– Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan
Newspapers are generally bound by journalistic integrity. Reporters are obligated to check facts, corroborate stories, and provide supporting information for what might otherwise be considered assertion. The newspapers in Loudoun generally do a good job of adhering to these standards.
The standards of logic and evidence do not apply to people who write letters to the editor. Our local papers can be forgiven for loosening the standards of journalistic integrity for the letters on the editorial page. But there is a difference between loosening standards, and abandoning them.
Last week's Loudoun Times-Mirror published a letter ("County's religious leaders should form virtue-keeping group") which contained little beyond a series of unsupported assertions and logical fallacies disguised as fact. The quality of our public discourse is dependent on the quality of the arguments made, so it is worthwhile to examine the arguments presented in a prominent place in a major local paper.
It is generally accepted, though confident and muscular atheism now disputes this publicly, that only religion successfully preserves virtue over generations, which in turn is necessary for a republican form of government. - Chris StevensonWhile religion has been the source of much virtue, it has also been the source of much vice. Religion is not about virtue, it is about salvation (in one manner or another), and virtue is an outgrowth of the path to salvation, not and end unto itself.
But the nature of virtue and salvation is not at issue on the editorial page. What is at issue is the assertion that "it is generally accepted...that only religion successfully perserves virtue over generations." This assertion is far from generally accepted. On the contrary, it is not even supportable with coherent evidence. For example, many countries with low per-capita murder rates are also - coincidentally - countries with low regular religious observance. Furthermore, the nature of religious belief and religious observance has evolved radically since the foundation of America in the eighteenth century. The religions practiced today were in fact considered the highest heresies in the ninteenth century. Thus, across generations, the virtues within the religions themselves were not even preserved, let alone allowed to be transmitted to the wider public community.
The letter goes on to assert that the decline of religion causes many modern societal ills.
A 2005 Rasmussen Reports survey found that only half of us pray, while other studies reveal that only 20 percent of Americans attend church. One of the results of this, a proliferation and prevalence of vice, including gangs, pornography, selfishness and wantonness, is startling. - Chris StevensonThis is perhaps the most common, and the most frustrating, logical fallacies: confusing correlation with causation. Even if "vice, including gangs, pornography, selfishness and wantonness" were increasing (and again, there is no evidence that this is increasing, on the contrary, crime in general has been declining), that does not mean that it is attributable to the decline in religion. To use an example, children are both receiving more vaccines and watching more television, that does not mean that vaccines lead to watching television. This is a classic causation/correlation fallacy.
The letter bookends the correlation fallacy with another unsupported assertion, "For example, gangs are spreading from eastern to western Loudoun." Again, there is no evidence that this is this case. Efforts are being made to prevent the spread of gangs in Loudoun, but that does not mean that there are gangs spreading and increasing in western Loudoun.
It comes as no surprise that the author's prescription for solving non-existent problems is, "the addition of a hortatory sentence to the Loudoun County mission statement to the effect that lives of conscious and exacting piety are essential to realizing her purpose: the happiness of her citizens." Yes, the solution to what ails us is a sentence in the County charter (and some extra meetings).
There are cases to be made for piety and religion. There are even cases to be made for religion informing public policy. There is evidence and logic that can, and should, be applied when considering the values of our community and the policies of our elected officials.
The letter published in last week's Times-Mirror may have been well-written, but it was fundamentally flawed with baseless assertions and logical fallacies. Loudoun, and the Times-Mirror, can do better.