Too much religion a dangerous thing?

A poster on another list pointed out this LA Times article today, though it’s from Oct. 1: The dark side of faith [1]

Paul ranked societies based on the percentage of their population expressing absolute belief in God, the frequency of prayer reported by their citizens and their frequency of attendance at religious services. He then correlated this with data on rates of homicide, sexually transmitted disease, teen pregnancy, abortion and child mortality.

He found that the most religious democracies exhibited substantially higher degrees of social dysfunction than societies with larger percentages of atheists and agnostics. Of the nations studied, the U.S. — which has by far the largest percentage of people who take the Bible literally and express absolute belief in God (and the lowest percentage of atheists and agnostics) — also has by far the highest levels of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

There’s more, and I haven’t read the whole thing in depth yet, but this seems like a perfect discussion topic for the Street.

It’s not a new idea. Thomas Jefferson said (in a letter to Baron von Humboldt, 1813):

“History I believe furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance, of which their political as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purpose.”

It doesn’t look like the intervening two centuries have changed things much.

I posit that it’s not the religion per se that’s the problem, but rather the intractability of the “One True Way”-ists.

And of course the question becomes: what do those who consider themselves to be religious (or spiritual) do about it?


Amen!!! (4.00 / 2)

Especially your comment:

I posit that it’s not the religion per se that’s the problem, but rather the intractability of the “One True Way”-ists.

Islam is often described as the Hijacked Religion, but I think Christianity is just as bad. It’s not the religion, but those who claim to speak for religion who have political or personal ambitions.

One on One religion is best. Don’t take anyone’s word for it, experience it for yourself.

Faith is not believing something which our intelligence denies. Faith is the resolve to place the highest meaning on the facts which we observe.

by mondaymedia on Wed Oct 12th, 2005 at 13:48:52 PDT

actually (4.00 / 3)

This has been diaried three or four times and had also been posted by Pastordan on the front page back when this misleading “study” by a committed secular humanist came out. Think critically about it and you’ll realize that there are no grounds to assume that correlation equals causation. There are many possible reasons why countries with worse social problems are also relatively more religious. What you say about “One True Way-ism” may well be true, however I don’t see that this study sheds any light. Mostly it just led to a rash of editorials and blog posts proclaiming that religion in general is socially harmful.

by Elizabeth D on Wed Oct 12th, 2005 at 14:36:31 PDT

response to trauma (4.00 / 3)

i think much of the fundamentalism that we see as the problem is a response to trauma, expressed through religious means.  asked to bear a burden like that, many religious traditions buckle and begin participation in some of the problematic behaviors that the study refers to.  

We are being saved for hope.

Romans 8:24a

by martinguerre on Wed Oct 12th, 2005 at 14:50:21 PDT

Amen amen (4.00 / 2)

I hadn’t heard Jefferson’s remark.  You’re on the money that things are much the same two centuries later.  Political and religious leaders have many ways to try to extinguish the power of critical thinking.  Abusing patriotism is one.  Abusing religion is another.

by Liberal Protestant on Wed Oct 12th, 2005 at 15:08:51 PDT

Bunk (4.00 / 3)

I think this study sounds a little shady personally.  I don’t think it’s the religiocity of a country that causes problems like teen pregnancy, crimes, murders, etc…  I think there are a lot of other factors that are completely ignored by this study.  For instance, media.  I haven’t seen much foreign media, but I would guess that violence on TV and in movies probably contributes to the rate of violent crime.  I would guess that the teen pregnancy/abortion rate has direct correllation to society’s views of the sacred nature of sex.  Sexually transmitted deases is a two-fold problem…First being the lack of use of protection, which I will admit is drawn partly from religious views, but the other factor is the aforementioned attitudes towards sex in society…  

I think this study is taking one narrow statistic, and trying to tie it to some unrelated problems.  I think the study seems rather un-scientific to me.  I haven’t read the actual study, but I don’t believe that what it says is true.  I don’t think that a country’s faith causes the problems mentioned…

by aegisys on Wed Oct 12th, 2005 at 15:25:13 PDT

Other founders quotes (none / 0)

This diary has been discussed here several times.  So I am not going to address it agains.  However here are some other founders quotes including many by Jefferson.

