Questionable Motives

May 24, 2012

Is the prevalence of religious belief a sign of an unhealthy society?

Filed under: Education,Evolution,Religion,Society — tildeb @ 8:18 pm


Oh, come on, you say. Religious belief helps us to deal with problems in a dysfunctional society… or so this favourite little religious meme assures us. But is it true?

Besides, how can anyone scientifically correlate religious belief to an unhealthy society? Surely the data must be cherry picked!

Well, Jerry Coyne (WEIT), the author of this paper published at Evolution, has collected a rather convincing stable of studies that does most of the arguing on his behalf. Granted, he is a Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago and a member of both the Committee on Genetics and the Committee on Evolutionary Biology, so he does have an agenda to promote a better understanding of evolution. But the numbers are quite clear: great swaths of Americans will not accept evolution. Jerry wants to know in particular why American resistance to accepting evolution is uniquely high among First World countries. This paper answers the question with an inescapable conclusion: religious belief.

What can be done to change this deplorable condition – what Jerry calls a “national embarrassment” – of believing in anti-scientific religious belief over a robust scientific explanation that works for everyone everywhere all the time?

The prevalence of religious belief in the United States suggests that outreach by scientists alone will not have a huge effect in increasing the acceptance of evolution, nor will the strategy of trying to convince the faithful that evolution is compatible with their religion. Because creationism is a symptom of religion, another strategy to promote evolution involves loosening the grip of faith on America.

Okay, if contrary religious belief is the problem, how can this grip be loosened?

Through difficult social change.

The reasons to correlate religious belief with a dysfunctional society are laid out clearly and succinctly drawing on dozens of recent studies. The data is compelling. I urge all readers to download the pdf and read this short paper for themselves, to see just how overwhelming are the various avenues of correlation, to think seriously about how and why this “disgrace” has come to be, what sustains it, what personal responsibility we share in pretending it’s not an ongoing problem accompanied by real life ramifications for our collective society. Don’t reject it out of hand because it disagrees with your religious beliefs. Think about it first.

We have to stop pretending religious belief is an accumulative good or something valuable enough in itself that its public face must be accommodated.  It’s not and we shouldn’t. It is a problem that breeds and excuses social inequity.

Concerned as he is with the problematic low level of understanding why evolution is true, Coyne concludes,

Ultimately, the best strategy to make Americans more receptive to evolution might require loosening the grip of religion on our country. This may sound not only invidious but untenable, yet data from other countries suggest that such secularism is possible and, indeed, is increasing in the United States at this moment. But weakening religion may itself require other, more profound changes: creating a society that is more just, more caring, more egalitarian. Regardless of how you feel about religion, that is surely a goal most of us can endorse.


  1. See what I mean? This kind of anti-evolution shit under the label of ‘education’ has got to be challenged in the public domain for the religious promotion (subsidized by taxpayers, let’s be clear) that it is.

    Comment by tildeb — May 24, 2012 @ 8:38 pm | Reply

    • As for the effects of loosening the grip of religion on a nation, I warmly commend to you the book “The Rage Against God,” by Christopher Hitchens’ brother Peter. Speaking from his experience as a western journalist in Russia he shows how that Russia still has not recovered from the “Soviet experiment.” It is a society in which even common honesty cannot be taken for granted.

      Comment by Bob Wheeler — May 29, 2012 @ 11:02 am | Reply

      • I read it several years ago and thought, “We all have our crosses to bear; for Chris, it was his brother’s religiosity.” But you really must stop equating a totalitarian state to secularism: they have nothing in common.

        Comment by tildeb — May 29, 2012 @ 10:47 pm

  2. The Neo-Marxists are already one step ahead of Jerry Coyne, and have been remarkably successful in their attempt to destroy western civilization and wreck American society. Congratulations Jerry! (and Herbert Marcuse!).

    Comment by Bob Wheeler — May 29, 2012 @ 10:56 am | Reply

    • This isn’t Coyne’s theory as much as Paul & Gregory from 2006, and it is well borne out by statistics. But note that it recommends _functional_ societies and _secure_ people – communism is nothing of that but even more dysfuctionals. So you aren’t really comprehending the paper, you are instead raising a strawman.

      It is actually quite easy to make a functional society, since the world is spontaneously moving there. Hans Rosling has shown in his Gapminder statistics that all you need is democracy, free markets and social medicine. So communism, unless you mean China’s free market communism, isn’t even on the table.

