Tag Archives: religion

Religion and Hostility

Nothing causes Americans to clutch their pearls and get their panties in a twist like arguments about religion. Let Starbucks omit snowflakes from their seasonal cups, and the fundamentalists are up in arms–they just know that those plain red cups are an attack on Jesus!

Is a failure to specifically endorse a religion (a la the offense of plain red cups and “Happy Holidays”) really equivalent to an attack? (And not so incidentally, don’t you people screaming about these assaults have lives to live and other things to do?)

Americans don’t agree on the definition of religion, let alone what constitutes an insult. What is the difference between a religion and a cult? Between religion and ideology? Are some religious beliefs better for society than others, and if so, which ones and why? We may not be able to answer these questions, but most of us seem firmly convinced that whatever it is, religion is good for us.

Maybe it’s more complicated than that.

As Phil Zuckerman recently wrote in the LA Times,

In the aftermath of the shooting at Umpqua Community College, for example, Fox host Bill O’Reilly cited weakening religion as the culprit. “As the world becomes more secular,” he declared, “civilized restraints to bad behavior drop.” Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee offered similar sentiments after the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., blaming such wanton violence on the fact that “we have systematically removed God from our schools.”

The theory is simple: If people become less religious, then society will decay. Crime will skyrocket, violence will rise, and once-civilized life will degenerate into immorality and depravity. It’s an old, widespread notion. And it’s demonstrably false.

If it were true that when belief in God weakens, societal well-being diminishes, then we should see abundant evidence for this. But we don’t. In fact, we find just the opposite: Those societies today that are the most religious — where faith in God is strong and religious participation is high — tend to have the highest violent crime rates, while those societies in which faith and church attendance are the weakest — the most secular societies — tend to have the lowest.

Zukerman notes–quite properly–that correlation is not the same thing as causation. But the correlations are certainly striking:

According to the latest study from the Pew Research Center, the 10 states that report the highest levels of belief in God are Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Oklahoma (tied with Utah). The 10 states with the lowest levels of belief in God are Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Alaska, Oregon and California. And as is the case in the rest of the world, when it comes to nearly all standard measures of societal health, including homicide rates, the least theistic states generally fare much better than the most theistic. Consider child-abuse fatality rates: Highly religious Mississippi’s is twice that of highly secular New Hampshire’s, and highly religious Kentucky’s is four times higher than highly secular Oregon’s.

Given self-proclaimed “Christians” proclivity to wax hysterical over the loss of snowflakes on a Starbucks cup,  I think we might infer some measure of causation…

There Goes Another One….

I think I’m beginning to figure out why so many ostentatiously pious people reject science and empirical data. (And yes, Ben Carson, one of the examples I’m looking at is you…) It’s because those darn scientists keep telling us stuff we don’t want to hear.

And now, they’ve done it again.

It’s frequently argued that we need religion because–to use religious language– it leads people to “love their neighbors as themselves,” to be generous and giving. The accuracy of that assertion was recently tested by Jean Decety, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Chicago. The results of his study have just been published in Current Biology. As the Economist reports,

Altogether, Dr Decety and his colleagues recruited 1,170 families for their project, and focused on one child per family. Five hundred and ten of their volunteer families described themselves as Muslim, 280 as Christian, 29 as Jewish, 18 as Buddhist and 5 as Hindu. A further 323 said they were non-religious, 3 were agnostic and 2 ticked the box marked “other”.

Decety and his collaborators used a variety of measurements to assess the religiosity of participating families, and arranged for the children to play a version of what is known to psychologists as the dictator game—an activity measuring altruism, that involves the willingness of the children to give up “stickers” that they have been awarded.

The upshot was that the children of non-believers were significantly more generous than those of believers. They gave away an average of 4.1 stickers. Children from a religious background gave away 3.3. And a further analysis of the two largest religious groups (Jews, Buddhists and Hindus were excluded because of their small numbers in the sample), showed no statistical difference between them. Muslim children gave away 3.2 stickers on average, while Christian children gave away 3.3. Moreover, a regression analysis on these groups of children showed that their generosity was inversely correlated with their households’ religiosity. This effect remained regardless of a family’s wealth and status (rich children were more generous than poor ones), a child’s age (older children were more generous than younger ones) or the nationality of the participant. These findings are, however, in marked contrast to parents’ assessments of their own children’s sensitivity to injustice. When asked, religious parents reported their children to be more sensitive than non-believing parents did.

This is only one result, of course. It would need to be replicated before strong conclusions could be drawn. But it is suggestive. And what it suggests is not only that what is preached by religion is not always what is practised, which would not be a surprise, but that in some unknown way the preaching makes things worse.

Happy Sunday morning….

The Religion of Politics

The most significant difference between science and religion is that the former deals with empirical evidence, while the latter requires faith. (You can’t, after all, demonstrate the existence or nonexistence of God in a laboratory experiment.)

Falsification is the heart of scientific inquiry; no matter how fervently a scientist believes in a particular explanation of natural phenomena, if further experimentation disproves it, she alters that conviction. Religious beliefs by their very nature cannot be falsified.

