Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Contra Hedrick: On Faith & Demographics

Among critics of The Truth Behind the New Atheism, the best-known so far have been Victor Stenger, who dedicated a good part of a chapter in The New Atheism to rebutting my analysis of faith and reason, and Hector Avalos, who attacked me over my claim that the Gospel liberates slaves, beginning with this piece.  (I responded here and here.) Several wild-eyed Internet critics have been even more persistent, but less worth responding to.   

A more interesting Web critic has been Landon Hedrick, a doctoral student in philosophy. 
Landon has Christian roots, and has seemed less inclined to brush them off with contempt than some former Christians.  While he began our dialogue with what struck me as a naive hero-worship of Richard Carrier, a bubble I did my best to burst, he has at times distanced himself from the more self-confident and glib pronouncements of the New Atheists, including (lately) those of Dr. Carrier. 

In this blog, I'd like to respond to some of Landon's overlooked, but imaginative, criticism.  His arguments invoke three substantive questions about faith and demographics: first, does education kill faith?  Or is the slight tendency of well-educated Americans to "lose their religion" an anomaly?  Second, are scientists often Christians?  And third, were most atheists in the world today "socialized into atheism" by Marxist propaganda?

Epistemology also makes a calling.  On what basis we should believe stuff?  Should an author (like me) make a claim in a popular rebuttal of the New Atheism, without backing it up with solid social survey data?  Can a writer be allowed an occasional appeal to his own authority or experience?  In short, does The Truth Behind the New Atheism "wallow in ambiguity?"  Or just take a dip in it occasionally, to take a break from the humorless anality of so much public discourse? 

A tertiary issue might be expressed, "How big an error does it take to discredit an opponent?"  The Truth Behind the New Atheism, like The God Delusion, is full of claims of all shapes and sizes in philosophy, theology, history, sociology, and science.  To give him credit, Victor Stenger tries (however inattentively) to debunk the main claim of one whole chapter of my book.  Hector Avalos narrows this scope considerably: he critiques a single argument that covers about two pages of TBNA, implying that if he successfully shreds that minor point, my reputation as a scholar will be shot to hell.  Conceivably this might work, if my argument were as bad as he says.  After all, a mere 300 Trojans damaged the whole Persian army by the cliff at Thermopylae.  

Hedrick picks a yet smaller target.  Rather than claiming I am wrong about anything at all, he critiques the strength of my support for mere parenthetical rejoinders.  He approaches my book less like a hawk looking for a rabbit to consume whole, than like a hummingbird flitting through a flower bed to extract a little nector to enjoy a lazy April morning.  His goal is also more modest than that of Avalos: not to dismiss my work wholesale, but to place an asterick by my name. "Watch this guy, he might be trying to a fast one." 

With all these issues in mind -- social, epistemological, and personal -- here is Landon's critique (in green italics), including his quotes from me (in blue italics), followed, after each substantive point, by my response and reflections.

1A. Religion and Statistics

Imagine that while reading Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion, you come across a rather bold claim: "As it happens, in Britain, the more educated a person is, the more likely he or she is to be an atheist." Of course, such a claim would need to be supported by some sort of controlled scientific survey. But imagine that Dawkins didn't even provide a citation; he made the claim without any benefit of actual evidence outside his own experience. Would it be a big deal? After all, Britain is his home.

