Sunday, March 1, 2009

The curious case of the covert strawman...plus graphs!

Now for something more up my usual alley:  an article at godandscience.org attempting to rebut 
Richard Dawkins' claim that religious indoctrination is comparable to child abuse.  Please note, for hilarity's sake, that the second link is the article linked to as citation for the godandscience article.

Let's begin with good ol' Dickie D:
Being fondled by the Latin master in the Squash Court was a disagreeable sensation for a nine-year-old, a mixture of embarrassment and skin-crawling revulsion, but it was certainly not in the same league as being led to believe that I, or someone I knew, might go to everlasting fire.
Now, I can imagine that people could take exception to this.  They could surely note that the psychological harm caused by both teaching of Hell and molestation are subjective (with the latter normally doing more than the former), and that it doesn't seem that many children suffer unduly for learning about Hell , enough to make it so that this comparison is merely reflective of Dawkins having a unique disposition towards both matters.  But, I think that he makes much less debatable point later on:
(and this is the point with which I began) the mental abuse constituted by an unsubstantiated threat of violence and terrible pain, if sincerely believed by the child, could easily be more damaging than the physical actuality of sexual abuse. An extreme threat of violence and pain is precisely what the doctrine of hell is. And there is no doubt at all that many children sincerely believe it, often continuing right through adulthood and old age until death finally releases them.
And that's the crux of the issue.  He is not saying that it is certainly always the case, but that, under the right situations, frightening children with threats of hellfire and damnation may be more damaging than (most likely non-violent) sexual abuse might be.  It makes sense, in a way.

So, what is the relevance here?  Not a whole lot, unfortunately.   The article attempting to address it continues a long tradition of people with different opinions talking past one another.  
In The God Delusion and other writings,1 Richard Dawkins claims that teaching children about religion (specifically, the doctrine of hell) is a form of child abuse that scars children for life. Accordingly, Dawkins states, "Priestly groping of child bodies is disgusting. But it may be less harmful in the long run than priestly subversion of child minds."1Conspicuously absent in his writings are any published studies documenting that teaching children religious principles might adversely affect them.
Do you see that paragraph?  The one that more or less accurately renders Dawkins argument, and makes the salient point that Dawkins opinion is just that, and does not have a clear evidentiary basis?  Perfect.   If this was the entire article, there would be no problems.  And yet....
Published studies show that physical abuse negatively impacts their mental health,2 providing additional risks for psychopathology,3 increased suicidal behaviors,4 eating disorders,5 depression,6delinquency and criminal behaviors,7 and alcohol abuse.8
So, let it be noted that "physical abuse=bad".  He is working with an interesting idea, summarized in the sidebar with his claim that: "Richard Dawkins claims that teaching children about religion amounts to a form of child abuse. If this is true, shouldn't the data show that religious youth are more prone to having more problems with parents, their peers, and authorities (like those who experience physical child abuse) than those who are non-religious?" Notice the shift:  Richard Dawkins isn't claiming that religion is a form of intensive mental abuse that is comparable to physical abuse in certain instances, or claiming that religion is akin to physical abuse but with different negative effects.  No.  Richard Dawkins is most assuredly claiming that religious indoctrination has the exact same negative effects as physical abuse.  I am not sure why Ricky D (yes...that's this article's author) thought we wouldn't notice the sleight of hand, but he did.
In one of the largest studies of its kind, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill examined the role of religion in the lives of nearly 2500 adolescents.9 The adolescents indicated the level of their indoctrination (i.e., frequency of church attendance) and importance of religion, along with a number of activities that they have or have not participated in.
It truly is an awesome study.  (It's from 1996 though, so I wonder how things have changed, since, 13 years later, we have a whole new set of adolescents).  But, let's address Ricky D's manipulation of it, shall we?
Listed below are graphs of behaviors that would generally be considered to be unfavorable. To see larger versions of the graphs, just hover your cursor over the thumbnail image.
This ought to be fun! 
Special note:  about 50% of the sample of students have a high "indoctrination" (go weekly, or 1-2 times a month), with the other half having low indoctrination (go rarely, or never).  However, only 30% of the overall sample are in the "1-2 times a month" or "never" groups, divided fairly evenly, meaning that we have fairly lopsided groupings, but probably not too much of a problem.  In regards to "importance of religion" scores, about 30% say it is very important, another 30% for "pretty important", 25% for a little, and 15% for not important.  The percentages given in the graphs are the percentage of responses from within these unevenly sized groups.
When you look at the original data, searching wildly for where Deem could have possibly found the data to make this table himself, you know something has gone awry.  Interestingly, he doesn't bother dealing with the data pertaining to the age in which adolescents had their first drink in which they got drunk (with 50% of weekly church goers claiming to have never done so, and the rest all pretty close to having 30% of saying that they have never had a drink).  Or the percentages going to bars (with 54% never going to one for weekly, 41%  for 1 to 2 months, 39% for rarely, and 45% for never).  But, he chose to focus on the question "on the occasions that you drink an alcoholic beverage, how often to do you drink enough to feel pretty high?".  (Seriously, "high"!?).  His graph reflects the percentage who said that they do so "nearly all" of the time.  But wait!  Include those that do it "mostly all" of the time and your total data is 33%, 31%, 28%, and 35%.  Not that marked of a difference.  But wait!  Go up to "half" of the time (only excluding data from those that said "few", "none", or "never had a drink"), and you've got 44%, 42%,  44%, and 47%.  One category only looks worse or better depending on where you are willing to draw the line.


