On studying Religion without binary thinking and overgeneralization

I was extremely frustrated as I read a report about a so-called scientific study indicating that an entity called “Religion” is allegedly incompatible with Science.

Science and religion just don’t co-exist, according to a recent study by economists at Princeton University.

“Places with higher levels of religiosity have lower rates of scientific and technical innovation, as measured by patents per capita,” said Roland Bénabou, the study’s lead author, told Mother Jones.

The researchers used an economic model to explore the relationship between scientific innovation, religious faith, and government power as they formed different “regimes.”


They identified a secular, European-style regime where religion had very little policy influence and science enjoyed great support; a repressive, theocratic regime where the state and religion suppress science; and an American-style regime where religion and science generally thrived.

They study, which has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, found a strong negative relationship when they analyzed data on patents per capita and religiosity, using data from the World Intellectual Property Organization and the World Values Survey, showing that more religious countries had fewer patents.

Other factors – such as wealth and education – can influence the number of patents per capita, but the researchers found the same results even after they controlled for a number of variable, such as population, foreign investment, and intellectual property protections.

Japan and China stood out as highly secular, highly innovative countries, while Portugal, Morocco, and Iran were found at the other extreme.

The authors applied a similar analysis to the 50 United States, using data from the US Patent and Trademark Office and religion questions from a 2008 Pew Survey.

Vermont and Oregon were found to be highly innovative and not very religious, while innovation lags in highly religious states such as Arkansas and Mississippi.

The authors said their findings were the same in religious states outside the Bible Belt.

The researchers said the findings were correlational, and their study didn’t allow for definite causal relationships to be drawn.

They said the causation likely went “both ways” – meaning, religion probably snuffs out innovation as science weakens religion.


Here is my answer.

My problem with this study is that Religion (with a capital R) is an extraordinarily DIVERSE phenomenon so that such general statements about “religious” and “non-religious” lands are of really poor scientific value .

Let us consider the following worldview groups:

1) hardcore materialism
2) non-materialist atheism
3) deism
4) complete agnosticism
5) fundamentalist Christianity
6) Progressive Christianity
7) Salafism
8) liberal Islam

and so on and so forth.

What if we have the following finding: on AVERAGE religious people perform much more poorly that non-religious ones, BUT 6) and 8) perform as well as secular folks.

Now how would it sound to go to a progressive Muslim or Christian and tell him or her:

“Your worldview is an impediment to Progress!”
He answered:
“Wait, we score as well as non-religious people.”
“That does NOT count! You’re Religious and Religious people are a danger for Science!”

would that not be incredibly fallacious?

So I truly think that studies grounded on this ridiculous binary way of thinking should be taken with much more than a grain of salt.

I really call for a serious research endeavor based on a sincere willingness to comprehend our multi-faceted and extremely complex world rather than making political and ideological points.


(And I should add that decoupling cultural, historically contingent and purely religious factors might be much harder than the way it was presented here).



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