We can be confident that had Dawkins made this mistake, somebody would have noticed and called him out on it. Perhaps that person would have been Christian apologist David Marshall, who has made an effort to debunk Dawkins on several points. (He even has a
list of "160 errors" in The God Delusion.) But imagine further that, when confronted with this problem, Dawkins offered the following response:
"Years ago I saw a study conducted in Liverpool which informed me of this correlation, and ever since then I've personally noticed that this is the case throughout the rest of Britain. I don't know where you can find that study, but you can take my word for it. I'm a generally perceptive person, and I wouldn't be making this claim unless I had a wide exposure to British people."
Would you be satisfied? Would David Marshall be satisfied? As it turns out, I don't think Dawkins did make this mistake in his writings, so "his words" above are completely fictional. But it's interesting that David Marshall, in his book The Truth Behind the New Atheism, makes a parallel claim and leaves it unsupported. On page 41 he tells us that "in East Asia, there was a strong positive correlation between education and the Christian faith. The more books you read, the more likely you were to be a Christian." This claim was not followed by a note citing any valid scientific surveys; it appeared to come straight from Marshall's own observations. When I pointed this out to him, here is the reply he gave:
"I would have liked to cite the study of faith and education in Singapore that I mentioned. The numbers were quite dramatic. They also corresponded with what I've seen all around East Asia: the more educated a person is, the more likely to be a Christian. However, I read the paper in Taiwan, and cited it in a paper I wrote in seminary, and haven't seen it since. The reader is free to disbelieve me if he likes, or suspend judgement until hard stats turn up. But I've been involved with Asian Christianity for 24 years, both on the ground and academically; it would be wise to take my opinion on this seriously. (Alternatively, check into almost any Chinese church in America, and see how many people with Phds in science, mathematics, and engineering you can find.)"
Is it alright for Marshall to put this fact in his book if it's merely based on an old study from Singapore (that he no longer has access to) and his own experience with East Asia? Perhaps it would be more responsible of him if he altered his wording to offer the information not as a categorical fact, but as his belief based on his experience.

DM: Admittedly, I could have supported this minor point better in TBNA. It turns out I was more right on the point than I remembered, though. In Singapore, while only 6.4% of those with less than secondary education counted themselves as Christian in 2000, a full 39.3% of those with university education did. (Eng, Lai Ah, 2008: editor, Religious Diversity in Singapore Singapore: Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, Institute of Policy Studies : Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 47.)

So yes, I "put a fact in the book" that was inadequately supported. Unlike many of Dawkins' claims, however, it was a real fact, even expressed conservatively: the truth is, in Singapore, a university education seemed to correlate with a more than six times greater probability of being a Christian! 

Why should my slight casualness on proving this point (or that the same is true in other East Asian countries) be considered a problem? As Landon mentioned, I listed 160 "errors, gross exagerrations, and highly dubious claims" in The God Delusion. Many of these derive from the fact that Dawkins simply didn't know what he was talking about.  But I do know what I'm talking about, when it comes to Asian Christianity. 

Dawkins should be given less benefit of the doubt, because he is writing out of his field most of the time The God Delusion.  If an author also shows a good track record of getting facts right (and in all due modesty, I think I do), why not give him the occasional benefit of the doubt?  Trusting those we find trustworthy is how we operate in every department of our lives, from taking notes in class, to believing what our spouse tells us about expenses on our 10-40 form, to checking sources on-line or in journals.  Of course, Landon may distrust my claims because he disagrees with my overall philosophy, and perhaps give his own side (Richard Carrier) more latitude, without realizing he is doing so.  Probably most of us do this, to some extent. 

IB. Christian Scientists

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins offers some statistics (based on an actual study!) of the percentage of scientists that believe in God. Marshall appears to distrust Dawkins' cited statistics, writing that it's "a little hard to jibe with experience," since he sometimes meets devout Christians in church who also happen to be scientists (p. 39).

But consider what Marshall is suggesting to his readers here: that the statistics seem suspicious because he meets Christian scientists in church. Isn't this precisely where we would expect to find Christians (of all professions) on Sunday mornings? Clearly such an observation does nothing to deflate statistics from a properly-conducted survey. When I mentioned this to Marshall, he responded as follows:
"Your complaint about my response to the claim that relatively few scientists believe in God seems overly argumentative. My point wasn't that the data was wrong; only that based on my own experience, it seemed fishy. What I'm offering is a prima facia reason to look more carefully at the data. I didn't say only that scientists who are Christian are in church on Sunday. I said I often find the most committed Christians in many churches are scientists. But later I concede that the incidence of atheism among scientists is probably higher than the general public, and then offer some non-rational reasons why that might be so."
But it's hardly clear how meeting Christian scientists in church constitutes even a prima facie reason to be skeptical of the data. The claim made by Dawkins was not that all scientists are non-Christians; his claim was that a survey reported a particular correlation between being a scientist and being an atheist. Besides, do we need this sort of information in order to convince us that we should carefully evaluate the data?

DM: It is the glory of philosophers to be careful, so perhaps I shouldn't complain about Hedrick's criticism.  Except that I didn't say I "sometimes" meet pious scientists in church, I said I "often" do.  Also, I offered two other reasons to question Dawkins' presentation of the facts, which Landon neglects to mention, including a report from one of Dawkins' colleagues on the Oxford physics faculty on all the Christians there whom Dawkins appears to have overlooked.   

