You can tell the recent study purporting to demonstrate that religious beliefs are harmful to society because more religious societies, like the US, suffer from higher levels of social pathologies than more secular nations, like those of Western Europe, has really gotten under the skin of some religious conservatives. Daniel Lapin, an otherwise intelligent fellow, puts forth a theory that is not only falsifiable, but also demonstrably false, and obviously so. If he really believes what he writes, on the other hand, then he is one deluded fellow.
Mind you, I don't at all endorse the results of the study (that religion is the cause of social pathologies); the real world is far more complicated than the claims of the study's thesis. But let's look at Lapin's erroneous assertion. He states:
My problem with the Pledge of Allegiance is of course not with the phrase “Under God” but with the phrase, “One nation.” We are no longer one nation. A nation is not a racial grouping but a grouping of people with common beliefs and value systems. That makes us two nations occupying the same piece of real estate.
One America regards Judeo Christian values as vital to our nation’s survival. The other America regards them as primitive relics obstructing progress. My America believes in one man married to one woman and both dedicated to their children. The America of secular fundamentalists believes in zero restraint on sexuality....
In my America, religious America, for the most part families are intact, the crime rate is negligible, and children do not drop out of school and give birth to children. In my America, abortion is not an acceptable form of birth control, and in religious communities, both Jewish and Christian, people still leave doors unlocked. In the other America, secular America, many social ills are prevalent.
Mainstream media regularly resuscitate the hoary old myth that divorce plagues the Bible belt at higher than the national average. They do so, again, by averaging out the entire population of those states they consider to be the “Bible belt.” In reality, some of the citizens of Alabama and Mississippi are religious while others are secular. It doesn’t surprise me that secular citizens in the south divorce more than their secular northern counterparts. Economics does play a role in divorce.
Of course you are free to average out the crime rate across both Americas and I can understand why advocates of secularism would want to do so. It would be hard for them to face the virtual monopoly of dysfunctionality they have created. We would stand a better chance of repairing the other America if we faced up to the truth.
The truth is that if religious America were its own country, its crime rate, its illegitimacy rate, and all other indicators of trouble would be only a tiny fraction of those figures for England, Sweden, France, and Germany. If secular America were also its own separate country, its indicators of hopelessness would be completely off the scale and vastly outpace the same figures for most of Europe. Viewing us Americans as just one country and averaging all the figures together still makes us look only a little worse than other countries. America is pulled down by its dysfunctional secular half.
How desperate that half must be to conceal the evidence of its failure by dishonest averaging.
How fervent must be the faith of secular fundamentalists that they prefer the disease to the cure.
But we don't have to do "dishonest" averaging; we can look at data that examines rates of "social pathology" for "religious America." For instance, a survey conducted by the Barna group, a Christian market research group, found that the divorce rate among born again Christians is 35%, equal to the population as a whole.
And by the way, atheists and agnostics had the lowest rates of divorce.
Another study found that a quarter of a million abortions are performed each year on born-again or evangelical Christians. The very anti-abortion website to which I linked says:
Approximately 1.37 million abortions are performed in the United States each year. According to a startling and little publicized survey by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, 37.4% of those abortions are performed on Protestant women -- approximately one-half (about 18%) of whom profess to be born-again believers. That 18% of the estimated annual total accounts for 246,600 aborted babies each year in America.
The same study also found that "Catholic women have an abortion rate 29% higher than Protestant women" and "one in five women having abortions are born-again or Evangelical Christians."
I've only scratched the surface of the available data; please feel free to send me other data demonstrating the absurdity of Lapin's thesis. If you want to go into those neighborhoods where "people still leave doors unlocked," then study the demographics of the elite suburbs, filled disproportionately by well-educated Americans. There, I'm sure you will find secular elites and atheists and agnostics are overrepresented. Examine poor America where out-of-wedlock births, crime, poverty and illegitimacy are overrepresented and you will likely see traditional religious beliefs overrepresented.
Update: Dr. Frank Kameny (gay rights legend) writes that Daniel Lapin clearly is not "an otherwise intelligent fellow," but generally a deluded crank in his perspective. He's probably right. I should have chosen my words more carefully. I think what I meant was Lapin is smart enough to know not to make an assertion that can be easily refuted with data. And there are data that show self-described "religious Americans" -- "born-again" and "Evangelical Christians" -- suffer from "social pathologies" at the same, similar, or even greater levels (depending upon which "pathology" we are talking about).
And even those on Lapin's side have long recognized this (see here). Check out this aricle entitled "Christians are no different" which links to this article which states:
How many times are freethinkers harassed on the street or on internet channels by those who pretend to be "born-again" ? You'd think that reasonable people would be content with being born only once. These people are praised as models of piety and virtue. However a survey, conducted by the Roper Organization, has found the exact contrary (6) - their behaviour deteriorates. 12% of the respondents have claimed to driving intoxicated after being-born again, compared to 4% before. Same result for drugs - 5% were drug-users before they converted, and 9% take drugs now. Also, interestingly, illicit sex was also more frequently done by born-agains (the percentage after being born-again jumps from 2% to 5%).
Happiness and personal fulfillment are more difficult to appraise than criminality. It is not as simple as counting heads - the only possible option here is surveys.
The Barna Research Group is the author of a much celebrated study. Its president, George Barna, is an avowed born-again. His group has a religious clientele and tends to their prejudices. However it is a tribute to his honesty that he does not lie about the results of his studies. He reports that the present Christian church has failed in its mission of instilling a greater sense of morality in its parishoners.
Statistics given in his book, The Second Coming Of The Church, include :
Took medication for depression in the past year - born-agains 7%, non-christians 8%
Feel completely or very successful in life - born-agains 58%, non-christians 49%
Impossible to get ahead because of financial debt - born-agains 33%, non-christians 39%
Have not figured out the purpose of your life - born-agains 36%, non-christians 47%
Satisfied with your life - born-agains 69%, non-christians 68%
Personal financial situation is getting better - born-agains 27%, non-christians 28%
Barna is forced to admit on page 7 of his book that : "We think and behave no differently from anyone else."
And I think an anecdote that perfectly illustrates that "born-again Christians" are every bit as susceptible to social pathology than non-religious folks is Ashley Smith, the "Christian" who subdued Brian Nichols who "shot and killed a judge, stole a car and fled the courthouse, leading to a big manhunt" with Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life, a bestselling Christian motivational. As it turns out, she also subdued him with some of her own personal stash of crystal meth.