Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Once Again, the Difference Between Correlation and Causality

Many Canadian atheists don't seem to understand the difference

Writing in an op-ed article appearing in a recent-ish issue of the National Post -- a position that oddly enough certain individuals would insist is reserved for recpients of "wingnut welfare" -- Center For Inquiry Executive Director Justin Trottier writes about the recent work of the University of Lethbridge's Reginald Bibby and attempts to link key attitudinal changes in teenagers to a rise in atheism among that same age group.

Unfortunately, Trottier makes the same error that many of his atheist compatriots made when they fell head over heels with a study that alleged that regions ranking high in religious belief also ranked higher on indices for various social ills.

Namely, he mistakes correlation for causality.

The article starts out simply enough, with Trottier asking an age-old question.
"Can we be good without god?"
This is an easy enough question to answer.

Many, many atheists live perfectly moral lives. Many, many atheists are excellent people. This question essentially answers itself.

Of course, this isn't enough for Trottier. He'd rather ask if atheism actually makes people morally better. And as many people have managed before him, Trottier manages to find more or less precisely what he so wants to find:
"This may become a defining question for our time. University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby has written a new book, The Emerging Millennials, which, while clear on the unprecedented rise of atheism, seems to suggest two irreconcilable answers to this fundamental question.

Bibby polled Canadians on the significance they placed on certain key values, and found that believers rated as more important values like forgiveness, patience and trust. But at the same time, he found that teenagers — the demographic group that has witnessed the highest rise in non-belief since 1984, from 12% to 32% – are increasingly less permissive and more mature regarding issues like alcohol and drug use, smoking or sex.
Trottier seems awfully quick to suggest that these changes in values are due to increasing levels of atheism.

But Trottier is clearly mistaking correlation for causality -- one of the most basic mistakes anyone makes in interpreting any phenomena.

These numbers could be placed in greater context by examining any number of the other things that have changed in the same period of time, from the increase of expendable income for teenagers to the ever-increasing spread of consumer electronics.

Not to mention that in the time period in which Trottier specifically alludes -- post-1984, there have been a lot of other social changes in the world. Teenagers during this period were growing up in an era in which AIDs was becoming a global pandemic.

Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" anti-drug program became something of a standard of anti-drug education.

It shouldn't be said that atheism absolutely cannot or is not a factor in the changes that Trottier and Bibby are referring to. But it certainly isn't the sole factor, and to attribute causality to it is hasty in the extreme.
"The question then becomes: Is the rise of atheism among youngsters going to lead to civil anarchy, or are we actually improving? As Bibby himself said: 'The thing that really surprised me were the positive results that point to the fact that we're making a lot of progress with teens.'

To reconcile these two patterns, let me suggest that actions speak louder than words. As unlikely as it sounds, perhaps those polled do not live up to their own high standards. A person can claim to be any number of things; televangelists, for example, would certainly score high on Prof Bibby’s test of values.
To top that off, one wonders if the values of which Bibby and Trottier speak are even values that Trottier wants to attribute to atheism or secularism.

Less permissive attitudes toward sex, drugs and alcohol have historically been associated with religious conservatism. In many cases -- such as 1920s prohibition -- these were a reflection of regressive attitudes amongst those who promoted these policies.

Making alcohol illegal was looked at by some as a method of clamping down on the feminist "flapper" movement of the roaring '20s. That particular brand of feminism may seem quaint and even anti-feminist by today's standards, but there['s little question that the religious conservatives of the day were extremely troubled by this new breed of woman who drank and had sex casually.

These don't seem like the kind of values that a secularist movement would want to embrace. One has to expect that Trottier almost certainly wouldn't. This is mostly because of the nature of the values he describes as "secular values":
"When comparing the values of an atheist to those of a believer, one must bear in mind just which values we are talking about. Many, including Bibby, who claim religious upbringing is necessary to guarantee social values consistently choose exclusively biblical values on which to base their statements."
But it's amazing how quickly Trottier actually fails this particular test:
"Kindness, politeness and courtesy are important, but so are social justice, equality, freedom of expression, accountability and commitment to democracy. These are the sorts of secular values I would wager atheists would score high on. But they are rarely used for such comparisons."
Certainly, many atheists would score high on these values. There is simply no question about that.

We also know that many atheists, both today and throughout history, would not.

For example, would Joseph Stalin have scored high on these values? Absolutely not. Many atheists continue to sputter in outrage every time Stalin and his atheism are mentioned within the confines of the same sentence, even at the expense of historical fact.

Furthermore, to describe "social justice, equality, freedom of expression, accountability and commitment to democracy" as secular values -- a thinly-veiled attempt to appropriate these values to atheism -- over looks the historical context of action in favour of these values.

Tommy Douglas was a Baptist Minister for whom the foundation of his political action was the Protestant Social Gospel.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr -- apparently unbeknownst to atheist rapper Greydon Square -- was also Pastor Martin Luther King Jr. Dr King used religiously-inspired prophetic language in his campaign to win civil rights for African Americans.

Benazir Bhutto insisted that democracy was divinely mandated by God in the religion of Islam.

If individuals such as Douglas, King Jr and Bhutto -- each in excellent company to say the least -- can find inspiration for these values within their religion, to describe them as "secular" values is more than just a little bit of a fallacy. These are values that virtually all but the most extreme people on either side of the modern ideological divide value. They are neither inherently religious or inherently secular values.

But although Trottier stumbles over the conclusions of Bibby's work, there is little question that his ultimate conclusion is both sound and admirable:
"Instead of wondering where society would find its ethical moorings in the absence of religion, the more interesting question is where our youth are already finding such alternatives and how they can be encouraged. As church membership fades, society should grant the same funding opportunities to secular and humanistic community groups who can fill the void in a way that ignores religious differences."
Those distressed by the rise of atheism -- whether cloaked as secularism or otherwise -- don't seem to understand that those who are increasingly turning to atheism are doing so for a very good reason.

It's clear that many people are finding that their own spiritual needs are not being met by traditional religions. This doesn't change the fact that they have spiritual needs, but rather reflects the fact that their own spiritual needs are different from those of Christians, Muslims, Jews or members of any other religion.
"Let us also not forget that many atheists do not need a building with a partisan logo on the front to engage in building strong communities. Many parents sit on school councils, coach sports teams or form community groups at animal shelters, blood clinics or food banks, and in other countless ways atheists blend anonymously into the secular volunteer community. Atheists have always found ways to improve society while passing on civic virtues to the next generation. It’s time those researching society’s trends figured out how to measure that."
If secularist organizations are going to provide the same level of community service as religious organizations -- and the Centre for Inquiry very much does, providing services such as substance abuse programs specially-tailored to atheists, they very much should receive the same treatment as religious organizations under Canadian tax law.

Justin Trottier may not firmly understand the difference between correlation and causality -- or at least seems to have properly applied it to the phenomena he discusses here -- but when it comes down to one of the most important secular values -- the equal treatment of all religions, as well as nonbelievers, before the law -- he certainly is on the right track.

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