Anyway, again, I see nothing horribly defective about my procedure here.

Often, in my experience, when claims by experts look fishy, closer inspection shows they are fishy.  The phrase "Lies, damned lies, and government statistics" reflects the fact that this is a common experience.  A scientist who worked with Stephen Jay Gould said that he had great skill in finding the anomylous piece in a dig that ultimately led to a different understanding of the finding.  That skill, even if partially intuitive and wholly tentative, is I think to be cultivated, not summarily dismissed.  Misgivings are no substitute for strong empirical argument, but are often worth attending to. 

And of course if scientists really are unlikely to be Christians, one would expect fewer of them in church.  And if study of science eroded faith, one would expect scientific Christians who remain to be less enthusiastic about their beliefs.  That does not seem to be what I find.  So I continue to hold the stats, and my own experience, in a state of suspended judgement.  Experience, even without a "study" to back it up, is often a good reason to be extra cautious about alleged statistics, and what they might mean.  I hope such common critical reactions are not lost, enthralled as we now seem by silly headlines like (from an old Time Magazine cover), "Why are men and women different?  It isn't just upbringing.  New studies show they were born that way."   

IC. Are most atheists commies?   

There is at least one more incidence of this sort of problem in the book. On page 30, Marshall writes that "most atheists in modern times have been Marxists." But again there is no citation supporting the claim, it is just a bare assertion. Elsewhere, I believe he has pointed to the Soviet Union and China as virtual oceans of atheists. But even so, how many of these people were really atheists (by whatever definition of the word Marshall is working with)? And how many were really Marxists? Presumably, it must mean something to be a Marxist (perhaps a belief in some set of doctrines laid out in the writings of Marx himself, or an avid reader of those writings, or even just somebody who claims to be a Marxist). Whatever Marshall means by these words, we cannot simply assume that everyone living in a communist country is or was a Marxist. And even if we could, this still doesn't tell us anything about the number of atheists among these people, or how these numbers compare to non-Marxist atheists in modern times. When confronted with this challenge, Marshall responded:
"You complain that I don't cite the claim that "most atheists in modern times have been Marxists." But later in the book, I describe the role atheism played in Marxist ideology in some detail. There are only some ten million atheists in the United States, but hundreds of millions in communist China, who learned disbelief from Marxist teachers. (How do I know? I've been studying communist history, and talking to Chinese young people about their beliefs, for decades. Take my word for it. Or check my sources.) And many atheists in Western Europe and America during the 20th Century were also Marxists.... And my estimate that most modern atheists have been Marxists, at least in the sense that they imbibed Marxist ideology from the same source that they learned atheism, is almost certainly true."
I responded by pointing out that he still had not provided a study or survey which proved his claim, and that merely living in a Communist country probably does not qualify one as a Marxist. I further wrote:
"If Marshall has some evidence that most people who have claimed to be atheists in modern times have also claimed to be Marxists, he should have cited it when he made his claim. Either we take his word for it, as he suggests (since he's been studying this stuff and talking to some Chinese youngsters for decades), or Marshall can just point us to a study/survey which proves his point. I can't check all of his sources all the way through to see if they may have happened to include such a statistic."
And Marshall offered a longer response:

"A 2007 survey by scholars at East China Normal University of about 4500 people showed that a projected 300 million adults in China have some sort of religious belief. (Reported by BBC, Washington Post, etc.) That would leave some 700 million adults without a religious belief. How many are atheists? Given that atheism is what students have learned in school for the past 60 years, it would seem fairly safe to assume -- quite a few. My own small-scale survey supports this conclusion. When I ask Chinese to pick among a thirteen options (including three forms of Buddhism, two forms of Taoism, two forms of Christianity, Islam, "don't know," "am not sure" "other," and "atheism"), so far about 30% have indicated "atheist," and about the same percent was unsure, maybe agnostic. I haven't surveyed enough people yet for these numbers alone to be a strong argument, but this fits my general impression, in 23 years of talking with mainland Chinese. (Perhaps since before you were born.) Furthermore, religion has been growing rapidly -- before 1979, the percent of those who saw themselves as atheist was almost certainly a majority of the Chinese people.

