Is There Still a Place for Religion?

A depiction of Abraham, spiritual ancestor of the major monotheistic religions.

A depiction of Abraham, spiritual ancestor of the major monotheistic religions.

If there exists a popular portrait of religion in the West, it is not as bright as it once was. The spirituality that once illuminated the stage of history is now painted dimly, as if an obstacle in the path of progress and material prosperity.

This metaphorical portrait is given commentary by academic voices speaking the language of statistics. Sociologists juxtapose the low religiosity of countries in Northern Europe with their low rates of crime and poverty. Unbelievers in America remark that religious people are over-represented in US prisons—and under-represented among its scientists and thinkers. In the opinion of many researchers, the statistical landscape of religion is bleak.

As someone who is religious, I have sometimes looked away in disappointment from this scene, wishing there was some other pattern to be seen in it. While I have always found compelling spiritual and personal justifications for my religiosity, I have avoided debates about the social effects of faith, suspecting there was little statistical ground to stand on.

I have recently discovered this is not the case. The dramatic patterns of cause and effect, made obvious by a glance at the portrait that was brushed in broad strokes, give way to subtler narratives when the picture is crafted in finer lines by someone with keener eyes.

Two books I have read recently on religion and society have given nuance to my view. Both attempt to uncover the nature and role of religion in the United States. One is American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, both researchers at prominent American universities. The other is American Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists by Rodney Stark, who is one of the best known sociologists of religion.

Despite the ecclesiastical tone of each title, both books are mainly occupied by data and analysis. American Grace is particularly data-heavy, and it is appended by 123 pages of notes and appendices. With little theory or speculation, the authors share their analysis of the newest and best datasets on religion in America. American Blessings is also a statistical work, and it cites more than two hundred academic studies, all of which, according to Stark, use rigorous statistical methods.

Here are the claims of the authors. Campbell and Putnam find that religious Americans are more civically engaged, more generous, more neighborly, and more likely to be happy than irreligious Americans. Stark goes further, making and justifying claims that religion has the effect of lessening crime and delinquency, increasing educational success, improving mental health, lengthening human longevity, preventing suicide and promoting charitable giving and volunteering, even to secular causes. He proclaims (with satisfaction) that religious couples report more enjoyable sex lives than their unchurched peers, and that they are less likely to cheat, divorce, or mistreat their children.

Some of these findings are not surprising: most everyone has agreed for some time that religiosity is linked to generosity and civic engagement. The rest of the claims, however, seem to contradict popular (or at least academic) wisdom. I assumed, for example, before I began studying the question, that religiosity was linked to lower educational success and higher rates of crime and poverty.

What explains the gap between our assumptions and these statistics? According to Stark, most of the claims made about religion in the sociological literature are justified by simplistic analysis of poorly gathered data. Many papers use small samples of individuals, often drawn from non-random sources. More importantly, a great deal of the analysis performed does not control for relevant external variables.

This is a vital criticism. When searching for cause-and-effect relationships in social science data, it is irresponsible not to control for possible confounding effects to find independent relationships between variables. This is more difficult than correlating two sets of numbers: it involves regression analysis, a sophisticated technique with well-established statistical properties that can reveal hidden patterns in data.

It is true, for example, that the US states with the lowest incarceration rates have the lowest levels of religiosity. But when controlling for race, income and other social factors by way of regression methods, Stark finds that religion is actually negatively correlated with violent crime. This apparent discrepancy is resolved by the fact that black and Hispanic Americans represent a hugely disproportionate share of incarcerated Americans, but are also more religious than white Americans. While religious blacks and Hispanics are somewhat less violent than irreligious blacks and Hispanics (as can be confirmed by a closer look at the data), there are so many more minorities in prison than whites that it appears as if religious people commit more violent crime. Naive interpretation of data, even accurate data, can lead to conclusions opposite to reality.

Likewise, little can be inferred from the observation that the Western countries with the lowest religiosity are also those with the lowest crime rates. While there is very little statistical analysis of religion and crime in Europe, the existing literature finds a negative relationship between the two (the cited study is for crime in Sweden). Further, it is important not to be selective with statistics: while the US has a much higher murder rate than the Scandinavian countries, it also has far lower rates of assault and burglary, using 2008 data (according to Stark). It appears that crime has declined in the West over time despite growing irreligiosity, and probably not because of it.

It is also certainly possible that the heresy of our age underlies the slow decay of economic growth rates in the West, the rise of structural unemployment, or the stubbornness of child poverty rates (which are correlated with single parenthood).

