Confirmation Bias

17 Sep

by MICHAEL SHERMER [9.13.07]

Is religion a force for good or evil? Yes. And with the confirmation bias firmly ensconced in our brains—where we look for and find confirmatory evidence for what we already believe and ignore disconfirmatory evidence—it is simply a matter of scanning the social landscape and picking out examples to support whatever answer you have already formulated to this question.

On the good side, there is Arthur C. Brooks’ data in his 2006 book Who Really Cares, showing that religious conservatives donate 30 percent more money than liberals and nonreligious people (even when controlled for income), they give more blood and log more volunteer hours; religious people are four times more generous than secularists to all charities, 10 percent more munificent to non-religious charities, and 57 percent more likely than a secularist to help a homeless person. Those raised in intact and religious families are more charitable than those who are not. In terms of societal health, charitable givers are 43 percent more likely to say they are “very happy” than nongivers, and 25 percent more likely than nongivers to say their health is “excellent” or “very good.”

On the evil side, there is Gregory Paul’s 2005 data published in the Journal of Religion and Society demonstrating an inverse correlation between religiosity (measured by belief in God, biblical literalism, and frequency of prayer and service attendance) and societal health (measured by rates of homicide, suicide, childhood mortality, life expectancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, and teen pregnancy) in 18 developed democracies, where the U.S. scores the highest in religiosity and the highest (by far) in homicides, STDs, abortions, and teen pregnancies.

In his thoughtful Edge essay Jonathan Haidt wrestles with this problem, correctly demonstrating that the response by atheists and secularists toward the insurgence of extreme religionists in American politics is more emotional than it is rational. Although I have been actively (and emotionally) involved in combating some of these religious intrusions into social life (e.g., the teaching of intelligent design creationism in public school science classes), I find myself in agreement with Haidt in his conclusion that “every longstanding ideology and way of life contains some wisdom, some insights into ways of suppressing selfishness, enhancing cooperation, and ultimately enhancing human flourishing.”

As a social primate species we evolved moral emotions that set up a tension between within-group morality (where we tend to be pro-social and cooperative with our fellow group members) and between-group morality (where we tend to be xenophobic and tribal against out-group members and other groups). Informal means of behavior control work well when group numbers are small and groups are spread out. When tiny bands and tribes coalesced into large chiefdoms and states over the past 10,000 years, however, two social institutions evolved to codify and enforce the rules of social cooperation: government and religion. For many millennia both have had a monopoly on how humans should live with one another in large state societies. The Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution are only a couple of centuries in development and thus we have our work cut out for us to convince the vast majority of the world that reason and science can and should be employed to enhance our moral emotions to reinforce the values our reason leads us to choose.

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