Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Correlation Does Not Imply Causation; Case One: Happiness vs. Religiosity

Guess who is at it again?
Go ahead.


That's right! Dinesh is back! And this time, his arguments are weaker than ever!

In fact, his regurgitation of data that I have stumbled across before has inspired me to delve into matters of other people leaping to a conclusion regarding causation with only correlationary information. But first, let us deal with the task at hand: Dinesh D'Souza and the Blog of Utterfailure.

In mentioning a variety of studies regarding the happiness of different groups of people, D'Souza says:
"Brooks notes that 'faith is an incredible predictor, and cause, of happiness. Religious people of all faiths are much, much happier on average than secularists.' Specifically, 43 percent of those who attend church weekly or more call themselves "very happy," versus 23 percent who attend seldom or never. Observant Jews and Christians are by Brooks' measure the happiest people in America."

So, what is this? Being a regular church-goer means that you are twice as likely to be "very happy"? Somehow, I don't think so.

It could just be that happy people are more willing to go to chruch regularly, and people who are not happy are unwilling to do anything, with lack of church attendance being indicative of their level of depression rather than their lack of religiosity.

It could just be that people who go to church are exposed to an environment where there is social pressure for them to exhibit happiness, which results in them either being authentically happy, deceiving themselves into believing that they are happy, or feeling unable to express any doubts, sadness, or fears to others, and thus more liable to exaggerate their positive emotions (honestly, though, I don't lend much credence to this thought).

It could just be that attending religious services and happiness are both related to one another through a tertiary variable. In all seriousness, I think that this may be the case, because church attendance is a form of social interaction, and provides one with an extra social network beyond those who do not attend church. If church is used as a social network, to interact with other human beings and build relationships, this will increase happiness just like it would in any other context. Of course, other outside variables aside from extra social networks could be a reduced sense of responsibility due to faith, mitigated stress due to being confident in a second chance at existence, and the mere reassurance of having a controlled routine.

But, let's see what Dinesh thinks!

" So why are secular liberals in general so miserable? I offer two reasons. The first is that liberals are political utopians. They consider human nature to be wonderful, and they expect freedom to be used wonderfully well. So they are always bitterly disappointed when they discover that this is not the case. Conservatives, by contrast, have a dimmer view of human nature. So their expectations are more modest. When things don't turn out half-badly, conservatives are pleasantly surprised. They are happier because it takes less to make them happier."

Political utopians? Human nature is wonderful? And here I thought that I was the pessimist! Apparently, though, I am the idealist with his head in the clouds, and the conservatives are the ones who are deeply disillusioned with humanity. Of course, since he admits that liberal idealists are "always bitterly disappointed" when they see humans do as humans do, would that make both ends of the political spectrum deeply pessimistic, in effect? Or maybe the conservatives only have a "dimmer view" on certain subject matters, (like those involving criminal justice, government influence, and international affairs) but are naively optimistic about others (religion, economy, and environment). Not exactly cut and dried, is it?

"It's not too hard to figure out why religious people are happier. Belief in God gives people a powerful sense of higher purpose in life. It assures people that the universe is in the benign hands of a omnipotent, omniscient, and compassionate higher power. It offers people a code for how to live. It gives us a reason to hope in cosmic justice, which is better than the imperfect justice of our terrestrial world"

Belief in God may give people a sense of purpose, but it probably shouldn't. It is a sense of purpose derived from overconfidence, from unwarranted pride, from the belief that you hold a piece of information that no others hold, and that you are better than them for it. It is a sense of purpose that seems to have no basis in the actual obscure, demeaning purpose that the Bible suggests we have: to serve a tyrannical entity who will only accept us by his side if we happen to accept him first in some sort of celestial guessing game, and do so for the rest of our life. Our supposed purpose is entwined with God's, and God needs no purpose, since He just is; inevitably, our reason for life is lost in that process.

As for believing that an all-powerful, all-good entity is at the controls, and that you have all the rules regarding what you need to do in order to prevent raising his ire; that is reassuring. Unfortunately, as good as that is at relieving stress, it also is a thought process that leads to the development of an external locus of control, a sense that you have no influence over your life. The happiness that shows up in a secure believer could easily turn into a mental breakdown for that same believer who suddenly, despite following all the rules, begins to suffer unduly, and takes as the wrath of God which they can do nothing to fight against.

"By contrast, secular people have little to hope for. They are sure that they came from nowhere--the chance product of random mutation and natural selection--and are going nowhere. They know that terrible things happen, and they don't believe there is any purpose in this. No wonder that secular people have so few children: they have much less reason than religious people to believe in the future."

Does life itself need a divine origin in order to be meaningful to the living? Is an apple tree less beautiful if it came about through natural processes? Is there no reason to live for a young child if they are only allowed to live once? Does explaining away tragedy make it any less tragic?

The answer is no. We are not sure that we came from nowhere, but have no reason to believe that we came from somewhere that is not observably existent. We are the chance product of random mutation and natural selection, and allowing that to depress you is akin to being depressed that you were the chance product of one lucky sperm out of several million and a single egg that leeched itself into becoming a human being over the course of nine months. Knowing that terrible things happen and not positing a reason for it is intellectually honest. Positing a reason for catastrophes comes from and leads to the just world fallacy. And secular people have less children because they are not guilt tripped about using birth control, are not pressured into being fruitful and multiplying, and rationally consider the consequences of having too many children and too little time and/or money. Apparently, one or more of these checks are removed from the faithful, helping them contribute to overpopulation (despite a good portion of these people thinking of the world as corrupt on the verge of apocalypse), and you think that this is a good thing.

And, he ends with "our temperaments are also the consequences of two very different worldviews, one producing the wholesome optimism of What's So Great About Christianity, the other the angry bitterness of The God Delusion. "

And this is the crux of his article: Christians are happy and optimistic due to their religious faith, atheists are bitter and depressed due to their lack of religious faith. And that, of course, despite being a common assumption, is not a logical conclusion from the information he has offered. It follows well enough from his baseless speculation regarding the data, but not from the data itself. Why is it inconsistent? Simply because faith is not necessarily the causal factor for an increased incidence of happiness in the faithful, especially in a culture dominated by the faithful, that attempts to appease their will at every turn, and that is oppressive towards those who are not. That is clear in the nature of the titles that D'Souza is touting. It is not that Dinesh is inherently happier than Dawkins. It is that Dinesh is in a position of being supported by the majority, and being able to appeal to them without fear of significant rebuke. And Dawkins, by contrast, is in a despised, minority position, trying to put an argument forward against a markedly larger group that will most likely ignore him unless he makes his position clear, distinct, and, unfortunately, extreme. Thus, Dinesh gets the privilege of a masturbatory, self-congratulatory title that will attract the proud eyes of believers, and Dawkins gets to help himself to a critical, accusatory title necessary to draw the attention of believers in a similar quantity, though in an incredibly different fashion. It has nothing to do with happiness directly, just as faith may have little to do with happiness as well.

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