Sunday, July 2, 2017

Does Religion Poison Everything?

The late lamented Christopher Hitchens once asserted, with utter confidence, that religion poisons everything. He should have known better than to offer up such an absurd generalization, one that can be dispelled by any evidence that shows religion to be beneficial. After all, don’t we all know that patients on chemotherapy who are religious do better than their irreligious brethren. So, religion does not poison poison. Who would have guessed?

Of course, Hitchens was seeking sales and attention. In that he succeeded. In a time when entertainment value often drowns out the truth value, Hitchens was a master of his craft. More power to him, wherever he is today.

Anyway, Melvin Konner brought the topic to our attention in the Wall Street Journal:

But a flood of recent research has shown how faith strengthens resilience to stress, including illness.…

Research published in May found that among over 5,000 American adults, regular churchgoers had better physiological stress measures and lower mortality. The Black Women’s Health Study reported in April that it had found a similar mortality benefit among 36,600 women. A 2015 article on 32,000 cancer patients found better physical health in those with greater religion and spirituality.

Similar outcomes have been seen in Japan:

 Among 37,000 patients in Japan, the more religious had fewer cardiovascular risk factors and were less likely to get diabetes; likewise Orthodox Christians in Greece. Religiousness was associated with better compliance in dialysis patients in Saudi Arabia; in Northern India, Hindu identification predicted better stress coping. Both Buddhist and Muslim women in Thailand managed their diabetes better if they were religious. Even in secular Denmark, religion protected health.

It isn’t or should not be news. Jonathan Gruber, before he became an apostle for health care reform, did groundbreaking research into the effects that religion had on everyday life. His original paper, from 2005, is here

In Gruber’s words:

Doubling the rate of religious attendance raises household income by 9.1 percent, decreases welfare participation by 16 percent from baseline rates, decreases the odds of being divorced by 4 percent, and increases the odds of being married by 4.4 percent.

Linda Gorman reports for the National Bureau of Economic Research:

A number of researchers have found striking correlations between religion and various measures of well being. For example, religious participation is correlated with lower levels of deviant behavior and better health. And, attending religious services weekly, rather than not at all, has the same effect on individuals' reported happiness as moving from the bottom to the top quartile of the income distribution.

However, the same factors that determine religious attendance may also determine these outcomes; for example, it may be that happier people go to church, not that going to church makes you happier. In Religious Market Structure, Religious Participation, and Outcomes: Is Religion Good for You? (NBER Working Paper No. 11377), NBER Research Associate Jonathan Gruber seeks to solve the problem of estimating the effects of religious participation on earnings and other economic measures.

Apparently, people who live in neighborhoods where there are more members of their religion are more likely to participate in services. In this context, diversity does not prove to be beneficial. Apparently, people have a positive reason for living in homogeneous communities, a reason that transcends bigotry:

Gorman summarizes:

Gruber's results suggest a "very strong positive correlation" between religious market density, religious participation, and positive economic outcomes." People living in an area with a higher density of co-religionists have higher incomes, they are less likely to be high school dropouts, and more likely to have a college degree." Living in such an area also reduces the odds of receiving welfare, decreases the odds of being divorced, and increases the odds of being married.

Gruber does not know why actively participating in community life and feel like  you belong to something beyond you provides so many benefits. He offers his own hypotheses:

Although this paper does not investigate the mechanism through which religiosity creates these results, Gruber suggests four possibilities: that religious attendance increases the number of social interactions in a way peculiar to religious settings; that religious institutions provide financial and emotional "insurance" that help people mitigate their losses when setbacks occur; that attendance at religious schools may be an advantage; and, finally, that religious faith may simply improve well-being directly by enabling the faithful to be "less stressed out" by the problems of every day life.

One is intrigued by the notion that a larger number of social interactions with people who share the same code produces psychosocial benefits. It provides a bulwark against feelings of abandonment and anomie. But, religion also teaches us principles that can guide us through life. (Something that, incidentally, science cannot do.)


Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: One is intrigued by the notion that a larger number of social interactions with people who share the same code produces psychosocial benefits. It provides a bulwark against feelings of abandonment and anomie. But, religion also teaches us principles that can guide us through life. (Something that, incidentally, science cannot do.)

I'd agree on Gruber's hypothesis. And on the grounds it might be many agnostic-leaning people may attend church not as believers in rewards in a hypothetical afterlife, but in the immediate rewards of "fitting in", and finding common ground within a church regardless of its theological implications.

I understand and agree with Stuart's assertion that science can't act as a guide, although arguments can be made that clear-thinking philosophy can lead to an objective standard of law and ethics. I don't know if religion teaches ethics with any consistency, but at least for Christianity, it does teach silly ideas like the dignity and worth of every human being.