 (Please note that there seems to be a high enough of a correlation between "importance of religion" and "church attendance" as to make distinguishing betweent the two irrelevant.)
The numbers, for all drug related questions, seem to be universally higher as you go along a gradient from "religion important" to "not important", and the same trend exists for indoctrination levels as well.  But, even more interesting, is the fact that "very important" and "weekly attendance" people report being offered drugs at school half as often as the "not important" and "no attendance" folks.  I assume that this may have to do with social circles, rather than being indicative of drug-magnetism and/or lying. 
Considering the high percentage of any number of problem behaviors across the board, I am beginning to wonder if they didn't have an exceptionally fucked up sample of kids.  I would like to think so...because they have a decent overall percentage of kids shoplifting (30%), carjacking (4.5%), vandalizing property (14%), committing arson (2%), and committing armed robbery (3%).  I mean, seriously...doesn't it seem to be a little bit screwy to be saying that only 3.5% of highly religious adolescents are stealing cars is a good thing?  Sure, it may be less than the average, but it is a really fucked up average.  But might I add, if it even needs mentioning, that comparatively lower rates of car theft, drug usage, and deliquency aren't really a good counterpoint to the argument that religious indoctrination can cause subjective, emotional pain.  Albeit, it doesn't produce psychological problems akin to those that physical abuse can create, but, really, I don't think that Dawkins said that it would.

But, before we end this little exploration (there are lots more graphs where this came from if you are so inclined to look at them), I end with one undeniable fact:  we non-religious folks sure hate teachers.  Enjoy.


These data show that religiously indoctrinated youth are much less involved with illegal substances, alcohol abuse, criminal and violent activities, and have fewer problems in school. Dawkins's hypothesis that religious indoctrination is bad for children has been soundly falsified. In fact, those who never attend church or feel that religion is not important display far more symptoms of real child abuse than those who are subject to frequent religious indoctrination.
If you decide to determine whether something is "bad for [some] children" entirely by the exhibited behavior of adolescents, then yes, you might have a point.  As for displaying the "symptoms of real child abuse"....aside from the deliquency, pretty much all of the symptoms that you are associating with it also correlate with depression often.  Depression which can be staved off by having more social support, which, surprise surprise, the kids that go to church do!  But, here's an interesting thought of my own, pertinent to little:  what if there is healing effect?  In other words, what if the original message (hellfire, etc.) is psychological damaging to the young child originally exposed to a degree comparable to abuse but it is alieviated gradually in later visits?  As the details filter in, they provide some sort of effect to lessen the blows of other factors, calm them, and let them accept the idea more readily through whatever means.  However, those who are not sufficiently indoctrinated, but only partially, will still be dealing with the pain of the relevant ideas, as well as whatever additional aspects that motivate them to discontinue attendance.  In that respect, it might be good to differentiate between those who never once went to a church service, compared to those who are not going at all presently.  This is still simplistic, and I incidentally don't actually think it to be the case.  But it is a possibility, among others, that I can only assume Rich intentionally ignored when deciding his method of rebuttal.
These graphs show that those whose minds have been "subverted" by the "evils" of religion exercise more frequently and volunteer more to help in their communities. 
Of course, it is helpful to mention that the church provides many opportunities for volunteering, many of which would not be available (or at least as noticeable) outside of that community.
Molesters will go where their targets are easily accessible - it has nothing to do with religion. I used to be an atheist. Now that I am a Christian, I don't suddenly feel drawn to molest boys!
Agreed with the first sentence.  As for the points he makes after that....I think  that he doth protest too much.  The fact that he is on an obscure place called "The Internet", a well known meeting grounds for pedophiles and neonazis, speaks for itself.  
 Scientific data shows that teaching children the moral principles of religion has a positive impact on their behavior, as would be expected intuitively.
Yes, and that's how he ends it:  assuming that the positive difference in these results is due to "moral principles" (which, if those outclassed the effects of abuse, means that he has not successfully ruled out any form of abuse by simply mentioning this as a possibility).  I know that they want to jump to that conclusion so desperately, and I know that I am a complete and utter dick for never, ever, wanting to concede that point when I can find an alternate explanation.  But, seriously, I have no idea how he has come to this conclusion, when the social factors are right there, glaring people in the face, and yet still remain unacknowledged.  Oh well, I was never one for "intuition" anyway.

