Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Does religion improve a nation’s well-being? (Part 2)

A global view

I once attended a conference in Botswana where there was much discussion on the problem of corruption in Africa. One speaker caused a debate by declaring that Africa could solve corruption by adopting a moral foundation based on religion. Religion will improve society, was her message.

But is this true? In part 1 of this series, I argued that, in South Africa at least, the inclusion of the Christian God in the apartheid constitution did not guarantee moral governance or a prosperous nation. In this article, I will take a broader look at the ‘sick society’ hypothesis that some Christians advocate. If religion really improves a country’s well-being, and secular humanism causes harm, then we would expect to see a positive correlation between religion and societal health in various countries. Unfortunately for the ‘sick society’ advocates, the statistics don’t seem to be that conclusive.

Consider the following indicators of societal health:

  • Infant mortality rate;
  • Poverty rate;
  • Murder rate;
  • Literacy rate;
  • AIDS/HIV infection; and
  • Gender equality.

Phil Zuckerman, in this article from Free Inquiry, explores these indicators and finds that secular nations are generally better off than religious ones. In fact, the top ten scoring nations in the United Nations Human Development Index (a general score of societal health) include countries such as Norway, Sweden and Australia, which have high proportions of atheists. Not only do secular nations fair well in terms of all these indicators, they also rank as the least corrupt countries in the world, as well as the most happiest.

Consider Norway. Although Norway doesn’t have a clear boundary between church and state, it is the country with the largest humanistic organization in proportion to its population. According to the Global Peace Index it is the most peaceful country, and it has the third largest GDP per capita in the world. Norway is full of non-believers, but it seems to be prospering.

However, before secular humanists begin to celebrate, there are two things to consider. First, one statistic is not so rosy: non-religious nations generally have higher suicide rates than religious nations. Secondly, Zuckerman wisely alludes to what is probably the most important adage in statistics: correlation doesn’t imply causation. The fact that religious nations generally score poorly doesn’t prove that religion is the cause of poor societal health. Without further research, it is also premature to confidently conclude from these few figures that secular humanism causes healthy societies. There might be other unknown or known factors at play that determine societal health, such as politics, economics and history.

But it seems, from these few indicators, that religion doesn't play much of a role at all. A nation-wide belief in God doesn't seem to be an important prerequisite for a healthy or prosperous nation.

Part 3: Idealising the past

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Confusion at the gates

Kevin: Um, hello? What’s happened to me?
Angel 1: Hello there. You have just died. Welcome to the gates of heaven.
Kevin: Heaven! Oh, my word! I was wrong. God really exists!
Angel 2: Indeed he does. Now, what is your name?
Kevin: My name?
Angel 1: Yes, we need to find your file.
Kevin: Okay. I’m Kevin Parry. That’s Parry with an ‘a’, not an ‘e’.
(A few moments pass as a large file is recovered from a cabinet and placed on the table. Both angels start reading)
Angel 2: Oh, dear. I’m sorry, but it looks as if you cannot enter heaven. Eternal torment for you, I’m afraid.
Kevin: Darn! I knew I should’ve taken Pascal’s Wager more seriously.
Angel 2: You see, your file says that you are an atheist. I will make arrangements for your transfer to Hades. . .
Angel 1: Hang on a moment! It says here that Kevin was a Christian. That means he qualifies for heaven.
Angel 2: (sighs) No, no. Kevin was a Christian, yes. But he has since rejected the saving grace of our Lord Jesus. He has lost his salvation.
Angel 1: Since when was that a rule? Once saved, always saved, right?
Angel 2: Where did you learn that?
Angel 1: Err . . . well, that’s my interpretation of the Word.
Angel 2: You have obviously interpreted incorrectly. The Word states that any person who stops believing is like the branch that breaks off the olive tree. Romans 11:17-22.
Angel 1: I beg to differ. The Lord himself, In John 10:27-29, says that no believer can ever be plucked out of his hand.
Angel 2: You are not reading that verse in context.
Kevin: Excuse me. . . .
Angel 1: But many of the Lord’s followers believe in eternal security. Take the Calvinists, for instance. . .
Angel 2: The Calvinists are wrong. It’s the Methodists that have it right: a human can loose his or her salvation.
Kevin: Sorry to interrupt. Are you going to let me in or not? I’ve had a bad day, being dead and all, and I want to get this over with.
Angel 1: Sorry about all this. You see, there are so many different teachings on important issues; so many interpretations of the Word; so many verses that seem to contradict each other. It’s all a bit confusing really.
Angel 2: I’m afraid you will have to go back to earth until this is sorted out with the boss up stairs.
Kevin: Does this mean that I will have a second chance at salvation?
Angel 1: Yes.
Angel 2: No.
(Everything fades as another fierce argument breaks out, and Kevin wakes up)
Kevin: Wow, what a horrible dream. That’s the last time I eat pizza just before going to bed.