You'll be hard-pressed to find 300 million atheists in all of the never-communist world. Four percent of Americans call themselves atheists; that's 12 million. About 18% of EU citizens call themselves atheists, according to a Eurostat poll reported on Wikipedia; that's perhaps 70 million. A lot of them are in post-communist countries, or have been Marxists in Western European countries. (French and Italian communist parties often received a quarter or more of the votes; German and other W European communist parties have also done quite well at different periods, drawing of course from atheists in particular.) Marxism in the former Soviet Union created hundreds of millions of avowed atheists over its run.

Atheists probably exist in small numbers in Muslim countries. All reports seem to indicate that atheism is very rare in Africa. Atheists in Latin America are often Marxist, and appear to be few in number. (The World Almanac, according to, counts 2.7 million.) As for India, (not always a very reliable site) gives just 2% non-religious OR atheist. Some of those are, of course, communists, which has been fairly strong in India.

Put all that together, and it's clear that in the broad sense of "Marxist," my comment was almost certainly correct. Over the past century, a large majority of atheists in the world have learned their atheism as part of a general Marxist education, and have been "Marxist" at least in that limited sense."
The survey that Marshall refers to, however, apparently measured how many people were religious--not how many were theists. One need not claim to be religious to believe in God (just like one could be a religious atheist). The numbers do not measure what Marshall wants them to, so he is forced to guess that the majority of non-religious people are atheists.

The other point to note, again, is that it's not entirely clear what it means to be a Marxist in Marshall's intended context. The context in his book referred to the "Marxist-Leninist enterprise," but here in his response he generalizes to the broader context of individuals who have received "a general Marxist education" (whatever that might mean).Is it a virtue for one's book to wallow in such ambiguity?

DM: My point about China can also be backed up with new data, now. The extensive Baylor survey of Chinese beliefs, led by Menchen, Carson, Byron Johnson & Rodney Stark (2010: ‘Final Report: The Empirical Study of Religions in China'), showed that about 77% of respondents said they lacked religious belief.   By some definitions these would be atheists.  My own survey last fall, less demographically complete, showed that a majority of college students I queried (about 60%) were atheists in the sense that they said their belief about God was that he did not exist. This percentage, however, dropped off for graduates by about half, to some 30%. 

This clearly suggests that a Marxist education was the cause of their disbelief.  Indeed, at the school at which I conducted the main part of this survey, Christians were actively suppressed.

While these numbers cannot be simply extrapolated to the country as a whole, since most respondents were northern intellectuals, what the survey did show was a close correlation between Marxist education and atheism.  Indeed, a large percentage of young repondents identified themselves as Marxists.

Given the results of all these surveys (if the experience of those, like myself and others, who have interacted with young Chinese for decades is not enough), it is evident there are hundreds of millions of atheists in China, who were taught atheism in school.  One can find millions more in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, North Korea, Mongolia, the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations, Cuba, and among Marxists in India, Western Europe, Africa, and the Americas. 

It is clear, then, that my point was again correct, even if not defined and footnoted to Landon's satisfaction. 

I have some sympathy for Landon's demand that I should have supported points 1 and 3 more thoroughly, but only a little. I was personally confident, being familiar with religion in Singapore and China, that what I was saying was correct, and these verifications do not add much to that confidence. Given that certainty, I knew that should anyone question my claims fairly, they would find them to be accurate.

If this sounds subjective, that is the point. 

It seems to me we often become helpless in the face of "scientific" claims, and too quickly discount the experience and common sense of practiced observers.  It may be better to gain a feeling for an author's credibility, than to always demand footnotes and exact figures.

If we do have the footnotes, it may give us a false sense of confidence.  Perhaps the footnoted information will prove ephemeral, if we track it down and closely examine it.  That may, in some cases, be why citations are given in the first place -- a kind of shell game, with the author hoping (or betting) that few of his readers will look up the studies he cites. 

Citations only take the demand for evaluating a writer back another step, to another set of people who may also be wrong.  Judgement, in the end, is what we must base our beliefs on: our own, and that of other people we trust. 

I am not deriding careful citations.  There are probably ten times as many solid, scholarly citations per page in The Truth Behind the New Atheism than in The God Delusion.  World religions, especially East Asian religions, is my field. I was being loose, but not careless or uninformed.  But in the end, an author's arguments are his own, and his credibility depends on what happens after critics start asking questions, and looking into the facts for themselves. 

