Statistics and Religion
by: John Tyrrell
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I don't think a week goes by without seeing a news story linking religion to something positive or negative, or linking lack of religion to something positive or negative. Like most people, I suspect, I tend to regard those stories which support my pre-existing biases as sound studies, and regard those which would undermine my previous opinion as somehow flawed.
That's human nature.
Someone put together several studies on the LiveScience web site and based on them made the claim that "regular participation in faith-based activities is good for the body and mind" as well as the soul.
Now LiveScience is usually fairly good, but on this one they convinced me that all claims about studies linking religion or lack of religion to anything should be ignored.
Let's see look at the article in question.
The author opens with:
Many people adhere to religion for the sake of their souls, but it turns out that regular participation in faith-based activities is good for the body and mind, too.
Here are some of the ways that religion can make people happier and healthier.
Sounds like she has put together a package of studies that show religion is good for you. And there are eight studies for which she makes claims.
The first claim - is that somehow religion "Helps you resist junk food."
But, if we look at the discussion by which she reaches this conclusion, the study actually showed that references to God in tests and games made students feel more capable of resisting unhealthy food. Whatever the reasons for this correlation, it had nothing to do with the religious beliefs or practices of the students, nor did it measure their actual resistance to consuming unhealthy food. And the study also showed that references to God made participants feel less control over future careers.
So - the positive claim for a benefit of religion does not hold up.
The second claim - is that religion "... But could make you fat."
The writer appropriately notes this conflicts with her first claim. And that it undermines her opening claim about religion making people healthier. It's amusing that she links fat religious people to "Sunday potlucks and other comfort foods associated with worship."
Anyway - she tries to recover this item for religion by throwing in apropos of nothing that went before that "religious people tend to live longer than the non-religious, in part because they smoke less." And that basically is just a reminder of the linkage between smoking and life expectancy.
The third claim - is that religion "Puts a smile on your face."
Well - religion frequently does put a smile on my face. I make a point of giving a friendly smile to those dour-faced Jehovah's Witnesses standing on local street corners, waiting for someone to take a magazine. I'll concede a point she's trying to make about the social value of religion to some people, but it isn't necessarily something to smile about. Too much of religion is a censorious attitude towards others, and those religious people trying to impose their religious values on others are very rarely smiling. Not genuinely anyway.
The fourth claim - is that religion "Raises self-esteem (if you live in the right place)."
This boils down to going along with the majority makes you feel better about yourself. In essence, religion has nothing to do with it.
The fifth claim - is that religion "Soothes anxiety."
The study referred to apparently found that if religious people think about God, it soothes anxiety, but for atheists, this trick does not work. Well, duh.
One wonders whether religious people experience more anxiety which requires soothing, or if non-believers have means of soothing anxiety other than thinking of God. That religious people can soothe their anxiety by thinking of god does not establish that religion soothes anxiety.
The sixth claim - is that religion "Protects against depressive symptoms."
Essentially, we have two studies that suggest that belief in a caring god helps patients who are depressed. But what we don't know is whether religious belief is correlated positively or negatively to a diagnosis of depression. The study only suggests that a certain belief (caring god) protects already depressed people against depressive symptoms. Does it protect people from depression who aren't depressed? Or does it make them more likely to become depressed? Who knows? We don't know from the remarks about the two studies, so we cannot know if the claim is true.
The seventh claim - is that religion "Motivates doctor visits."
And this is based on one study which showed that church going women were more likely to get mammograms. That's it. Good grief!
I expect I could conduct a study which would show that women with diagnosed high risk factors for cancer are more likely to get mammograms. This would allow me, by combining studies, to make the junk conclusion that church-going women are more likely to be at high risk for cancer. And that would still be a far sounder conclusion than nonsensically pole-vaulting to the conclusion that religion motivates doctor visits.
And I'll also mention that a significant proportion of Christians use their religion to avoid doctors - they'll pray the disease away. And they - and all too often, their children - die.
Quite simply the claim that religion motivates doctor visits has no basis in reality. In fact, for some Christians, the reverse is empirically true.
The final claim - is that religion "Lowers your blood pressure."
I have to admit my blood pressure probably increased as I worked my way through all this nonsense on a fairly reputable science site. But one study in Norway did apparently come up with the surprising conclusion that church attendance lowered blood pressure. I guess it compensates for the potluck suppers making people fat.
I started out with a science writer claiming that religion can make people happier and healthier.
In my quick review of the points she tried to make, I have tried to show how she selected studies to support her viewpoint, and more importantly tailored her interpretation of the studies' conclusions to support her viewpoint.
In my view, she failed to show that religion made people healthier, or happier.
On the non-religious side, I think we do this also at times - we select studies which support our viewpoint, and we tailor our interpretation of the conclusions to strengthen the case.
Frankly - we are better off to ignore all such studies linking religion or non-religion to anything.