bookmark_borderThe Truth about Conservative Christians

There is an interesting recent book by two Catholic sociologists, Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout: The Truth about Conservative Christians (The University of Chicago Press, 2007). Much of it is not news to anyone who has been paying attention to the conservative Protestant subculture, though Greeley and Hout put a very useful emphasis on the diversity of this group and repeatedly moderate common stereotypes. What’s more interesting is two side claims they argue for and present evidence in support of.

One is their explanation of the decline of mainline and liberal denominations relative to conservative ones. They find that the primary explanation is demographic: conservative Christian women have had significantly more children for many decades. A secondary contribution is due to conservative Christians being able to retain the allegiance of their offspring better: there has been a decline in conversions from conservative to mainline denominations. Greeley and Hout reject a common proposed alternative explanation, that conservative Christianity has been gaining ground at the expense of mainline churches, and that this is because the mainline churches have become too liberal. It’s almost entirely a matter of demographics instead. This sounds plausible to me, and though I’m hardly the best person to judge, their evidence seems convincing.

The other side claim is even more relevant to secular people. They argue that statistically speaking, religious people are happier than the nonreligious, and that moreover, much of this effect is attributable to religious participation directly rather than indirect effects such as religion promoting community and social contacts and so forth. Indeed, they say “One of the more reliable generalizations in social science is that married and religious people are happier than people who have neither companionship nor faith” (p. 150), and that “religion per se is the causal factor in religious peoples’ greater happiness; it cannot be sloughed off as a consequence of correlated but substantively irrelevant factors . . . [A]dherence to the Bible principles in the Bible-oriented Conservative Protestant denominations also increases happiness” (p. 161).

By and large, I see the evidence Greeley and Hout present as unobjectionable. However, I do have a number of concerns. First, the data that they consider is entirely drawn from the United States. I’m not sure if their conclusions would generalize so easily to different societies. I’d like to see an equivalent argument sustained for societies with a more secular background culture, such as Western Europe, before I’d go with their blanket statements. Second, I’m concerned about how they rely completely on survey data, that is, people’s self-reports of happiness. I’m not sure this is a trustworthy measure of happiness. I don’t know if there are good psychological and cross-cultural studies that indicate that self-reports are a good proxy for more direct evaluations of psychological well-being. But in their absence, I distrust survey data being put to such use. There’s too much room for self-reports being overly influences by cultural expectations.

Nonetheless, there seems to be enough out there to suggest that the connection between religion and happiness is at least plausible. It’s legitimate to say that that there is some social scientific evidence (indeed, a good deal beyond what Greeley and Hout do not list but only cite) that religion is good for most people.

bookmark_borderChristian deception about The Art of Deception

I recently read a review of Robert Morey’s 21-year-old book The New Atheism at Bill Muehlenberg’s CultureWatch blog, which describes Nicholas Capaldi’s The Art of Deception as “a famous atheist debating guide, in which every trick in the book is offered to fellow atheists as they attack theists.”

There are just a few problems with this statement–Capaldi is a Catholic, not an atheist; the book is an introduction to informal logic, not an atheist debating guide; and most of the few examples in the book which address theistic arguments are demonstrating deception in arguing for, rather than against, the existence of God. Morey seems to have gone so far as to fabricate quotations from Capaldi’s book as part of his argument against the honesty of atheists.

And upon reviewing Morey’s Wikipedia entry, there are yet further reasons that he seems not to be a very good personal example for the superiority of the ethics of Christians over atheists.

I’ve gone into the above in more detail at my own blog.

bookmark_borderCreationism in Europe

There’s an interesting draft of a report to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that lists recent creationist and intelligent design activity in Europe, both Muslim and Christian.

It’s interesting that enough of this is going on to require such a concerned report, though naturally the level of anti-evolution activity in Europe remains nowhere near that in the United States. Another illustration that in some aspects, US society is more similar to Third World examples than the rest of the technologically advanced world, I suppose. No matter, though. We’ve got Jesus on our side and half the world’s military expenditures, so there’s nothing to worry about.


Susan Blackmore has an interesting op-ed opposing faith in The Guardian.

The common understanding of faith, “Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence,” however, is a bit fishy. No doubt that’s often how it’s presented: I’ve had no end of students who conceive of faith as having to do with realities beyond ordinary ways of investigation. Many even think of faith as a kind of faculty of attaining truth on the cheap, and it’s immune to criticism as an extra bonus. But people are not consistent. The same students also have different understandings of faith: as something more akin to trust (which can be warranted), or as a set of beliefs that are not validated by ordinary public means but are validated nonetheless (for example, through paranormal and spiritual experiences). Then there is the related idea that faith is like love. You love and trust your spouse. But even if there may be perfectly good reasons and evidence that can be produced that your spouse is worthy, you don’t need to do that. Moreover, a close investigation of reasons and evidence may even be destructive to the personal relationship in question.

