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.)