The literature on the social effects of faithfulness is of course not settled. It may turn out that some of Stark’s conclusions are wrong, or lack adequate nuance. To that point, it seems to me after more study that the relationship between education and religion is more complicated than he let on: while church-attending students outperform the irreligious, it is also true that individual religiosity decreases as individuals gain higher education.

Nevertheless, a second look at the data is justified. To the extent that social scientists have neglected rigorous analysis in favor of more agreeable correlations, they must re-evaluate their assumptions, and paint their portrait of religious society in finer strokes, and from a wider palette. They will likely find that faith does not cast a shadow on modernity, but rather lights its way.

The Free Trade of Goods … And Bads


Both Canada and Europe expect to benefit from the new free trade agreement.

Canada and the EU have made a sweeping free trade agreement, and Stephen Harper is exultant: “This is a big deal,” he told the press in Europe, after concluding the negotiations. “Indeed, this is the biggest deal our country has ever made. This is a historic win for Canada.”

The Prime Minister’s claim is barely an exaggeration. The general removal of barriers to the cross-Atlantic exchange of goods and services, or free trade, will almost certainly mean hundreds of billions of dollars to the economies of Canada and the European Union over the next few decades. There are few informed people who disagree. In fact, nearly 100% of economists support free trade.

Uncertainty surrounds free trade, however. Recent polls of Canadians find 40% who endorse free trade with Europe, 16% who oppose it and, surprisingly, around 44% of Canadians who have no opinion, perhaps because they do not fully understand what it means to have free trade. Most issues debated in government have a more transparent moral or partisan character.

Because of the economic significance of trade policy, and its relative intuitive simplicity, it is worth explaining free trade in a general way.

Every government in the world charges some level of tariffs on goods and services purchased from foreign sellers. When consumers pay tariffs on goods they import, the tariffs are normally called duties. Most tariffs, however, are levied on businesses, who pass much of the burden of the tariff on to consumers.

When a Canadian confectioner imports sugar from Latin America, for example, it may pay up to $30 per tonne of sugar in duty. Canadian shoe retailers pay up to 20% of the purchase price on footwear imported from Asia or Europe. Foreign governments likewise impose tariffs on Canadian imports.

Canada has concluded agreements to drop tariffs with 14 countries, and there are a few pending agreements that will soon take effect. The new agreement with the EU, which will be fully ratified within a few years, brings the number of such countries to 42. As part of the deal, 98% of existing tariffs between the two economies will be removed. Consumer prices will fall on a variety of goods, and sellers in each economy will have effective access to a much larger market.

The benefits of free trade are even better than low prices or more exports, however, and this is something that Stephen Harper understands.

One of the earliest insights of modern economics was that free trade nearly always leads to a total increase in wealth for all involved countries. Crucially, this is true even for countries whose productive capacity is inferior to their trading partners’ in every industry. This argument, which hinges on the principle of “comparative advantage”, is actually quite subtle, so it is best illustrated by an unrealistically simplified example.

In a hypothetical economy that involves only two countries and two goods, imagine that producers in France are able to produce both cheese and olives more cheaply than are producers in Canada. However, while the cost of growing olives in Canada is extremely high, Canadian cheese is only moderately expensive. So while it would be cheaper to produce cheese in France than in Canada, it would actually be even cheaper to both countries if France only grew olives and Canada produced only cheese. Canada would then trade some of its cheese for French olives. In this case, while France has an “absolute advantage” in both goods, Canada has a comparative advantage in cheese. By means of free trade, Canada is able to obtain its olives by producing cheese, rather than by inefficiently growing them. And because Canadians are willing to pay quite well for olives, the French are left better off as well.

The empirical and intuitive cases for free trade are strong, but there are of course reasons to oppose the policy, at least in particular circumstances. Certain Canadian industries would shrink or vanish if exposed to foreign competitors, and jobs in those industries would be lost. The dairy industry, for example, will probably see falling profits now that Canadians can buy European cheese more cheaply. This is a reason for political caution, but experience teaches us that the benefits of free trade outweigh its costs.

The unambiguous and very large benefits of free trade sometimes tempt policymakers and pundits to become over-enthusiastic, and to forget that there are important reasons to be selective in our trade policy. It is common sense that we do not, for example, liberalize the international market for handguns, explosives or non-medicinal drugs.

Perhaps one of the best publicized effects of the new free trade deal, however, is that the market for wine and spirits will be liberalized, leading to more varieties of alcohol and likely to lower prices. But while Canadians will be freer than before to indulge, we can be almost certain that more people in Canada will die as a result of lower prices, many of them teenagers (the leading preventable cause of teenage death in Canada is alcohol). The number of deaths caused by alcohol shows a surprisingly significant connection to the price of the drug. Whether we are examining drug policy or trade policy, lowering the price of alcohol should probably be our last priority.

