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Religious Belief & Societal Health:
New Study Reveals that Religion
Does Not Lead to a Healthier Society

In this article, we report the results of a study examining the relationship between a nation’s religiosity and its “moral health.” The received wisdom would lead one to predict a positive correlation between national religiosity and national moral health — as one goes up the other goes up. In fact, that appears not to be the case, and the example of the United States is most striking; Americans are among the most religious people in the Western world, and yet we have among the highest rates of homicide, abortion, and teen pregnancies. To the extent that these measures are related to something that might be called “national moral health,” the intuitive thesis that links religiosity to morality would seem to be gainsaid.

It is commonly held that religion makes people more just, compassionate, and moral, but a new study suggests that the data belie that assumption. In fact, at first glance it would seem, religion has the opposite effect. The extensive study, “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies,” published in the Journal of Religion and Society examines statistics from eighteen of the most developed democratic nations. It reveals clear correlations between various indicators of social strife and religiosity, showing that whether religion causes social strife or not, it certainly does not prevent it.

The author of the study, Gregory S. Paul, writes that it is a “first, brief look at an important subject that has been almost entirely neglected by social scientists … not an attempt to present a definitive study that establishes cause versus effect between religiosity, secularism and societal health.” However, the study does show a direct correlation between religiosity and dysfunctionality, which if nothing else, disproves the widespread belief that religiosity is beneficial, that secularism is detrimental, and that widespread acceptance of evolution is harmful.

Paul begins by explaining how far his findings diverge from common assumptions. He even quotes Benjamin Franklin and Dostoevsky to show how old these common-misconceptions are. Dostoevsky wrote, “if God does not exist, then everything is permissible.” Benjamin Franklin noted, “religion will be a powerful regulator of our actions, give us peace and tranquility within our minds, and render us benevolent, useful and beneficial to others.”

To this day, the belief that religiosity is socially beneficial is widespread in America, especially amongst politicians, as Paul notes: “The current [at that time] House majority leader T. DeLay contends that high crime rates and tragedies like the Columbine assault will continue as long schools teach children ‘that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized [sic] out of some primordial soup of mud.’” But this view is not exclusively Republican, Paul explains, or even conservative: “presidential candidate Al Gore supported teaching both creationism and evolution, his running mate Joe Lieberman asserted that belief in a creator is instrumental to ‘secure the moral future of our nation, and raise the quality of life for all our people,’ and presidential candidate John Kerry emphasized his religious values in the latter part of his campaign.” Surveys show that many Americans agree “their church-going nation is an exceptional, God blessed, ‘shining city on the hill’ that stands as an impressive example for an increasingly skeptical world. ”This assumption flies in the face of the actual statistical evidence that Paul examined.

The study focuses on the prosperous democracies, because “levels of religious and nonreligious belief and practice, and indicators of societal health and dysfunction, have been most extensively and reliably surveyed” in them. Also, “The cultural and economic similarity of the developed democracies minimizes the variability of factors outside those being examined.” With a database of 800 million people, this study is far more reliable than results based on smaller sample sizes used in other such studies. The data are also current and extensive, collected in the middle and latter half of the 1990s and early 2000s from the International Social Survey Programme, the UN Development Programme, the World Health Organization, Gallup, and other well-documented sources.

For this study’s purpose, “dysfunctionality” is defined by such indicators of poor societal health as homicide, suicide, low life expectancy, STD infection, abortion, early pregnancy, and high childhood mortality (under five-years old). Religiosity is measured by biblical literalism, frequency of prayer and service attendance, as well as absolute belief in a creator in terms of ardency, conservatism, and activities.

Paul’s results are presented in nine charts. The first compares acceptance of evolution with various indicators of religiosity. From this Paul concludes that, “The absence of exceptions to the negative correlation between absolute belief in a creator and acceptance of evolution, plus the lack of a significant religious revival in any developed democracy where evolution is popular, cast doubt on the thesis that societies can combine high rates of both religiosity and agreement with evolutionary science. Such an amalgamation may not be practical.” He adds: “When deciding between supernatural and natural causes is a matter of opinion large numbers are likely to opt for the latter,” and that, “Conversely, evolution will probably not enjoy strong majority support in the U.S. until religiosity declines markedly.”

All of the subsequent results that compare religiosity against dysfunctionality show a basic correlation between the two, though anomalies exist. Paul’s second figure (Figures 1 and 2 here) shows a positive correlation between religiosity and homicide rates.

The United States is a strong exception, experiencing far higher rates of homicide than even (strongly theistic) Portugal, while Portugal itself is beset by much more homicide than the secular developed democracies. Hardly a “shining city on a hill” to the rest of the world, Paul writes that, “The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is exceptional, but not in the manner Franklin predicted. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly.” This deviates immensely from what most Americans consider to be common wisdom: that religion is beneficial. “But in the other developed democracies religiosity continues to decline precipitously and avowed atheists often win high office, even as clergies warn about adverse societal consequences if a revival of creator belief does not occur.”

