Religion and self-control: the junk science version

Religion and self-control: the junk science version January 10, 2009

Seems like you wait forever for a review on religion and self-control, and then two come along at once. Last month two psychologists from the University of Miami put forward their hypothesis that religion can increase self control. It was long on theory, but short on observational evidence.

Turns out there was another one published at the same time, in the form of a white paper (i.e. not peer reviewed) by four faculty at the Grove City College Centre for Vision and Values, an evangelical Protestant College (motto: Advancing Freedom with Christian Scholarship).

Their essay (Social Organizations as a Path to Self-control: Does Religious Participation Promote Character Development?) is conceived as an attack on Dawkin’s assertion that religion is pernicious. Now, there are an enormous number of flaws in this white paper, but it would be tedious to go through them all. So let’s concentrate on the biggies.

“Theory and empirical research,” the authors conclude, “point to religious participation continuing to be important for character development in the lives of Americans in the 21st century.”

In fact, their empirical evidence does no such thing. Basically what they provide here is a few studies that have found a correlation between certain aspects of behaviour and attendance at religious services. All of these studies are fundamentally flawed for a couple of reasons.

The most important of these is self-selection. In a society like America, where most people are nominally religious, going to church every week is a strong indication of having a conscientious personality type. Conscientious people are by their nature less likely to have lives that get out of control. This fact is so blindingly obvious that they acknowledge it themselves:

An alternative explanation for the average benefits of religion that seems quite persuasive on the surface is that people who have their lives in order are more likely to go to church and participate in religious activities. Under this model, religious participation has no influence on character; it is simply that those who already have character are more likely to be active members of religious communities. According to this line of reasoning, the religious communities have no meaningful influence on people; the apparent effects of religion are illusory.

Now, the interesting thing about this paper that they focus on religious behaviour, rather than religious beliefs – presumably because they could find a correlation with behaviour, but not beliefs. And this would explain it nicely.

They reject this, on the following grounds:

This claim that belonging to a close knit community would have no influence on people defies sound logic and fundamental psychological theory that we have reviewed.

But this simply reveals another fundamental flaw in their analysis. Nobody denies that belonging to a community, or that giving kids the right kind of environment to grow up in is beneficial. But the authors assume that the only (or perhaps the best) route to this is religion. In fact, secular institutions can be every bit as effective – if not more so. (This is Dawkin’s point, of course. That the moral message from secular institutions is superior to that of religious ones).

Another flaw is that the studies they look at tend to assess self-reported behaviour. But it’s known that religious people are more likely to over-report their good deeds. When you do actual studies observing actual behaviour, these differences disappear (The Psychology of Religion, p422).

And of course we have the mother of all observational studies, in that there are countries that with very low levels of religion. As Phil Zuckerman points out in his recent book Society Without God, Denmark is one of the least religious countries in the world. And although the Danes can be very weird, they are not noted for being a society on the verge of chaos.

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