The paper carries the daunting title “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies.” The writing is appropriately dry, but it is dry like tinder is dry, and when it was discovered, the tinder was set alight. Now it is burning hot under the skin of Christian believers and thinkers.
This is what it finds:
“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 developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly.”
And with that, its author, paleontologist Gregory Paul of Baltimore, joined the Antichrist of the Month Club.
In the lions’ den
There is a large and robust Christian constituency in the world of Weblogs, and they put Paul on the rack:
- “This intellectually lazy, communist, radical, 1960’s leftover freakoid is doing his fake research at your expense ...”
- “... completely biased and evidently untrained in proper research techniques.”
- “... incompetent to the point of fraud.”
More mainstream religious leaders and thinkers also weighed in.
The Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., wrote in his Web journal: “Here’s how to stack a deck for a false argument. Collect unrelated statistics and pass them off as proving causation.” The Canadian affiliate of Focus on the Family, the Colorado-based evangelical ministry that is highly influential in religious conservative politics, complained that Paul’s numbers did not “measure up with reality.”
And most significantly, George H. Gallup Jr. — of the Gallup Poll — concluded that “it is important to challenge Paul’s assertion forthrightly, because the casual, non-research-minded reader might easily accept his conclusion as entirely plausible on the face of it.”
To which Paul says: “I knew it was going to happen. If I lived in France and published something like this, nobody would care. I live in the United States. I knew this was going to happen.”
Be careful what you read
Much of the criticism stems from the newspaper article that brought Paul’s paper to public attention. Published in September by The Times of London, it reported: “Religious belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published today.”
Paul was quickly skewered for mixing up correlation and causation. Just because the United States has the highest rate of religious faith and the highest crime rate doesn’t mean religion causes crime.
In fact, Paul’s paper — published in The Journal of Religion and Society by Creighton University, a Jesuit college in Omaha, Neb. — explicitly states that it “is not an attempt to present a definitive study that establishes cause versus effect between religiosity, secularism and societal health.” But that disclaimer was ignored in the Times report.
In all the confusion over what Paul said or didn’t say, his real contention is often missed. He explained that his research wasn’t really about the United States; it was about the other well-off Western democracies where religious belief is comparatively low. He wanted to examine the idea that a “secularized” society would do worse than a faithful society, which he called “a common theme of many religious people — not all of them, but many.”
“What my study shows is that’s simply not true,” Paul said in an interview.
“In Western society, there are many, many secularized nations that are performing quite well socially. So that’s the main conclusion,” he said. “What I’ve done is I’ve falsified what I call the creationist social hypothesis, and I’ve done that forever. You can never make the claim again that it’s impossible to have a society that’s non-religious that does well.”
What does the paper really show?
Critics who have studied his paper argue that Paul is being too cute by half. MSNBC.com asked statistical and assessment experts to review Paul’s methodology, and while they largely concluded that the study was sound, some said his critics have a point.
Any statistician or social scientist will tell you that showing a correlation between two facts doesn’t mean much. If you like, you can also show a correlation between Paul’s indicators and time zones (the United States spans more than any other nation studied) or the number of McDonald’s restaurants or the number of national leaders named Bush.
The only point to demonstrating a correlation is to lay the groundwork for further study. Dr. Jennie Robinson Kloos, a specialist in assessment methodology at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn., said you would then examine whether one factor causes the other, whether a third entity might be causing both or whether the correlation is a coincidence.
Paul said that’s exactly what he intended. His paper was “a first, brief look at an important subject that has been almost entirely neglected by social scientists ...,” he wrote. “It is hoped that these original correlations and results will spark future research and debate on the issue.”
But others — including statisticians consulted by MSNBC.com who tentatively endorsed his work — aren’t so sure. Unless you have a point to make, why go to all that trouble?
They point to a lengthy segment in Paul’s paper that suggests a second correlation between belief in evolution and lack of religious faith. The statisticians remarked that — regardless of whether that was true — it was an odd point to make in a paper about social pathologies.
“One might argue that it’s silly to take a statistical measurement indicating belief in God and another indicating acceptance of evolution, draw a correlation, and extrapolate tons of conclusions about what this means for the state of these nations,” Kloos said.
But when you consider Greg Paul himself, it begins to make sense.
An author open about his biases
Paul, 50, a widely admired authority in dinosaur paleontology, is firmly in the pro-evolution, anti-creationist camp. “I‘m an agnostic, and I do have a viewpoint,” he said. “That’s important for people to know, and I don’t hide that.”
But it’s also irrelevant to whether his research is sound, he said. All that matters is whether it holds up.
The Journal of Religion and Science is a peer-reviewed, or “refereed,” journal, so Paul’s article would have been read and approved by a panel of outside experts. Because Paul was not identified in the article beyond his name and because he has not published previously on the subject, the panel most likely would not have known that he is not trained in sociology or religion, nor that he holds a strong anti-creationist view.
“It came back with the normal criticisms [and] suggestions for changes,” Paul said. “We went back and forth, and eventually it ended up being in publishable form, and there you go.”
Paul said he got the impression that the reviewers “might have been a bit uncomfortable, but they couldn’t find any major flaws with it, so they did the proper thing and published it.”
The journal’s editor, Dr. Ronald A. Simkins, did not reply to e-mail and telephone requests for an interview.
Seeking out the spotlight
If anything, Paul is happy about the controversy, even the attacks. They only serve to draw more attention to his research, which he says is unprecedented.
“I started looking at the literature, and I couldn’t find anything, and I started calling up sociologists and they said, nope, nobody’s done that sort of thing,” he said. “So I actually ended up opening a new field of research.”
Tim Cupery, a sociologist of religion at the University of North Carolina who otherwise dismisses Paul’s findings, said that on that score, he’s right. “A lot of American Christians have just kind of expected that European democracies which have low rates of religious faith would have more social problems,” he said.
“The question is very interesting,” Cupery said. It’s too bad, he added, that “half the statements [in Paul’s paper] are wrong.”
But Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist seminary — even as he questions Paul’s academic credentials and data — now says it doesn’t really matter whether he’s right or wrong. His paper sends the wrong message because it asks the wrong questions.
Sure, he’s concerned that “there were those trying to make the argument that a society made up of secular citizens would be better off than one made up of Christian citizens,” he said.
But “I also wanted to warn Christians that the argument for the truth of the Christian faith is independent of the social science statistics. It actually has very little to do with suggesting to a society that if you adopt [Christianity], you will better off as a people,” he said.
“I would go so far to say that I would not want a person to become a Christian because they want to see a lowering in social pathologies, but because they’ve come to believe in Christ.”