Laughing Boy has posted a clever response to this dialogue over here.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Does religion improve a nation’s well-being? (Part 1)

South Africa as a case study

Does recognition of God make a difference to a country? Some Christian organizations think so. The (South) African Democratic Christian Party (ACDP), for example, appeals to Deuteronomy 28 and sates:

All authority and law originates from God, therefore obedience brings blessing to a nation and disobedience brings cursing

If obedience comes from following God’s law, what might encourage disobedience? The Christian website Frontline Fellowship argues that secular humanism is the factor that has caused societal decay in South Africa since the adoption of democracy:

In 1994 the African National Congress (ANC) came to power and established a human rights culture. It has been busy replacing laws founded on Christian principles with humanistic laws. . . .The social decay is such, that, according to the police, 2,5 million crimes are committed in South Africa every year, an average of 7000 a day.

Before the adoption of democracy in 1994, South Africa was ruled by the apartheid government that adopted Christianity as a state religion. Have things really worsened, as Frontline claims, since the Christian God was removed from the constitution?

Frontline Fellowship fails to mention the fact that the “Christian” apartheid state was responsible for mass forced removals, torture, cross-border raids, death squads, detention without trial, and dehumanization on a grand scale. Crime may be a problem in post-apartheid South Africa, but it was much worse during apartheid because crime was state condoned.

The 1983 constitution declared that the country was “to uphold Christian values and civilized norms”. Apartheid’s leaders believed they were accountable to no-one but God, but they also believed that what they did was condoned by God. Without being accountable to those they governed, they could do as they pleased with what they thought was divine backing.

Frontline also ignores the great improvements that have occurred since South Africa adopted “humanistic secularism”. Not only has the economy boomed under democracy, but great strides have been made improving fiscal policy, GDP growth, protection of human rights, and access to basic services. There are still problems, but these can be better tackled under a forward thinking democracy than under the backward mind-set of the apartheid state.

I’m not blaming Christianity for apartheid; in fact, there were many Christian organizations that fought effectively against the system. Rather, I am arguing that having a religious foundation for a country does not guarantee a moral system of governance, or a prosperous nation.

Part 2: A global view
Part 3: Idealising the past

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Living life as a respectful atheist

I work in an office that is characterised by many different cultural and religious beliefs: there are Muslims, Hindus, and Christians from various denominations. As part of this multi-religious environment, I sometimes find myself wishing my Hindu colleagues a happy Diwali when they are in celebration, or congratulating a Christian colleague on the christening of his or her child. My Muslim friends and colleagues are celebrating Eid ul-Fitr today. As an atheist, should I wish them well? Can I respectfully acknowledge the beliefs of those I know, even though I don’t hold those beliefs myself?

Some atheists might feel that by affirming religious beliefs, I’m flirting with the enemy. Religion is nonsense, they might say, so if I was true to my atheistic beliefs, I should be trying my utmost show my colleagues and friends why they are wrong, instead of affirming what they believe. Should I not be the one to hold the torch of reason high for those in my circle of influence?

