Monday, November 10, 2008

Does religion make you nice?

If you want to see an example of academic double-think have a look at this article in Slate. It discusses whether religion makes us behave better or worse than we would do otherwise.

This is a complicated question which I don’t want to delve into too deeply here. Rather I am interested in the conclusions drawn by Professor Paul Bloom, the psychologist from Yale who wrote the article. He notes surveys report that, in the United States, atheists give less to charity and are less happy than religious people. However, in some secular countries (which he weirdly calls atheist countries) like Denmark and Sweden, people are generally as generous and happy as believers in the US. Bloom notes that although most people in Denmark and Sweden are not believers in an afterlife or a personal God, they nonetheless describe themselves as Christians. The Church regulates their lives through baptism, marriage and funerals.

He suggests, on this basis, that it is not religious faith that makes us charitable and happy, but the support of a religious community (this is an arguable point although it fails to ask how long a religious community can survive without any believers). Thus, says Bloom, American atheists are not miserable tightwads because they don’t believe in God, but because they are lonely and isolated. But then, he concludes that this is the fault of religious people! He claims,
The sorry state of American atheists, then, may have nothing to do with their lack of religious belief. It may instead be the result of their outsider status within a highly religious country where many of their fellow citizens, including very vocal ones like Schlessinger, find them immoral and unpatriotic. Religion may not poison everything, but it deserves part of the blame for this one.

I was just about keeping up with him until this point, but fell off my chair at how ridiculous his final sentence was. Bloom is actually saying that it is the fault of religious communities that Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers and the head bangers at Internet Infidels are not part of their group. Wow.

I’ve heard religion blamed for all sorts of things that it bears no responsibility for, but this takes the biscuit.

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