Religion is Ridiculous? -- Sightings

There have been many recent assertions that religion is not only ridiculous and irrational, but it's inherently violent and dangerous. I've not seen Bill Maher's Religulous, but I've seen clips, so I have an idea. David Myers in a Sightings piece today suggests that these attacks on religion, which base so much anecdote don't hold up once one digs deeper into the data. Religion might not be so bad after all, as long as it doesn't go to extremes!

So, if you're interested in seeing the other side of the debate, check this essay out!


Sightings 10/23/08

Religion is Ridiculous?

-- David G. Myers

Ridiculous, and worse. So say the new atheist books: In God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens does not mince words, calling religion "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children." Now Bill Maher's movie Religulous lampoons the plausibility and social effects of all religion, ominously concluding that the world will end if religion does not end. But I suggest that social science data point to a different conclusion than do the new atheist anecdotes of hypocritical and vile believers.

Many in the community of faith gladly grant the irrationality of many religious fundamentalists − people who bring to mind Madeline L'Engle's comment that "Christians have given Christianity a bad name." But mocking religious "nut cases" is cheap and easy. By heaping scorn on the worst examples of anything, including medicine, law, politics, or even atheism, one can make it look evil. But the culture war of competing anecdotes becomes a standoff. One person counters religion-inspired 9/11 leader Mohammed Atta with religion-inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. Another counters the genocidal crusades with the genocidal atheists, Stalin and Mao. But as we social scientists like to say, the plural of anecdote is not data.

Maher and the new atheist authors present anecdote upon anecdote about dangerous and apparently irrational religious behavior, while ignoring massive data on religion's associations with human happiness, health, and altruism. The Gallup Organization, for example, has just released worldwide data culled from surveys of more than a quarter-million people in 140 countries. Across regions and religions, highly religious people are most helpful. In Europe, in the Americas, in Africa, and in Asia they are about fifty percent more likely than the less religious to report having donated money to charity in the last month, volunteered time to an organization, and helped a stranger.

This finding – that the religious tend to be more human than heartless – expresses the help-giving mandates found in all major religions, from Islamic alms-giving to Judeo-Christian tithing. And it replicates many earlier findings. In a Gallup survey, forty-six percent of "highly spiritually committed" Americans volunteered with the infirm, poor or elderly, as did twenty-two percent of those "highly uncommitted." Ditto charitable giving, for which surveys have revealed a strong faith-philanthropy correlation. In one, the one in four Americans who attended weekly worship services gave nearly half of all charitable contributions.

Is religion nevertheless, as Freud supposed, and Maher's film seems to assert, an "obsessional neurosis" that breeds sexually repressed, guilt-laden misery? Anecdotes aside, the evidence is much kinder to C. S. Lewis's presumption that "joy is the serious business of heaven." For example, National Opinion Research Center surveys of 43,000 Americans since 1972 reveal that actively religious people report high levels of happiness, with forty-three percent of those attending religious services weekly or more saying they are "very happy" (as do twenty-six percent of those seldom or never attending religious services). Faith (and its associated social support) also correlates with effective coping with the loss of a spouse, marriage, or job.

Maher would surely call such religiously-inspired happiness delusional. But what would he say to the surprising though oft-reported correlations between religiosity and health? In several large epidemiological studies (which, as in one U.S. National Health Interview Survey, follow lives through time to see what predicts ill health and premature death) religiously active people were less likely to die in any given year and they enjoyed longer life expectancy. This faith-health correlation, which remains even after controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, and education, is partly attributable to the healthier lifestyles (including the lower smoking rate) of religious people. It also appears partly attributable to the communal support of faith communities and to the health benefits of positive emotions.

These indications of the personal and social benefits of faith don't speak to its truth claims. And truth ultimately is what matters. (If religious claims were shown to be untrue, though comforting and adaptive, what honest person would choose to believe? And if religious claims were shown to be true, though discomfiting, what honest person would choose to disbelieve?) But they do challenge the anecdote-based new atheist argument that religion is generally a force for evil. Moreover, they help point us toward a humble spirituality that worships God with open minds as well as open hearts, toward an alternative to purposeless scientism and dogmatic fundamentalism, toward a faith that helps make sense of the universe, gives meaning to life, opens us to the transcendent, connects us in supportive communities, provides a mandate for morality and selflessness, and offers hope in the face of adversity and death.

David Myers is a professor of psychology at Hope College and author of A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists: Musings on Why God is Good and Faith Isn't Evil (Jossey-Bass, 2008).

This month on the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum, anthropologist Danilyn Rutherford writes on "The Enchantments of Secular Belief." She examines the "active belief" upon which anthropological work is predicated, drawing on her fieldwork among Biak exiles from New Guinea, her readings of Locke and Hume, and her analysis of the notion of secular belief expressed in the National Public Radio series "This I Believe." Ultimately, she argues that "like Biak appeals to belief, anthropological perspectives on the world lead us to expect the unexpected. This effect does not simply stem from anthropology's power to unsettle the everyday, but also from its method, which entails the impossible belief that one can assume another's point of view." Formal responses will be posted from W. Clark Gilpin (University of Chicago), Malika Zeghal (University of Chicago), and Charles Hirschkind (University of California at Berkeley).


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


Anonymous said…
I don't think Bill Maher's point is that faith is without benefit for the believer, but that religion is dangerous, like nuclear energy, and in evil or misguided hands, is a threat to everyone, believer and non-believer alike.

The Myers article, by documenting the benefits of faith experienced by the believer, misses the point. The question people of faith have to address is how do you ameliorate the risks posed when faith is abused?

I suppose one response might be that it is not faith per se which is dangerous, but "ideology". Any ideology, whether religious or political, as a filter for interpreting circumstances and events, can be warped by evil into a weapon for abuse, domination, death, and destruction. Religion is just the most commonly misused "ideology".

In the last hundred years ideologies of faith, racial superiority, nationalism, and national exceptionalism have all led to abuse, death, war and genocide. Any ideology which promotes some while degrading others, specifically or generally, can and will be abused.

At the heart of most faith traditions and especially the Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions, is the understanding that all humanity is on an equal footing before the Divine, though some may be chosen for special roles. Choseness usually implies more of a special burden than a special advantage. When this understanding is ignored or lost, the abuse begins.


I've not seen the Maher film, but if, as appears, he follows the Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens line, then all religion is bad and without value. What Myers is trying to do, I think, is suggest that the critique is based on anecdote rather than data. There are surely nutcases within the religious community, as there are in any community. So, if you base your argument on anecdote you can pretty much prove your case without much trouble. Except it doesn't fit reality.

I think a bigger problem with the New Atheist critique of religion is that it basically agrees with the extremist -- that only extremists truly represent religion. Thus, moderates/liberals are irrelevant -- except for aiding and abetting the enemy.
Anonymous said…
I believe this is simply cheap thrills to serve red meat to a hunger audience. Almost on the same line as some of the McCain lines you take issues with.

My understanding is they stopped at the trucker's chapel here in NC. I am sure the idea is crazy to the outside world, but think of you lived a nomadic existence as a trucker, it might be nice to gather in one place.

I could take a camera to a gay pride event or PETA event.. and probably come up with an equally hysterical video. Heck.. we could take a video of trailer parks and sell that as how America is... its cheap thrills.. and insulting.

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