Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Morality and Religion

A correspondent has kindly sent me a very interesting paper by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. It is hosted by the website which has grown from being a club for Dawkinistas to a very interesting forum for ideas on the cutting edge of science. Haidt's article is an extremely sophisticated but devastating attack on Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and co. Of course, as Haidt is hosted by, he is an atheist and secular liberal. But he has to admit that conservative religious people have substantial advantages over secularists. They are happier, healthier, more generous and more altruistic. Haidt admits "You can't use the new atheists as your guide to these lessons. The new atheists conduct biased reviews of the literature and conclude that there is no good evidence on any benefits except the health benefits of religion." Given neo-atheists claim to be wedded to evidence and reason, to prove that they are twisting the facts is a damning indictment indeed.

Haidt continues:
Here is Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell on whether religion brings out the best in people:
"Perhaps a survey would show that as a group atheists and agnostics are more respectful of the law, more sensitive to the needs of others, or more ethical than religious people. Certainly no reliable survey has yet been done that shows otherwise. It might be that the best that can be said for religion is that it helps some people achieve the level of citizenship and morality typically found in brights. If you find that conjecture offensive, you need to adjust your perspective. (Breaking the Spell, p. 55.)
I have italicized the two sections that show ordinary moral thinking rather than scientific thinking. The first is Dennett's claim not just that there is no evidence, but that there is certainly no evidence, when in fact surveys have shown for decades that religious practice is a strong predictor of charitable giving. Arthur Brooks recently analyzed these data (in Who Really Cares) and concluded that the enormous generosity of religious believers is not just recycled to religious charities.

Religious believers give more money than secular folk to secular charities, and to their neighbors. They give more of their time, too, and of their blood. Even if you excuse secular liberals from charity because they vote for government welfare programs, it is awfully hard to explain why secular liberals give so little blood. The bottom line, Brooks concludes, is that all forms of giving go together, and all are greatly increased by religious participation and slightly increased by conservative ideology (after controlling for religiosity).

These data are complex and perhaps they can be spun the other way, but at the moment it appears that Dennett is wrong in his reading of the literature. Atheists may have many other virtues, but on one of the least controversial and most objective measures of moral behavior—giving time, money, and blood to help strangers in need—religious people appear to be morally superior to secular folk.
This ties in well to what I've previously conjectured about how religion is an adaptation that probably must be good for us. The neo-atheist starting point, that religion is bad, undermines their own commitment to respecting the evidence.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.


Jersey McJones said...

If it were true that religious people were happier and healthier than non-religious people, then why do Europeans live longer healthier lives than Americans? (Or could it just be that universal healthcare is better for you than profiteering from a vital public necessity?)


Bjørn Are said...

Healthier eating?

More excercise?

Fewer car crashes?

Fewer military engagements?

Bede said...

In that case, Bjorn Are, I'm surprised we Europeans don't just die of boredom!

Here's the WHO on life expectancy with some suggestions as to why Americans don;t last as long:

Bjørn Are said...


The reasons cited by WHO shows precisely how dangerous it is not to be "religious"...

- "Native Americans, rural African Americans and the inner city poor, have extremely poor health" (may be more religious people among these)

- "The HIV epidemic causes a higher proportion of death and disability to U.S. young and middle-aged than in most other advanced countries" (may be rather less religious people among these)

- "The U.S. is one of the leading countries for cancers relating to tobacco" (may be rather less religious people among these)

- "A high coronary heart disease rate, which has dropped in recent years but remains high" (may be less religious people among these)

- "Fairly high levels of violence, especially of homicides, when compared to other industrial countries" (may be rather less religious people among these)

Yozzer said...

Great that you are now allowing comments You can argue until Judgement Day but you are never going to separate out an effect on longevity from religious belief, there are just too many other factors involved, and no-one is ever going to volunteer for a double blind trial!

By the way why don't you and Dawkins stop trying to knock lumps off each other? Intolerance is usually the start of something much worse. There is room for all flavours of belief in this beautiful world, so be grateful, to God if you must, but be grateful. Yozz

Al Moritz said...

It surprises me that the respondents compare Europeans with Americans (who tend to be more obese and exercise less, as far as I know; I have lived both in Europe and America). If anyone actually had bothered to look at Haidt's paper, linked in Bede's original post, they would have read:

"I just want to make one point, however, that should give contractualists pause: surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people."

Apparently those are surveys within one country, not an inter-country comparison.

Niall said...

Wow, when I read the article I assumed Jonathan Haidt was religious. It'd be interesting to see a cross-cultural comparison.

Camassia said...

On the America-Europe comparison, I note that Haidt's distinction between "contract" and "beehive" societies does not strictly correspond to "secular" and "religious." Societies have formed beehives around other concepts (nation, tribe, politics, etc.), while some religions are a lot more individualist than others. Certainly while Americans are more religious, some of our most culturally influential religious movements have been more decentralized than the statist European churches. This is bound to affect society at large even among people who don't go to church.