By Kevin Baldeosingh
Religious leaders and organisations hardly ever confine themselves to what they claim to be their primary mandate: to nurture the spiritual well-being of their members and humanity in general. With perhaps the sole exception of the Presbyterians, every religious group in Trinidad and Tobago pursues material and secular goals in the form of money and political influence. Yet, even if the religious authorities were to confine themselves to shaping the moral values of their congregations, this would have socio-political effects on the society, since values undergird culture and culture influences the working of institutions.
So the core question is this: would the society be better or worse off if religion determined our values, beliefs, and policies? This, after all, is the ultimate goal of the Catholic and Anglican churches, the Maha Sabha, the ASJA, the Baptists and other groups, who all hold that their way is the best—and, often, only—way to solve the myriad socio-political challenges of the country (and, indeed, the world).
The spokespersons for these various religions never provide evidence for their claims that their particular policy recommendations (e.g. making abortion illegal, hanging murderers, keeping homosexual acts illegal) would lead to a better society. These assertions are made as though their logic is self evident. In fact, such claims are tautological, since they can be reduced to the statement that: “If people behave good, they will behave good.” This avoids the essential challenge of policy: is a recommendation politically possible, in the sense that a sufficient number of people will adopt it? In any case, the question of whether religion serves a productive purpose in the public sphere is an empirical one. While there is insufficient research on religion in T&T to answer this question definitively, there is enough data from other societies to form an informed opinion.
Let’s start with values, which is the main benefit religious leaders cite for adopting their approach to socio-political policy-making. American author and activist Michael Shermer, in his book The Science of Good and Evil, writes, “Not only is there no evidence that a lack of religiosity leads to less moral behaviour, a number of studies actually support the opposite conclusion.” Shermer cites a 1934 survey by Abraham Franzblau, which found that as religiosity increased, honesty decreased. Another survey showed that college students in religious schools were equally likely to cheat on tests as atheists and agnostics in non-religious schools. David Wulff’s meta-analysis of studies on religious psychology found positive correlations between high religiosity and non-progressive attitudes. (See Box 1) In this context, the World Values Survey in 2006 found that over 90 percent of Trinidadians rated religion as important in their lives.
BOX 1 – High religiosity and attitudes
Strong religious affiliation – ethnocentrism
Regular church attendance – dogmatism
Religion rated important – authoritarianism
– social distance
– intolerance of ambiguity
– racial prejudice
Source: Wulff, 1996.
“The conclusion is clear,” says Shermer. “Not only does religion not necessarily make one more moral, it can lead to greater intolerance, racism, sexism, and the erosion of other values cherished in a free and democratic society.”
An analysis of the religious affiliation of convicted criminals also suggests that religion does not necessarily prevent anti-social behaviour. Israeli psychologist Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, in an article in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, writes that “When it comes to serious matters of violence and crime, ever since the field of criminology started and data were collected of the religious affiliation of criminal offenders, the fact that the unaffiliated and the non-religious had the lowest crime rates has been noted.”
American psychologists Bruce Hunsberger and Bob Altemeyer, who brought together a lot of the extant research in their book Atheists, have also shown that non-believers are morally superior to believers in important respects. Table 1 shows the attitudes of believers and non-believers to psychological tests, which asked whether they would ever change their beliefs about God and whether they would proselytize their beliefs about same.
“So a very solid majority of the believers indicated that their minds were permanently made up, no matter what happened. The nonbelievers showed greater openness in changing their minds,” write Hunsberger and Altemeyer, adding, “It is almost as if a law had been passed, saying that as religiosity ranges from 0 to 100, so also will dogmatism, zealotry, authoritarianism, and prejudice generally increase.”
The statements from prominent religious leaders, such as Maha Sabha president Sat Maharaj and Pentecostal pastor Winston Cuffie and all Muslim spokespersons, reflect all these traits (except prejudice against other races, although not against women, homosexuals, and non-believers). These traits may be described as politically immoral, since they are pernicious in any society, but they are especially destructive for a plural society like ours, even if the religious leaders (unlike their followers) dare not for political reasons invoke religious or racial bigotry in public.
For countries, the correlation between high religiosity and low moral behaviour is well established. That is, the more religious most people in a society say they are, the more oppression, crime, and corruption that society has. And, just as individual religious fundamentalists tend to be more authoritarian, according to Hunsberger and Altemeyer, so too are high-religiosity countries less democratic. These personality traits explain why religious justifications are invoked by at least half of persons who support capital punishment, and nearly all who support licks as a method for ‘disciplining’ children.
This brings me to a second major claim of religious spokespersons: that their educational methods are superior to secular pedagogy. In a Trinidad Guardian report (February 26) Maharaj says, “In order to complete a child’s education, one must teach the religious and the secular…What is the point if your child knows all the mathematical equations in the world, but does not know how to live and how to pray?”
What does the evidence say about the link between education and religiosity? Educational psychologist Darrel Ray, in his book The God Virus, notes: “No peer-reviewed study to date has found that religiosity enhances intelligence. In fact, it seems to have the opposite effect, which leads to the hypothesis that the intelligence of otherwise intelligent people may be suppressed or inhibited by the constrictions of religiosity.” Surveys of top achievers in the natural and social sciences, as well as the humanities, reveal low religiosity among the vast majority – i.e. over 90 percent.
But the research also implies that religion has an even more sinister effect on social progress. Political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Pippr Norris, in their book Sacred and Secular, have analysed global statistics on religiosity as they relate to income distribution, economic inequality, welfare expenditures, and basic measurements of lifetime security (such as vulnerability to famines or natural disasters). They conclude that insecurity is a key factor in religiosity – i.e. as societies become more secure, their populations become less religious. “Although it does not prove causality,” they write, “the results are consistent with our argument that religion becomes less central as people’s lives become less vulnerable to the constant threat of death, disease, and misfortune.”
Why is this sinister? Because, since religious leaders would most likely understand this finding intuitively, they are highly incentivised to prevent their congregations, and by extension the society, from adopting values and policies which would create material and existential security. Such values and policies would, inevitably, undermine their wealth and their political power. From that perspective, the backward perspectives of religious bodies are therefore perfectly rational.