Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Religion, government, and binary thinking

Wow. I ask the universe for source material, and I get this article popping up on my reading list. Thank you, universe. Have a cookie.

The Times of London has reported a study that claims a direct relationship exists between religious belief and social problems. The author attempts to prove this by showing that the United States, the only industrialized nation where the majority of its citizens believe a lone deity created the universe, is also near or at the bottom on such metrics as teen pregnancy, homicide, and STI rates.

The fact the United States has a piss-poor performance level on those matters is hard to refute, especially ones dealing with the aftereffects of poorly handled sexual behavior. But this study appears to suffer from one of the logical fallacies so many of these do: correlation implies causation. I'd need to look at it more deeply to be sure, as I don't trust newspaper summaries of case studies. But I also have a hard time believing simple comparisons of statistics. The bias of the author is always a risk factor in such situations.

I will note that many people have deluded beliefs about what Christianity as a professed faith does and doesn't mean. It doesn't take away the raging hormones of youth. It doesn't cure insanity. It certainly has only a palliative effect on poverty if taken purely as a belief instead of put into action in the form of charitable work. And regardless of what the voting patterns of the faith's most vocal adherents may demonstrate, it does at least hint at the need for fair taxation and attention paid to the downtrodden. But all faiths share the lack of a magic wand against all ills. I'm hardly faulting the majority in comparison to the rest of us.

The article itself has a very large flaw aside from taking this study at face value. It falls right into the trap of assuming the options are sloppy monotheism or nothing. It pays no attention to whether a nation that truly lived by Christian values, which this country categorically does not, might or might not do better than one that only pays lip service to the notion. And I realize it wasn't in the purview of the study to look at subsets of the American population to see if those who practice non-JudeoChristian belief systems were just as prone to those ills. But the insistence it's one or the other shows a short-sightedness about religion that I recognize all too well from sexual orientation studies that ignore bisexuality. Once again, binary thinking leaves the picture incomplete.

I'm the last person to say that religion is mandatory for a good system of ethics. I must note, however, that ethics are nothing without action. I can believe in the gods of the Celts, but if I do not act on those by living an honorable life and remembering the gods and ancestors in ritual, I may as well drape myself in plastic shamrocks and get drunk on green beer. There are many professed Christians in this country, but far too few actually understand what that means and how to live within its strictures. I don't mean taking the right-wing approach of "go ye into all the world and force the gospel down the throat of every creature." I mean noting where it suggests approaching life with respect. Treating oneself with respect. And any government that claims Christian inspiration needs must remember that "God helps those who help themselves" was said by a Deist, not an apostle.

There are those who will note any government that pays too much attention to religion is a problem. The Taliban is an extreme case, but history is rife with only marginally less toxic examples. I don't know if we have a record of a government that used what many 21st century people would call higher ethics, claiming their religion as the source, and how it went for them. Lack of evidence in this case is not proof it's impossible. Human nature is too diverse. I also know we have clear and recent records of how fanaticism needs no deity to wreak havoc. Neither Stalin nor Saddam Hussein were particularly religious. Religion is a tool. How we use it makes the difference.

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