A popular book is not a dissertation.  One must draw the line somewhere, if one wants a popular piece of writing to flow.   

But it doesn't hurt to have thoughtful critics, like Landon Hedrick, around to nip at one's tail, and encourage stronger arguments.


Brian Barrington said...

Studies of contemporary scientists repeatedly show that about 1/3 are atheists, 1/3 agnostic, and 1/3 have some belief in God (though whether that means they believe in an ominpotent, omnibenevolent God, like the Christian God, is doubtful). This is in stark contrast to the more than roughly 3/4 of the general US population which says they believe in God. And among scientists, self-identified Democrats (the more secular party) outnumber self-identified Republicans nine to one.

The results of the research make sense to me, and conform with my own personal experience of scientists. Scientists are used to looking at things from a strictly materialist or physical or naturalist perspective (some might even say that they look at things from an empirical, evidence-based and rational perspective), so it is plausible that they would on average have more of a tendency to reject superstition and the supernatural, or at least be doubtful about it.

Brian Barrington said...

It’s possible that there have always been a disproportionate number of non-theists in, say, China, since the main traditional teachings of that country (Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism) do not clearly advocate a theistic creed or dogma. For example, they have no equivalent of the Nicene Creed in Christianity or the Shahada in Islam. It may be possible to be a theist and also be a Confucianist, Taoist or Buddhist, but it is also possible to be a Confucianist, Taoist or Buddhist without being a theist.

These days there are very few Marxists, so most atheists are not Marxists. I know a lot of atheists, but I don’t know a single Marxist. And, of course, before the era of Marx, no atheists were Marxists. During the historically brief period when Marxism was popular in some places, a lot of Marxists were atheists and a good few atheists were Marxists, but I doubt we can say that most atheists were believing Marxists or genuine Marxists. In any case, Marxism is now mostly a historical curiosity – in the future, as in the present, most atheists will not be Marxists, and it is very liekly that there will be very few believing Marxists.

It’s possible that at the moment in some places in the Far East (like Singapore), Christians are on average more educated, although I don’t know how robust that claim is for the Far East as a whole. But I wonder what we could reasonably conclude from it? At the moment in the US, if a person is a Hindu they are much more likely to have graduate college education and be wealthy than a Christian. But can we conclude anything about Hinduism based on this? What we can reasonably say is that Christianity has always been a minority phenomenon in Asia, that world’s most populous continent, and that it will very likely remain so – in East Asia, Christians make up maybe 5% of the population, and in Asia as a whole maybe 7%.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: I think intellectuals are more inclined to atheism, and "ordinary people" are more inclined to a naive "faith in whatever sounds good." Gibbon noted the same tendency in ancient Rome. It's not limited to scientists: it includes all professors, and is stronger in particular fields like psychology, anthropology, and biology than in, say, physics or economics. Same with commitment to the Left.

The way I interpret my experience, is that scientists seem about as likely to be dedicated Christians, as non-scientists. Engineers, maybe more so -- one told me, "We engineers like things that work!" But they're less likely to be Jack Mormons or beer-swilling Baptists. I could be wrong, but I suspect the stats hide other phenomena, and as pointed out, in some countries, my impressions seem to be born out statistically.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: I know and have known lots of Marxists. Marxism may be a "historical curiosity" in Ireland, but you need about ten Irelands to make up the population of a single Chinese province. You're being provincial.

Your point about Hinduism is astute. Sociologically, most converts to radically different religions tend to be well-educated. That explains the popularity of atheism and Left-wing politics on campus, and of Christianity on campus in East Asia, and of followers of Rajneesh who had PhDs.

David B Marshall said...

Let me add, some of the Marxists I have known have been Westerers, including an American who emigrated to Italy after George Bush won the second time, and my Marxist philosophy prof and (apparently) many of his students. (One of whom died in Nicaragua in the war against the Contras.)

In Italy and France, the Communists sometimes got 20%, maybe 30% of the vote in the 70s. Don't assume all those people are all gone, or have become orthodox Catholics.

Brian Barrington said...

