Monday, December 05, 2005

Is God Necessary? (apologies to M. Dowd)

In the course of lambasting noted anti-Darwininst Gertrude Himmelfarb for some commentary of hers recently published in The New Republic, National Review blogger John Derbyshire directs his readers to a suprisingly relevant Reason magazine piece from 1997 on intelligent design. In addition to ripping the "theory" to shreds before it was fashionable, author Ronald Bailey described the Straussian tendencies of a few of its otherwise agnostic conservative supporters. I use the term "agnostic" loosely to describe people like Irving Kristol, Leon Kass, and Robert Bork whose chief interest in religion appears to be the idea that it is the prerequisite for public morality, and that society would spiral into a Hobbesian nightmare without its narcotic influence.

I've seen and heard many religious fanatics assert that God is necessary for social order, but few have seen fit to buttress the claim with hard evidence. A spot of casual Googling did turn up several attempts to "prove" that religion underlies morality in society "as a general rule", but they're not very convincing. For example, the author of this article betrays an appalling inability to distinguish between correlation and causation in the following passage:
Some months ago, author David Myers penned an essay titled “Godliness and Goodliness,” which appeared in the magazine Sightings (4/11/01). Myers called attention to the fact that in one “U.S. national survey, frequent worship attendance predicted lower scores on a dishonesty scale that assessed, for example, self-serving lies, tax cheating, and failing to report damaging a parked car. Moreover, in cities where churchgoing is high, crime rates are low. . .In Provo, Utah, where more than 9 in 10 people are church members, you can more readily leave your car unlocked than in Seattle, where fewer than a third are.”
And thus the unwashed heathens of Seatown reap the bitter harvest of their atheistic ways . . . or not. A lower crime rate could be a positive consequence of higher church attendance, but I'd wager it's more to do with the fact that Seattle claims 36 times more people than Provo. Plus, I just can't figure out how the author could have overlooked the 2000 obscenity case against a Provo video-store chain owner whose acquittal rested on evidence that the town consumed a higher-than-average share of pornographic media.

More typical of the arguments for God as prime antecedent of all morality is the final clause of the following quote from Kristol, cited in the Reason article (emphasis mine):
If God does not exist, and if religion is an illusion that the majority of men cannot live without...let men believe in the lies of religion since they cannot do without them, and let then a handful of sages, who know the truth and can live with it, keep it among themselves. Men are then divided into the wise and the foolish, the philosophers and the common men, and atheism becomes a guarded, esoteric doctrine--for if the illusions of religion were to be discredited, there is no telling with what madness men would be seized, with what uncontrollable anguish.
Aside from the fact that Kristol sounds more like a comic-book supervillain than a serious thinker, he's merely asserting a link between two concepts (religion and the maintenance of social order) without supporting it. To refute his claim, one would have only to show that religion is no more a guarantee against social collapse (cf. 99% of the world's societies) than its absence is a guarantee thereof (cf. most Western European nations). The idea may be seductively intuitive, especially to the faithful and their leaders, but it is not borne out by the facts.