The Religious Right’s Blank Slate Fallacy & The Duggars

Crime rates from FBI, % "No Religion" from General Social Survey
Crime rates from FBI, % “No Religion” from General Social Survey

The_Blank_SlateIt’s easy to point out the cultural Left’s adherence to all sorts of social constructionisms. My post Men Are Stronger Than Women (On Average) has a lot of Google juice because it now gets cited online a fair amount in arguments…because people are obviously taking the converse position (not that women are stronger, but that the difference is not major). But, there’s a fair amount of ignorance and flight from reality to go around. Probably the biggest blind spot on the cultural Right in the United States is the “family values” Uber Alles stance. As documented over 15 years ago in The Nurture Assumption shared family environment, basically your parents’ non-genetic influence, is relatively minor in affecting behavioral life outcomes (this is not to say that the issues aren’t subtle, but a simple projection from family home to individual outcomes is not viable).

But there’s another major confusion when it comes to the religious Right in particular, and that concerns the origins of morality and ethics. Most people are probably aware of the Josh Duggar fiasco at this point. If you aren’t, Google it. There isn’t much to say that hasn’t been said, but this post from his father-in-law has been raising eyebrows:

…It is a mercy of God that he restrains the evil of mankind otherwise we would have destroyed ourselves long ago. Many times it is simply lack of opportunity or fear of consequences that keep us from falling into grievous sin even though our fallen hearts would love to indulge the flesh. We should not be shocked that this occurred in the Duggar’s home, we should rather be thankful to God if we have been spared such, and pray that he would keep us and our children from falling.

This attitude is entirely unsurprising to me, I’ve heard it many times from evangelical Christians. The theory is that without religion, and particularly their religion, they would be “a rapin’ and murderin'”. Why? Because that’s what people do without God. Believe it or not, I have never believed in God, nor have I raped and murdered (or molested). Nor do I think that raping and murdering would be enjoyable. Nor do I think that the evangelical Christians who proudly declaim that without their savior they would rape or murder with abandon would actually rape or murder.

This idea that without religion there is no morality is very widespread in the subculture, to the point of being an implicit background assumption that informs reactions to many events in concert with the idea of original sin and fundamental human depravity (thank you St. Augustine and John Calvin!). I have a socially liberal friend from an evangelical background, who is still somewhat associated with that movement, who confided in me that to did look forward to debauchery in a post-Christian life on some occasions. I had to convince him that even if he was not religious life was not likely to change much for him in the sex department unless he shifted his standards somewhat. Without God all things are not possible, believe it or not.

Religion_Explained_by_Pascal_Boyer_book_coverThe fundamental misunderstanding here is actually one of intellectual history. Many evangelical Protestants in particular envisage the world before the revelation of God to Abraham, but sometime after the Fall, as a Hobbesian one of “all-against-all.” This is not limited to evangelical Christians. Many Muslims also conceive of the pre-Islamic jahiliyya in Arabia as one of pagan darkness and debauchery. The root misunderstanding is conceiving of morality and ethics as a historical human invention, as opposed to formalizations of deep cognitive intuitions and social-cultural adaptations. Broadly, I agree with Peter Turchin that the origin of modern organized religions has its ultimate roots in the social and institutional needs of pan-ethnic imperial systems during the Axial Age. The synthesis of a supernatural Weltanschauung with the nascent enterprise of philosophy and the older intuitions of tribalism allowed for the emergence of the multi-textured phenomenon which we now term organized religion. Religion co-opted and promoted morality, but it did not invent it. The Israelites put in their Lord God’s mouth their own morality that was existent before his invention! Prior to the development of organized religion it seems likely that the connection between supernatural agency and morality was more tenuous and conditional (and even then, the angry and jealous petulant Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible has plenty of glimmers of the amoral gods of yore).

That is why even with the diminishing of organized religion in the modern West there has not been a correlated rise in crimes such as murder. The connection between ethical monotheism and ethics is not nearly as necessary as the religious would have you believe. The chart at the top does not prove at all that irreligion leads to decrease in crime (on the contrary, there is modest evidence that religious involvement results in mild prosocial tendencies when you control for confounds). But, it does show starkly that over the last 25 years in the United States there has been a simultaneous decrease in violent crime, and, a massive wave of secularization. This contradicts a model which proposes that religion and ethical behavior are necessarily and deterministically associated.

So no, in the case of Josh Duggar it isn’t a matter of “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” I’ll let others psychoanalyze his behavior, but it isn’t a normal human impulse which has to be constrained by the teachings of religion. If religion has to teach you not to molest your sisters you’ve got a problem, son! And it has nothing to do with your soul. This may be a boundary condition which validates the “nurture assumption.”

Year Murder and nonnegligent manslaughter rate Forcible rape rate % No religion
1991 9.8 42.3 6.3
1992 9.3 42.8 9
1993 9.5 41.1
1994 9 39.3 9
1995 8.2 37.1
1996 7.4 36.3 11.9
1997 6.8 35.9
1998 6.3 34.5 13.7
1999 5.7 32.8
2000 5.5 32 14.1
2001 5.6 31.8
2002 5.6 33.1 13.8
2003 5.7 32.3
2004 5.5 32.4 14.1
2005 5.6 31.8
2006 5.8 31.6 15.9
2007 5.7 30.6
2008 5.4 29.8 16.8
2009 5 29.1
2010 4.8 27.5 18
2011 4.7 27
2012 4.7 27.1 19.7
2013 4.5 25.2
2014 20.7
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