Is religion good for society?

ALEX DOMANSKI REUTERS Does religion help societies more than it handicaps them?, writes researcher Gregory Paul. Part I of this … Continued

ALEX DOMANSKI

REUTERS

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.

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  • Carstonio

    I would say that authoritarian ideologies are bad for societies, and these include some but not all religious beliefs, and some secular ones as well. Secularism benefits societies because it helps reduce discrimination against religious minorities and properly treating religion as a matter of individuals’ heads and hearts. Note that secularism isn’t hostility to religion in general but neutrality among competing religions.

    Paul runs the risk of confusing cause and effect, or confusing correlation with causation. He seems to assume that the peculiar American variety of religiosity is the cause of our social dysfunction, not considering the possibility that both have the same root cause. I would nominate the legacy of slavery. That pernicious institution involved tons of rationalizations to keep it going, and these helped spawn a variety of Christianity here that focuses much more on the next world than on this world. It also promoted a twisted sense of social hierarchy based on skin color, where poor whites focused their resentments on blacks instead of on the inequalities in the social order itself. There again, those inequalities hardened into religious beliefs , as shown by Bob Jones University and by the judge whose decision was overturned in Loving v. Virginia.

  • arensb

    “Paul runs the risk of confusing cause and effect, or confusing correlation with causation. He seems to assume that the peculiar American variety of religiosity is the cause of our social dysfunction, not considering the possibility that both have the same root cause.”

    You’re right, of course, that correlation is not causation, and that it is not obvious what causes what.

    However, the data does show that religion does not fix social dysfunction; that more religious societies are not necessarily better than less religious ones.

  • Carstonio

    I wasn’t claiming that religion could fix social dysfunction. My point is that a high degree of religiosity might not itself be the problem, but instead that a high degree of *authoritarian* religiosity may be a symptom of deeper problems in the society. That type of religion seems to involve the Just World Fallacy, which is essentially a rationalization of the seeming randomness of the world’s suffering. So maybe the real solution involves humans learning to accept that sometimes people who help others end up suffering and sometimes people who hurt others end up prospering, and that we shouldn’t expect the universe to be a just place.

  • Carstonio

    I wasn’t claiming that religion could fix social dysfunction. My point is that a high degree of religiosity might not itself be the problem, but instead that a high degree of *authoritarian* religiosity may be a symptom of deeper problems in the society. That type of religion seems to involve the Just World Fallacy, which is essentially a rationalization of the seeming randomness of the world’s suffering. So maybe the real solution involves humans learning to accept that sometimes people who help others end up suffering and sometimes people who hurt others end up prospering, and that we shouldn’t expect the universe to be a just place.

  • Rongoklunk

    I think that believing in the day-to-day reality all around us and at the same time being raised to believe in a great invisible skygod and life-after-death – has resulted in a kind of mass intellectual confusion. There’s a better term for it but I can’t remember what it is. But really, while getting our children educated we still keep ramming into their young brains the really dumb God hypothesis and the reality-denying belief in an after life. And we wonder why they’re all screwed up?
    For a better world ahead we should be telling them the truth as we know it, not as we wish it to be. As far as we know there are no gods. They were all made up by our fearful and totally superstitious ancestors, who hadn’t learned the difference between the real and the imagined.

  • ccnl1

    Country Total countrypopulation (2004) % Atheist/Agnostic Number of Atheists/Agnostics

    Sweden 8,986,000 …46 – 85%… 4,133,560 – 7,638,100
    Vietnam 82,690,000… 81%……… 66,978,900
    Denmark 5,413,000 43 – 80%….. 2,327,590 – 4,330,400
    Norway 4,575,000 31 – 72%…….. 1,418,250 – 3,294,000
    Japan 127,333,000 64 – 65% ……81,493,120 – 82,766,450

  • WmarkW

    However, one of the characteristics of atheistic societies is their low birth rates. I believe the median Japanese, non-Hispanic white American, and native-born Western European are all over 40.

    This would decrease the rates of homicide, drug abuse and unintended pregnancy, which are all pathologies of the young.

  • ThomasBaum

    Gregory Paul

    You wrote, “atheism is up and coming in all advanced democracies including the United States,”

    Is it actually “up and coming” or has the “social stigma” of admitting one’s “non-belief” not what it use to be?

    Just as believing in God has absolutely nothing to do with whether God Is or isn’t, not believing that God has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not God Is.

    You also wrote, “Part II exposes how the suffering of children eliminates the possibility that a moral creator of immense power exists”.

