The Journal of Religion and Society (which claims to be a peer reviewed journal) has published an article that looks at Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies. The study has gotten some press in the UK with a poorly written overview in the Times Online< (dead link) and now the blogosphere is buzzing. The paper concludes that
In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies.
Now, that’s a hefty claim for a study that looks at overall trends among a select group of countries (“prosperous democracies”). With any type of study like this, we have to look at methodology to see how they formed their conclusions and if perhaps the authors have some ax to grind that may bias their beliefs.
Sure enough, we find a red flag in the statement
Regression analyses were not executed because of the high variability of degree of correlation, because potential causal factors for rates of societal function are complex, and because it is not the purpose of this initial study to definitively demonstrate a causal link between religion and social conditions. Nor were multivariate analyses used because they risk manipulating the data to produce errant or desired results, and because the fairly consistent characteristics of the sample automatically minimizes the need to correct for external multiple factors…
If you can’t establish that the relationships between the data are statistically significant, then you don’t have much evidence to base your claims on. Here, just eyeballing the charts presented in the study makes the data look pretty weak. Yes, in many instances, the US looks like a strong outlier, but in no way does the study show any significant evidence that religious belief relates to behavior. A better question would be why are the US numbers so different from the rest of the world?
In statistics, the classic mantra is “correlation does not equal causation.” Just because two things appear to be related statistically or on a graph does not mean one causes the other. They may both be symptoms of something greater or they may just be a coincidence. This study is not saying that because you believe in God, you are more likely to have an abortion, contract an STD or kill someone. Nor does it prove that societies that believe in God are worse off than atheistic societies.
Author Gregory Paul is a freelance paleontologist and is best known for his illustrated books on dinosaurs. I couldn’t find much else on his background credentials or other papers he’s published but certainly, his research on dinosaurs may bias his judgments in favor of evolution and societies with a greater acceptance of scientific conclusions. I’m still a skeptic.