Sunday, October 2, 2005

The Next Pick thinks the next SCOTUS nominee will be either Michael Luttig or Karen Williams. Here's an article on Williams. We'll probably find out tomorrow who the nominee will be.

Operation Iron Fist

The Fourth Rail describes in a series of posts what's going on along the Syrian border with Operation Iron Fist. Go here then scroll down to the post titled Operation Iron Fist in Qaim. This post has a map which shows the locations of the towns mentioned in subsequent entries. After reading this one, work your way back up to the most recent posts. It's interesting reading and it gives a perspective on what the American strategy is there that is at odds with what the media has been saying.

Is There <i>Anything</i> They Won't Say?

A friend writes to express dismay with the testimony at the Dover ID trial in Harrisburg, PA:

Has reading the paper about the ID trial driven you crazy?? To say under oath, as testimony in a major court proceeding, that the ID thinkers want to return us to a time when epilepsy [was believed to be] caused by demons is so ludicrous. Does that guy really think that [ID theorists] don't believe epilepsy [is an illness]? Outragous accusations!

He's quite right, of course. There's a lot of outrageous stuff being said in this courtroom. Two especially irritating examples leap to mind. One is that the plaintiffs are going to great lengths to discredit Intelligent Design by showing that the people who were instrumental in getting the ID statement read in Dover classrooms are very outspoken about their religious convictions. This may be relevant in showing that the introduction of ID into classrooms was driven by sectarian considerations, but even if board members went too far in voicing their religious views that is simply irrelevant to whether or not ID is a legitimate topic for a science classroom.

Scientists from Darwin to Dawkins have not been reticent about their atheism and how it derives from their evolutionary views. Yet no one in the media or in the courtroom seems to think that this disqualifies evolution as a legitimate topic for a science class, nor should they. But if it is acceptable for atheistic scientists to talk about how Darwinism "makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist," and so on, why is it disqualifying for a Christian to voice an alternative opinion? If it is perfectly acceptable to teach students that evolution is the product of a "blind, unguided natural process," which is essentially a religious rather than a scientific claim, why is it not acceptable to tell students that not everyone believes this to be so?

The second frustrating thing about the case is the repeated attempts to hitch ID to creationism so that by discrediting creationism ID is discredited as well. Intelligent Design is not creationism, at least not as that term has come to be used in the current debate, but a supine national media, anxious to believe the worst of the rubes who embrace ID, decline to undertake the journalistic labor necessary to investigate the philosophical legitimacy of the linkage. They'd much prefer to write smug, supercilious columns poking fun at the Dover school board members than to actually do their jobs and give the public pertinent information about what creationism and Intelligent Design actually are.

So my reply to my friend is yes, what's being said is outrageous and frustrating, but then there's some comfort in realizing that for the plaintiffs to succeed, their witnesses have to distort the truth and the media have to be complicit in the deception. If one has to lose, it's much better to lose because the other side had to misrepresent one's position than to lose because the other side had a better argument. There's consolation in the fact that, if this is the best the other side can do, ID is in very good shape indeed.

Religion and Social Well-Being

We hope that this is not what's passing for scholarship in the social sciences nowadays:

Religious belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published today. According to the study, belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems. The study counters the view of believers that religion is necessary to provide the moral and ethical foundations of a healthy society.

It compares the social peformance of relatively secular countries, such as Britain, with the US, where the majority believes in a creator rather than the theory of evolution. Many conservative evangelicals in the US consider Darwinism to be a social evil, believing that it inspires atheism and amorality.

Many liberal Christians and believers of other faiths hold that religious belief is socially beneficial, believing that it helps to lower rates of violent crime, murder, suicide, sexual promiscuity and abortion. The benefits of religious belief to a society have been described as its "spiritual capital". But the study claims that the devotion of many in the US may actually contribute to its ills.