Well, I don’t think so. And this is why: this kind of black and white thinking that some atheists advocate is the same kind of thinking that turned me off Christianity in the first place: the conviction that others must conform to what I believe; the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentality; and the idea that I have to shoulder the burden of bringing others to the Truth, whatever that truth might be. I swept aside this kind of thinking when I left Christianity; I still reject it as an atheist.

One of my core values is respect for democracy and human rights, and one of these rights is the freedom of conscience and religious expression. The journey of de-conversion that I have shared on my blog is deeply personal to me. My beliefs were a result of me thinking for myself; they were hard fought for, and thus they are dear to me. Many theists, although not all, arrived at their beliefs in much the same way, so should I not also respect their individual journeys as well?

But respect does have its limits. Speaking against American foreign policy, Arundhati Roy once said that she isn't anti-American, but anti-power. As an atheist, I can say the same thing regarding religion: it is not religion in general that I have a problem with, but with religion’s misuse of power through violence, politics, and the dehumanisation of the individual (by using guilt and the fear of hell). I am not anti-religion, but anti-fundamentalism and anti-intolerance. It is against these that I will make a stand.

So when I positively affirm the religious beliefs of others, I am affirming the individual: a human being who holds cherished values, a human being who has a story to tell. I respect another’s journey because I respect my own.

So, to any Muslim who might be reading this: Eid mubarak!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Extra dimensions an ad hoc explanation?

How can God exist without a cause? Why does the doctrine of the Trinity seem so illogical? The Bible claims that God is everywhere, but why we can’t see him? Through the centuries theologians and philosophers alike have wrestled with these important questions, but Hugh Ross, astronomer and old earth creationist, solves these ageless conundrums with a single, simple answer: extra dimensions. On page 96 of his book, The Creator and the Cosmos:

. . . the Bible also speaks of the existence of dimensions beyond our time and space, extra dimensions in which God exists and operates.

The concept of the Trinity, problems with free will and God’s attributes are not problematic at all, argues Ross, because they relate to a God who operates in the context of complex dimensions, the nature of which is beyond human understanding. On page 157:

. . . these concepts are provable contradictions in four dimensions, but each can be resolved when eight or more space-time dimensions . . . are taken into consideration.

But is this a good explanation? There is an old axiom that says: an answer that explains too much explains nothing at all. I think this applies here. Ross seems to sweep away major theological and logical problems with the single explanatory broom of extra dimensions; it just seems too easy, somehow. Richard Carrier in Sense and Goodness Without God (page 72) argues that this kind of explanation seems too easy simply because it is ad hoc in nature. Ross advocates extra dimensions without first demonstrating how they do in fact solve these problems, or how a God can actually operate outside time and space. It is an easy explanation because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t explain anything.

Richard Carrier also raises an additional point: if God is dependent on extra dimensions in which to exist and operate (which implies that, without them God would not be able to exist and operate), then where did these extra dimensions come from in the first place? What caused them to exist? If God created these extra dimensions, how did he exist and operate before he created them? Within extra-extra dimensions, perhaps? If this is the case, where did these extra-extra dimensions come from?

See the problem here.

What do you think?

Monday, October 01, 2007

I believe in one less god

Richard Carrier, in Sense and Goodness Without God, writes on page 255:

But if the idea of a god is inherently illogical (if the very idea is self-contradictory or meaningless), or if it is contradicted by the evidence, then there are strong positive reasons to take a harder stance as an atheist – with respect to that particular god. For in this sense, even believers are strong atheists – they deny the existence of hundreds of gods. Atheists like me merely deny one more god than everyone else already does – in fact, I deny the existence of the same god already denied by believers in other gods, so I am not doing anything that billions of people don’t do already.

In other words, if you are a Christian, you probably don't believe in the existence of Allah, Vishnu or any of the myriad of other gods that people have followed throughout history. I don't believe in those gods either, so in this sense I'm not all that different to you. The only small difference is that I believe in one less God.