Despite the best efforts of “pro-life” Americans, abortion rates are much higher in our Christian nation, and lowest in relatively secular ones such as Japan, France, and the Scandinavian countries (Figures 3 and 4). In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies (Figures 5 and 6). This would seem to indicate that there is a positive correlation between religiosity and dysfunctionality, but what does that mean?

The question is one of causation, and there is no clear answer. Whether religion leads directly to dysfunctionality, or religions merely flourish in dysfunctional societies, neither conclusion from this study flatters religion. The first tells us that religion is a hindrance to the development of moral character, and the second that religion hinders progress by distracting us from our troubles (with imaginary solutions to real problems). This study is complicated enough that I do not think that we can draw definitive negative conclusions about religion. But we can at least conclude, contrary to popular belief in this country, that it is not a given that religious societies are better, healthier, or more moral. What we can be clear about from this study is that highly religious societies can be dysfunctional, whereas by comparison secular societies in which evolution is largely accepted display real social cohesion and societal well-being. As is always the case in science, more data and additional research will help clarify our conclusions.

This article can be found in
Skeptic volume 12 number 3

volume 12 number 3
Religion

Orthodox Jews & Science; Religious Belief & Societal Health; Does Prayer Work?; Debate: Deepak Chopra v. Michael Shermer; Using Pseudoscience to Teach Science…
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19 Comments »

19 Comments

  1. Lewis Ambrose says:

    It does seem to fly in the face of common wisdom. It seems to be the last hold-out argument for the ambivalently religious, that religion is necessary for people to behave well. Here is evidence that seems to very clearly refute that assumption. I wonder, though, will facts make any real difference?

    • Ryan says:

      I would say no. Given the overwhelming amount of evidence for evolution and the number of people who still think we should “teach the controversy” I think religious people are completely impervious to facts and reality.

  2. Mark Plus says:

    Imagine the homicide rate the U.S. would have without EMT’s and advances in trauma medicine to reduce mortality from violent injuries.

    Paul’s research does seem to support the intuition of radical Enlightenment figures like Holbach and Diderot that people could lose interest in religion and attain greater self-mastery through education, prosperity and having more control over their lives. This kind of society doesn’t just exist as a science-fictional fantasy about “the future,” but shows signs of becoming reality in many developed countries now.

    Even in the U.S., regions like New England the Pacific Northwest show significantly less religiosity and better social functioning than the Jesus-loving South.

  3. Philip says:

    Interesting, but we need to remember that correlation does not equal causation. I would want to know the relationship between the outcomes (homicide in particular) and other relevant inputs, such as ease of access to lethal implements. I’m sure that’s got something to do with the US being such an anomaly. Living in the UK, our laws make it very difficult to get hold of such things, but I’ve no idea what it’s like in other countries in the study.

  4. Kristin says:

    To Philip: Here in Norway the sale of firearms is regulated by very strict laws. However, the sale of kitchen knives is not. It seems to me that although the homicide rate is comparatively low here, someone with a serious grudge will find a way to settle it terminally.
    The study is most interesting, contradicting as it does “accepted truths” force fed to us from early childhood sunday school and all through our educational years. My first reaction was indeed “I thought so”. But then, I’m an atheist.

  5. Mario says:

    Well, too bad that data is not efficiently collected in developing countries, I wish I could see a similar study conducted in Latin-america or Africa, where you can clearly see how high the homicidal rate, maternal and child mortality and religious adherence goes hand to hand, and the best excuse for it is: poverty.

  6. Ummer Farooq says:

    I find this report to be interestingly anti-American, and extremely selective at best. The religiosity in these countries is so low even if there is a belief in God, especially noting the fact that many of these countries are ruled without any influence of God or law by scripture. They’re secular, which practically means that they’re atheistic.

  7. ribbit says:

    I completely DISagree with Provonsha: at best it is an “extremely selective” report.

    I know many families (who regard themselves as “religious”) and who have brought up their children in the most responsible way possible. YET half the children are fantastic adults, dedicated to community responsibility, honesty, a wonderful work-ethic, and in every way inspiring role models…. and interestingly, the other half of the children (in the SAME families) have been described as “immoral slobs” who have allowed themselves to be influenced by “unsavoury peers”, self-absorbed irresponsible dishonest unemployable drug-taking hedonists.

    Provonsha’s report rather confirms Prof. P. Zimbardo’s research findings (“The Lucifer-Effect”) which points to the way even good people can be seduced by strong outside forces, thus “dragging them along with the crowd” into “moral decay” and into a “race to the bottom”.

