The good that comes from belief?

November 10, 2007

I came across an opinion piece today in the Age, The good that comes from belief by Dr Andrew Singleton, a Sociology Lecturer at Monash University.

Hmm, this was a tricky one. I was expecting a pro religious piece, but was rather surprised to find him making an argument that not only is religion good, but it is better at producing moral people than atheism. It’s hard to question the specifics of his findings without access to the data (or the questions, methodology or metrics) used, but some of the inferences he made raised some red flags in the skeptical part of my brain.

ATHEISM is the “new black”. Of course, in Australia, we’ve always had atheists aplenty. Now, however, it is acceptable to come out of the closet of disbelief. The poster boy for this new atheism is British academic Richard Dawkins, whose book The God Delusion is a bestseller.

I realize that this is just a device to set the scene, but it kind of makes light of the way atheism was (and often still is) stigmatized. I also get a bit suspicious when Dawkins’ name gets thrown about in the first paragraph without any specific context – here it builds a strawman lumping all atheism under a specific leader of someone else’s choosing. I happen to like Dawkins. Others don’t. Either way he is an atheist, he is not atheism.

It is no surprise that atheists are finding their voice anew. Data from the most recent census show that more Australians do not identify with a religion. Indeed, the Christian denominations appear to be in steady decline, losing almost 7 per cent of those who previously identified with them in the decade to 2006. About 20 per cent of adults up to the age of 60 don’t believe in God. Most of these have never believed. Now though, they are comfortable saying so.

Which god specifically don’t they believe in? Use of the capital “g” suggests a single entity, and to be fair, most religious people don’t believe in each other’s gods either.

Endless media representations of religious-related violence, whether in Baghdad or Ambon, confirm for many the profound destructiveness of fundamentalism and sectarianism. At the same time, the religious beliefs of the US President seem hypocritical considering many of his Administration’s practices. And if they paid attention, unchurched Australians would hardly be impressed by the debates among Anglican leaders about female bishops.

For these kinds of reasons, more people seem to be concluding that we are better off without religion. And yet, as my colleagues and I document in our study of spirituality among young Australians, this is not necessarily the case. Religion is strongly associated with many positive life outcomes.

Yes, but any positives must still be considered in light of the bad things that were just stated. You don’t get to just ignore the negatives.

We found that one in five 13-to-24 year olds are actively religious, while about one in six could be described as atheists. The rest are religiously or spiritually disengaged but tend to either secular indifference or a superficial interest in the New Age.

Okay, red flag. What does he mean when he says “actively religious”? I doubt that he was so unspecific and vague when gathering data. Does his data look at all religions or just a subset? The blanket use of religion is somewhat suspect in its vagueness, while it appears to encompass the positives only.

Similarly, what is meant by described as atheists? Self described, or objectively categorized? And by what definition? Even atheists argue the belief versus lack of belief aspects of the term. Is there a distinction made between reasoned atheism and anti-theism? Because they are not the same.

As always with any statistics, the devil is in the details. The numbers don’t lie, but interpretation is everything.

But the most fascinating finding was the difference between the religious and the distinctly non-religious. The religiously active are more likely to have positive civic attitudes, display high levels of social concern and be actively involved in community service. Active Christians, for example, do much more hours of volunteer work per month than secular youth. On a measure of the extent to which a person holds positive human values – favouring an ethical life, justice for all and having an orientation to the common good – we also found the religiously active to be streets ahead.

Once again, with the vague term religious used here, it is difficult to determine just what group he is referring to. Religion isn’t just moderate suburban christian congregations, it’s Christian Scientists who let children die from lack of medical intervention, it’s radical Muslims strapping explosives to themselves in the name of martyrdom, it’s Catholics who discriminate against homosexuals and women and discourage the use of condoms in some of the most AIDS ridden regions of the world. It does not seem as though these negatives are reflected in his conclusions.

I also have to wonder what metrics were used to determine the relative moralities. He does not define what constitutes an ethical life, justice for all or the common good, nor does he mention how such things might be measured. A devout catholic for instance would consider homosexuality to be immoral, where as I see no problem – so on the topic of same sex marriage, is the opponent or the proponent the more ethical? And how much more ethical? It seems wildly subjective.

(And is “streets ahead” a technical term?)

These findings make sense when we consider that regular attendees at religious services are encouraged to lead altruistic and ethical lives and given ample opportunities to partake in community service.

Leaving aside for now the subjective nature of altruism, what does this actually tell us? That the religious lead supposedly more altruistic lives because they are encouraged to do so. So are they doing it because it is right, or because are told to?

What about the young atheists? Most secular-minded youth are more self-oriented because there is no widely understood or shared ethical alternative paradigm on which to model their lives. Despite recent commentary about “generation Y” being community-minded, our evidence suggests that the prevailing ethos of the past decade – individualism and consumerism – afflicts young people in spades. And the secular humanists and rationalists do not seem to be putting up a credible, earthly alternative way of life.

Firstly, these are children we are talking about. They will of course be more likely to undertake any action if pushed into it – sport, music, morris dancing, whatever, because that’s how children are trained – to bow to authority. But that’s a problem too, because the ethical actions of these children are largely based on scripture and authority. All children are told that stealing is wrong and why, only the religious are told that it is also wrong because god-said-so. So if the only thing that makes them more moral is the god-said-so, well that’s not more moral, that’s just more indoctrinated (be it through fear of punishment or anticipation of reward).

Such morals aren’t based on superior ethical reasoning, they are based on the authority of an omniscient and omnipresent invisible sky fairy. Teaching children to accept authority without evidence may be capable of achieving positive results, but does the end justify the means?

As for “no credible, earthly alternative way of life”? Is he serious? I’m not the biggest fan of the recent Secular Humanist approach to framing, but there is no denying that they offer a very well considered alternative way of life, based on philosophy and reason. To say that those without belief offer no credible alternative is just blatantly wrong and misleading.

(I can only presume that “in spades” is more technical jargon.)

So where does this leave the new breed of atheists? Perhaps the vociferous anti-religious types such as Dawkins could afford to be a little less triumphalist. Some may see religion as a tired old superstition, but it does produce our most ethical and caring young adults – believe it or not.

Ah, I wondered when Dawkins would make a reappearance*.

One might argue that religion is also capable of producing absolute monsters, and for that matter, people of all the shades in between. The ethics produced are based in scripture and authority as much as reason, and such indoctrination can work both ways. If we teach children that is reasonable to accept authority without evidence, we cripple their ability to think critically and evaluate evidence for themselves.

We can laud positives that come from religion, but if we are going to make comparisons, it is not intellectually honest to ignore the negatives while doing so.

*What is it about Dawkins that everyone feels the need to attack him personally to get a bit of vicarious credibility?

2 Responses to “The good that comes from belief?”

  1. CarrieP Says:

    Without any hard data in this essay, there’s nothing of substance here. It’s just an opinion piece–no facts, even though facts are claimed.

    On another note: you have *my* blog liked as the article, instead of Dr. Singleton’s Op-Ed. Not that I mind the publicity, but you may want to fix that post-haste.

  2. Dave Says:


    Must have been when I was putting you on my blogroll…fixed it now.

    And I agree. I think that statistics are a very useful measure, *but* without

    (a) the actual data and
    (b) a real understanding of how they work,

    the reader is left at the mercy of the interpretation of the person using them. Combine that with a topic as nebulous and subjective as morality and as you say – it’s nothing but opinion based on an argument from authority.

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