The Dark Side of Faith
October 1, 2005
The dark side of faith
By ROSA BROOKS
It's official: Too much religion may be a dangerous thing.
This is the implication of a study reported in the current issue of
the Journal of Religion and Society, a publication of Creighton
University's Center for the Study of Religion. The study, by
evolutionary scientist Gregory S. Paul, looks at the correlation
between levels of "popular religiosity" and various "quantifiable
societal health" indicators in 18 prosperous democracies, including the
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.
â€” 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) â€” also has by far the highest levels of
homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
This conclusion will come as no surprise to those who have long
gnashed their teeth in frustration while listening to right-wing
evangelical claims that secular liberals are weak on "values." Paul's
study confirms globally what is already evident in the U.S.: When it
comes to "values," if you look at facts rather than mere rhetoric, the
substantially more secular blue states routinely leave the Bible Belt
red states in the dust.
Murder rates? Six of the seven states with the highest 2003 homicide
rates were "red" in the 2004 elections (Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada,
Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina), while the deep blue Northeastern
states had murder rates well below the national average. Infant
mortality rates? Highest in the South and Southwest; lowest in New
England. Divorce rates? Marriages break up far more in red states than
in blue. Teen pregnancy rates? The same.
Of course, the red/blue divide is only an imperfect proxy for levels
of religiosity. And while Paul's study found that the correlation
between high degrees of religiosity and high degrees of social
dysfunction appears robust, it could be that high levels of social
dysfunction fuel religiosity, rather than the other way around.
Although correlation is not causation, Paul's study offers much food
for thought. At a minimum, his findings suggest that contrary to
popular belief, lack of religiosity does societies no particular harm.
This should offer ammunition to those who maintain that religious
belief is a purely private matter and that government should remain
neutral, not only among religions but also between religion and lack of
religion. It should also give a boost to critics of "faith-based"
social services and abstinence-only disease and pregnancy prevention
We shouldn't shy away from the possibility that too much religiosity
may be socially dangerous. Secular, rationalist approaches to
problem-solving emphasize uncertainty, evidence and perpetual
reevaluation. Religious faith is inherently nonrational.
This in itself does not make religion worthless or dangerous. All
humans hold nonrational beliefs, and some of these may have both
individual and societal value. But historically, societies run into
trouble when powerful religions become imperial and absolutist.
The claim that religion can have a dark side should not be news. Does
anyone doubt that Islamic extremism is linked to the recent rise in
international terrorism? And since the history of Christianity is every
bit as blood-drenched as the history of Islam, why should we doubt that
extremist forms of modern American Christianity have their own
pernicious and measurable effects on national health and well-being?
Arguably, Paul's study invites us to conclude that the most serious
threat humanity faces today is religious extremism: nonrational,
absolutist belief systems that refuse to tolerate difference and
My prediction is that right-wing evangelicals will do their best to
discredit Paul's substantive findings. But when they fail, they'll just
shrug: So what if highly religious societies have more murders and
disease than less religious societies? Remember the trials of Job? God
likes to test the faithful.
To the truly nonrational, even evidence that on its face undermines
your beliefs can be twisted to support them. Absolutism means never
having to say you're sorry.
And that, of course, is what makes it so very dangerous.