Saturday, April 23, 2011

David Brooks vs Google part MMMCCCXLIV

He watched a musical and then wrote

Rigorous codes of conduct allow people to build their character. Changes in behavior change the mind, so small acts of ritual reinforce networks in the brain. A Mormon denying herself coffee may seem like a silly thing, but regular acts of discipline can lay the foundation for extraordinary acts of self-control when it counts the most.


I was once in an AIDS-ravaged village in southern Africa. The vague humanism of the outside do-gooders didn’t do much to get people to alter their risky behavior. The blunt theological talk of the church ladies — right and wrong, salvation and damnation — seemed to have a better effect.

I have excerpted but I promise you that the only empirical evidence on the effect of different religions on behavior is that "seemed." This was not a joke or a parody. This is the real David Brooks. He is contributing to the debate on an empirical question in the human sciences (OK I'd say sociology but sociology is known to be pinko) by attending a broadway musical and discusses how things "seemed" (his word not mine -- those aren't scare quotes -- he typed that word).

My first google search gets me to this pdf which says

"Among the major religious categories considered here, we find that conservative Protestants generally have higher teen pregnancy than other groups."

The other categories are Catholic, no relgion and other. The excluded group is other which would therefore be non-conservative Protestants, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Wiccan (if any). Catholics and others have similar rates of teenage pregnancy. Thos with no religion have high teenage pregnancy when under 17 then almost exactly the same as Catholic and other. Thos raised conservative protestant crank em out in their teens also controlling for race and region.

Thats first google, second hit I clicked (the first was a discussion among non experts who guessed the result). the authors (Powers and Ellison) also find that withing categories the more devout are less likely to get knocked up, but that isn't related to Brooks' claim which is that more demanding denominations have better effects. His claim is contradicted by the first scientific study I found following my first google search.

Other points. He notes that religion in Africa is often very demanding

But it’s worth remembering that the religions that thrive in real-life Africa are not as nice and na├»ve as the religion in the play. The religions thriving in real-life Africa are often so doctrinaire and so socially conservative that they would make Pat Robertson’s hair stand on end.

I guess that's why Africa is doing so well compared to Scandanavia (where most people identify with no religion at all). This is oddly the opposite of the red state blue state ecological fallacy which he loves so much (he sure isn't going to compare freequency of membership demanding denominations and outcomes by US states).


Dorothy Sayers argues that Christianity’s advantage is that it gives value to evil and suffering. Christianity asserts that “perfection is attained through the active and positive effort to wrench real good out of a real evil.” This is a complicated thought most of us could not come up with (let alone unpack) outside of a rigorous theological tradition.

Why yes that is true. The whole doctrine of returning good for evil had to come out of a rigorous theological tradition -- that is why it is clearly stated by the Socrates character in Plato's Republic. Oh and by a Rabbi crucified for heresy whose teachings are largely focused on treating the Law as a living thing. I mean really, this is not a joke, the defenders of rigorous theological tradition base their case on the insights of two people who were put to death for violating theological tradition.

Even though I am typing about a Brooks column, there is something interesting here. For some reason arguments which are comically bad (honest its in the New York Times not The Onion) are publishable if the conclusion is that religion is good and demanding traditional religion is better. it is just excessively politically incorrect for a member of the coastal elite to subject such claims to any scrutiny at all.

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