14 comments:

Jared said...

One more little addition: how many of these children were NEVER exposed to religious ideas; there is no control group, it is also assumed that all religions are equal, which they are not, and all children will be threatened with hellfire in the same way... I have more to add, but I'm tired

The Maze Monster said...

I think that it's all child abuse because it abuses the child's mind to learn naturally without the weight of a religion or god.

pboyfloyd said...

Why don't these gtaphs show 100% of kids questioned??

Asylum Seeker said...

Good points, Jared. In addition, some of these people in this group may not even go to churches that focus on Hell, and instead try to emphasize the better aspects of their religion without delving into the possibly reprehensible.

I think that RD made the same point as you, Maze Monster (in addition to his other points): that the indoctrination can not only be traumatizing, but it also makes them easily manipulated and suggestible.

And, the graphs don't show 100% of children questioned because the graphs only show the number of kids within that particular group (e.g. the attends church weekly group) who gave a particular response (like "uses hard drugs"). The overall total of kids is never brought up in the graphs (and I only brought it up before the graphs were shown to make it known that the groups formed from this data were uneven).

pboyfloyd said...

Well, these figures are worthless.

There are so many unspoken factors it's ridiculous!

The low figure for 'high religiou' vs 'crime' could be gotten from an area that is typically low for crime rate and the opposite for the 'no religion' vs 'crime'.

mac said...

"Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."
- of Mark Twain

Yes, I agree with Dawkins. It is a terrible way to get people interested in God. " Be good or the Devil'll get ya !"

Still, no real explanation from god as to why we even need a hell in the first place !

Stacy said...

Who here thinks that an honest study has just been done? Let's see a show of hands ...
Anyone? ...anyone??!!

(back to painting..., "sigh")

Asylum Seeker said...

The study controlled for factors such as living in an urban vs. rural area, or in a particular region of the country. I am not quite sure how they did so, since most of the document is focused on their massive amount of results and statistics, but I have no reason to believe that their was intentional fudging of the results. As for Rich Deem's presentation of the results...not so much.

I personally think that the study was honest, but, due to trying to get so much done at once, it might have overlooked some factors (which seem to be commonly overlooked in studies like it).

And...what are you painting, Stacy?

Stacy said...

Well ... I'm SUPPOSED to be painting one of the rooms in my house - but I keep getting distracted. Aauurrgghh. Not fun.

I have a lot of paint in my hair.

Naumadd said...

I understand Prof. Dawkins' reasons given for what religious indoctrination can be considered abusive of children, however, the two very real reasons I might have cited are, one, it is abusive of what is likely a healthy and rational mind to teach it that the irrationality of most religious beliefs, values and practices is preferable to a more rational set of the same and, two, compelling a philosophy and religion onto a child rather than allowing them to come the same on their own is dictatorial rather than the sound and respectful guardianship of parenting. That one has created a child does not imply that child is your property or slave. Parenthood does not imply ownership of children and, therefore, you genuinely have no right to compel your beliefs onto them. In any event, unless one comes to one's set of beliefs, values and practices out of one's own experiences and interpretations of them, compulsory beliefs, values and practices are, instead of authentic, merely indoctrination.

Do you want your children to have their own beliefs, values and practices or do you simply want them to echo your own? By what right? If you would not compel an adult in this way, WHY would you compel a vulnerable child? We find such compulsion between adults to be offensive. Is it not also offensive to do it to your own children? Is this not abuse? Is this not criminal? Is this not to be tolerated in anything calling itself "civilization" or tolerated primarily in those who call themselves "civilized"?

Asylum Seeker said...

Actually, I am not sure if it is in the same article or not, but Dawkins brings up those points as well! The first point is in the article somewhere, as more of a tangent, about how teaching children to accept certain absurdities undermines critical thinking, or something similar to that, and how that does the child a disservice. I think it was elsewhere that he brought up how he detested even saying that a child has a religious preference (calling an 8 year old a "Catholic", etc.)

Of course, the thing of coercing children into adopting beliefs similar beliefs to the parents, about anything really, is that it is sadly way too easy to do so without actual coercion. Sometimes merely knowing what your parents think about a subject, and sufficient respect for those parents as authority figures, will be enough influence to get you adopt identical beliefs. When it comes to religion, though, and you get church attendance, along with a wider pool of potential role models who, ostensibly, have similar beliefs, and it is almost guaranteed to have some sway, without even having to do anything more than stating what they believe. Regular church attendance leads to more exposure, and an increasing "foot-in-the-door" effect as more time is spent being exposed to these ideas, and a compulsion to take them ever more seriously arises. And you can get all of that without even having to directly force beliefs onto the impressionable children (which might actually be debatable as less effective than recruiting by mere exposure).

But, yeah...we're an impressionable folk, we human beings.

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