Founders and religion quotes:

House Judiciary Committee 1854:

There certainly can be no doubt as to the practice of employing chaplains in deliberative bodies previous to the adoption of the Constitution. We are, then, prepared to see if any change was made in that respect in the new order of affairs. . . . On the 1st day of May [1789], Washington’s first speech was read to the House, and the first business after that speech was the appointment of Dr. Linn as chaplain. By whom was this plan made? Three out of six of that joint committee were members of the Convention that framed the Constitution. Madison, Ellsworth, and Sherman passed directly from the hall of the [Constitutional] Convention to the hall of Congress. Did they not know what was constitutional? . . . It seems to us that the men who would raise the cry of danger in this state of things would cry fire on the 39th day of a general deluge. . . . But we beg leave to rescue ourselves from the imputation of asserting that religion is not needed to the safety of civil society. It must be considered as the foundation on which the whole structure rests. Laws will not have permanence or power without the sanction of religious sentiment–without a firm belief that there is a Power above us that will reward our virtues and punish our vices. [1]

Whereas, the people of these United States, from their earliest history to the present time, have been led by the hand of a kind Providence and are indebted for the countless blessings of the past and present, and dependent for continued prosperity in the future upon Almighty God; and whereas the great vital and conservative element in our system is the belief of our people in the pure doctrines and divine truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ, it eminently becomes the representatives of a people so highly favored to acknowledge in the most public manner their reverence for God: therefore, Resolved, That the daily sessions of this body be opened with prayer and that the ministers of the Gospel in this city are hereby requested to attend and alternately perform this solemn duty. [2]

From Jefferson’s first Inaugural address:

Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal and Republican principles, our attachment to union and representative government. Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter–with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people?

and from his secound:

In matters of religion I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the General Government. I have therefore undertaken on no occasion to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it, but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of the church or state authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies.

No nation has ever existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man and I, as Chief Magistrate of this nation, am bound to give it the sanction of my example. [16] *

*In an 1803 federal Indian treaty, Jefferson willingly agreed to provide $300 to “assist the said Kaskaskia tribe in the erection of a church” and to provide “annually for seven years $100 towards the support of a Catholic priest.” He also signed three separate acts setting aside government lands for the sole use of religious groups and setting aside government lands so that Moravian missionaries might be assisted in “promoting Christianity.” [6]

When Washington D. C. became the national capital in 1800, Congress voted that the Capitol building would also serve as a church building. [7] *President Jefferson chose to attend church each Sunday at the Capitol [8] and even provided the service with paid government musicians to assist in its worship. [9] Jefferson also began similar Christian services in his own Executive Branch, both at the Treasury Building and at the War Office. [10]

Jefferson proposed that the Great Seal of the United States depict a story from the Bible and include the word “God” in its motto; [13]


We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings that except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it. I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without His concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel. . . . I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth, prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessings on our deliberations be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more clergy of the city be requested to officiate in that service. [21] Benjamin Franklin, Signer of the Constitution, Signer of the Declaration, Governor of Pennsylvania

The founders on Thomas Paine:

It would be difficult to name a single one of the Founding Fathers who approved of Paine’s Age of Reason, his famous tract attacking religion in general and evangelical Christianity in particular. Even less-than-evangelicals like Benjamin Franklin and the “Unitarians” all denounced Paine’s book.

Before Paine published his Age of Reason, he sent a manuscript copy to Benjamin Franklin, seeking his thoughts. Notice Franklin’s strong and succinct reply, and keep in mind that those on all sides of the religion question would concede Franklin to be one of the least religious Founders:

    I have read your manuscript with some attention. By the argument it contains against a particular Providence, though you allow a general Providence, you strike at the foundations of all religion. For without the belief of a Providence that takes cognizance of, guards, and guides, and may favor particular persons, there is no motive to worship a Deity, to fear his displeasure, or to pray for his protection. I will not enter into any discussion of your principles, though you seem to desire it. At present I shall only give you my opinion that . . . the consequence of printing this piece will be a great deal of odium drawn upon yourself, mischief to you, and no benefit to others. He that spits into the wind, spits in his own face. But were you to succeed, do you imagine any good would be done by it? . . . [T]hink how great a portion of mankind consists of weak and ignorant men and women and of inexperienced, inconsiderate youth of both sexes who have need of the motives of religion to restrain them from vice, to support their virtue . . . . I would advise you, therefore, not to attempt unchaining the tiger, but to burn this piece before it is seen by any other person . . . . If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be without it? I intend this letter itself as proof of my friendship.[2]

