Monday, January 10, 2011

Everything Was Better With God

Here's a silly letter to the editor from a local theist.

How many examples of bogus reasoning can you find? It's practically a classroom exercise in shoddy thinking.

Responding to the assertion that we can be good without a god, the writer claims "this has been tried in a number of countries with disastrous results". Let's look at homicide rate as a proxy for "goodness". Notice anything? The US's homicide rate (5.0 per 100,000) and Canada's (1.81) are both distinctly higher than many countries that are largely secular, such as the Czech Republic (1.33), Sweden (1.25), and France (1.60). Similarly, religious states such as South Carolina and Florida have high homicide rates, while more secular states such as Oregon and Maine have much lower rates. So belief in a god is not a controlling factor for the goodness of a society.

The writer goes to say "Without biblical guidelines, countries such as Russia descended into moral chaos." Now I'm not going to defend the totalitarian regimes of Stalin et al., but one can hardly say that Christian Russia before communism was a moral paragon. Has the writer never heard of the Massacre of Novgorod? Or the word "pogrom"? And now that Christianity is practiced openly in Russia, has the country's moral tone improved? Hardly.

The next paragraph begins "Just look at has happened in our own schools since they took out prayer and Bible readings and instruction in moral behaviour. There has been an increase in violence, drug problems, teen pregnancy and defiance against authorities". (But evidently a decrease in commas.)

This is a good example of the "post hoc, ergo propter hoc" fallacy. There is no evidence that either prayer or Bible readings has much effect on crime. In the US today, for example, the homicide rate is at the rate it was back in 1965, in the good old days envisioned by the letter writer. Yet prayer and Bible readings have not returned. What is responsible for the change?

Crime is a multifactorial problem, and it's not easy to simplistically assign causes. (Read Walker's Sense and Nonsense About Crime if you want pretty much everything you knew about crime to be overturned.) Some changes in the crime rate are due to simple demographics: the change in the number of males aged 15-24 in the population. Others may be due to changes in abortion law. No serious analyst of crime, however, thinks changes in the crime rate are simply linked to policies like prayer in the schools.


Bayesian Bouffant, FCD said...

Here's a letter to the editor by LaVERNE KEMP which, among other inanities and logical errors, offers a version of Pascal's wager:
Atheists in denial over God
Better to believe in God and find he isn't there than to not believe and find him standing beside the road waving goodbye to you as you slide down the road to oblivion.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Here is a comment from someone who wants to be anonymous:

Regarding your latest Recursivity post, this seems to be the same author:

And the author info at the end of that article strongly suggests that he is therefore also this guy:

Ear candling! Colon therapy! Awesome stuff.

As I've long said: it's hard to keep crackpottery confined to one shelf in your cognitive kitchen...

Anonymous said...

From Bertrand Russell's The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1964), p. 11 of the preface, dated September 1920:

"There is, however, another aspect of Bolshevism from which I differ more fundamentally.  Bolshevism is not merely a political doctrine; it is also a religion, with elaborate dogmas and inspired scriptures.  When Lenin wishes to prove some proposition, he does so, if possible, by quoting texts from Marx and Engels.  A full-fledged Communist is not merely a man who believes that land and capital should be held in common and their produce distributed as nearly equally as possible.  He is a man who entertains a number of elaborate and dogmatic beliefs—such as philosophic materialism, for example—which may be true, but are not, to a scientific temper, capable of being known to be true with any certainty.  This habit of militant certainty about objectively doubtful matters is one from which, since the Renaissance, the world has been gradually emerging, into that temper of constructive and fruitful skepticism which constitutes the scientific outlook."

Anonymous said...

One clarification is perhaps in order.  Russell’s “philosophic materialism” is a technical term not to be confused with the epithet used by 21st-century creationists.  Russell explains the “materialism” of which he speaks above in the chapter on Marx of his book A History of Western Philosophy.

Anonymous said...

Writing of the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona, on Jan. 8, which left six people dead and 14 wounded, some critically, the New York Times reported ("Doctors Say Giffords's Condition Points to Survival," New York Times, Jan. 12, 2011, A14):

"... members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas ... have praised the shooting and plan to picket the funeral on Thursday of Christina Green, a 9-year-old victim, and a service on Friday for Judge John M. Roll of Federal District Court."

sbh said...

Actually teen pregnancy has gone down "since they took out prayer and Bible readings" from the schools. It supposedly reached a high in the mid-fifties, when school districts around the nation were adding prayer and bible-reading to the curriculum in response to the red menace (the New York prayer the Supreme Court struck down was actually a recent innovation, not a long-established practice). And the rate has been declining ever since, though it's still quite high compared to more godless regions of the world.