Why is land of the faithful pockmarked with varied ills?

Published October 30, 2005

We Americans fancy ourselves a godly people, and the statistics bear it out. You'd have to look to Iran or some other Third-World theocracy - but certainly not any other industrialized democracy - for another country with so much public piety and so many professed and practicing believers.

Then why is this such an ungodly place as so many social statistics seem to say? If civic virtue truly walked hand in hand with faith, shouldn't we be healthier than our secular and cynical cousins in Western Europe and Japan?

It's time we asked, but woe to those who do.

The current whipping boy of the religious right is a Baltimore scientist named Gregory S. Paul. The object of their outrage is his article in the September Journal of Religion and Society entitled, "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies."

It takes titles like that to get published. Even at that, several other journals refused to touch it. But at last one did You can read the article for yourself at http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html)

To Paul's surprise, he could find no prior research in that vein. So he did it, comparing published statistics on crime, health and mortality with data on religiosity among the major industrial democracies.

"In general," he wrote, "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 ... sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly. The view of the U.S. as a "shining city on the hill' atop the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health."

This was heresy to the columnists and bloggers of the Far Right. Unable to refute the statistics, they have been misrepresenting the conclusions.

The Wall Street Journal, for example, ran a column accusing Paul of trying to prove that religious belief "actually causes social disintegration." Religious blogs exulted in the discovery that Paul is not a social scientist but a paleontologist who has written about dinosaurs and is obviously a believer in evolution.

So? Science is science, which is the point of keeping religion, in whatever guise, out of the science curriculum. The creationists want it there, Paul suspects, because of a fear that a materialistic society will be an unhealthy one. That did have a lot to do with his interest in comparing the indicia of religiosity and social welfare.

But precisely because he is a scientist, Paul did NOT assert that correlation proves causation. Correlation simply establishes the need for more research, in this case into what causes the United States, as he puts it, to be "the least efficient Western nation in terms of converting wealth into cultural and physical health."

These are the sort of questions a lot of people don't want answered. For example: To what extent is the religious pressure against sex education responsible for teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease?

Paul suspects, though he didn't say so in the article, that organized religion has a lot to do with the failure to achieve universal health care.

"Why is it that Christian America has the highest mortality rate?," he asked in an interview. "Because we don't have universal health care. If you want to save lives, you have a government health-care system." His theory: The religious right opposes it for fear that it would put some faith-based charities out of business.

It wasn't so long ago that evangelical Christianity and social populism went hand in hand. It was Harry Truman, a Southern Baptist, who fought the greatest fight for universal health care. One of my most politically liberal college professors made a point of telling us that he was a religious fundamentalist, and he was by no means unusual.

But millions of people of similar faith have now been turned against their own best interests by special interests that shrewdly exploit social issues to enrich themselves at the expense of the faithful. The best treatise on this is Thomas Frank's book What's the Matter with Kansas?

A popular title for Paul's article could have been "What's the matter with the United States?" Why are so many people afraid of the answers?

Martin Dyckman's e-mail address is madyckman@verizon.net