Ideally, policy decisions, like science, are based on evidence; we try a policy approach, and if it doesn’t work, we try something else. The characterization of states as “laboratories of democracy” rests on that premise–states will try different approaches to similar problems, and others will learn from their successes and failures.

When political ideologies become religions, societies suffer. A recent post at Political Animal, made that point:

When Josh Duggar and countless similar self-righteous conservatives are exposed as cheating molesters, it doesn’t cause conservatives to question whether their belief system might be causing those problems. They just double down. When abstinence education causes more teen pregnancy than responsible sex education, conservatives double down on the slut shaming. When tax cuts on the rich and wage cuts to government workers lead to economic recession, Republicans don’t question their core economic beliefs; they just claim they weren’t allowed to go far enough.

In a way, modern conservatives are similar to the Communists of old. No matter how obvious the ideology’s failure, the response is always that the policies were not enacted in a strong and pure enough manner.

That inability to come to grips with failure and adjust course, and that insistence on doubling down in the face of adverse results, is part of why many consider modern conservatism to be an almost cultic movement. Its adherents long since stopped caring about the evidence or empirical results. It’s all about who can prove truest to the faith, and maximally annoy and rebel against the evil liberal heathens. Policies and results are really beside the point.

Yep.

Religious Voices Sing Different Tunes

There’s a central insight that gets lost in those fabricated “wars” on Christmas and the purported victimization of “people of (Christian) faith.”

The really consequential religious battles aren’t those that occur between us secular folks and adherents of various religious communities. They aren’t even the conflicts between followers of different religions.

The real dividing line is between people who look to their religion for guidance about the nature of the good, and those who see in dogma a tool for exercising power and/or asserting superiority.

The religious folks I admire strive to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their Lord” (to appropriate a phrase from Jewish liturgy). These are people who aren’t consumed with moral certainty or pumped up with self-righteousness; they’re people looking for wisdom in managing their relationships to each other and the planet, people who understand that there are many paths to a good life, and many good people on paths different from their own.

Then there are those who use religion primarily to advance their own temporal prospects, and the zealots to whom they appeal– angry, insecure people for whom religion is expressed in fundamentalism and intolerance.

Recently, these two incompatible approaches met in Louisiana. I give you Bobby Jindal and the awesome counter to his blatant politicizing of religion. 

A group of religious leaders has scheduled a prayer rally at Southern University to rival Gov. Bobby Jindal‘s religious gathering — officially called The Response — at LSU.

The prayer rally  at Southern University will take place in the Felton G. Clark Center (Mini Dome) on the same day, Jan. 24, as Jindal’s event at the Peter Maravich Assembly Center (PMAC) on LSU’s campus. The Southern gathering is being called the “Prayer Rally for the Soul of Louisiana.”

Organizers of the Southern event have said they will focus on Louisiana’s mass incarceration rate, Medicaid expansion and the state’s failing education system. The list of issues may be a personal critique of Jindal’s tenure as governor. For example, the governor has consistently refused to accept federal dollars to expand the Medicaid program in Louisiana, even as other Republican governors have done so.

Jindal has come under criticism for holding The Response at a public facility on LSU’s campus. Some question whether the event, which is overtly Christian, should be held in a government building. Other criticism has to do with sponsor for The Response — the American Family Association (AFA) — which holds controversial views about homosexuality, Eric Garner’s death and freedom of speech. An initial prayer guide released for The Response linked the rise of same-sex marriage to Hurricane Katrina and other disasters.

If more genuinely religious folks protested the hijacking of religion for political purposes, religion might be more appealing to the growing number of Americans who are throwing the baby of spiritual exploration out with the bathwater of bigotry.

 

 

 

About Those Religious “Victims”

Speaking of religion and government–as I have been for the past couple of days–it might be well to consider just how much the pious victims of religious persecution are suffering financially in our (ostensibly) secular culture. An article in the Washington Post recently considered the fiscal relationship of church to state.

Well, sort of. The article actually reported on a study detailing the various tax benefits our religiously “neutral,” government extends to religious organizations, the vast majority of which are Christian.

When people donate to religious groups, it’s tax-deductible. Churches don’t pay property taxes on their land or buildings. When they buy stuff, they don’t pay sales taxes. When they sell stuff at a profit, they don’t pay capital gains tax. If they spend less than they take in, they don’t pay corporate income taxes. Priests, ministers, rabbis and the like get “parsonage exemptions” that let them deduct mortgage payments, rent and other living expenses when they’re doing their income taxes. They also are the only group allowed to opt out of Social Security taxes (and benefits).

What is the value of all this preferential treatment?

The article quotes the authors of the original study, who calculated the total subsidy at $71 billion. But the original study didn’t include the cost of a number of subsidies, like local income and property tax exemptions, the sales tax exemption, and — most importantly — the charitable deduction for religious donations.

The charitable deduction for all groups cost the government approximately $39 billion dollars in 2014, according to the CBO.  Since some 32 percent of all charitable donations are made to religious groups, the value of just those exemptions is around $12.5 billion.If you add that to the amounts reported in the original study, you get a religious subsidy of about $83.5 billion.

Next time someone whines about the war on religion or Christmas, or complains that government is insufficiently protective of “people of faith,” think about that.

I’d love to be “victimized” to the tune of 80+ billion dollars…