Despite the missteps that often accompany good policy, we can be confident that a policy of free trade with Europe is sensible and well justified by experience. We can look forward to the increased prosperity that follows free and open markets. With respect to value created, the agreement may indeed be one of the most significant accomplishments of Mr. Harper’s premiership.

What do we think of death?

Large majorities in most Western countries now support legal doctor-assisted suicide. An Angus Reid poll conducted last year found that four fifths of Canadians are in favor of legal euthanasia for terminally ill patients, given certain restrictions.

There is a persuasive argument in favor of consensual killing that combines the asserted liberty of the person over his/her own body with an emotional concern for the distress felt by the terminally ill. It is the apparently self-evident answer to the rhetorical question: “Why should we prevent someone putting him/herself out of misery?”

For those who reject the rhetorical answer, it is probably not squeamishness about death that motivates their opposition to euthanasia. (I will not distinguish between euthanasia and assisted suicide for the purposes of this article.) Euthanasia was less popular in the past, at a time when far more people were familiar with death. Doctors, who witness death more often than most of us, are known to be less supportive of legalization. In fact, only a fifth of Canadian doctors report a willingness to assist in suicide.

The concern of euthanasia’s opponents is also probably not for making every effort to keep a person alive—palliative workers understand, for example, that it is best not to force dying patients to eat when they resist, having arrived naturally at the point of death. There is a more subtle explanation for the aversion to assisted killing that I will return to in a moment.

On the question of the death of terminal patients, more philosophic types might reason away the distinction between allowing (temporarily preventable) natural death and euthanasia, by appealing to some kind of utilitarianism. If the patient dies, they say, it makes no moral difference whether you caused it or allowed it to be caused by something else.

This idea is not unreasonable, in a theoretical world of utility-maximizing agents, but it is not terribly useful to us—humans are not known to act that way in life-or-death circumstances, because there is more meaning attached to death than the materially apparent.

A cancer patient on the verge of death may be equally extinguished by the physical toll of the disease or by a lethal drug, but the moral difference to the individual who pulls the trigger, so to speak, is profound. Grief in these situations is unavoidable, but how many parents would want to live knowing they had chosen the moment of their child’s death? No longer could the parent comfortably attribute to the death any transcendent significance—it was not an act of God or nature, but of human discretion.

Of the $200 billion Canadians spend on health care each year, nearly half is spent on the elderly. This is something like $3,000 for every Canadian—a large part of our gross national income. It would be easy to find justifications not to spend so much money on the aged if we did not believe that health and life were sacred; if we began consciously attaching quantitative values to lives.

I doubt that Canadians would ever begin withholding care in this way, but I am not certain that we would be able indefinitely to avoid slipping a little farther down the slope, in the same way that the Netherlands has gradually expanded the class of people who may end their lives (it now includes anyone over 12 whose situation is sufficiently “hopeless”). By allowing intentional, consensual killing in select circumstances, we would inevitably find individuals in those circumstances who would feel as if they ought to be killed, or perhaps as if others wanted them to die.

It is not difficult to imagine a sick, elderly hospice patient noticing the fatigue of his caregivers and beginning to wonder whether they would rather he died. We cannot write off as ridiculous the idea that under a new death policy, medical workers would be more likely to bring up the possibility of euthanasia, or that ambivalent patients would more often be agreeable to being killed.

If for no other reason, let us maintain our current laws for the sake of the emotional security of those who are in the majority of the very ill who do not want to die. If we must err, it may be better to err by prolonging a hundred or so lives a year, than by risking the trauma of killing some who would otherwise have been fine with living. This is not to mention the fright it would spare the elderly, or anyone else, who might (reasonably or otherwise) begin to think that a euthanizing culture does not value their lives as highly as they do.

Life remains something sacred (having transcendent value) to us. Implicit in the social norms and laws that surround death is the assumption that a human life is nearly infinite in value—“No matter what,” our law seems to signal to us, “your life will always be secured by our society and government. Even if you become temporarily hostile to your own existence we will make sure, to the extent possible, that your life does not end. We cannot risk losing a valuable life for the sake of any benefit or in the face of any particular cost.”

This sense of sanctity is why we spend billions to save the infirm and disabled, and why we proscribe euthanasia and suicide. We may find that undoing this sacredness will lead to moral disorder.

“Why should we prevent someone putting him/herself out of misery?” The question is far too easy to answer (in isolation) to be of good use to us. The reader can consider how he/she would answer the question if it were posed by his/her suicidal child, parent, or friend.

This article first appeared in the Prince Arthur Herald on October 8, 2013.