03 April 2010

Religion and dysfunctional society

"Irish Catholics are in a dysfunctional relationship with an abusive organization." So says Irish singer and activist Sinead O'Connor, who describes herself as a "Catholic by birth and culture [who] would be the first at the church door if the Vatican offered sincere reconciliation."

That the Irish are plagued by a dysfunctional relationship with their religion is hardly surprising at a time when the Catholic Church sinks deeper into pedophilic scandal. The larger question is whether religion brings dysfunction to society generally. Evidence suggests it does.

A paper by Gregory Paul in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, entitled The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions, shows a powerful correlation between the strength of organized religion and social dysfunction. Paul constructed a "Successful Societies Scale," a broad-based measure of socioeconomic conditions, from 25 indicators and applied it against various measures of religiosity and secularism for a number of First World democracies. The Scale included such indicators as homicide, incarceration, lifespan, venereal disease, teenage births, suicide, divorce, life satisfaction, alcohol consumption, income disparity, poverty and employment. The results showed a strong and consistent relationship between the dysfunction of a society and its religiosity. The relationship between social dysfunction and a strong belief in God is shown on the attached graph. Dysfunction increases (social success declines) as the proportion of the population who hold a strong belief in God increases. The "U" toward the lower right represents the United States. This was a typical result.

But correlation is not causation. Perhaps other factors are at work here. Paul discusses other possible causes of the dysfunction, including immigration, population diversity, frontier heritage and the media, and concludes they could not explain the relationship. It would seem religion and dysfunction are indeed cause and effect. But which is the cause and which the effect?

It seems to work both ways. A highly stressed society tends to seek sanctuary in religion, while religion in turn tends to create stress in society. The United States, both the most dysfunctional and the most religious of the Western nations, serves as a good example. The unusually high rates of mental illness in the United States are indicative of high levels of stress and anxiety, caused by such factors as a lack of universal health care, high income disparity and an excessively competitive economic environment. Poorer social infrastructure, a result of Americans' greater preference for faith-based charity over secular government programs for improving social conditions, creates greater poverty and in turn greater social dislocation and crime. Problems such as venereal disease and teenage pregnancy are aggravated by religious opposition to sex education. The United States is caught up in a circular dance of conservative religiosity, stress and social dysfunction.

Ms. O'Connor is certainly right about Ireland being in a dysfunctional relationship with an abusive organization, but that would seem to be the norm for societies and their religions, at least those of a conservative variety.

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