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     2005 study by Gregory Paul has become another atheist banner of atheistic superiority over theism. This study is offered by some militant atheists as definitive evidence that atheism has the power to produce a more moral and ethical society than religion. In fact, Paul proposes that when Western secular societies’ crime rates are compared with the crime rates of more religious Western nations, the former show the lowest rates. Are his conclusions justified?

Paul's study was published in the Journal of Religion and Society in 2005.[i] Please note  Paul’s introductory remark and keep this statement in mind, as it glaringly contradicts a later statement.

“This is not an attempt to present a definitive study that establishes cause versus effect between religiosity, secularism and societal health.”

Unfortunately, some of Paul’s militant atheist admirers did not follow his advice. Since his work was published, several have been offering Paul’s research as "incontrovertible" evidence that unbelief , indeed, leads to more ethical societies than does Religion.

The following are Paul's conclusions:

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. Higher rates of non-theism and acceptance of human evolution usually correlate with lower rates of dysfunction, and the least theistic nations are usually the least dysfunctional. None of the strongly secularized, pro-evolution democracies is experiencing high levels of measurable dysfunction. In some cases the highly religious U.S. is an outlier in terms of societal dysfunction from less theistic but otherwise socially comparable secular developed democracies.

From this point on Paul’s language becomes less cautious.   

“In other cases, the correlations are strongly graded, sometimes outstandingly so.

But there is more. Notice the "increasingly" confident tone as we move along in his article.

Indeed, the data examined in this study “demonstrates” (The cautious language is now totally gone) only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical “cultures of life” that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion. The least theistic secular developed democracies such as Japan, France, and Scandinavia have been most successful in these regards.

The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted. (You may have noted that this statement contradicts Paul’s introductory remark: “This is not an attempt to present a definitive study that establishes cause versus effect between religiosity, secularism and societal health.” )

From caution Paul graduates to a noticeable level of overconfidence.

Contradicting these conclusions requires demonstrating a positive link between theism and societal conditions in the first world with a similarly large body of data - a doubtful possibility in view of the observable trends.

Paul’s self-confidence is, of course, unfounded. In a later issue of the same journal Paul’s “findings” were closely scrutinized by Gary F. Jensen from Vanderbilt University and they were found wanting.

Paul focuses primarily on the high homicide rate and other selected ills characterizing the United States in a set of eighteen prosperous nations, attributing that unique position to a high level of religiosity. This approach can be badly misleading and a similar approach could be taken to highlight problems in more secular nations. For example, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and seven other nations have higher burglary rates than the United States (based on Interpol and United Nations data). The United States ranks ninth in cirrhosis death rates with at least four of the secular nations, including Japan, Denmark, France, and Germany exhibiting higher rates. The United States ranks thirteenth in suicide rates, seventh in estimates of daily consumption of narcotic drugs (Interpol estimates), and fourteenth in estimates of net annual alcohol consumption (Interpol estimates). In short, Paul’s analysis generates the “desired results” by selectively choosing the set of social problems to include to highlight the negative consequences of religion.[ii]     

Gerson Moreno-Riaño et al., from Cedarville University, also analyzed Paul’s article and offered their critique in a later issue of the same journal.[iii]  The three academics analyzed the methodology used by Paul and expressed their view "...once all of the methodological issues are considered, Paul's findings and conclusions are rendered ineffectual."

More specifically, they saw problems in the area of definitions and his execution of the analysis.

The study presented in Paul’s essay suffers both from a serious lack of conceptual and operational clarity as it regards religiosity and secularism rendering both the methods and findings at best unclear and at worse highly invalid. Nowhere in Paul’s essay does one encounter clear and succinct definitions of either of the concepts in question. Even if one sets aside the above methodological difficulties that frame Paul’s study, his execution of the analysis leaves much to be desired. As noted earlier, Paul states his findings in strong language, but throughout his analysis, he handles his data with uncharacteristic modesty. In truth, his analysis has much to be modest about.

Their conclusion?

What one can state with certainty is that one cannot in any way be certain as to the effects of religiosity and secularism upon prosperous democracies at least as based upon the methods and data of Paul’s study.

They then proceed to offer variables that can also have a substantial impact on high crime rates or lack thereof that Paul failed to take into consideration. “It is acknowledged that other important issues besides these should be addressed (e.g., the contribution of various societal structures [e.g., police enforcement, diet, attitudes toward sexuality] to societal health).”

But there is more. George Gallup, from the Institute of Public Opinion came across Paul’s study and also found it void of credibility. In a letter to VirtueOnline,[iv] Gallup describes Paul’s comments as being “outrageous.” He went on to add the following:

"Gregory Paul's conclusion is based on a flawed analysis according to my research associate, D Michael Lindsay, an expert in the department of sociology at Princeton University. After carefully examining Paul's international study, Mr. Lindsay maintains that it does not pass scholarly muster."

Gallup also adds 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," writes Gallup.

Academics who do social science research know full well that “apparent” correlations have to be taken with a grain of salt. Even if a correlation seems to be strong, it could be due to biased or selective gathering of information. Thus it is only reasonable to expect  that researchers offer “cautious” conclusions. Paul, who incidentally is an illustrator not a sociologist, fails to abide by these fundamentals of scientific research.

Because of several glaring deficiencies, we concur with the Blog “VerumSerum” that Paul's study is not a dispassionate product of science but an ugly exercise in anti-theist propaganda.[v]

M. Caputo


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[ii] Jensen, G. F. (2006). "Religious Cosmologies and Homicide Rates among Nations" (PDF). Journal of Religion & Society 8: 1–14. (7 March, 2009).

[iii] Moreno-Riaño, Gerson, Caleb Smith, Mark, and Mach, Thomas, (2006)
”Religiosity, Secularism, and Social Health A Research Note.” 
Journal of Religion & Society 8. (7 March, 2009).

[iv] Virtue, David W. gallup Organization Refutes “Societies Worse Off Without God.” Sory. VitueOnLine. <> (8 March, 2009).

© Michael Caputo, 2009


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