    NOTE: Never in history has there ever existed any country which can honestly describe itself as Christian”. It is yet to be tried.

    • Lake says:

      What?

      Surely, we can all agree that the forces of evil can pull good sheep astray. But the assumption is that a more religious environment will have fewer evil forces pulling at those sheep. And yet, this data points to the contrary.

      You can make excuses about evil, but according to this data, evil forces are simply more prevalent in in devout nations.

      Based on most of the Religious people I’ve met, all who believe themselves to be ‘fantastic adults, dedicated to community responsibility, honesty, a wonderful work-ethic,’ I’m not at all surprised at the correlation between evil and religiosity.

      Google ‘Kitzmiller v. Dover’ for a rather public example of ‘fantastic’ Christians, dedicated to their community, committing perjury, lying under oath (To their OWN God), to advance their agenda.

    • Kaerius says:

      “NOTE: Never in history has there ever existed any country which can honestly describe itself as Christian”. It is yet to be tried.”

      Actually there have been many, most of europe was. We call it the dark ages for a reason.

  8. Harry says:

    I think Mr. Pauls research at least demonstrates that having a large percentage of theist based religious people does not cut down on criminal behavior. I am stressing theist based religion since Japanese are heavily influenced by Buddhist non theist beliefs. It may not be fair to compare Japan with the U.S. since the U.S. has a mixture of people while Japan does not but none the less at least theist religion does not cut the crime rate. As to whether it increases the crime rate, I think that still lacks an answer.

  9. greg gowen says:

    where are the communist countries? They are the best long term study of life without religion, could they be the 800 pound gorilla in the room full of “progressives”?

    • Maya says:

      Not at all. The countries that are still communist are by and large very poor. You’ll notice that the countries included in the study are not. There is a reason for that. Introducing the variable of poverty/wealth would skew the results, since there is a known correlation between high poverty and high crime, teen pregnancy etc. For those communist countries to be included, a study would have to include only those countries that have similar levels of poverty.

  10. Mona Albano says:

    One thing the U.S. has that other countries do not, which might explain its worse than predicted showing, is the home-grown American doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. My hypothesis is this: when not a word of the Bible can be challenged, not only is it impossible to challenge believers’ adherence to its more cruel teachings, but their minds form compartments containing contradictory ideas and they shy away from thinking or examining their thinking processes, lest they doubt a Biblical text as interpreted, of course, by their local parent-substitutes, their priests or preachers.

  11. Mona Albano says:

    It would be interesting to leave out the richest countries (sorry, U.S.) and hold some other factor constant, such as ease of access to guns. It must be a lot easier to kill someone with the twitch of a finger than by stabbing them.

  12. Jim Busch says:

    One could make the argument that for some of the data categories, a minority of individuals contribute excessively to the total score for the USA. Naturally, one could argue that this minority may be a classical US subculture, or it could be an immigration subculture.

    If this is true, then someone should be able to identify this subculture by various statistics.

    For example, while the US has the greatest percentage of it’s population incarcerated, much of that incarceration is drug related. The Mexican authorities argue that the crime wave, in Mexico<, associated with drugs would not exist if the US did not have such a demand for drugs to satisfy the wants of a subsection of the US population.

    This observational study is not conclusive, of course, but could suggest meaningful lines of inquiry. The above should be taken as a suggestion for further inquiry, not drawing of a conclusion.

    Observational studies are suggestive…..

  13. Agnostic Apatheist says:

    From the article above, it looks like the study inference suffers from the ecological inference fallacy. That is, the aggregate data may not apply to the individuals populations. Was this accounted for? It’s not really clear from the article.

  14. ricochez says:

    The last comment touched on what came to my mind after reading the article, namely that homogeneity and heterogeneity of population needs to be considered.
    Within the USA there are communities of like-minded religious people, such as Amish and Hasidim. I would venture to say the statistics would look decidedly different for those groups as opposed to American society as a whole. I believe there is a significant difference between pop-culture, political sound bite religion professed by people who are Sunday churchgoers and the lived faith of a community of believers. I’m not saying that makes the doctrine of either group any truer, but the lifestyle and actions in relation to others in the community are certainly different between them.
    I would say the study shows that the professed religious values of society as a whole (as opposed to religious societies) don’t result in a safer society.

  15. Serge says:

    It’s impossible to draw any causal conclusions from this, and even the “unflattering” conclusions you draw about religion are not justified. For example, how can we be sure that these dysfunctional societies would not be even more dysfunctional without religion? Furthermore, religion is so broad a term that effects of different religions in different contexts may be completely different. A religion that advocates militant action, for example, is very different from one that advocates withdrawal from the world, or compassionate action. Beware the unwarranted generalizations and unfounded inferences.

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