or sacred.

Possibility #1 is a catch all. We may not know what’s causing this. Clearly it’s possibility #2 that Shermer would find most satisfying, but in this case he seems to be leaning more toward answer #3. Just read his last sentence again and let the full impact sink in. Super-skeptic and no-doubt super lefty Michael Shermer has just made the atheist case for family values.

“Welcome to the party, pal!”

Conservative Christians, more than any other group in the last 40 years have been arguing that the stability of the family is critical to societal health. And I’m not just talking about gay marriage. In fact, I suspect the biggest culprit is no-fault divorce, followed by the cultural embrace of co-habitation, the prevalence of porn, violent television and movies marketed to young kids, misogynistic hip-hop culture, etc. — for the most part atheists seem to be on the other side of these cultural battles. Yet as Shermer seems to be indicating, at base the family is critical for value formation. Perhaps he and Dr. Dobson can team up.

Seriously though, if you want to compare Scandinavian outcomes to frequent church-goers that’s one thing, but Gregory S. Paul’s study doesn’t do that. He compares nations and assumes that the people who go to church on Sunday are the same people involved in inner-city gang-banging the rest of the week. Let’s just say I’m skeptical, Michael.

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