Friday, October 27, 2006

Godless Behaviour?

One of the arguments that always comes up when discussing religion (and my lack of it) is that without religion there is no moral code. If there is no God, no holy book to guide us there is no restriction on our behaviour, nothing to tell us what is good and bad.

This is of course nonsense. Humans have evolved from social creatures and social behaviour has always been important for the success of the group. Religion is merely the structure early humans used to deal with the many unknowns. Same today.

Or as Richard Dawkins would put it:

"A lot of people think they get their morality from the Bible because they can find a few good verses. Part of the Ten Commandments are okay, part of the Sermon on the Mount are okay. So they think they get their morality from the Bible. But actually, of course, nobody gets their morality from the Bible, we get it from somewhere else. And to the extent we can find goodness in the Bible, we cherry-pick them, we pick and choose them. We choose the good verses in the Bible and we reject the bad. Whatever criterion we use to choose the good verses and throw out the bad, that criterion is available to us anyway, whether we're religious or not. Why bother to pick verses, why not just go straight for the morality?"

Going down this road a bit further, if you state that religion makes people "better people" than that is a testable claim. You could look at crime rates and other indicators of societal behaviour and you would potentially see some pattern there...

Well, for one, the percentage of atheists of the prison population is lower than the percentage of atheists in society. But there is an established knowledge of conversion in jails, so that is not solid proof. Well, luckily somebody else was intruiged by this question and Skeptic magazine had an article on this not so long ago.

The study is titled “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religi-osity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies”. The study showed that a more religious society certainly does not mean a more stable society.

The study was carried out on data collected in the 90's and 2000's in 18 well developed countries.

"For this study’s purpose, “dysfunctionality” is defined by such indicators of poor societal health as homicide, suicide, low life expectancy, STD infection, abortion, early pregnancy, and high childhood mortality (under five-years old). Religiosity is measured by biblical literalism, frequency of prayer and service attendance, as well as absolute belief in a creator in terms of ardency, conservatism, and activities. "

Using that list of parameters the author (Gregory S. Paul) has constructed a number of graphs setting out the relationship between the level of religiosity and these social indicators.

"The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly."

So, not the outcome expected then by the usual religious suspects...

A higher level of religiosity correlates with higher abortion rates, homicide, STD infections and mortality.

"What we can be clear about from this study is that highly religious societies can be dysfunctional, whereas by comparison secular societies in which evolution is largely accepted display real social cohesion and societal well-being."

So there you have it. This study results in some interesting questions. Is the higher level of dysfuntionality in more religious societies caused by religion or is religion the result of a dysfunctional society?

I hope somebody picks this up and continues the work.


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