Musings on Fordidden Fruits: Science vs Religion

Chris Mooney writing for Mother Jones, the American non-profit news organisation, published an article this week, Study: Science and Religion Really Are Enemies After All discussing a recent paper, Forbidden Fruits: The Political Economy of Science, Religion, and Growth by Roland Bénabou et al.

As part of our motivating evidence, we also uncover a new fact: in both international and cross-state U.S. data, there is a signicant negative relationship between religiosity and innovativeness (patents per capita), even after controlling for the standard empirical determinants of the latter.

Or as Chris puts it:

Both across countries and also across US states, higher levels of religiosity are related to lower levels of scientific innovation.

I won’t add any more details from the MoJo article. It’s not a difficult read, unlike the source paper, which I looked at and was again hit by the depressing realisation of how much one forgets. Once upon a time, I understood statistics well enough to give a course to postgraduate psychologists—not any more.

The authors of the study are at pains to point out that correlation does not imply causality. It’s a standard scientific axiom. As I thought about this, I wondered, does causality make much difference. The possibilities are:

  1. Religiosity is the independent variable. Thus scientific innovation is depressed because it threatens the status quo of the current power structure and interests of religious factions.
  2. Innovation is independent variable. Thus innovation weakens religious beliefs: the wonders of the Universe can be increasingly explained without the requirement for a god.
  3. X is an unknown independent variable that affects religiosity in one way and innovation in the opposite direction.
  4. There is a circular relationship between religiosity and innovation, each having a dampening effect on the other. This is what Bénabou and his colleagues think most likely.

Does it really matter which of these hypotheses is correct? Not sure, but on the whole, I would incline to the view that innovation is a good thing, and those things that suppress it aren’t.[1] Unfortunately, one cannot plan action without properly understanding cause and effect. It seems plausible that behavior that leads to an increase in religiosity might, sooner rather than later, lead to a decrease in innovation as support for scientific activity weakens. On the other hand, it’s hard to see how a reduction in religiosity is likely to cause an increase in innovation in the short-term. Scientific activity, I would suggest, requires a significant “support structure”. Other things would also need to change.

After I’d written most of this post, I came across the article, An Atheist’s Vacation, in which the author talks about taking a holiday in Vermont:

I didn’t remember it at the time, but Vermont is the least religious state in the country with a third of the state claiming “no religion.” Only 24% of the state claim to attend church regularly and 23% consider themselves, “very religious” – the lowest in the nation.

I checked back on the scatter-plot in the MoJo article, and indeed Vermont is lowest on the Importance of Religion scale and is third highest on Innovation. One of the commenters ask the pertinent questions:

For me, the question I have is not “Why don’t we all move to Vermont?”, but “How did this come to be?” and “How can we encourage duplication where we live?”

So far no-one has offered any answers.

  1. I’m leapfrogging arguments about whether innovation in areas like military hardware and software are a good thing.  ↩

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