Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Religion, science and hate mail

My piece about religion and its effects on the development of young children has made its way around the news media and the blogosphere (it's been on Fox News, Yahoo News, the Drudge Report and even Richard Dawkins' website), and boy, have I been getting some hate mail!

I came across this study while going through my usual weekly search for new journal articles. I tend to be attracted to psychology and sociology -- much to my chagrin, since such studies are more esoteric and controversial and generate a lot of opinionated feedback. (My piece on reincarnation elicited some VERY interesting hate mail.)

What's fascinating to me in reading my hate mail is that people overwhelmingly jump to conclusions and make grand assumptions. I have been accused of saying that atheists can't be good parents (I don't recall having said that, nor do I believe it), that I must be a religious fanatic (of course I'm anything but), and that the study I was reporting on wasn't scientific.

I concede it's social science, and that any such research is difficult to conduct and to make concrete conclusions from. But I tried to present the methodology of the study clearly so that people could realize what it entailed and make their own judgments about it. I pointed out some of its weaknesses and limitations and even suggested that the conclusions of the study could be backwards (something that the study's lead researcher wanted me to mention, for those who assume he is a Bible-thumper). But instead of realizing that I was pointing out these details so that people could benefit from them, readers sent me hate mail to the effect of "you must have been too stupid to realize that this study was inconclusive, because after all, you mentioned the limitations X, Y and Z." Guys, don't you think I pointed out X, Y and Z for a reason?

I happen to think that children benefit from religious families mainly because religion provides parents with positive support networks. But the effects of this support, in my opinion, have nothing to do with God or religion. Secular organizations would probably do the same thing -- they're just not as pervasive. But these are my opinions, not science (at least until someone tests them!), which is why I've saved them for my blog.

And don't get me wrong -- some of the mail I've gotten has been thoughful and thought-provoking, and those I really appreciate.

Now, for my favorite hate mail excerpt:

I suppose the moral sewage of the Vatican and the US Bush-God-speaking-with gov't can only be understood, enjoyed, and embraced by deeply brainwashed parasites, or religious people, as you say. I admit I only managed to stomach the first two lines of your mental vomit but it's enough to picture what sort of amazing filth you are to dare concoct such diseased rubbish.


Blogger daedalus2u said...

Melinda, I have recently posted a blog about the placebo effect. I think the reason for the positive effects of religion, are the invocation of the placebo effect by the "Uber-parent", God. Spirituality on the other hand (such as meditation) does raise NO levels all by itself, and so will induce the placebo effect even with no religious content.

I think the main objection was the headline, that “religion is good for kids”. That implies that the absence of religion is not good for kids. The subjective judgment that “well-behaved” equals “good” puts a value on conformity that some might question.

It seems like the families were divided into 3 groups, religious who don’t argue, religious who do argue, and non-religious. Only the subset of religious who don’t argue was compared against non-religious. It should have been compared against non-religious who don’t argue.

1:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading your article published on, my Sagan installed baloney detection kit went off.
My comments are directed at you, but at the study's author, John Bartkowski. Has his study been properly peer reviewed?
Further, the methodology you describe (asking parents whether they believe their own children are well behaved) seems to lack lack objectivity and sufficient controls. One might argue that religious parents, perhaps smugly certain of their own religious righteousness, would also tend to be certain that their little Debbies and Billies were well-behaved angels.
Further, a quick Google of Bartkowski shows a history of writing books and articles with a pro-religion slant, especially, it seems, a pro-conservative/charismatic Christian slant.
The obvious concern is that this study, viewed uncritically, will now be repeated by conservative pundits and politicos as an example of the natural superiority of their religious views, all with an eye towards affecting public policy.
Keep up the good work reporting on material like this, the earlier forewarned, the earlier forearmed!

2:15 PM  

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