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By Jonathan Kane

It seems to be something of a pattern that after a paleontologist or evolutionary biologist has become well-enough respected for research in their area of specialty, they often begin to branch out into the topics of psychology, philosophy, and religion.  The most famous recent example of this is Richard Dawkins’ attack on religion in his book The God Delusion, but also well-known are Kenneth Miller’s attempt to reconcile evolution and Christianity in Finding Darwin’s God, and Stephen Jay Gould’s attack on the field of psychometrics in The Mismeasure of Man.  Although all three of these scientists are experts in paleontology or evolutionary biology, Dawkins is not a philosopher, Miller is not a theologian, and Gould is not a psychologist.  So as you might expect, the results when they write about these topics can vary a lot.

Of the three books mentioned in the last paragraph, The Mismeasure of Man is in my opinion the worst.  Despite its popularity, nearly all of its reviews in the academic literature have been negative, accusing the book of both misrepresenting the source material and assuming that psychometricians still rely on ideas and techniques which had been abandoned decades ago.  Finding Darwin’s God, on the other hand, has been well-received by almost everyone other than creationists—and perhaps more importantly, has proven to be one of the most valuable books for persuading Christians to accept evolution.  As for The God Delusion, our other administrator (EWilloughby) has read it but I haven’t, so I’m having to rely on her own opinion of the book here:  according to her, its attack on religion is primarily based on the negative consequences there have been from Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), while not answering the question of whether this also applies to non-Abrahamic religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism or Deism.  It seems that Dawkins’ book isn’t as full of misrepresentations and fallacies as Gould’s is, but that it also isn’t as good as Miller’s.

Whatever you think of the three scientists’ forays into the humanities, they’ve now been joined by a fourth:  Gregory S. Paul.  This name will be familiar to anyone who follows dinosaur paleontology and paleoart, but for those who don’t, Greg Paul is the author of the well-respected books Predatory Dinosaurs of the World and Dinosaurs of the Air.  Paul has illustrated both of these books himself, and his precise reconstructions of dinosaur skeletons and musculature are often a useful resource for other paleoartists, Emily and myself included.  Equally significant, although a little less well-known, is what I mentioned in our monthly topic a year ago—Greg Paul is one of only a few scientists who were able to correctly predict and illustrate the appearance of feathered dinosaurs before their skin was discovered.

As with Dawkins, Gregory Paul’s new research is on the topic of religion, and more specifically opposition to religion.  Unlike Dawins, however, Paul is publishing his conclusions in a peer-reviewed journal, which is an argument for the idea that he is still performing legitimate science despite the change of fields, rather than merely capitalizing on the reputation he acquired for his research in other areas.  Similarly encouraging, at Greg Paul’s website for his research on this topic, is his stated disapproval of the unscientific methods that other authors on both sides of this issue have used (although he’s not naming names): “Most discussions in the popular and advocacy literature and punditry on both sides is conversational, anecdotal, casual and consequently of little utility. The level of error is so high that the public debate is more misleading than informative.”

Greg Paul’s current paper about this topic, which was published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, can be downloaded here.  Recent press articles about his research are here and here.  For those who don’t feel like reading any of the linked articles, his research concerns the question of what sorts of societies are and aren’t religious.  Religious people often claim that the morality of any society depends on religion, and that if a society becomes less religious, it will inevitably become less moral also.  As far as I know, nobody before Greg Paul had attempted to empirically test this idea, so his goal has been to statistically examine whether or not it is correct.

In this paper, Greg Paul has ranked 17 first-world countries both by degree of religiosity, and by a commonly-used measure of societal health called the “successful societies scale”, which measures the rate of things such as infant mortality, incarceration, corruption, and teenage pregnancy.  If it were correct that religion is a requirement for any society to be moral, one would expect that the countries which rank highest on the successful societies scale would also be the most religious.  What Paul has found is that the opposite is true:  it is the countries which rank lowest on the successful societies scale which have the greatest degree of religious observance, and those which rank highest are the least religious.  This correlation exists regardless of whether the analysis is performed including the United States, which is the most religious of any of the countries studied, and also ranks lowest on the successful societies scale.

