Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Does the relative morality of Christians validate their faith?

I want to develop an issue that came up in yesterday's blog post & comments. In particular, I think I was off the mark with something.

One of the comment--as part of an astute reaction to my post--asked the following question: "As a whole, looking at the Christian movement over the last 1,500 years, is there really evidence that Christians are more loving, more altruistic, less self centered, more concerned about their "neighbors" than Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or atheists? I don't think so."

My answer was: "I guess I would say probably yes, at least in regards to those who have no religious affiliation."

In retrospect, I think that I had the answer right, but the question wrong. Here's what I mean...

I've analyzed/ summarized other people's analysis of data on divorce rates, sexual behavior, and crime (the latter in a published article), and with each topic, the behavior of Christians, especially those who are active, more closely approximates Christian morals than does the behavior of people with no religious affiliation. Christians had lower levels of divorce, sexual immorality (as defined by Christianity), and crime. Christian vs. other religion comparisons are trickier because of definitional and sampling problems, but I haven't found consistent compelling differences across religion.

Upon reflection, this may not be the right question to be asking if we want to use the moral behavior of Christians to gauge its validity for several reasons.

1) Many morals are relative to the group. So, premarital sex is frowned upon in Christianity but not for other groups, so with some behaviors it really is apples and oranges. Immoral for one group is moral for another.

2) If we find that Christians are more moral on "big" things (things that most people agree are immoral) this could mean that Christianity makes people more moral. Or... it could mean that a) it attracts more moral people or b) rejects less moral people. Neither of these would support the validity of Christianity.

3) If we find that Christians have similar moral behavior as others, at least here in the US perhaps Christianity has sufficiently infused the culture that its effects are widespread... so even people who don't profess it would adopt many of its assumptions. So this would *not* be evidence against the effectiveness of Christianity.

4) If we find that Christians are *less* moral, it could be explained by the type of people become Christian.

5) There's something of a reductionist fallacy here, that a group/ belief system is the sum of its individuals. I get lost rather easily when I try to get philosophical, but I think this is right. Sort of the reverse of the ecological fallacy.

6) Finally this question seems to lead to a "my religion is better than your religion" type discussion that I just can't see as productive for anyone. Sort of like the Yankees vs. Red Sox discussions that pop up at most social events I attend... Oh, wait, in that case there is clear good (Red Sox) and evil (Yankees).
Having said all this, I don't want to give the impression that empirical data are useless for understanding and examining the effectiveness of Christianity.

What do you think would be more useful questions? (I have some ideas, which I'll post tomorrow.)



Stephen Barry said...

Hi Brad,

I'm no sociologist, but I find this post pretty fascinating. I'm not sure this is feasible, but one thought would be to try and determine which religious group is most "moral" relative to THEIR OWN standards of moral behavior. This seems admittedly complicated, but might determine which group most closely lives out the "gospel" that they preach. In other words, what percentage of self-identified (I don't know how else you would define group boundaries) Christians live out the principles put forth in the Bible, and, by comparison, what percentage of Muslims live out the principles put forth in the Koran? (Or something to that extent...)

I'm not sure how you'd operationalize everything and be purely objective, but it seems like it might get closer at the intended question than trying to establish whether Christians are "more moral" (by Christian standards) than are Muslims or Hindus (by Christians standards). I think you're right about the apples and oranges thing.

Anyways, you can see that I'm not a sociologist but I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on this!


Stephen Barry said...

PS - I say the Yanks and the Sox are evil. Let's go Mets!

Drek said...

I think you've missed one possiblity: if we find that Christians are "more moral" we also have to ask questions about how the data were collected. Social desirability is a powerful force, and I'd lay odds that the more devout a person appears the more likely it is that they would be reluctant to admit to immoral behavior. Work by Janet Rosenbaum shows just that as she finds that about 10% of teens who had engaged in sexual activity, and then took a virginity pledge or became born-again Christians, subsequently denied having had sex. For more, see the writeup in the Washington Post. If 10% of our sample is lying to us flat-out, we're going to have problems out the wazoo.

I'm also fairly distrustful of research trying to compare the "morality" effects of religions. Some of it supports the value of religion, some doesn't. Some published research even suggests that religion is a bad thing, although I've said elsewhere that I think that study is of poor quality.

In short, not only is it often comparing apples to oranges, and not only does it run the risk of spawning a "my god can beat up your god" argument, it's a veritable confirmation bias buffet.

