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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Wrestling, but with my own worldview or with questionable science?

I followed a link to this article on religion and suicide bombings. It is an interesting article, but I find myself waffling on my thoughts. I suppose that is a good thing, as it is clearly challenging some of my notions, but it is still a difficult thing. Basically, the study which the article is about investigated the link between religion and suicide bombings and found the following general trends:
  • Prayer correlated more strongly with religious devotion than attendance of church/temple/mosque/synagogue (and any other place of worship I happened to miss).
  • Approval of and predisposition to perform suicide bombings was more strongly related to attendance of religious services than religious devotion.
The study therefore drew the conclusion that it was actually the social aspect of religion that led to suicide bombings rather than religious fervour and belief in rewards of the afterlife. Now, before I continue, I think I should air some of my own thoughts on religion. I hold no religious beliefs and attend no religious services (I think most of my readers are aware of this). I also have a number of qualms with religion, perhaps most importantly being what I see as a disastrous emphasis on orthodoxy over evidence and faith over reason. The trouble with making these statements is it not only strikes some people too close to home for them to continue rationally listening to what you are saying, but it also often leads to the retort "I don't know what religion you're talking about, but that's not my religion." And, to a certain extent, that is sometimes true. The deism of men like Thomas Jefferson is a pretty benign form of religious belief which I have a hard time finding a quarrel with. Likewise, in terms of organized religion, I do not find that I have the same quarrel with an organization like the United Church of Canada as I do with the Catholic church or, to an even greater extent, fundamentalist mega-churches in the United States. While I am a supporter of the idea of freedom of religion, as I have discussed elsewhere the idea of freedom of religion becomes fundamentally untenable when no limits are placed upon what protected religious belief entails. It should not be possible to justify any action as an expression of religious belief if it infringes upon the fundamental rights of others, but that is exactly what happens with honour killings and other forms of religious subjugation. The extraordinary difficulty that results in attempting to correct such gross violations of human rights, either due to the blanket cover of the argument for religious expression used to counter an external dialogue or the resistance to internal reform stemming from the elevation of unquestioning deference to religious teachings, is central to my antipathy toward organized religion. What hostility I have toward religion, therefore, does not rest upon the social aspects of support and community (I had actually generally regarded these as somewhat positive side effects). Of course, the social aspects of religion can easily be manipulated to help produce in-group/out-group animosity, but I still concluded that its edge in this matter fundamentally rested upon its profound advantage in producing dogmatic and unquestioning zealots.

I wanted to explain my outlook, because I am not sure if it is the reason (combined with my general wariness for the conclusions of psychology studies) I seemed to be looking for holes in the study's conclusions, or if the study itself rests upon shaky ground. One of the things which perked my ears up was the following paragraph:
This effect remained even after accounting for the different demographics and economics of the six countries, but it did vary from group to group. It was only statistically significant (unlikely to be a fluke result) for Indian Hindus, Russian Orthodox Christians and Israeli Jews. However, Ginges warns against overinterpreting these differences - obviously the six samples differed in many ways. The important point was that all of them showed a similar trend.
It is quite misleading to say that the effect remained when it did not remain in a statistically significant manner in 3/6 of the groups investigated (this is one of those things which seems to happen far too often in psychology. I don't understand why it is not stressed more that psychology is a statistical science. If I had control over the psychology curriculum, I would cram it so full of statistics courses that it was second only to actuarial science and statistics specialists). To then warn against over interpreting the differences due to the many obvious ways in which the samples themselves differed is clearly a line thrown in to mollify those who would use this study to justify varying value judgements on the religions involved in the study. In making such a blanket statement, however, one also skips over the determination of what those differences might be which led to some groups expressing the expected trend and others not (well, not statistically at least, which is what really matters).

Another aspect that also strikes me as somewhat misleading is the fact that frequency of prayer is used as a surrogate for religious devotion throughout the article, though the applicability of such a conflation is unlikely to be the same across religious and cultural groups. I would think that the efficacy of prayer as a measure of devotion, rather, is highly dependent upon the belief structure of the given religion.