Paul’s conclusion from this is that rather than being a necessary part of any healthy society, religion is a “crutch” (to use The Guardian’s term) that people tend to rely on when they live in a society which isn’t meeting all of their needs.  And if a society begins to meet more of its citizens’ needs, it must inevitably become less religious in the process.  On the basis of the inverse correlation between societal health and religiosity, Paul views religion and prosperity as mutually exclusive and opposed to one another.

For the nearly two years that this group has existed, Emily and I have thus far tried to avoid the question of whether religion as a whole is beneficial or detrimental, because both of us feel that either way the effects of religion in general don’t matter nearly as much as the harm done by creationism.  Opposition to creationism is an area where both atheists and Christian theistic evolutionists can find common ground, and I’ve been reluctant to do anything that would risk alienating either of these two groups.  Now that one of the favorite paleoartists of this group’s members is studying this topic, however, it seems like it would be negligent of us to avoid writing anything about it.  So with this in mind, this month’s question is: Do you agree or disagree with Gregory Paul about this topic, and why?  Whatever your opinion, please try to be polite to those who hold viewpoints different from your own.

Greg Paul’s central assertion, that religion is something people most frequently turn to for support in response to difficult conditions, is something that I completely agree with—at least when it comes to Christianity, which is the predominant religion in 16 of the 17 countries included in Paul’s study.  (The only non-Christian country studied was Japan.)  Part of the reason I agree with this is because for the first nearly 300 years of its existence, Christianity was almost exclusively a religion of paupers, political refugees, and other social outcasts.  According to Matthew 19:24, Jesus himself even commented on this fact, remarking that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it was for a rich man to become a Christian.  Christianity eventually became an “establishment” religion when the Roman emperor Constantine I converted to it in 312 AD, but this did not change the fact that Christianity was originally designed to appeal to society’s less fortunate members.

Even without using a detailed statistical analysis such as the one performed by Greg Paul, it is not difficult to see the special appeal of religion to those who are in destitute circumstances.  It seems obvious that these are the people who would be most attracted to the idea that their lives are governed by a higher power who will work all things for good, and that if they live moral lives they will be rewarded for doing so in the next life, even if their current lives fail to reward them.  Perhaps the best demonstration of this is the twelve-step program which is the centerpiece of the counseling offered by Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as similar organizations such as Narcotics Anonymous.  While their counseling method is not specific to Christianity, the degree to which it involves religion speaks for itself.  The twelve steps can be found at the AA website here, but I’ll also quote them:
1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3: Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5: Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted to it.
11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12: Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

This is a pretty good example of Greg Paul’s point about religion’s appeal to people in difficult circumstances, since obviously only an alcoholic (or any other type of addict) would have something to gain from a program like this.  However, this also demonstrates the point where I disagree with Paul, which is his assertion that religion is directly opposed to improvements in living circumstances.  People who participate in this twelve-step program don’t become religious for the purpose of feeling better about themselves while continuing to drink; they become religious in order to help them recover.

It is accurate to say that religion is a “crutch” for people following this program, but probably in more ways than Paul intended.  A crutch is usually not only something that a person relies on because they’re injured; more often than not, it is also something they use in the hope that it will assist them in improving their condition.  Perhaps also like a crutch, religion will eventually be discarded by many of these people after they have recovered from alcoholism and no longer feel that they need it, but it was still a necessary step in their recovery.  I am a little curious what people such as Dawkins and Paul, who view religion as inherently harmful, think of Alcoholics Anonymous:  do they oppose this group as well, because they consider religion to be even more harmful than alcoholism is?