Amishlaw said...

How about this? "If there is no quantifiable difference in the actions of Christians and non-Christians, by what measurement does one evaluate the "truth" of Christianity?"

I realize this is a very Amish way of putting it. The Amish eschew any kind of evangelism, saying one's life is one's testimony. That method works a lot better when the group is insular and outsiders don't see what the lives are really like behind the facade.

Brad Wright said...

Steve, you bring up a really good point about the difficulty of comparing across religions, where the same action can have very different implications.

Drek, the methodological issues regarding religion and self-reporting are interesting. On one hand, we can imagine Christians being less inclined to admit wrongdoing, but on the other hand there is the Christian tradition of confession... being frank with wrongdoing. For me the jury is still out on this issue.

Amishlaw, I agree that what Christians do matters, a lot. We'd hate to be a religion of just spoken faith and no good deeds. Still, finding quantifiable differences are difficult to interpret...

Jerry said...

I'm a little late chiming in on this, but one other tricky element of this is ranking what counts as "moral" within Christianity. You concentrate on sexuality and criminal behavior. In essence, the measure is how Christians stay away from doing wrong (at least as defined by their faith). I wonder if there's a way to measure doing right--looking at the generosity, compassion, or sacrificial love (again, these are somewhat Christian constructs) displayed by Christians. Or the contributions to a more just society--one less likely to exploit or oppress vulnerable populations. That's a trickier measure, I'd think.

On top of this, there's Pauline theology--that our actions in the end don't amount to a hill of beans and God's grace is all that matters. How does one measure that? Does grace automatically result in more moral behavior? Must it in order to count?

This really is a pretty complicated question, I guess...

Brad Wright said...

Jerry, you make a good point about doing right vs. not doing wrong (errors of omission/ commission).

There ahve been studies of giving, but I'm not as familiar with them as the wrong-doing ones... my own bias, I suppose.

Edward T. Babinski said...

The survey does not provide a definitive list of all the things that a Christian finds moral and immoral based on their own particular church's doctrines and teachings, nor factor in that secular society at large views such divisive "moral imperatives" as themselves being "immoral." It is moral for instance to declare homosexuality to be a sin? To declare that people with beliefs different from your own are going to be suffering for all eternity? Or believe that God is on YOUR side in so many ways? Are those the kinds of "moral" beliefs one wishes to inculcate in a young child's brain as well?

I agree that a belief in absolute truth can raise a person's moral standards especially if they are involved with a community of fellow believers in that particular absolute truth who hold that person accountable to practicing them and repeating the creeds, and worshipping together. But there are a variety of different churches with different beliefs and it seems secularism is the safest and best way for those churches to coexist in society.

Also, I suspect that the Christian majority has hindered the teaching of practical moral wisdom in public schools. Because they will complain very loudly if their children are taught a class in "ethics" in public schools, or any class that teaches a variety of moral wisdom from all world cultures and that places "Jesus" merely in the category of great moral teachers. Yet I think courses in ethics could teach children many lessons in a most profitable fashion for society, lessons about sobriety and sharing. So Christianity could be viewed as a negative holding back such a course being taught to the young.

Lastly, any comparison of morality should be geared toward comparing "barbarians" with "civilized people," no matter what the person's religion or lack thereof. There are barbaric people with Christian and other religious beliefs, our prisons are filled with them. And there are civilized law-abiding people with no beliefs, like the signers of the Humanist Manifesto.

So based on what I wrote above, I do not think morality and statistics prove "anything at all" about Christianity's metaphysical truth or falsity. And will Christianity ever overcome the hubris of claiming it has the world's most perfect divine handbook, it has the Holy Spirit to lead believers into all truth, it has a God who has given people totally new hearts, including "Jesus inside" each believer. Yet with such a plethora of supernatural advantages, do Christians shine that much brighter? Are they that much more intelligent and inventive and contributing to better city planning, agriculture, medicine, vaccine development, Doctors without boarders, etc., bettering the world? Or have Christians fallen into the same dirty ditches throughout history as many other groups? Have they continued to divide and sub-divide over sometimes paltry issues, and continue to divide and sub-divide today? Do not some or many Christians fall under the category of extreme gullibility, falling for all manner of "religious affinity frauds?" Have not Christian businessmen been the heads of some of the greatest corporate bankruptcy scandals of recent years?