Well, if we look at the research about whether religion is important to people or not, we see some interesting results (see Gallup polls in link below). The LEAST religious places in the world (Japan, Hong Kong, Scandinavia, much of Western Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) are often the most stable, safest societies in the world, with the lowest crime rates, and the highest levels of social trust. And they are not “Marxist”. In contrast, the MOST religious places in the world (Sierra Leone, Burundi, Nigeria, the Congo, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Liberia, Haiti etc.) are very often some of the most backward, dangerous, least stable societies in the world. There are some exceptions to the trend, but the overall positive correlation between societal health and irreligiosity is, I think, unmistakeable. However, we can’t conclude from this that religion CAUSES countries to be screwed up. It’s far more likely that being screwed up CAUSES a country to be religious.

Fair enough about Marxism – no doubt there are still genuine Marxists in the Chinese provinces – although when I travelled around China it didn’t seem very Marxist to me – it seemed more like it was possessed by capitalist mania. In a very profound way, both the former USSR and China (in all but rhetoric) have to a considerable degree abandoned Marxism. At the very least, Marxism is much less important and believed in than it was even a few decades ago, and will very likely become ever less important and believed during the decades to come.

David B Marshall said...

Brian: No, China doesn't look very Marxist. I found that young people called themselves "Marxists," and seem to have been influenced by it to disbelief in "religion," but after they grow up all the way, often adopt other beliefs. (Not always.)

I think you're right about cause and effect. Japan was forcibly de-Christianized in the 17th Century. Taiwan is full of religions, as is Korea, which is about the best-educated, most stable and least violent society. Singapore has lots of "free-thinkers," but also very vibrant religious scene, with some huge megachurches, but also mosques, Hindu temples, Buddhist temples, and is a very attractive society.

In a sense, a falling away from faith, given prosperity, is predicted all through the Bible. The story is told many times in the OT, and Jesus' parable of the sower and the seed can be read that way, too. Often the foundations of prosperity were laid by religious reformers -- I tell the story of the Norwegian reformer, Hans Hauge, in another post -- but then prosperity leads to "worldliness," as the Bible calls it.

Brian Barrington said...

Young Chinese might feel obliged to answer “yes” when explicitly asked if they are Marxist (what options might they be closing off if the Communist Party found out that they have answered “no” to that question?), but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if most of them (and, indeed, most of the Communist Party) do not privately believe in Marxist ideology – if their actions and behaviour are anything to go by, they no longer believe it.

It’s not just wealth per se - if you focus on social indicators such as life-expectancy, literacy, infant mortality, homicide rates, incarceration rates, drug abuse, obesity, social mobility, trust (i.e. the proportion of people who agree with the statement “Most people be trusted”), teenage pregnancy and so on – the countries that score best are generally notable for being relatively secular and not very religious. These places tend to be egalitarian as well, with a relatively equal income distribution - if anything the positive correlation between societal flourishing and relative income equality is even higher for most social indicators - )

This trend applies even within countries, such as the USA. Broadly speaking, the most dynamic, innovative regions of the US (the great cities, the great universities, Silicon Valley, San Fransisco, Washington state, Massachusetts, New York City, Hollywood, and so on) are bastions of secularism and liberalism and cosmopolitan openness, teeming with homosexuals and other godless types – “Blue State” America. These are the regions that give the US its global-leadership in many technological and creative industries, and they are the true source of American greatness. If America just consisted of the less socially liberal “Red States” it would almost certainly not be such a cultural or technological global leader.

David B Marshall said...

The survey was anonymous: there was no way for me to know who filled out which form. Also, people wrote their opinions on the open questions quite freely, and with great diversity. Also, from talking with young people around China over the years, their responses made perfect sense. So no, I don't think many were just pretending.

I don't really buy Zuckermann's polls, because he tends to pick and choose societies that will confirm his thesis. He tended to ignore post-Soviet societies, where a high percent of respondants denied belief in God, and the crime rate was higher than anywhere else except maybe Latin America. He tended to ignore more religious, and very attractive, places like South Korea and Singapore. While he knew better, his polls are often interpretted as simple cause-and-effect. But the biggest problem with those polls is, they are like satellite photos from the sky. To figure out what's really going on, you need to observe individual lives and find out what role religion or irreligion really plays.

