Religiosity and morality

Does God benefit from a double standard?

In hopes of sparking a civil war between secular and religious conservatives, I offer this delicious quote from Heather Mac Donald, writing inThe American Conservative:

If God deserves thanks for fending off assaults on the United States after 9/11, why is he not also responsible for allowing the 2001 hijackings to happen in the first place? It would seem as if God benefits from double standards …


It is often said, in defense of religion, that we all live parasitically off of its moral legacy, that we can only dismiss religion because we are protected by the work it has already done on our behalf. This claim has been debated ad nauseam since at least the middle of the 19th century. Suffice it to say that, to many of us, Western society has become more compassionate, humane, and respectful of rights as it has become more secular. Just compare the treatment of prisoners in the 14th century to today, an advance due to Enlightenment reformers. A secularist could as easily chide today’s religious conservatives for wrongly ignoring the heritage of the Enlightenment.

A secular value system is of course no guarantee against injustice and brutality, but then neither is Christianity. America’s antebellum plantation owners found solid support for slaveholding in their cherished Bible, to name just one group of devout Christians who have brought suffering to the world.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

9 thoughts on “Religiosity and morality”

  1. Some months ago there was a fascinating study released showing that although Europe has much lower levels of religious affiliation and church attendance, by all the measures anyone can devise they are doing much better as a society — fewer murders, better education, more equitable income distribution, better access to health care. The study can be found at this link:
    I think in this country many people who call themselves religious are using it as a tribal marker and a means of social control, not as a guide for how to treat other people or a guide for living your own life. I think that's why many right-wing religious types are not demanding more loudly that Mr. Bush live according to his professed religious convictions. They know as well as he does that they aren't convictions, he's just reassuring them that they are all members of the same tribe.

  2. Well, not to interrupt any intra-right-wing civil wars, but I really hope that our treatment of prisoners isn't the *best* indicator of our post-Enlightenment compassion. Damning with faint praise, indeed…..

  3. Annie: Any measure? Are you sure?
    What about per capita income? Unemployment? Rate of economic growth?
    You cite education, but that's not at all clear. If you look at the PISA study, the U.S. lands near in the middle of the distribution of European countires. If you look at the university level, the U.S. is light-years ahead.
    In nearly any European country you pick, the politicians are trying to figure out how to move their country closer the U.S. system in the labor market, capital market, and education market, without having to admit as much to their voters.
    That leaves access to health care and income equality, two points which I'll happily grant you.

  4. "why is he not also responsible for allowing the 2001 hijackings to happen in the first place?"
    Many evangelicals believe that God "allowed" 9/11 to happen because America was flouting His will by becoming a secular nation.
    So they've already answered that question adequately for themselves.

  5. Re David WRight's comment —
    I just saw an entry, I think on Political Animal, that in some American press reports rates of economic growth in Europe are stated by quarter and compared to American growth rates stated by year. If you annualize the European rate given in those reports, it's about the same as ours.
    Also see T.R. Reid's book United States of Europe for an analysis of European employment growth versus ours. Several European countries are doing as well as we are and some are doing better in that regard.
    Re productivity rates, a lot of the difference between ours and theirs is accounted for by the Europeans' longer vacations. IN other words, Europeans may be less productive only because they work fewer hours.
    As for politicians who want to move toward an American model — we hear a lot of news coverage about SOME European politicians who want to do that. we do NOT hear the coverage of the ones who don't. BUt we did hear a lot of coverage earlier this year when the French had to cancel a reform package due to public opposition, and I have not heard a word about their trying to revive it.
    In what way is the US light years ahead in education? Even 30 years ago it would have cost me less to go to college in France for a year than in the U.S., and our college costs have NOT decreased. I did not go due to furious opposition from grandparents who raised me, and I've regretted it ever since. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, I know numbers of young adults trying to work their way through college who are unable to finish because of rising tuition costs or not being able to get the courses they need because the public universities — which are all most people can afford — schedule some required them at two-year intervals so they fill up.

  6. Annie: Jesus, you're posting to a blog dedicated to the idea that discussions must be based on objective facts, and you are just making up ones that sound "truthy" to you. As an economist, I can assure you that we have figured out how to compare international growth rates, thank you very much.
    Now go open up the latest issue of "The Economist" and look at the back page. Here are the statistics for 3 large European countries and the U.S.:
    GDP Growth: France 1.5%/a, Germany 2.4%/a, Italy 1.5%/a, U.S. 3.5%/a.
    Unemployment: France 9.0%, Germany 10.6%, Italy 7.4%, U.S. 4.8%.
    From the CIA factbook:
    GDP/capita: France $29.9k/a, Germany $30.4k/a, Italy $29.2k/a, U.S. $41.8k/a.
    As far as university education goes, I got my Ph.D. in the U.S. and then did two postdocs at European universities. I had a blast, but it was clear to everyone that the facilities were worse and most of the star academics had emmigrated to the U.S. The science grad students at European universities are almost all nationals of that country, while in the U.S. large fractions, in some programs even majorities, are foreign nationals, who flock to the U.S. graduate programs despite the fact that they are more expensive.
    I'm not an idealogue. Regarding income equality and access to health care you are 100% correct, as I stated in my first post. But on the other points, you are pulling "facts" out of your ass.

  7. By the way, "productivity" is already a per-time measurement, so you can't explain away lower European productivity by noting that they work fewer hours. By combining CIA factbook figures for GDP at PPP and OECD figures for total hours worked, you can compute labor productivity for different countries:
    Output per hour: France $47.7/h, Germany $43.2/h, Italy $37.8/h, U.S. $49.2/h.
    As you can see, the U.S. is ahead here too. There was a time, before the "productivity miracle" of the 1990s, when the wealthiest European countries (e.g. Germany) were ahead of the U.S. in labor productivity. Most economists would agree that the major reason was that the Europeans let the least productive members of their societies sit at home collecting unemployment, while in the Americans kept those people in the labor market, and thus in the productivity figures. In other words, the productivity of comparable workers was larger in the U.S. even then, and nowadays is so much larger as to overcome the effect of the fact that the Europeans still pay their least productive workers to sit at home.

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