    All that this exposes is that it is your opinion that God Is not because your conception of God can not be realized by what happens to be reality.

    In other words, your opinion is that God Is not because God does not fit into the “box” that is your conception of God just as many who believe that God Is are wrong, not in believing that God Is but in trying to cram God into the “box” that they have constructed by their conception of God.

  • ccnl1

    For Thomas “Moses” and “21st Century Mohammed” Baum:

    Please review the following prayer with your god during your next meeting with him or her or it:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians during the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen

  • daniel12

    This study overlooks some pretty obvious historical facts. The first fact is that the United States was an invented nation which has always had a high degree of internal turbulence due to jockeying interests–diversity, immigration and the need to look to future rather than past causes high degree of stress. This has meant everything from attempts at fundamentalism of religious stripe to putting a man on the moon. Dynamism.

    The second fact is that this study overlooks that atheism arose as a European phenomenon long before an American phenomenon and that all the European nations and Japan and Russia and China have demonstrated no easy rise out of religious belief. In fact the supposedly too Godly U.S. paved the way for a tame Europe and Japan not seventy years ago. And no, Europe and Japan and so on were not more religious than the U.S. back then–that is not the reason for the incredible violence–but rather less religious (to repeat myself).

    This study essentially states that the advanced and relatively homogeneous European societies and Japan which not long ago convulsed the world and were put at bay by England, the U.S. and the Soviet Union are better than the U.S. because the U.S. has religion and they do not!

    And we all know the record of atheism in Russia and China, Cambodia and so on–expressly atheist societies rather than societies of some atheism…

    Actually I have no real interest in this topic…So easy to criticize. And less in interest in this Gregory Paul character–he has no real intellect worth speaking of. Obviously a person whose mind is made up and no use discussing anything with such a person. What can you say about a person whose entire study is in the one dimension of present with no historical consciousness at all? His study is akin to saying person A robbed the liquor store because he is currently wearing red shoes and the other guy, person B, is no wearing red shoes.

    I write badly here–completely bored.

  • tony55398

    It’s when the Church gets involved with politics that the greatest damage occurs, using government to inflict God’s will upon a nation, a thing that Christ rejected in His temptations, a temptation that springs from the Devil. The law of Love must always be the prime force.

  • TimYork

    People who oppose religion have to start focusing their efforts better. Talking about things that are most likely nonexistent will lead to conversations that can head in a hundred different directions.
    What remains obvious is the baselessness of all organized religions.
    Whenever I’m confronted by apostles of any type I always steer the conversation towards who they think it was who wrote this stuff that they are enthralled with. Apparently the Gospels were written by Anonymous!
    There are a lot of much better writers around today then there were back in the early Iron Age. We are nowhere as deferential to these contemporaries.

  • theFSM

    Love everyone, except for gay people, right? I mean, according to the bible, being gay is an abomination.

    So, let’s make sure that the Federal Government continues to discriminate its own people by saying that it doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages.

  • theFSM

    The Flying Spaghetti Monster disagrees with you!

  • theFSM

    Yup, because condom use, and teaching safe-sex in school is a sin!

  • WmarkW

    Rosa Parkovitz, call your Rabbi
    Woman ordered to back of public bus by male Jews

    On the morning of October 12, Melissa Franchy boarded the B110 bus in Brooklyn and sat down near the front. For a few minutes she was left in silence, although the other passengers gave her a noticeably wide berth. But as the bus began to fill up, the men told her that she had to get up. Move to the back, they insisted.

    They were Orthodox Jews with full beards, sidecurls and long black coats, who told her that she was riding a “private bus” and a “Jewish bus.” When she asked why she had to move, a man scolded her.

    “If God makes a rule, you don’t ask ‘Why make the rule?’” he told Franchy, who rode the bus at the invitation of a New York World reporter. She then moved to the back where the other women were sitting. The driver did not intervene in the incident.

    The B110 bus travels between Williamsburg and Borough Park in Brooklyn. It is open to the public, and has a route number and tall blue bus stop signs like any other city bus. But the B110 operates according to its own distinct rules. The bus line is run by a private company and serves the Hasidic communities of the two neighborhoods. To avoid physical contact between members of opposite sexes that is prohibited by Hasidic tradition, men sit in the front of the bus and women sit in the back.

  • Carstonio

    That belief is immoral no matter what religious or secular ideology we’re talking about. I hope the women of Brooklyn stage a sit-in on that bus.

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