What You Don’t know about Religion (but Should)

What You Don’t know about Religion (but Should)

Professor JOHN RADFORD, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of East London, reviews What You Don’t Know About Religion (but should), by Ryan T Cragun.  Pitchstone Publishing, Durham NC, USA, 2013 (available as hard copy or e-book)

THE author, pictured above,  is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida. The “You”  in the title refers in particular, he hopes, to the more dogmatic among the religiously committed, or those attracted by more extreme views. He himself was once one of the first group. Born in the small town of Morgan, Utah, in 1976, he was reared as a strict Mormon, and zealously did his two years as a missionary Elder in Costa Rica, never doubting that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, founded by Joseph Smith around 1830, proclaimed the one true faith.

He married a young woman of equal conviction. He took a BA in Psychology at the University of Utah in 2000 and subsequently moved to Cincinnati for graduate work in Sociology (PhD 2007). This involved two crucial personal changes, he tells us. First, he left the rigidly enclosed Mormon environment; second, he learned about empirical scientific methods and findings which showed that much he had been told was not consistent with the facts.

Soon both he and his wife determined to leave the Church, and did so despite the personal, family and social problems that resulted. Since then he has been very active in research, university teaching and community activities.   The main points of the story can be paralleled elsewhere, but this personal account is well told, valuable and encouraging.   It is an informative background to the present book.

This is largely based on what sociological studies tell us about groups of varying, or no, religious commitment. The data come mainly from two extensive and well regarded sources, the General Social Survey (USA) and the World Values Survey (87 nations). Full information about methodology, published sources, and the rationale for the content and format of the main text, is given in appendices, which form an essential part of the argument.

The text itself presents the findings and their implications clearly, convincingly and readably. Deliberately, the religious dimension is expressed as four groups: fundamentalist, moderate, liberal and non-religious. As Ryan Cragun is well aware, any such labels necessarily cover a multitude of variations. But a broad brush is appropriate here. His aim is to establish how, if at all, adherence to a religion is in general associated with attitudes and/or behaviour in a range of areas. As he points out, individuals are frequently inconsistent and even contradictory in their thinking and actions.

Short chapters each deal with one topic and each helpfully starts with an illustrative anecdote from the author’s own experience. The topics covered include child rearing, science, social networks, contraception, corporal punishment, moral development, arrogance, money and many more. The results in each case are very clear, and all are neatly summarised in a table at the end.   The overall picture is that the greater the degree of religious commitment, the lower the score on various traits that might be considered desirable. Readers of the Freethinker will not be surprised by this, but I think most will learn something new, as I did. In any case, the principal target (the “you” of the title) is those who, he feels, most need to open their minds to evidence as opposed to belief and are potentially most likely to do so.

From a personal point of view, I find myself largely in accord with Ryan Cragun. I differ mainly in approach. First, I would not start from his definition of religions:

Religions are groups of people who hold common beliefs about supernatural things.  

This is an “essentialist” definition, which I don’t think is appropriate for the conglomerate of things called “religions”; rather, I prefer a polythetic definition, one that offers a list of items of which any religion possesses a significant number. I won’t elaborate here on my own approach to characterising religions, but I will mention one other definitional divergence, over “belief”. For example:

I believe babies are born atheists and that children should be allowed to explore any and all beliefs and not be forced to join a religion.

This seems to me to use three different meanings. I take the first use (“I believe”) to express a considered opinion based on available evidence. The second (“children should”, etc) is surely a value judgment. The third (“all beliefs”) presumably covers a very wide range of thought and behaviour. I would regard purely religious belief as peculiar in being as it were free-standing, not based on, and indeed resistant to, evidence and logic.

This sentence also raises the important issue of parents’ rights and duties. Ryan Cragun has a young son, Toren, and starts from the point that he would strongly resist anyone else dictating how he should rear his child. From this he concludes that he has no right to dictate to anyone else. Thus fundamentalist parents are entitled to inculcate their doctrines in their offspring.

But all known societies surely have implicit or explicit rules about child-rearing, and forbid some things. Reports occur constantly of parents abusing their own children. In some cases, this is clearly in the pursuit of their religion. And “abuse”  cannot be restricted to physical harm. What about forbidding education altogether, or severely constraining it to accord with religious doctrine? Both these can have long-lasting ill-effects. The problem is, where should the line be drawn? The issue is not only about parents but about all those who make decisions affecting others.

Ryan Cragun sums up his own views as “secular humanism”. He does not consider all religions to be bad, but he hopes that the religiously convinced, especially the more dogmatic, will at least become more critical in the light of the evidence he presents. Some of this evidence however, as well as much from elsewhere, shows clearly how and why strict religions resist anything that might shake their dogmatic beliefs.

Extremist religious bodies have always enforced the exclusion of other views; and as the author points out, they now draw on the expertise of social scientists to do so more effectively. There is also the question of why more liberal views are preferable.  Ryan Cragun argues that such views are clearly associated with tolerance, science, technology, critical thinking and so on, and that “our world” needs these things.

I suggest that the religiously committed might say first, that the evidence is not true; it is made up by the enemies of faith. Second, that in any case, (their) faith always takes precedence over any other views, no matter what the evidence. Revelation comes direct from supernatural authority and is not dependent on or subject to human reasoning. Third, if the human race does need science etc to flourish or even to survive, only God can say whether these aims are desirable. Our function is to learn what is his will and strive to follow it.

The book does not address these questions; but the main purpose is to show that the more extreme and dogmatic the faith, the less it is associated with a whole range of beneficial results that are often claimed for religions. That job is excellently done, in my view.

Ryan Cragun further argues, on the basis of the evidence, that religion is slowly but surely losing its hold over societies, with the better educated and more prosperous leading the way, and that the future thus belongs to non-believers. Some would suggest, I think, that while many (though not all) current religions are in decline (as has always been true in specific cases), a tendency towards “religiosity” or rather the many elements that go to make this up – genetic, physiological, psychological, social – is another matter.

Thus far in history new religious structures have always developed as old ones fell away. A fascinating speculation is what may result from the unprecedented world-wide instant transmission of information.   Look what happened after Gutenberg got his press working. At this point, and I think for some time to come, the present book is strongly to be recommended, and I sincerely hope it will be read as widely as possible. Above all perhaps by those whose actions may affect others, including parents, educators, politicians, media “celebrities” and so on.


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