So I guess what I’m saying is that we need to be careful when criticizing “faith” — it’s not a simple concept. It may even be one of Marvin Minsky’s “suitcase” words, into which a lot of quite different concepts get packed. And this feeds into the usual irritating slipperiness of defenses of religion. A believer can always (and even with some legitimacy) say that when someone like Blackmore comes out against “faith,” what she’s attacking is not what they understand and live by.

bookmark_borderGlobal trends towards secularization

Brink Lindsey has an interesting post at his blog about the increasing numbers of nonreligious people globally over the last five decades, and speculation about why the U.S. remains so religious. He suggests that it’s not the separation of church and state (with Australia and New Zealand as counter-examples to the U.S.), but ethnic heterogeneity and geographic mobility–that church membership acts to ease the transition of a move to a new geographic region.

The post that inspired Lindsey’s commentary, by Razib at Gene Expression, is also well worth reading. He throws some cold water on the idea that a decline in organized religion entails an increase in a scientific, naturalistic view of the world (as opposed to, for example, a nontheistic supernaturalism).

And Razib’s commentary is itself a response to a piece at Edge: The Third Culture titled “Why the Gods are not Winning” by Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman.

Enjoy reading all three…

bookmark_borderNonbelief and mainstream values

There is a lot of prejudice toward religious nonbelievers in many parts of the United States; indeed, throughout much of the world. We’re not trusted. One of the first questions we face is whether we can be moral — after all, even if perchance we might behave decently, what possible basis can we have for such behavior? What keeps us from cheating if no one else, not even the gods, are watching? Open skepticism brings a burden of social mistrust.

So we get pissed off. It’s bad enough that devout believers live in a dreamworld overshadowed by gods and demons, heaven and hell. We then endure the much more consequential irrationality of people thinking that refraining from rape and murder, paying your taxes, and being a decent and trustworthy person is tied up with the world of prayer, attending services, and public acknowledgment of supernatural beliefs.

One way to respond is to insist that the nonreligious are as committed to mainstream values as anyone: that we uphold hard work, charity, responsibility, families, and community as much as churchgoers and Quran-reciters. David Niose reviews a Ralph Nader book in the latest Humanist, saying

If progressives and humanists have have failed to connect with mainstream America’s traditional values, Nader shows that it isn’t because progressive and humanist values are inconsistent with Main Street. On the contrary, it’s because progressives and humanists have failed to demonstrate the consistency between their values and the mainstream.

I’m not sure about this. This “consistency” seems to me to overlook much that I would consider small-minded, tribalistic, and socially conservative that is as integral to mainstream values as anything “progressive.” Do we really want to perceived as so mainstream as to include all that?

Sometimes arguments that nonbelievers should not be socially excluded paint a picture of religious skeptics as being virtually identical to their average devout neighbor in all social respects, except that they happen not to attend weekly services. And especially in a religiously pluralist society where people attend different services, it should be especially clear that non-participation in all religion is as morally irrelevant as non-attachment to any particular congregation. Fair enough, but are nonbelievers, statistically speaking, really so similar to the devout in relevant respects? And again, do we want to be so similar? After all, religious skeptics often approach moral questions from a different perspective compared to that of a believer. We might have some broad areas of agreement — no one is debating rape and murder here — but being free of supernaturalism may well lead nonbelievers to think and behave differently in many respects. Indeed, it seems obvious that this is so. Moreover, a prime reason for skeptics to criticize supernatural religion outside of narrow intellectual circles is the conviction that a more secular approach to morality would be socially desirable. In that case, what we want is not bland acceptance into mainstream society but more: also to be recognized as people who bring a legitimate point of view to wider social negotiations about moral matters.

There is a parallel here to the struggle over gay rights. One common argument for wider social tolerance of homosexuality is that sexual orientation is not a morally relevant trait, and therefore, for example, a gay couple should be able to marry and hold down a job and attain suburban respectability as well as their heterosexual counterparts. Indeed, some advocates of gay rights take care to present themselves as mainstream as possible and even resent more flamboyant representatives of gay culture. Finding acceptance, they think, will be helped by limiting seuxal radicalism, emphasizing monogamy and the ability of gays to be socially non-threatening. But a serious argument against such assimilation to mainstream values points out that homosexuals are trying to achieve liberation. The point is to retain dangerous notions such as sexuality oriented toward pleasure and not confined to conservative and reproductive concerns. Flamboyant gay pride parades assert one’s presence and voice as people with little in common with mainstream sexual culture, demanding that such sexual radicalism can take its place in the sun without GLBTetc people being subjected to beatings, job loss, harrassment, etc. etc.

I think there are some parallels here with the debate over religion and mainstream values. Right now, religiosity is very often part of the mainstream conception of morality. Displays of costly supernatural commitments is an important aspect of how people signal that they are integrated into a moral community and are trustworthy in general. This is a problem. If we are skeptical about the supernatural, at a minimum we want to be able to find other ways to signal that we merit trust. At the very least, we do not want to be treated as pariahs. But we should not, I think, be compelled to do this at the cost of sacrificing our distinct moral perspectives.