The generalizations used in the new “Religion is bad for society” study are a step backwards for social science.

By Hally Hall-I Chu

In the most recent issue of The Journal of Religion and Society, social scientist Gregory Paul published a study on the correlation between religiosity and societal problems in developed countries of the world. Such studies are not uncommon, but Paul’s paper, “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look,” caught the media’s attention. Shortly after the study was published, The Times Online reported the news with a provocatively-headlined article, “Societies worse off ‘when they have God on their side.’”

Paul’s aim is to debunk the common assumption that religion exists for the good of the society. By collecting data from the International Survey Programme and the Gallup research group, Paul shows that “in general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies.” The paper, published this month, is too recent for a judgment call on its validity. But factual contents aside, it is a study imbued with gross generalizations and questionable premises.

Paul is working within an academic climate that has undergone great changes in the last few decades. In 1978, Edward Said published his seminal work, Orientalism, which brought to light the problematic approaches that social science scholars had been using: forced construction of the non-West, exoticism of the Other, and assumption of cultural homogeneity regardless of class, education level, and gender.

Said was by no means the only voice of dissent against the older scholars’ Orientalist views regarding the non-West. Other academics had preceded Said in calling for changes in scholarship concerning the Other. There was already a general trend starting in the mid-1900s toward not viewing cultures as monolithic entities. Said’s book merely pushed the effort into the academic mainstream.

In light of this long-time effort to strengthen the accuracy of cultural and religious studies, the blanket assumptions that Gregory Paul employs in his study are nothing less than a step backward for the social science disciplines.

Paul’s view of America’s religious demographic is incomplete. After reading the study, one is inclined to believe that America is a Christian nation, religious organizations exist only to worsen social problems, and all religious people in America adhere to the Christian faith.

Paul writes: “Many Americans agree that their churchgoing nation is an exceptional, God-blessed, shining city on the hill that stands as an impressive example for an increasingly skeptical world.”

Is America a churchgoing nation? Various studies place Americans’ attendance of religious services (a category including more than just church services) at around 40 percent, hardly a representative majority. Is America God-blessed by consensus? One only needs to look at the recent court ruling concerning the “under God” clause of the Pledge of Allegiance to know the answer. Is skepticism the only alternative to Christianity? Where would America’s Muslims, Pagans, and practitioners of Falun Gong fall under Paul’s study?

Paul does mention in passing that there are variations in religiosity. But the statistics that he cites in support of his core arguments all underscore a Christian-only view of American religiosity. Different kinds of religious people might believe religion is good for society; but it is statistics from the Christian faithful of the Midwest and the South that Paul uses to debunk this notion.

Paul’s study has sparked wide and strong responses. In the blog circles, respondants have decried the bully nature of the Church, mocked the hypocrisy of religious people, or felt as indignant as myself regarding the study’s lack of a more well-rounded definition of “religiosity.” Yet one thing seems missing from many of these reactions: any interest among the study’s critics to go to the source of the controversy, The Journal of Religion and Society, and read Gregory Paul’s article for themselves.

This reluctance to initiate further research shows that people are heavily reliant on the media as the provider of news, whether front page headlines or religious findings published in academic journals. It places immense responsibility on journalists to present sensitive issues such as “religion and society” with accuracy.

The writer of The Times Online article did accurately parrot back Gregory Paul’s study. But straight reporting should not have been the method of announcing this news. The absence of critical analysis of the faults of the study is very dangerous. One may well come away from the article believing that religion affects “Christian America” negatively, without ever giving thoughts to the demographic of America’s faithful — Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Wiccas, etc. — who together make up America’s social statistics, crime rates, and STD cases in adolescents.

The ultimate verdict on Paul’s study will be determined by the responses of his peers. Until then, those who read The Times Online article will continue to rant about church bullying, hypocrisy, and for those like me, about the lack of a public discourse to fully respond to Gregory Paul’s article.

Hally Hall-I Chu is a graduate student at New York University.