Reports of “better self-control” versus society in all its glory

After the New York Times ran an article last week reporting on an interesting review by a pair of university psychologists suggesting that religious belief is positively correlated with self-discipline, it was inevitable that this proposition would be extrapolated beyond any semblance of reason by a certain subset of the population. I am good at haunting and hectoring members of this demographic, and I have found an example of abusing the researchers’ conclusions in the form of a blogging team the Refuge has had dealings with in the past.
First, here’s the skinny on the study, in the words of self-described “heathen” reporter John Tierney:

Michael McCullough … and a fellow psychologist at the University of Miami, Brian Willoughby, have reviewed eight decades of research and concluded that religious belief and piety promote self-control … Researchers around the world have repeatedly found that devoutly religious people tend to do better in school, live longer, have more satisfying marriages and be generally happier.

Cue voice of Bill Lumbergh: “Um, yeah…I’m going to go ahead and disagree with you there.” The “repeated findings” are, at a minimum, arguable. There’s this summary of a study that concludes, among other things, that “[i]n general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies.”
These findings do not exactly speak to a strong sense of self-discipline–at least not where it counts. And not surprisingly, every religious person with a voice has dismissed the Paul study as crippled by flawed methodology or, better yet, undertaken by someone without proper credentials. But there’s also this “poverty map” and this ranking of the 50 states by high-school validation rate, which do not exactly speak to high professional or academic achievement in Bible Belt states. Then there are some Federal Bureau of Prisons statistics from 1997 on the religious affiliation of incarcerated people. Note that while 75% of inmates identify as Christians of some sort, right in line with the 75% of so of Americans at large who do so, only 0.21% of inmates called themselves atheists despite about 8% of the general population being god-free.
It would be irresponsible to suggest that religiosity is responsible for the higher levels of poverty and greater dropout rates seen in the U.S. South; in fact, it could be a response to the kind of adversity such conditions engender, and over time the South has had to endure struggles largely alien to the rest of the country, and continues to reel from them. But what does seem plain is that religion, whatever it might do for self-discipline in some areas, is no tonic for social dysfunction.
Anyway, no one should be surprised about these inconsistent observations and inferences, because this is the kind of research that is not only fraught with unusual levels of subjectivity, but lends itself to a perilous amount of bias on both sides. I don’t know if going back eighty years lends more credibility to the Miami duo’s findings or less, as the world is not what it was in the Prohibition era and religion has become a multi-bazillion dollar industry as well as a means of gaining control of people and leveraging political machinations.
But the researchers weren’t interested so much in what filters down through church hierarchies as in what occurs in the minds of religious individuals:

These results have been ascribed to the rules imposed on believers and to the social support they receive from fellow worshipers, but these external factors didn’t account for all the benefits. In the new paper, the Miami psychologists surveyed the literature to test the proposition that religion gives people internal strength.
“We simply asked if there was good evidence that people who are more religious have more self-control,” Dr. McCullough. “For a long time it wasn’t cool for social scientists to study religion, but some researchers were quietly chugging along for decades. When you add it all up, it turns out there are remarkably consistent findings that religiosity correlates with higher self-control.”

Skip at interprets the findings reported in the Times as follows:

Think about it – with more internal control, more self-control, then less external control (e.g., laws) are needed. If people control themselves from an internal sense of morality, knowing good from bad and right from wrong, less is needed from society.
Both Doug and me posit that as we have become a more secular society (along with the fact that politicians seem to want to justify their existence by passing new laws), that sense of right and wrong that used to keep most of us on the straight and narrow seems to disappear. Thus, in order to to maintain an ordered society, control must be established external – which eventually leads to a larger, more intrusive government.

I remain skeptical that aiming to enforce good behavior from the inside out by convincing people that some unseen celestial force demands it is a ticket to a better societal functioning. The idea that God hates evildoers has been around forever, and crime has hardly been seen to evaporate over the centuries as a result. I also don’t see how keeping laws that punish murderers and thieves around has any palpable drawbacks, but then again I also don’t see laws per se as a tool used by the left to gain greater control of the populace–that has long been more the purview of religion.

  1. #1 by The Science Pundit on January 6, 2009 - 9:02 am

    Of course somebody who religiously gets down on the ground and points their but up into the air five times a day, no matter where they happen to be, is going to have a certain degree of self control that most of the rest of us lack. Besides the fact that I’m not completely sold that that’s a good thing, you can’t really read too much more into that.
    Incidentally, Gregory S. Paul was the speaker a couple months ago at our free thought group’s monthly meeting.

  2. #2 by catgirl on January 6, 2009 - 12:40 pm

    The logical flaw in all this stuff is the assumption that people choose not to do the wrong things only because they fear punishment or want a promised reward. I don’t steal and murder because I genuinely care about other people. It’s called empathy. Seriously, if the threat of Hell is the only thing holding a person back from murder, there is something wrong with that person.

  3. #3 by Julie on January 6, 2009 - 1:00 pm

    Someone needs to do a study of religious belief and adherence to proper grammar, punctuation and syntax. In my perfect world, you’d lose a hand if you typed a sentence like this: “Think about it – with more internal control, more self-control, then less external control (e.g., laws) are needed.”

  4. #4 by Warren on January 7, 2009 - 2:16 pm

    The Science Pundit:

    Of course somebody who religiously gets down on the ground and points their but up into the air five times a day, no matter where they happen to be, is going to have a certain degree of self control that most of the rest of us lack.

    We shouldn’t confuse self-control with OCD.

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