Religion doesn’t improve society: more evidence

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(1) I find it interesting–and unfortunate—that this article appears on the “Why Evolution Is True” website. It unwittingly reinforces the all-too-common false thesis that evolutionary biology somehow represents an anti-religion position.

(2) It reaches face-palm levels quickly by the end of the second paragraph:

. . . but there’s certainly no support at all for the thesis that religion promotes well being.

Really? None? Zero? Zilch? This off-the-deep-end extreme reminds me of what one fellow said at the post-post-Swamidass/Behe Veritas Forum event discussion last Friday evening: “There’s certainly no evidence supporting the thesis that the Theory of Evolution is valid.”

Even if an individual weighs all of the evidence involving the role of religion in well being and decides it is a net-negative, that’s a looooooonnnnnnng way from a rational claim that there is “no support at all” for the thesis. Sheesh. Must one go completely off the tracks?

I won’t rehash yet again the advantages and disadvantages of religion in encouraging well being–because we’ve discussed that topic countless times on various Peaceful Science threads—but I’m amazed that anyone would claim that there was “no support for the thesis.” (Most people would say that religion is a mixed bag of good and bad, and link that result to the underlying fact that religion compromises countless human behaviors. Humans are a mix of good and bad influences and outcomes.)

It just goes to show that absurdly bombastic, sweeping statements are not a monopoly of anti-evolution activists and conservative firebrands.

POSTSCRIPT: Just before reading the aforementioned “Religion doesn’t improve society” article, I had finished writing up a few notes for the introductory remarks I’ll be making at this coming Friday evening’s showing of the 2006 film “Amazing Grace” which tells the story of how William Wilberforce and other Christians put their faith into action in an arduously long battle of many years in order to end the British slave trade. Is there anyone on this forum who would say that is NOT an instance of religion improving society and encouraging the well-being of human beings?

Of course, it only takes one counter-example to refute the bombastic claim that “there’s certainly no support at all for the thesis that religion promotes well being.”

POSTSCRIPT: Perhaps I should add that I’m not a big fan of William Barr and his speeches. And I’m a frequent critic of religions and the carnage of religious politics. That doesn’t mean that I don’t see the absurdities of some of Barr’s critics as well.


I think context is important here. Coyne is referring to “happiness indexes” of societies as a whole, and as he notes there is a negative correlation between religiosity and happiness in the surveys he found.

I would completely agree that a universal statement is goes beyond what can be show, but within the context of what Coyne presented there is a kernel of truth.

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Agreed. 100% agreed.

I would also suggest that the evidence that religion led Wilberforce to his anti-slavery work is weakened by the evidence that it appears to have led other religionists to a pro-slavery position. Perhaps religion leads you where you want to be led, and if so it’s not really the primary influence.


Or perhaps not all religion is the same.

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Sure. Specifically, not all Christianity is the same. It conforms to local needs. In England, largely anti-slavery. In Alabama, largely pro-slavery. But is that religion leading public opinion or following it?

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Yes. “Religion” is such a broad phenomenon among humans. Some religion-inspired ideas can lead to good and others to evil.

I would assert that all sorts of human behaviors/phenomena lead to both good and evil—especially when they support tribalism. Religion can group people into tribes. Same with a shared language. Same with a shared political belief (e.g. Republican or Democrat) or a shared economic system preferences (e.g., capitalist, communist.) Same with a shared ethnicity or culture.

Anything which separates people into tribes/groups can easily lead to exalting one’s own group and harming other groups. So why would anyone expect religion to be otherwise? People are prone towards both good and evil so we would expect all sorts of convenient reasons like these for hurting others----and favoring our own group would include all of these possibilities.

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I wouldn’t. Though if a religion were true and backed up by a real, interested God, one might expect different results.

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Weaken? No. The mere fact that the very broad word “religionist” can be applied to 99% of the humans alive at that time says that this is a case where a very broad English-language label can easily conflate that which is actually on its own merits quite separate. In this case, Wilberforce’s religion was based on various teachings of Jesus Christ. Most of his opponents in Parliment had no genuinely religious reason for their positions per se. (Indeed, most cited economic factors and nothing else. The fact that they and virtually non-Jewish-everybody-else in England at that time called themselves “Christian” is irrelevant. Only some of them sincerely and piously wanted to preserve the slave trade out of devotion to Jesus or the Christian religion per se. The vote in Parliment was not about two “religious factions” fighting over religious doctrine. It was economic and political interests versus a campaign based on the teachings of Jesus.)

Wilberforce’s campaign against the slave trade was without any question inspired by religious motivation. Whether or not some opposing faction also had religious motivations (which I would generally deny unless the labeling is recklessly applied) is irrelevant. The fact remains that Wilberforce’s religion (and that of Newton and many other of his allies) motivated a quest for improving society and individual lives.


Sigh. Typical Jerry Coyne New Atheist rhetoric. Takes some cherry-picked statistics (note that the list of figures says nothing about suicide rates or antidepressant use) that demonstrate a correlation but that give no indication whatsoever of which is the cause and which is the effect.

I think I addressed this one before. In order to systematically study the influence of religion on society, you need to conduct your study over multiple generations across multiple different countries and people groups, come up with a way of allowing for the differences between state religion and minority religion, and then figure out how to determine which is the cause and which is the effect.

Basically, this is just the New Atheist equivalent of the YEC claim about the amount of salt in the sea proving that the earth is young. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.


You seem to be indulging in the “No True Scotsman” fallacy here. While it’s true that pro-slavery Christians were not basing their position on the teachings of Christ, they were basing it on the teachings of the Bible. Doesn’t that count?

No, not at all.

It only presents the thesis that Jerry Coyne is anti-religion. And nobody will be surprised about that.

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Based on my study of Wilberforce’s enemies, it is NOT my conclusion that they based their positions on the teachings of the Bible. A few made occasional excuses in that regard but both sides understood quite well that economics was their incentive (and the geopolitical power which came with that economic advantage.)

I’m sure that’s true, but Christianity is malleable enough to fit whatever economic advantage you want.

Yes, people use political, economic system, ethnic, linguistic, philosophical, creedal, religious. and many other tribal factors to promote whatever economic-financial advantage may accrue to themselves and their allies. Welcome to the human race and the history of humanity. Religion is malleable because people are malleable to seek their own advantage.

I’d also say that they are in general quite sincere about it. Southern slaveowners really did convince themselves that God wanted them to own other people.

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Yes, many Southern slaveowners approached the issue very very differently from Wilberforce’s opponents.

It is fascinating to read (and compare) both the Northern scripture-laced abolitionist tracts and the Southern scripture-laced pro-slavery (and anti-abolitionist) tracts.

(I often point out to people that thousands upon thousands of those abolitionist tracts were sponsored by the Darwin family and even royalties from On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.)

I have strong disagreements with the Southern Baptist Convention because they still have seminary buildings (and honor in various other ways) pro-slavery theologians of their early history who worked hard to convince Southerners (including friends like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson) that their “War Against Northern Aggression” was actually a noble, God-favored struggle to preserve order and rightness in the world.

John L. Dagg’s apology for slavery is a fascinating read and helps one understand how various theologians-pastors were able to convince even some hesitant Southern generals to embrace the pro-slavery cause:

This will look like a paywall but actually the first six articles per month are free for everyone.

Dagg’s exegesis ranges from amateurish to frightening. He often depended on the largess of slaveowners and it shows.

Unfortunately, you have to set up an account to read more than the first page, and I’m constitutionally opposed to setting up accounts.

I use secondary/disposable email accounts for such purposes so I’ve never experienced spamming or privacy compromise problems with such requirements.