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Wall Street Journal


So That's the Reason

October 14, 2005

By Theodore Dalrymple

A scientist blames America’s problems on religion.

The Victorian militant atheist Charles Bradlaugh, who went on tub-thumping speaking tours, used to stride onto the stage, take out his pocket watch and challenge God to strike him dead in 60 seconds. His survival at the end of the minute was, for him, proof positive that God did not exist.

Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, tried to prove the inefficacy of prayer, at least to his own satisfaction, by comparing the life expectancy of the British royal family--whose health was prayed for in churches throughout the land--with that of other members of the aristocracy. Finding no difference, he concluded that prayer was not an effective means of prolonging life.

Very much in the same tradition, Gregory S. Paul, writing in the Journal of Religion and Society, attempts to prove that religious belief, far from contributing to the moral fiber of society, actually causes social disintegration. Mr. Paul is a paleontologist whose previous works have included “Predatory Dinosaurs of the World” and “Dinosaurs of the Air.”

He finds that highly developed countries with the lowest levels of belief in God also have the lowest levels of social pathology and the best physical health; and that the U.S., with its uniquely high level of religious belief, “is so inefficient that it is experiencing a much higher degree of societal distress than are less religious and wealthy, prosperous democracies.”

Ergo, religion is bad, if not for you personally, at least for society as a whole. Mr. Paul’s study has been covered in newspapers from Australia to England and lauded smugly in academic circles. As one University of Southern California student wrote in the Daily Trojan: “The last thing we [Americans] need is any more blind faith.”

It is interesting that Mr. Paul’s paper makes no mention of Russia, whose 70-year experiment with enforced atheism did not create a society altogether lacking in social pathology, to put it mildly, and where the life expectancy of men is now appreciably lower than that of credulous countries such as Guatemala.

Which brings up the question of what should be compared with what. After all, comparisons within countries, both static and across time, control for far more cultural factors than comparisons between them.

Thus not even Mr. Paul would claim that he was more likely to be mugged in America by believers emerging from a Sunday service at a Baptist church than by drug-taking atheists emerging from a crack den, or that the highly religious in America are more prey in general to venereal disease than the irreligious. Nor could he very well deny that criminality in Britain, an extremely law-abiding country when three-quarters of its children still attended Sunday school, has risen exponentially in the wake of sudden secularization.

The crudity and selectivity of Mr. Paul’s thinking betrays an animus not only toward religion but toward the U.S., or at least toward American society. It is true that the murder rate in America is higher than in any other Western country, but all other crimes of violence are more prevalent in Britain than America, and one is more likely to have one’s home burgled in France than America.

Mr. Paul suspects “that Europeans are increasingly repelled by the poor societal performance of the Christian states”--i.e., the U.S.--as if European anti-Americanism were founded on the relatively high U.S. rates of teenage pregnancy and infection with gonorrhea rather than on envy and disappointment at Europe’s loss of power and prestige.

He also states, as if it were an incontrovertible fact, that “the United States is . . . the least efficient nation in terms of converting wealth into cultural and physical health.” It is true, for example, that the life expectancy of Americans is less than that of Britons--but by a month or two, which is hardly of great significance. It is also true that much American popular culture is crass, vulgar and worthless--but this is something that has not exactly escaped the notice of thinking Americans, from at least H.L. Mencken onward, and secular Europeans are just as susceptible to crass and vulgar kitsch, as the briefest of acquaintance with Italian television or contemporary British art will establish beyond reasonable doubt.

To present America, even by implication, as an intellectual and cultural wasteland is an inaccuracy that can derive only from a visceral hostility that is not conducive to honesty. Not only is America pre-eminent, by a very long way, in science but its best universities are by far the best in the world. Its cultural institutions are unparalleled. In effect, the rest of the world is in a state of intellectual dependence on America, unable or unwilling to distinguish the good from the bad.

Mr. Paul’s paper strikes me as an attitude masquerading as a search after truth. And perhaps I should end by declaring an interest: I have no religious belief.

Original Source:



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