Samuel Adams was not quite as cordial as Franklin:

    [W]hen I heard you had turned your mind to a defence of infidelity, I felt myself much astonished and more grieved that you had attempted a measure so injurious to the feelings and so repugnant to the true interest of so great a part of the citizens of the United States. The people of New England, if you will allow me to use a Scripture phrase, are fast returning to their first love. Will you excite among them the spirit of angry controversy at a time when they are hastening to amity and peace? I am told that some of our newspapers have announced your intention to publish an additional pamphlet upon the principles of your Age of Reason. Do you think your pen, or the pen of any other man, can unchristianize the mass of our citizens, or have you hopes of converting a few of them to assist you in so bad a cause?[3]

John Adams certainly spoke harshly of such anti-Christian propaganda:

    The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue equity and humanity, let the Blackguard [scoundrel, rogue] Paine say what he will.[4]

Far from opposing “the God of the Old and New Testaments,” Adams defended the Bible as the basis for government in a Christian nation:

    Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited! Every member would be obliged in conscience, to temperance, frugality, and industry; to justice, kindness, and charity towards his fellow men; and to piety, love, and reverence toward Almighty God…. What a Eutopia, what a Paradise would this region be.” [5]

This was, in fact, the basis for the system of government in America, as Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson on June 28, 1813:

    The general principles, on which the Fathers achieved independence, were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could Unite….And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all these Sects were United: . . . Now I will avow, that I then believe, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System. [6]

    * Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote to his friend and signer of the Constitution John Dickenson that Paine’s Age of Reason was “absurd and impious.”[7]
    * Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration, described Paine’s work as “blasphemous writings against the Christian religion.”[8]
    * John Witherspoon, signer of the Declaration and mentor to many other Founders, said that Paine was “ignorant of human nature as well as an enemy to the Christian faith.”[9]
    * John Quincy Adams declared that “Mr. Paine has departed altogether from the principles of the Revolution.” [10]

Elias Boudinot, President of Congress, even published the Age of Revelation — a full-length rebuttal to Paine’s work. In a letter to his daughter, Susan, Boudinot described his motivations for writing that rebuttal:

    I confess that I was much mortified to find the whole force of this vain man’s genius and art pointed at the youth of America. . . . This awful consequence created some alarm in my mind lest at any future day, you, my beloved child, might take up this plausible address of infidelity; and for want of an answer at hand to his subtle insinuations might suffer even a doubt of the truth, as it is in Jesus, to penetrate your mind. . . . I therefore determined . . . to put my thoughts on the subject of this pamphlet on paper for your edification and information, when I shall be no more. I chose to confine myself to the leading and essential facts of the Gospel which are contradicted or attempted to be turned into ridicule by this writer. I have endeavored to detect his falsehoods and misrepresentations and to show his extreme ignorance of the Divine Scriptures which he makes the subject of his animadversions — not knowing that “they are the power of God unto salvation, to every one that believeth [Romans 1:16].”[11]

Patrick Henry, too, wrote a refutation of Paine’s work which he described as “the puny efforts of Paine.” However, after reading Bishop Richard Watson’s Apology for the Bible written against Paine, Henry deemed that work sufficient and decided not to publish his reply.[12]

When William Paterson, signer of the Constitution and a Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, learned that some Americans seemed to agree with Paine’s work, he thundered:

    Infatuated Americans, why renounce your country, your religion, and your God? Oh shame, where is thy blush? Is this the way to continue independent, and to render the 4th of July immortal in memory and song?[13]

Zephaniah Swift, author of America’s first law book, warned:

    [W]e cannot sufficiently reprobate the beliefs of Thomas Paine in his attack on Christianity by publishing his Age of Reason . . . . He has the impudence and effrontery [shameless boldness] to address to the citizens of the United States of America a paltry performance which is intended to shake their faith in the religion of their fathers . . . . No language can describe the wickedness of the man who will attempt to subvert a religion which is a source of comfort and consolation to its votaries [devout worshipers] merely for the purpose of eradicating all sentiments of religion.[14]