      [But you may want to entertain Obama’s health care initiative, if you are concerned about US future success. Unless you think a minimum of social functions like government and secure health care is “communism”…]

      Comment by Torbjörn Larsson, OM — July 18, 2012 @ 10:38 pm | Reply

  3. Shorter version:


    Comment by Cedric Katesby — May 29, 2012 @ 11:37 am | Reply

  4. Tildeb, I read the article by Jerry Coyne, and it demonstrates the problem with trying to draw cause and effect conclusions from statistical data. You and he drew the exact opposite conclusions from the same data! His conclusion is that it is social dysfunction that creates religiosity, whereas you got from it the exact opposite — “Religious belief is a problem that and excuses social inequality.” William Wilberforce and William Jennings Bryan would have been flabbergasted at your assertion, to say the least! There was one statement in Coyne’s article that I thought was bizarre: he quotes Solte et al. as saying that “in situations of greater inequality the rich actually become more religious than the poor,” and that this may give the wealthy “the motive and means to disseminate religion.” (Coyne, p. 9). In my experience it is not the rich who are disseminating religion. (I should qualify that somewhat. It is true that in the 1950’s J.Howard Pew of Sun Oil Co. became an important financial backer of Billy Graham. Pew was concerned about the threat of Communism to the American free enterprise system, and thought that Graham could be an effective spokesman for traditional values. And it is also true that the Templeton Foundation has invested a fortune in promoting theistic evolution. But frankly I don’t see a lot of distraught millionaires trying to disseminate religion. I think they mostly give quietly to their liberal Episcopalian parishes.).

    Comment by Bob Wheeler — May 29, 2012 @ 12:51 pm | Reply

    • You and he drew the exact opposite conclusions…

      Bob, your track record on understanding Coyne is not very good. If Coyne said something then quote him-in full. Then we can all avoid mistakes.

      In my experience it is not the rich who are disseminating religion.

      Does the word televangelism mean anything to you?

      Peter Popoff – sue me, I dare you, I double dare you!

      Comment by Cedric Katesby — May 29, 2012 @ 1:58 pm | Reply

      • Excellent video… and where is god when all of this is happening… why is PP alive? If I was god I would have popped him off to an early grave and saved the innocent people in the audience from being conned out of their health and wealth… but noooo the sky fairy is nowhere to be seen either in person or in action… could this be because the sky fairy does not exist?

        I know don’t tell me… how stupid of me… it is all part of God’s plan… explains everything…

        Comment by misunderstoodranter — June 9, 2012 @ 10:02 am

    • False dichotomy: religion is correlated to social dysfunction both as supporter of and a response to inequality. That’s why it’s the opiate of the people who are poor as well as an important tool or the wealthy. That’s why you didn’t comprehend the Solte reference; remember, religiosity is correlated to inequality.

      Comment by tildeb — May 29, 2012 @ 10:37 pm | Reply

      • Well, that religion follows from social dysfunction (insecurity) is quite certain. Since Coyne wrote that paper, a stratified model of US states has added strength.

        The opposite direction is less clear. There seems to be an effect where the rich aren’t so much religious as promoting it, because it keeps the Gini index up (which means more social insecurity). But I can’t remember where I found that. Maybe the original Paul & Gregory?

        Comment by Torbjörn Larsson, OM — July 18, 2012 @ 10:43 pm

      • Ah, but now I see Bob Wheeler’s comment. It is quite a wide support nowadays (and apparently some of it was in the G&P).

        Comment by Torbjörn Larsson, OM — July 18, 2012 @ 10:44 pm

  5. When you have a statistical correlation between two events, it raises the question, which is the cause and which is the effect. In this particular case Coyne discussed two possibilities: !)the “passive” possibility: “pathology breeds religiosity,” and 2) the “active” possibility: “high levels of conservative theism directly contribute to the poor societal circumstances.” (p. 9). Tildeb jumped immediately to conclusion #2. But what Coyne said was “Using other data, Paul judges the passive factor most important.” He then cites another study (Rees, 2009) and said “Rees concluded that either high religiosity leads to higher income inequality, or , MORE PLAUSIBLY [emphasis mine] that income inequality is causal, promoting greater insecurity and hence deeper faith.” Coyne then concludes that part of his study by saying “. . . the studies of Paul and Solt et al. both suggest that greater belief in God, and hence more opposition to evolution, may be a product of dysfunctional societies.”
    I can also tell you, as a longtime student of church history and a participant in the modern church scene, that Coyne’s discussion here is grossly oversimplified, and that is the problem with statistical analyses. Academics need to get out of their ivory towers and see what life is actually like out on the street.
    Coyne then concludes by saying that we need to create a society that is more just, more caring, more egalitarian.” He then says, “Regardless of how you feel about religion, that is sure a goal most of us can endorse.” That is, unless you happen to be the CEO of a major corporation.

    Comment by Bob Wheeler — May 30, 2012 @ 9:21 am | Reply

    • If you look at the sum of data in the entire paper, you’ll see that the conclusion is what I expressed in my title: the prevalence of religious belief IS a sign of an unhealthy society. The correlations are simply too strong to just wave away. I also reiterated that the correlation shows BOTH social dysfunction that leads to higher rates of religiosity AS WELL AS higher rates of religiosity leads to more social dysfunction. No matter how you slice it, Bob, religion is a net loss to any society. If you honestly want to reduce dysfunction within a society, religion is not a solution. Other means must be found and we have excellent examples of how we can do this from other highly secular and far less dysfunctional societies… societies that are not totalitarian but liberal western democracies with social policies that work.

