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The Dark Side of Faith? Here We Go Again

Last week I looked at the false argument behind Ruth Gledhill’s article in The Times [London] purporting to show that nations with a higher commitment to Christianity also experienced higher rates of various social pathologies. As I argued then, Gledhill’s article lacks credibility, since she never established any causal link between Christian belief and these pathologies. Furthermore, her article does not appear to be a fully accurate representation of the research study upon which it was claimed to have been based.

Since then, Canadian statistician Scott Gilbreath has written an insightful response to Gledhill’s article and to the research article written by Gregory S. Paul and published by the Journal of Religion and Society. Mr. Gilbreath offers a devastating critique of Gregory S. Paul’s statistical research, concluding that it falls far short of any adequate statistical method.

Then, in an update to his original article, Mr. Gilbreath reveals some research of his own (and others) — research that indicates that Gregory S. Paul is actually a “freelance paleontologist” who was previously known for writing and illustrating books on “theropod dinosaurs.” Mr. Paul is also identified as a speaker recommended by the Council for Secular Humanism [something not mentioned, of course, in the Journal of Religion and Society article].

Furthermore, Mr. Gilbreath also reveals evidence that the journal doesn’t even know who Mr. Paul is, but chose to publish his work anyway. Here is Gilbreath’s analysis:

So, what can be pulled together from all this? Gregory Paul has published a study of social problems and religious faith; but he has no apparent expertise or qualifications in social science research so, predictably, said study is statistically invalid. Said study was published by a journal that apparently does not have high standards for articles it publishes, and it does not even know how to contact Mr Paul. Finally, said study makes a ham-handed attempt to portray religious faith as a dangerous and socially destructive force in the U.S., and it transpires that the author is on the Council for Secular Humanism’s list of recommended speakers.I think that Mr Paul has successfully played a big con game. He must be admired for that, at least.

Well, I guess if such an accomplishment deserves admiration, Mr. Paul should be admired. Many thanks to Scott Gilbreath for his tenacious research.

This spectacle should remind all of us to look carefully at all statistical reports –and even more carefully at journalistic interpretations of such research. We must be extremely careful when the report appears to argue against our own prejudices, and even more careful when the statistics appear to support our cherished assumptions.

Careful readers will also be disappointed, though not surprised, when bad research is followed by even worse arguments. An example of the latter is found in Sunday’s edition of The Los Angeles Times, where Rosa Brooks takes Ruth Gledhill’s bad argument a step or two farther.

Consider these two paragraphs from her article: 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 programs.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.

Religious faith is “inherently nonrational?” Why would a major American newspaper publish such a charge? And, we may ask, who is Rosa Brooks? The on-line edition of her column offers no identification at all. A bit of research reveals that Rosa Brooks is a law professor at the University of Virginia [see other articles by Rosa Brooks here]. Her subject areas are listed as “Human rights law, law of war, humanitarian interventions, United Nations, rule of law, Africa, workplace harassment, privacy, human rights issues in the United States.”

What appears to connect Gregory S. Paul and Rosa Brooks (intellectually, at least) is a commitment to oppose anything that opposes the theory of evolution (which Paul made a central part of his argument). See this article by Rosa Brooks.