Does Religion Benefit Society?
Which I why I found this study to be so interesting. It’s titled Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies (say that ten times fast), from the Journal of Society and Religion. Gregory S. Paul analyzed a whole boatload of data on nearly every indicator for societal health, from violence to STDs, from nearly every first-world country, and compared that to the country’s religiosity. Lets see what he found.
For starters, almost everyone knows that the US is pretty religious. But just in case you didn’t: “[T]he United States is the only prosperous first world nation to retain rates of religiosity otherwise limited to the second and third worlds.” The polls I’ve read vary, but it’s usually between 80 and 90 percent of people believing in a god of some form, with over half taking the Bible literally (although this study says 30%), and a solid majority attending regular services (although this study says 40%). Like I said, polls vary, but the numbers are in that range.
One good indicator of societal health is murder rates. People in a healthy society don’t kill each other. Plus, the Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill”, so if people take the Bible seriously (as a large number of Americans do), we should have lower murder rates. This is not the case: “[T]he U.S. is the only prosperous democracy that retains high homicide rates, making it a strong outlier in this regard.” We’re not the only one, either: “Similarly, theistic Portugal also has rates of homicides well above the secular developed democracy norm.”
High religiosity doesn’t help our kids much either, we have far more school shootings and the same teen suicide rates as the other Western democracies. How about violent crime? The story is a little bit better here: “Other prosperous democracies do not significantly exceed the U.S. in rates of nonviolent and in non-lethal violent crime, and are often lower in this regard.” Well, that’s some good news. Kind of.
How do we fare with teenage pregnancy? After all, every religion I know of preaches abstinence until marriage, so shouldn’t religion decrease teenage pregnancy? Well, no: “Early adolescent pregnancy and birth have dropped in the developed democracies… but rates are two to dozens of times higher in the U.S. where the decline has been more modest.” As you would expect with this data, we also have poor STD rates: “[R]ates of adolescent gonorrhea infection remain six to three hundred times higher in the U.S. than in less theistic, pro-evolution secular developed democracies... The U.S. also suffers from uniquely high adolescent and adult syphilis infection rates.”
But surely we get less abortions. We have the largest percentage of people who believe in God, and quite a large number of (generally religious) pro-lifers, so we must kill less babies? Right? Again, no: “Increasing adolescent abortion rates show positive correlation with increasing belief and worship of a creator, and negative correlation with increasing non-theism and acceptance of evolution.”
It’s pretty clear that high religiosity doesn’t help out our society very much. But that’s not the end of it, we even tend to die sooner than other democracies: “Life spans tend to decrease as rates of religiosity rise, especially as a function of absolute belief.”
To sum up:
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... The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly. The view of the U.S. as a “shining city on the hill” to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health.
Although they are by no means utopias, the populations of secular democracies are clearly able to govern themselves and maintain societal cohesion. Indeed, the data examined in this study demonstrates that only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical “cultures of life” that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion. The least theistic secular developed democracies such as Japan, France, and Scandinavia have been most successful in these regards.
Because I’m pretty sure that some people will protest, I want to point out a few things. First, I don’t think religious people are bad, and this study does not make that claim. Second, I’m not saying that religion makes society bad. As I’ve said before, correlation does not mean causation. It could very well be that there is something else underlying this trend; the US is different enough from Europe where that’s entirely possible. However, it would be very, very difficult for the claim that religion makes societies better to be true. As Mr. Paul says:
The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted. Contradicting these conclusions requires demonstrating a positive link between theism and societal conditions in the first world with a similarly large body of data - a doubtful possibility in view of the observable trends.
Also, don’t write this off as only one study, especially without looking through his references (which I deleted from the quotes, there were quite a few). Even dismissing this one, I’ve read others (such as one here, although it’s a bit buried), and I’ve seen a good portion of the data. It would be almost impossible for religion to make society as a whole better given the fact that secular Europe beats us in every measure of societal health. However, I doubt that anyone who has made this claim will be influenced by studies like this one. Which is unfortunate, because the sooner we move past the ridiculous claim that more religion is what we need, we might actually be able to work on improving our society. I’m not holding my breath.