John Jay, co-author of the Federalist Papers and the original Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was comforted by the fact that Christianity would prevail despite Paine’s attack:

    I have long been of the opinion that the evidence of the truth of Christianity requires only to be carefully examined to produce conviction in candid minds, and I think they who undertake that task will derived advantages. . . . As to The Age of Reason, it never appeared to me to have been written from a disinterested love of truth or of mankind.[15]

Many other similar writings could be cited, but these are sufficient to show that Paine’s views were strongly rejected even by the least religious Founders. In fact, Paine’s views caused such vehement public opposition that — as Franklin predicted — he spent his last years in New York as “an outcast” in “social ostracism” and was buried in a farm field because no American cemetery would accept his remains.[16]

Yet, even Thomas Paine cannot be called an atheist, for in the same work wherein he so strongly attacked Christianity, Paine also declared:

    I believe in one God . . . and I hope for happiness beyond this life.[17]

The Founding Fathers simply were not atheists — not even one of them. As Franklin had earlier explained to his European hosts while in France:

    [B]ad examples to youth are more rare in America, which must be comfortable consideration to parents. To this may be truly added, that serious religion, under its various denominations, is not only tolerated, but respected and practiced. Atheism is unknown there; infidelity rare and secret; so that persons may live to a great age in that country, without having their piety shocked by meeting with either an atheist or an infidel.[18]

While members of the Supreme Court have held that government cannot show “respect” for religion, Franklin says the opposite. [note: link updated]

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;if he is thirsty, give him something to drink…”
*Romans 12 vrs 20*

by TeresaInPa on Wed Oct 12th, 2005 at 16:08:34 PDT

Too much religion (none / 0)

is not a problem. Too much blind and unquestioning faith is.

The Ten Thousand Things

by Andrew C White on Wed Oct 12th, 2005 at 21:45:16 PDT

Yep, (none / 1)

That pretty much covers it.

My son had some “discipline” problems in early grade school (he’s well over them now). One of the things I kept telling him was that getting angry wasn’t the problem, that emotions happen — what I expected him to take responsibility for and control were his actions, what he did or said when he got angry.

It’s the same way with religion. It’s what people do unto others that’s more relevant to things like crime rates than just what they believe.

It’s early — I’m getting long winded when others have said it at least as well if not better already :-).

by Morgan on Thu Oct 13th, 2005 at 06:53:14 PDT

Study says less than it should (none / 0)

The study itself is up at [note: link updated].

Here is the telling paragraph, in my opinion:
“Regression analyses were not executed because of the high variability of degree of correlation, because potential causal factors for rates of societal function are complex, and because it is not the purpose of this initial study to definitively demonstrate a causal link between religion and social conditions.”

So no pithy statements are fair. Also, because other factors might dominate in the cause of societal ills, these conclusions are interesting coincidences.

The fact that the United States is an outlier in the graphs is another clue that something fishy is going on; the US is not just extremely “religious”, it also accepts a large income gap between rich and poor, is the world’s number one arms dealer and defense spender, is geographically and ethnically diverse, and so on. Maybe the income gap leaves more people in the gutter, where “higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion”. Maybe the fact that we buy lots of bombs and cut Medicaid is a public health crisis. Maybe it’s racism.

Another fishy outlier, Japan is supposed to prove the thesis that atheism is correlated with health because it scores particularly low on “take Bible literally” and “absolutely believe in God”, and scores high in social health and belief in human evolution. But these facts about Bible and God don’t make Japan’s society secular, it just means that Japan’s religion is not monotheistic: “both Shinto and Buddhist 84%, other 16% (including Christian 0.7%)”. Maybe the key to social health is having more than one religion, the more the better. A false dichotomy between atheism and monotheism (excluding other religions or dimensions of religion) pervades the study.

The nuances are not being hashed out, they’re being washed out. Read it and see.

Letters and Papers

by Dan A Lewis on Thu Oct 13th, 2005 at 12:35:02 PDT

[1] link originally to,0,7992414,print.story?coll=la-news-comment-opinions

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