The real question is not whether religion can be helpful to people who turn to it because of difficult circumstances in their lives, because I think organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous demonstrate pretty clearly that it can.  The real question is whether religion can have the same effect on entire societies, since what’s helpful for an individual in a society is not always what’s best for the society as a whole.  What’s more, religion is capable of affecting society in such a multitude of ways that its ability or inability to benefit a society is probably impossible to measure statistically.  In order to answer the question of whether Greg Paul is correct about religion being directly opposed to improvement in societal health, the most informative analysis that can be made is a case study of whether religion helped or hindered modern history’s largest single advance in human rights.  

I am referring, of course, the end of communism in Eastern Europe which began 20 years ago this year.  As it turns out, there is a fairly clear answer to the question in this case.  According to most sources which discuss this, including the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, ending the Cold War would not have been possible without the religious leadership of Pope John Paul II.  There are too many articles which discuss this for me to link to them all, but several of them are cited by the portion of Wikipedia’s article about him which covers this.

What makes Pope John Paul II’s role in the fall of communism particularly interesting in this regard is that the benefit his religious leadership provided for the people of Eastern Europe is quite similar to the way religion benefits people in Alcoholics Anonymous.  In both cases, the benefit of religion has been to provide people with a sense of courage and solidarity, which can be used either to break an addiction or to demand a democratic government.  While it is possible that these effects could be obtained via something other than religion, the most important consideration for any such group of people must be their own well-being.  If religion is able to help them obtain this benefit, then it is beneficial to them by the only standard that matters.

Dawkins and Paul would most likely be quick to point out that religion does not always encourage this type of benefit to a society, and they would be correct in doing so.  Religion has not encouraged the institution of democratic governments in Iraq and Afghanistan—quite the opposite, in fact—to say nothing of terrorist attacks such as 9/11.  However, not all religions seem to be equally at risk for causing this type of problem.  According to Adherents.org, there are approximately one-and-a-half times as many Christians in the world as there are Muslims, so if both religions were equally prone to encouraging violence, there should also be one-and-a-half times as many deaths per year caused by Christian terrorism and suicide bombing as there are deaths caused by the same from Islam.  However, this isn’t the case: while it’s inaccurate to say that Christian-motivated violence does not exist in modern times, it is less common than Islamic violence rather than more.  In addition, while historic cases of major Christian violence such as the crusades have typically been ordered by a single government or other authority, this is not true of modern examples of Islamic violence such as Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks, insurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq, Palestinian suicide bombing, and the international rioting that resulted from cartoons in Jyllands-Posten and Newsweek’s report of a Koran being desecrated.  The only cause that all of the latter incidents have had in common was their type of religious motivation.

One might expect the religions which carry the greatest risks to also be those that bring the greatest benefits, so that the good is always balanced against the bad.  But that does not appear to be the case, as can be seen from the portion of Wikipedia’s article on the efficacy of prayer which describes the psychological and health benefits of religion.  Studies are inconclusive as to whether the health benefits extend beyond a placebo effect, but what stands out about all of these studies is that the psychological benefits appear to be identical regardless of the religion in question.  This is consistent with AA’s explanation of their twelve-step program, which depends on following God “however we understood him”—which could be as Jesus, Allah, Krishna, or (presumably) Odin or Zeus.  It seems that while all religions are able to confer almost exactly the same benefits, some religions provide these benefits at a much greater cost than do others.

There is only one conclusion which I think can drawn from this, regardless of how politically incorrect it may be for me to say it:  some religions are more valuable than others.  Some are able to bring their psychological and health benefits, including benefits to society, at very little cost (as in Eastern Europe); while others carry such great risks that the costs frequently outweigh any benefit that can be obtained (as in Afghanistan and Iraq).  While I consider it valuable that Greg Paul is studying the societal effects of religion in a scientific manner, I believe he’s on the wrong track by assuming that when societies turn to religion because of poor living conditions, this will inevitably interfere with their ability to improve.  Having demonstrated the correlation between religiosity and lower standards of living, the most useful thing Paul could research at this point would be which types of religion are the most useful for helping people in these circumstances to improve their lives, and which types of religion cause more harm than good.

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