Paula Kirby: Is Religion a Parasite?

Paula Kirby, a “consultant to secular organizations,” recently wrote in an article for The Washington Post that, “Religion is a parasite that feeds on all that is good in humanity as a whole and then proclaims it as its own gift to the world.”

That’s a very strong, unqualified, and unconditional statement. If true, religious practice is a very serious problem, one that we should all work to eradicate.

In fact, it is such a sweeping claim that even a little reflection and common sense should lead us to question it. On a regular basis I hear stories from friends and acquaintances telling me about how they were inspired, encouraged, or happier after attending a worship service or some other religious activity. It is hard if not impossible to reconcile these everyday, run-of-the-mill stories that speak to the positive benefits of religion with such a negative portrayal of all religious practice.

What’s the evidence?

How does Paula support her statement? Her first point here is a question:

How often do we hear from religious apologists that lack of religious belief is responsible for a gamut of social ills, from alcoholism to family breakdown and from sexually transmitted diseases to crime (claims that fly in the face of the facts, as it happens, since research demonstrates a clear correlation between religiosity and a whole host of social ills)?

Does the research back her up?

Let’s look more closely at the study she cites.

As evidence, her article links to a study by Gregory S. Paul (since removed), which admits in its opening statement that the study is “not an attempt to present a definitive study that establishes cause versus effect between religiosity, secularism and societal health.” To Paula’s credit, the study does conclude that, “There is evidence that within the U.S. strong disparities in religious belief versus acceptance of evolution are correlated with similarly varying rates of societal dysfunction.” The distinction is crucial: this study shows no cause-and-effect between religiosity and societal health, only a population-level correlation.

The problem with this study, or at least Paula Kirby’s representation of it, is what is known as the “ecological fallacy,” a basic sociological concept. According to the entry on Wikipedia, the ecological fallacy is described as making “a logical fallacy in the interpretation of statistical data in an ecological study, whereby inferences about the nature of specific individuals are based solely upon aggregate statistics collected for the group to which those individuals belong.”

The actual facts

In fact, when we consider the effect of religion at an individual level, studies show that religiousness is correlated with positive social benefits, such as “significantly less crime” and “lower divorce rates.”

Paula is careful to say the research only shows “a clear correlation,” but she is incorrect when she infers from this that there’s no link between “lack of religious belief” and “crime”, and she’s especially wrong when she asserts that such claims “fly in the face of the facts.” The actual facts are that “religious beliefs and behaviors exert a moderate deterrent effect on individuals’ criminal behavior.”

In light of this, we can safely conclude that Paula Kirby has misunderstood or, possibly, misrepresented the scientific research on the effects of religion.

What kind of response is warranted?

First, at a minimum, The Washington Post should publish a simple correction.

Second, it would be a terrific step forward if Paula Kirby were to offer a more balanced and fair portrayal of religion and religious practice in her journalism and consulting work. There are plenty of clear-cut cases where religion has inspired harmful actions and it is good to speak against this. But when we condemn all religious practice as evil, even though global religious practice is both highly diverse and includes somewhere around 80% of everyone living, we lose credibility for the times we really need to speak out.

Third, we all need to be careful and responsible in how we present the results of scientific studies. Paula’s mistake is no different than how many Christians have misused statistics and scientific studies to support their own preconceived notions about the world.

Fourth, while I disagree with both her point of view and how she’s used this study, there’s no evidence that Paula Kirby has done anything worse than make a small mistake in interpreting a sociological study. We can continue to appreciate the clarity of her perspective and the opportunity that offers others to respectfully disagree with her.

Update: Not only is the Gregory Paul study being misused in this article, the study itself has been strongly discredited. Tom Gilson at Thinking Christian provides some insightful links.