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A God-Shaped Hole in the Data

December 6th, 2006 · No Comments

You’d think churning out farcical, desperate attempts to demonstrate some empirical harms of gay marriage would be a full-time job for Stan Kurtz. But he seems to be taking up a sideline in churning out farcical, desperate attempts to demonstrate the harms of atheism now too. Over at The Corner, Kurtz argues that if Russia seems like a godforsaken place, it’s likely because it’s forsaken god. Yes, we get a penultimate-paragraph “to be sure” conceding that there are “confounding factors that need to be acknowledged and accounted for”—70 years of unspeakably brutal Soviet dictatorship, little things like that—but this, apparently, pales in comparison to the problem of “spiritual emptiness,” making Russia the strongest “candidate for the case that atheism has real-world costs.”

Yes, if only Russia could follow the example of global religious-belief champion Nigeria. Look, I’m the last to pretend this kind of loosey-goosey “correlation? causation? whatever!” analysis is good for anything beyond signaling which pundits it’s safe to stop taking seriously. But hey, if that’s the game we want to play, let’s see how the “spiritual emptiness” hypothesis fares at a quick first pass. The most recent poll I can find has just over half of Russians agreeing that religion is “very important to me in my daily life.” That’s just above the global average for this poll: Countries at or above that level include, of course, the United States, but also Saudi Arabia, Egypt, South Africa, Mexico, Lebanon, India, Italy, and Turkey. The countries with lower rates of people reporting religion as important were South Korea, Australia, Canada, Spain, Germany, Japan, Britain, and France. An older and smaller poll did, however, find that Russians with notably low rates of regular participation in community-based religious activity—which might suggest a problem of social capital as opposed to mere belief. This might be a sign that flourishing societies need some sort of strong community groups, with religious participation being one way to fulfill that need—or it might be that weak communities in Russia make it hard for religious conviction to translate into community participation. Probably a self-reinforcing mix of both. But “spiritual emptiness”? Never mind causation, there’s not even any obvious correlation.

Tags: Sociology