The paper, published in the Journal of Religion and Society, a US academic journal, reports: "Many Americans agree that their churchgoing nation is an exceptional, God-blessed, shining city on the hill that stands as an impressive example for an increasingly sceptical world. In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so."

Gregory Paul, the author of the study and a social scientist, used data from the International Social Survey Programme, Gallup and other research bodies to reach his conclusions. He compared social indicators such as murder rates, abortion, suicide and teenage pregnancy.

The study concluded that the US was the world's only prosperous democracy where murder rates were still high, and that the least devout nations were the least dysfunctional. Mr Paul said that rates of gonorrhea in adolescents in the US were up to 300 times higher than in less devout democratic countries. The US also suffered from "uniquely high" adolescent and adult syphilis infection rates, and adolescent abortion rates, the study suggested.

Mr Paul said: "The study shows that England, despite the social ills it has, is actually performing a good deal better than the USA in most indicators, even though it is now a much less religious nation than America." He said that the disparity was even greater when the US was compared with other countries, including France, Japan and the Scandinavian countries. These nations had been the most successful in reducing murder rates, early mortality, sexually transmitted diseases and abortion, he added.

Mr Paul delayed releasing the study until now because of Hurricane Katrina. He said that the evidence accumulated by a number of different studies suggested that religion might actually contribute to social ills. "I suspect that Europeans are increasingly repelled by the poor societal performance of the Christian states," he added.

He said that most Western nations would become more religious only if the theory of evolution could be overturned and the existence of God scientifically proven. Likewise, the theory of evolution would not enjoy majority support in the US unless there was a marked decline in religious belief, Mr Paul said.

"The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. "The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted."

I wasn't aware of it, but apparently those pious Christians fervently worshipping in their churches on Sunday morning and poring over copies of The Purpose Driven Life are also leading secret lives of murder, mayhem, and sexual promiscuity the rest of the week. I also never realized that devout Christians lead the world in suicide. Looks can be be very deceiving, apparently, and we will henceforth be reluctant to sit in the front of the church lest one of those homocidal maniacs in the pews behind us suddenly pulls out a gun and starts filling the sanctuary with bullets.

On the other hand, has there ever been an academic study more counter-intuitive, more self-serving, or more simple-minded than this one? Mr. Paul commits the fallacy of assuming that because there's a correlation between high dysfunctionality and high levels of religiosity that therefore religion is not beneficial to national social health. It's a bit like arguing that because the U.S. has a high incidence of cancer and also has high numbers of doctors that therefore doctors are not really beneficial to our nation's well-being.

In order to prove his bizarre conclusion Meyer would have to show that the set of dysfunctional people is identical to the set of religious people, but this he does not do. It is far more likely that the two sets scarcely even overlap in this country, in which case the results of his study are meaningless.

He also misses the mark when he conjures up an alleged widely-held fear that "a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster" in order to show that the putative fear is refuted by his study. The problem with a non-theistic citizenry, however, is not that it must experience societal disaster, but rather that it is far more likely to. A citizenry that lacks a transcendent ground for moral values, human dignity and human worth, must eventually either acknowledge that these things really don't exist at all or invent some fiction in which to ground them.

Either way, such a society will gradually become increasingly more cynical, skeptical, and nihilistic. Government may keep the wheels on the wagon with legal duct tape for a couple of generations as the religious bolts that fasten them to the axles work their way loose, but it's quite likely that when the bolts have all fallen out, the wheels will spin off too. That it hasn't happened yet in some European countries (Though see here) means only that the masses have yet to realize the full implications of their abandonment of the transcendent.

Indeed, in those European nations where authorities have sought to work out the full logic of their atheism and where they have possessed the power to impose their will on the masses - nations like the Stalinist U.S.S.R. and Nazi Germany, for example - societal disaster is precisely what we have seen.

Mr. Paul strikes us as an atheist who aspires to prove that atheism is beneficial to society. If so, his work is still ahead of him, because this silly study certainly gives no one any reason to think that he's made his point.

For a technical critique of Paul's work by a statistician go here.