Repeat after me: “Correlation is not causation”

A writer in Canada’s National Post tries to spread some fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) about whether or not it’s a good idea to measure religion’s claims against the infallible standard of self-consistent truth.

In today’s Post, feature writer Charles Lewis writes about a new survey by University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald Bibby that shows that religious believers are more likely to place a higher value on virtues such as friendship, courtesy and patience.

Professor Bibby argues its because religion is good at spreading and exposing many of these values and as society turns away from religion many of these values aren’t being spread. The possible effects on society could be quite negative…

Except, of course, that the nations where religion is weakest are the nations that are at the top of the list when you measure certain key indicators of societal health (as Sam Harris mentioned before). Professor Bibby leaps to the conclusion that religious belief causes the spread of “virtues,” ignoring the possibility that, in a society that commonly presents religion as being virtuous, people who are naturally virtuous are more likely to gravitate towards religion. Notice, his study does not show any correlation between being exposed to religion and becoming more virtuous than one was previously. It simply shows a higher tendency to be (or at least, to report oneself as being) more virtuous if one is more religious, in a nation with a significant religious culture. Would he get the same results in Norway? Doubtful.

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