Philosophy does risk the same sort of reductive conclusions as libertarianism - that self-interest is the source of all good, and utilitarianism is the highest virtue, including things like abortion, suicide and euthanasia when society doesn't need you any more.

Collectivism of any sort won't save us, but it reminds us to realize our mutual dependence, and common interest in not acting like a jerk just because you have enough money to not care what anyone else thinks.

Anonymous said...

Correlation is not always causation.

trigger warning said...

I have the greatest respect for the late Christopher Hitchens. He was a fine writer (his comments on Michelle Obama's senior thesis should not be missed), but writers need to make money and there are few more reliable literary money machines than the Provocateur Genre published by evangelical atheists.

One need only note the financial success of Richard Dawkins (the man wears the most amazing ties), despite the fact that he is a self-described gigantic lumbering meat robot programmed by a molecule.

James said...

AO, I kind of agree with you. The thing is, whether it's science, atheism, or religion, all we generally have to go on is people's behavior. We don't have the luxury the Old Testament Jewish guys had in direct communications, towers of fire, plagues, and assorted miracles. Though I admit if I did get a direct communication from the big guy I would tend to hang with him from that time out. But other than that, we today just have to do the best we can and then go see if it's all true or not.

Anonymous said...

Anything can be 'religious'.

Magic Negro, Diversity, Celebrity, and Homomania are the religions of the West.

We have to worship them. If not, you're a heretic.

Ares Olympus said...

p.s. A book I read a long while ago was called "The magic of Ritual: Our Need for Liberating Rites That Transform Our Lives and Our Communities" talking about Christianity and wider applications.

I won't say I understand it, but I liked the idea there was something I didn't understand here that is important. As best I can tell science is about an observer-observed relationship, while ritual doesn't work easily on an impassive neutral observer. It works on some more intimate presence. And so this is also were philosophy probably doesn't go. But how often religion can or does get there is an open question. Perhaps the simple "Christ be with you" collective greeting with eye contact comes closest on an average Sunday?

I copied a list from the book:

15 Maxims for the planning of Christian Rituals:
1. To do something while displaying the doing equals performance.
2. In theater, the display is paramount; In ritual, the doing.
3. A ritual is a "transformance" - a performance designed to change a situation.
4. Church ritual often becomes mere display, either just flashy or merely symbolic, with no hint of transforming power.
5. In ritual active participants should outnumber the passive ones.
6. Art is play done workfully, but ritual is work done playfully.
7. All ritual invokes power. A ritual is religious when those powers receive adoration. It is Christian when the powers are God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.
8. A Christian ritual "works" only when its participants are willing to make demands upon God. ("Ask and you shall receive.")
9. To be boring is to bear false witness.
10. To be sensational is to bear no witness at all.
11. Ritual loves not paper.
12. The form of a Christian ritual may be very traditional or very innovative or both at once, since form in ritual is nothing but technique, and substance is spirit.
13. Christian ritual is liminal and authentic when the people of God receive the spirit of God in the midst. ("The kingdom of God is among you.... Where two or three are gathered together, there am I....")
14. The liminality of ritual can be used by God to weaken the grip of oppressive powers. In fact, God has no other use for it.
15. Christian ritual is the opposite of servitude: It is the performance of freedom.

Sam L. said...

Depends on the religion.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

See what happens when you encourage It, James?

James said...

"See what happens when you encourage It, James?"
Yeah, I sure do. I tell you this Ignatius, if the Lord had just delivered me and my people out of 20+yrs of slavery by turning staffs into snakes, raining frogs, turning the Nile into blood, dividing a sea, and putting a general whupping on the Pharaoh. I'm NOT going to be dancing around any golden calf or anything else for that matter a mere couple of weeks later or the rest of my life.

Deana said...

James -

I love your response!


trigger warning said...

And, of course, the way that Exodus passage concludes is even more absurd. Nothing wrong with stealing, lying, murdering, screwing your friends' spouses, plotting to seize their property...

All perfectly reasonable behavior for gigantic lumbering meat machines controlled by a molecule designed and planted here by space aliens (as we know from Francis Crick, devout Panspermian and co-discoverer of DNA).

James said...

Thanks. I'm one of those who thinks (I think Voltaire said it) God is a comedian who plays to an audience that's too scared to laugh. Of course when I go to the other side I may found that I've overplayed my hand.
"And, of course, the way that Exodus passage concludes is even more absurd. Nothing wrong with stealing, lying, murdering, screwing your friends' spouses, plotting to seize their property..."
Well there's not much to do out in the Sinai.