      Comment by tildeb — May 30, 2012 @ 5:53 pm | Reply

      • Practically every major reform movement in the US and Britain had a religious motive of some kind behind it. This was vividly portrayed for me recently on a return trip to my home town of Syracuse, NY. There is a monument on Clinton Square to the Jerry Rescue, a runaway slave who was freed from jail and spirited away to captivity. There are three figures on the monument — Jerry, the runaway slave, and two others helping him. One is white, apparently Samuel J. May, a prominent Unitarian minister in the city, and the other was black, evidently Jermain Wesley Loguen, the pastor of the local AME Zion church. We could add many others to the list, from Mohandas K. Gandhi to to Martin Luther King, Jr. Frankly, this business that “religion poisons everything” is utter and complete nonsense. I cannot buy the bizarre notion that the solution to society’s ills is to give up our belief in universal truths and ideals. If you want to see where atheism leads, read a real atheist, someone who wasn’t afraid to take his godlessness to its logical conclusion — Friedrich Nietzsche. Materialism and nihilism are not the answer.

        Comment by Bob Wheeler — May 31, 2012 @ 9:32 am

      • Practically every major reform movement in the US and Britain had a religious motive of some kind behind it.

        Nonsense. Study your history better. Try women’s history, modern democracies, international law, medical science, social security and abolition of the death penalty.

        There is a monument on Clinton Square to the Jerry Rescue, a runaway slave…

        Who was he running away from? It wasn’t a bunch of mean old atheists.

        Jermain Wesley Loguen, the pastor of the local AME Zion church. We could add many others to the list, from Mohandas K. Gandhi to to Martin Luther King,

        They did nothing that was religious. Civil rights and democracy do not go hand in hand with religion. Christianity was around for a very, very long time and got along very happily with the notion of slavery and dictatorship.

        Frankly, this business that “religion poisons everything” is utter and complete nonsense. I cannot buy the bizarre notion that the solution to society’s ills is to give up our belief in universal truths and ideals.

        One minute you are talking about religion, then you talk about truth and ideals.
        It’s called “the bait and switch”.
        Nobody is asking you to give up truth and ideals and long walks on the beach and a basket full of fluffy kittens.

        If you want to see where atheism leads… we can look in the mirror.

        Comment by Cedric Katesby — May 31, 2012 @ 10:25 am

      • “Practically every major reform movement in the US and Britain had a religious motive of some kind behind it.”

        Practically every advance in religious moral has been achieved by consenting to modern secular morals. The enlightenment, democracies, free markets, free speech, social medicine, emancipation, human rights, homosexual rights, free sex life … oops, gays and condoms are still under religious suppression.

        Comment by Torbjörn Larsson, OM — July 18, 2012 @ 10:50 pm

  6. “I cannot buy the bizarre notion that the solution to society’s ills is to give up our belief in universal truths and ideals.”

    Yep the world is flat… and it is only 6000 years old… oh and that it is the centre of the universe… oh and that dinosaurs were put there to test our faith… not to mention that God invented Bananas

    And dogs:

    And the bible is the word of god – so it is OK to beat my wife, kill my children and slay non-believers – how do you recon I should do that Bob? Which is the universal true way to slay those pesky non-believers… stake, gun or should I just lynch my atheist neighbour and stone him to death in the good old fashioned way with a mob of people…

    oh don’t forget those slaves – according to the bible (which I believe to be the universal truth – so help me!) I can keep them… so the black dude down the road he looks nice and strong – should I use chloroform to knock him out first before I chain him to my garden shed – or do you think god would approve of me just battering him with a bat first – saying that I don’t want to damage him… so perhaps God will forgive me for using chloroform in this case… what do you think Bob?

    Universal truths….

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — June 9, 2012 @ 6:33 am | Reply

    • I am so tired of that shtick. It is bloody obvious when you study philosophy & theology & world religions that the Outsider Test says there are truths, but they are many. No Truth.

      On the other hand when you study science you see that there are unanimous facts. There are even Fact.

      “The Laws Underlying The Physics of Everyday Life Are Completely Understood”

      “A hundred years ago it would have been easy to ask a basic question to which physics couldn’t provide a satisfying answer. “What keeps this table from collapsing?” “Why are there different elements?” “What kind of signal travels from the brain to your muscles?” But now we understand all that stuff. (Again, not the detailed way in which everything plays out, but the underlying principles.) Fifty years ago we more or less had it figured out, depending on how picky you want to be about the nuclear forces. But there’s no question that the human goal of figuring out the basic rules by which the easily observable world works was one that was achieved once and for all in the twentieth century.

      You might question the “once and for all” part of that formulation, but it’s solid. Of course revolutions can always happen, but there’s every reason to believe that our current understanding is complete within the everyday realm.” – Theoretical physicist Sean Carroll –

      As Carroll notes, this should be more known. So what are “(my own myopic and very much contested by the next religion) universal truth” against facts or Facts?

      Comment by Torbjörn Larsson, OM — July 18, 2012 @ 10:59 pm | Reply

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