For example, this morning I was listening to a history of the AMerican 101st Airborne. One of the sargaents became a drunk after the war. If you'd asked him about his religious faith at that time, very likely he would have said, "I'm a Christian." But it didn't do him any good. Then his 4-year old niece came into his room, and said, "God loves you, and I love you. And if you repent of your sins, God will forgive you." Something like that. And that's what he did, and got his life straightened out. He said he only beat up one person after that, and that person needed it.

How would that story show up on Zuckermann's statistics? Christian before, Christian afterwards. Believer in God before, believer afterwards. Violent drunk before, beat up a guy afterwards.

What part of the US has the lowest crime rate? Rural, "uncreative" places like North Dakota. North Dakota is largely Scandinavian, and they have a LOWER murder rate than some Scandinavian countries. Also lots of pious Christians. (Many moved to Seattle early in the 20th Century.)

Here I am in Seattle, this great bastion of liberalism. I agree that pluralism, freedom and openness, corresponds to creativity. We seem to be very good at creating successful companies -- United, Boeing, UPS, Microsoft, this here Amazon, Starbucks. And yes, the percent who go to church is lower than in Mississippi or Alabama.

But I meet missionaries from Seattle all the time. World Vision and World Concern are located here, as is (sorry) Discovery Institute. Mars Hill Fellowship, one of the most famous and influential churches in the world, is based a few miles from the University of Washington, and is full of young, well-educated people. (In fact, if I were advising a young man to find a foxy girlfriend . . . wow, paradise.)

I believe in freedom. I think the Church screwed up by associating with the State too closely for too long. I think everybody does better in a free market of ideas.

But you've got me thinking about several interesting trends . . . One of them is a book in embryo, don't know if I should spill the beans for a blog . . . A big theme, covering millennia and continents.

Brian Barrington said...

Yeah, religion and faith can transform many people's lives for the better, and as you say, I'm just looking at the overall picture, which misses many nuances and individual cases. And rural areas or small communities do tend to have lower homicide rates and crime rates than big cities (although the biggest city in the world, Tokyo, is spectacularly, unbelievably crime free and safe, at least for such a big city). 

Singapore and South Korea come closer to the less religious end of the  Gallup polls (53% and 52% respectively saying that religion is not an important part of their daily lives, though these places also, of course, have thriving religious communities). Places like Russia have a lot of non-religious people and they also have a lot of serious problems, but they are also very unequal societies - like very unequal Latin America, which is very christian, and also, as you say, has high crime rates ... This is part of the reason I think the positive correlation between income equality and societal flourishing might be even higher ... But the question of cause and effect also comes into play here, since a statistical correlation does not necessarily establish a causal connection.

Seattle seems like a great place, and very creative ... Don't forget Fraser and Nirvana! I suppose organisations like the Discovery Institute are a price well worth paying for the blessing of living in a free society :-)

Anyway, good luck with your new book!

Brian Barrington said...

On the possibility of religion making people better, I am reminded of Evelyn Waugh. He was being rebuked for his general nastiness and verbal cruelty and someone asked him,"How can you possibly call yourself a Catholic?". He replied, "If I wasn't a catholic I'd be MUCH worse."

Anonymous said...

I did a little digging and I believe David Marshall has been a little sneaky with his sources. The book cited for the following claim can be found on Google Books. DM said: "In Singapore, while only 6.4% of those with less than secondary education counted themselves as Christian in 2000, a full 39.3% of those with university education did. (Eng, Lai Ah, 2008: editor, Religious Diversity in Singapore Singapore: Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, Institute of Policy Studies : Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 47.)"

Yes many Chinese who have higher levels of education are Christians but DM neglected to cite another figure. The following sentence was ignored in the same paragraph by DM: "Another 28.8 per cent of university graduates claimed to have 'No Religion'. In contrast, amongst those who had below secondary education, only 6.4. per cent were Christians while 7.7 per cent professed 'No Religion'." [Page 46]

There doesn't appear to be much of a difference between the higher educated and their religious beliefs. A higher educated Chinese is just about as likely to be an atheist as a Christian. That doesn't help his case much to support this argument about education and Christianity. To a degree I'd say it sort of undermines it.

David B Marshall said...

Ironic, when someone who won't give his name calls someone who does "sneaky."

A person without a religion need not be an "atheist." Especially in the Chinese context, where a person may only claim to have a religion if he or she goes to services. Anon doesn't know what he/ she is talking about.