Using my arm-chair psychology, I am tempted to reinterpret the results. To me, the evidence which ties religious attendance to approval of suicide bombings is not independent of the belief structure or level of devotion, but rather is evidence of the vulnerability of religious belief to manipulation. Suicide bombers are rarely religious officials, instead usually being trained and pushed into action by those who have no intention of blowing themselves up (the aforementioned religious officials). Likewise, most people have both a strong empathic streak for others as well as a survival instinct in themselves, and it would be very unusual for an individual on his own to devise and enact a suicide bombing (of course, when I say it is unusual, I don't mean impossible. There are all sorts of mentally unbalanced people out there). Thus, the role of religious service would seem, to me, to serve primarily to prevent individual senses of spirituality from straying too far from the collective path. High frequency of attendance, therefore, would indicate greater influence from the religious officials and other well-regarded members of the congregation who are most likely to put someone up to the act of performing a suicide bombing, but the act itself still depends upon a measure of devotion, if not to the religion itself but to the word of the person organizing the attack. This appears most readily achievable with the aid of unquestioning credulity from a religious follower (but is not limited to that, as political suicide bombers have historically shown).

In a sense, I suppose, this is a social aspect of religion, but not in the way I interpreted the study to mean. I am not entirely sure if I have made the distinction clear, but I hope I have (essentially, I see it as not being a result of the sense of community created but rather a result of the inordinate level of power and trust given to the religious officials). However, I, of course, do not have any experimental evidence (or even an experiment design) to back up my argument, so I open the discussion up to my readers. Do my qualms with the study make sense, or is it just my antipathy for organized religion rearing its ugly head?


Anonymous said...

Having fondly read your comments, let me say they are most perceptive. "efficacy of prayer as a ... of devotion" "evidence of vulnerability of religious belief to manipulation" and "unquestioning credulity" are all well put. Not sure there could be statistical or other types of evidence to support arguments in this sphere. Your concluding phrase makes me think, again, of Hoffer and his observations of how close are the states of minds of persons who unhesitatingly believe whatever their "masters" teach them: whether it be religion, politics, or science.

Anonymous said...

Left a dangling participle in that opening sentence. Should read, "Having ..., I must say ...."

Regan said...

I do take issue with one part of your reasoning. The following:

"....(of course, when I say it is unusual, I don't mean impossible. There are all sorts of mentally unbalanced people out there)"

It a clear value judgment on your part that you must be somehow mentally unbalanced to blow yourself up. I think the disconnect for you (and make no mistake, for myself as well) is that you've (we've) never been fucked over so hard by "them" that blowing yourself up to get back at "them" seemed like a rational idea. If your whole family has been carpet bombed to death for example. If your life and everything it entails rests in the unmerciful hands of foreign oppression, where they're free to kill you, to rape you, to take every last shred of humanity from you. We've lived such a life of privilege in the land of milk and honey compared to the people that might be inclined to think in such a manner. In no way am I trying to apologize for the people that feel the compulsion to go out in a fiery explosion on a bus, plane, or building. All I'm attempting to point out is that it's easy to label someone who has nothing to lose as "unstable", or "fanatic". If you get right down to it, do you really think it matters when you've been living in some of the worst conditions in the world who it is that reaches out a hand to you? That you wouldn't know (you poor uneducated fool) that you were being exploited?

These are the lies that WE tell OURSELVES to try to make sense of the madness because if we had to live the lives that they do for just a single day we'd never be the same again. To continue to function we desperately seek to marginalize these people.

Mozglubov said...

Regan, when I was talking about mentally unbalanced people I was not referring to the usual suicide bombers (since these are individuals devising plans to go on suicide killing sprees without being pushed into it by organizers). Rather, I was referring to the people who would devise and enact a plan to hurt and destroy others along with themselves entirely on their own (I actually had in mind some of the American cases of shooting sprees like Columbine and Virginia Tech. I'm sure some of the suicide bombers in the Middle East are on their own too, but the cultural precedent and life hardships, as you point out, make that somewhat more understandable. I stand by the statement that to do so requires one to be mentally unbalanced, but I'd be pretty mentally unbalanced if I lived through what goes on over there too). Of course you can always make the statement that one can never truly know the life and hardships of another individual who is driven to the edge, but to answer those hardships (especially in the case of the American killings) with as violent an end as possible shows some pretty horrifying sociopathic tendencies.

As for whether I would know if I were being exploited, I have no doubt that I would not. Growing up I had such an unfortunate reverence for authority and certainty that I've often reflected on the fact that, had I grown up in another time and place, chances are I'd have become a member of a religious order (of course, chances are I'd have been burned as a heretic at some point for asking the wrong question because I was still a big fan of logic even as a little kid).

So, I stand by my statement, but I do not think it was quite the value judgement that you took it to be.