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Does religion help societies more than it handicaps them?, writes researcher Gregory Paul.
Part I of this series shows that atheism is up and coming in all advanced democracies including the United States, and Part II exposes how the suffering of children eliminates the possibility that a moral creator of immense power exists. Societies are on their own when it comes to running the human show. This essay takes a look at how the most ungodly democratic societies are doing at that task.
Ten years ago I got fed up with how conservative Christians were going on and on about how cultures too foolish to be based on godly values are doomed to nihilistic perdition and chaos without bothering the back up the speculation with data. This way of thinking is part of the myth of American exceptionalism in which the USA is the very best because it is the most blessed by God. Is that true? Unable to find good data, I crunched the numbers myself. The results are in, and they ain’t good for the God crowd.
In the Evolutionary Psychology journal, yours truly constructed the Successful Societies Scale, the first and broadest comprehensive comparison of socioeconomic conditions in first world nations, which share fairly similar per capita incomes while varying considerably in religiosity. About two dozen major indicators were included. The scientific premise is straightforward: If the U.S. really is better than the less godly prosperous nations, it should score tops on the scale.
And it turns out that the United States is exceptional.
Take homicide, which is way higher in the United States than in any other advanced country. Same with incarceration – we have more people in prison than China does, and China is four times our size. In no other first world state do so many die as children. Life spans are notably shorter than in other nations. Abortion rates are higher. Also high are gonorrhea and syphilis infections, which are dozens of times lower in parts of Europe. Out of wedlock teen pregnancy? We’re #1. Divorce? Only the Swedes beat us out. Illicit drug use is exceptionally high. As is mental illness. The U.S.is not a total societal basket case, we are typical in suicide rates and alcohol consumption, and score high on marriage rates and income. But when I tallied up the factors used in my Evolutionary Psychology paper on a zero-10 scale American scored a meager three, while the most atheistic democracies scored up to a remarkable eight (none reached 10, there being no utopias. For plot see here).
Far from being the “Shining City on a Hill” standing as an example to the rest of the world, the U.S. is the only first world nation that retains second world levels of religiosity and social dysfunction. To test whether extraneous factors such a high levels of diversity or immigration are responsible for our poor performance I ran the stats and found they are not. Nor is our frontier past to blame: The same sad facts do not apply to either Canadians or Aussies.
So the line that societies cannot help but go to hell in a handcart if they do not follow the dictates of a God is nothing more than a great big lie. Instead, it is the most atheistic democracies, where few ask what Jesus would do, that enjoy the best overall lifestyle conditions. The same trends hold up within the U.S, too: The Northeast is already as secular as parts of Europe and enjoys less dysfunction than the Southeast which is the most conservative Christian; life spans are actually decreasing in the Bible belt.
So is religion at fault for the failure of the pious populations? Or is it the invariant victim of successful societies, unable to thrive in the face of democratic modernity? Or both?
Gregory Paul is an independent researcher in sociology and evolution. He frequently writes on atheism and American culture. He wrote this post for washingtonpost.com/onfaith.