Religion, Hard Times and Causation


What comes first: religion or adverse social conditions?

I’ve heard it said a few times that there’s a correlation between religious societies in the modern West and social ills like crime and poverty. If we wanted to be really picky, the study that purported to show this (a study that has seen its fair share of criticism) actually showed that where the religious exist alongside the non-religious and where religion is construed in a particular way (a type of conservative religious outlook that included the rejection of evolutionary science), social ills were more prevalent. I’ve commented briefly on this before (See “Does Religious Faith make People More Moral?”).

When the alleged correlation was first brought to my attention in a radio discussion in 2010, I didn’t think much of it. There were probably a few ways the analysis could go. One possibility, I suggested, was that social ills like poverty could actually contribute to the religiosity of the people affected. But for some reason, every time I have heard the study referred to, it has only been in a context where somebody was trying to show that religion is bad for you.

As it turns out, while the ideologues were at it, so were researchers. “People living in hardship are more likely to believe in moralising, high gods, according to a major new study co-authored by New Zealand researchers.”

Here’s part of the abstract of the findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science:

Both comparative and experimental evidence indicate that beliefs in moralizing high gods promote cooperation among humans, a behavioral attribute known to correlate with environmental harshness in nonhuman animals. Here we combine fine-grained bioclimatic data with the latest statistical tools from ecology and the social sciences to evaluate the potential effects of environmental forces, language history, and culture on the global distribution of belief in moralizing high gods (n = 583 societies). After simultaneously accounting for potential nonindependence among societies because of shared ancestry and cultural diffusion, we find that these beliefs are more prevalent among societies that inhabit poorer environments and are more prone to ecological duress. In addition, we find that these beliefs are more likely in politically complex societies that recognize rights to movable property.

Harsh times can indeed be the catalyst for people to look outside of themselves and to something higher. The feeling of self-sufficiency, by contrast, can have the opposite effect.

As you’ll detect if you read the news story announcing this research, the researchers themselves make assumptions that will inevitably affect the research (this will be true of any research). Co-author Professor Russell Gray, for example, remarks that “A lot of evolutionists have been busy trying to bang religion on the head but I think the challenge is to explain it.” My cynical (although I think, correct) reading of this is that there is a desirable project to explain away religious belief in the sense of explaining why it exists even when religious belief is not true, explaining why on earth people hold religious beliefs – as though this is a curious phenomenon that calls out for an explanation other than “Well, people had these encounters with God, and…” But still, it’s possible to see past what the researchers themselves may believe about the origin of religious belief and at least see the real-world facts to which they call our attention: Harsh times can indeed be the catalyst for people to look outside of themselves and to something higher. The feeling of self-sufficiency, by contrast, can have the opposite effect. This is why the book of Proverbs (30:9) has the writer saying, “remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, “Who is the LORD?””

It would be an obvious case of the genetic fallacy to say that because we can identify a causal relationship between difficult times and religious faith, this shows that religious beliefs are untrue. Nothing of the sort is implied here. But still, this latest research can serve as a rejoinder to those whose only interest in studies of religion arises when there is a perceived opportunity to show what is wrong with religion. If there’s a causal relationship at all between religion and poverty or hard times in the world today, it’s more likely that hard times contribute to religiosity, rather than vice versa.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Chris Beard November 18, 2014, 9:10 pm

    Thanks for articulating my shared frustration with the assumptions in this “major new study”.

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