| June 29, 2011 5:29 pm

I’ve always had a soft spot for contrarians and polemics. Yes, they can be obnoxious and reactionary. Yes, they champion laughable ideas in the name of controversy. And yes, they are frequently wrong — common wisdom being common for a good reason, in that it is grounded, demonstrated, and robust.

But for all that, contrarians and polemicists also play an important role. They require us to think deeply and broadly about topics that we might otherwise consider as simple. This can take us in unexpected directions and result in a deeper understanding of questions we might consider settled. What is string theory, after all, if not the ruminations of dissatisfied physicists who fought their way to respectability?


I bring all of this up, because, for the past several days, I’ve been interested in a contrarian response to a polemic statement. (No, I’m not sure that makes any sense.) Here’s what’s going on.

I’m a big fan of the NPR show, To the Best of Our Knowledge. Each week, they do a marvelous job of taking controversial ideas and then exploring them in an evenhanded and profound way.

(Notice I did not say fair or balanced. Trying to be fair and balanced — in a word, objective — in your reporting is one of the fastest pathways to stupidity I’ve ever encountered. It leads to pretending that there is two sides to every debate, and that both sides are worth covering.)

Some weeks ago [1], To the Best of Our Knowledge did a broadcast about “Losing Religion” where they interviewed Phil Zuckerman. Zuckerman, a sociologist, recently finished a year-long effort to understand the religion of Nordic peoples (Swedes, Danes, etc.) and how those beliefs relate to the society in which they live.

In general, it sounds like a fantastic book and I have little doubt it will end up on my nightstand. Yet, as part of the interview, he said something that really got under my skin. Essentially, “that God doesn’t have to be present to have a moral society” followed by:

It’s a sociological assertion in a way. “We need to have a strong belief in God and this will result in a moral society.” Well, that’s something that we can go look at, we can go check it out. We can quote/unquote “test it.” The fact is, that in the world today, in places like Scandinavia and elsewhere where religion is marginal, these societies are quite moral, quite ethical, especially when compared to very religious societies such as our own (American Society).

Let me be clear here. I’m not disputing his primary claim: non-religious people can be excellent human beings. They can do good (nay, exceptional) things. For example, I greatly respect the work of militant atheists — such as Christopher Hitchen, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Philip Pullman (amongst others) — who force us to consider how religion and modern life intersect. Where I draw the line, however, is the claim that we can somehow measure and test the link between a belief in God and the ultimate morality of society.


This question, though fascinating, cannot be addressed by reductionist science. For starters, how do you measure a belief in God? Or, how do you assign a score to “spirituality?” As Phillip Pullman has said:

Religion is something that has existed in every human society that we know about and it’s an impulse every human being has in one way or another. I call myself a religious person although I don’t believe in God … Questions of purposes and origins — “Why are we here?”, “What is the purpose of life?”, “Why is good better than evil?” — are religious questions, and I ask them all the time. [2]

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that we all do, whether we are prepared to call our search “religious” or not. (And even if we choke on the “R” word, choosing instead to go with a less historically laden equivalent — spiritual, connection, purpose —  it’s still religion.)

Second, how do you divorce religion from its cultural trappings? While the Nords may not revel in the “inner” nature of the religious journey the way Americans do (or vocalize their adherence to it in quite the same way), they still follow the outer trappings. In Sweden, for example: 7 of 10 are Christenized in the Church of Sweden (this statistic does not include other religious baptismal ordinances), 5 of 10 weddings take place in a church, and 9 of 10 have a Christian burial. This is despite the fact that only 1 in 10 say religion is important to their daily life. These sorts of trappings may not reliably indicate inner belief, but still influence behavior and conformity.

Third, there is a question of time and trend. Though we don’t often like to admit it, we are the beneficiaries of ten thousand years of human legacy. Our modern, interlinked, technological utopia (and I use that word quite deliberately and without sarcasm), is the result of generations of people trying to improve the lot of their children. The trends toward better health, improved nutrition, greater knowledge, and more thoughtful compassion span millennium. As an example, consider our move toward greater peace, which Steven Pinker discusses in the TED talk below.

In such a complex web, I defy you to control for the positive (or even negative) effects of religion (as compared to, say politics). Scientists may have excellent tools and statistical tricks which can tease out some relationships, but these only go so far. In some cases, the system is irreducibly complex. You may be tempted to point at elevated rates of murder and spousal abuse amongst the “bible states” of the American South and scream, “Religious Bigotry!” And … you would be wrong. Those increased rates of murder have at least as much to do with primitive farming culture — whether someone’s great, great, great, great grandfather chose to raise sheep or wheat — as they do with personal answers to the question of “What is the point of all this?” [3].


And so, I come to the point: sometimes we need to be contrarian about our polemic viewpoints. Good polemicists prod us toward improved understandings by forcing us to wrestle with complexity. Bad polemicists are just spoiling for a fight. Unfortunately, we often afford too much attention to the latter.

For the past few years, it’s become fashionable to use science to beat up on belief. I think that’s wrong [4] . Questions of religion, morality, and ethics are very complex, and sometimes they can’t be boiled down to valid, scientific assertions.  Science, certainly a versatile investigative tool, is ill-equipped to answer answer questions of motivation, purpose, or origin. It does a superb job of “How?”, but often chokes when confronted with “Why?”

Which is to say, “God (or religion) must (or must not) be present to have a moral society” is not a sociological assertion. It’s an ethical question, and though science may bring some identifiably interesting points to the discussion, it cannot provide a definitive answer. Religion (and for that matter, God) simply work at much too broad and personal a scale.


[1] This might actually be months or years ago. I tend to listen to the podcast and when I hear the program isn’t necessarily related to when it was originally broadcast.
[2] The whole of Pullman’s interview is worth listening to. A recording can be found at the To the Best of Our Knowledge website.
[3] For an introduction, see Chapter 6 of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (pages 161 – 168).
[4] I’m speaking to the larger questions of militant atheism, which attempts to directly demonstrate that “Religion Poisons Everything” (to use Christopher Hitchen’s tagline). I’m not sure that Phil Zuckerman goes quite so far, though he does rather strongly imply a similar point in his NPR interview.


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