Measured Against Reality

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Does Religion Benefit Society?

In my travels I’ve come across the claim that the United States would be much better if everyone was a Christian (or sometimes it’s just some kind of theist) many times. I haven’t seen any polls done on that belief, but based on my experience I bet a good number of people hold it.

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.

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  • Unfortunately "secular" Europe's reliance on wealth redistribution combined with dwindling birth rates from "sexually liberated" Europeans has forced much of Europe to rely on a steady influx of immigrants to sustain their social programs.

    These immigrants are often highly religious Muslims from the middle east.

    Certainly morality can be derived outside of religion, but religion provides a foundation for social cohesion. Without the structure of social norms and customs, societies tend to come apart at the seems. Europe is in decline, not on the rise.

    By Blogger Mr. Fantastic!, at 4:48 PM, October 15, 2006  

  • Personally, I thought this was a well-written and well thought out post. Clear thinking.

    By Anonymous Ben, at 7:38 PM, October 15, 2006  

  • Thanks Ben, but Mr. Paul did all the real work.

    By Blogger Stupac2, at 7:39 PM, October 15, 2006  

  • I believe that if you were to separate the US into two countries divided along either the red and blue states of the 2000 election or the the slave and free states of 1860 (pretty much the same thing), you'd find that the blue states would be consistent both in terms of religiosity and societal ills with other advanced democracies.

    In other words, it's the south that's dragging the US down. We really should have let them go back in 1861.

    By Blogger Jemaleddin, at 7:44 AM, October 26, 2006  

  • The preceding remark isn't cognizant of the fact that the balance of blue v. red in most states (including most Southern states) tends to be urban v. rural, rather than state v. state. For example, James Carville described Pennsylvania as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in between. Also, these designations fail to take into account the largest group of Americans: those who don't vote at all. If we counted those, we'd have pale blue and pink, at best, in many cases, with a lot of lilac.

    By Blogger Bill, at 3:55 PM, November 24, 2006  

  • The divide between blue and red states should be taken into account.

    Blue states are dominated by large urban populations almost entirely non-religious. These regions account for a vast majority of the violent crime and murder in the country.

    Whereas rural areas surrounded by God's green earth tend to be predominately religious.

    Although urban america is far from saintly; if you compared the per-capita murder and violent crime rates between liberal urban america and conservative religious rural america, and even demographically decaying european societies, you would find they compare quite favorably to the former in almost every way measureable (with the exception of market cap).

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:38 PM, January 28, 2007  

  • Unfortunately, some of these comments suggest that scientific methods mean nothing to people who are in the thrall of an ideology and do not understand the difference between conclusions subjected to controlled scientific observation and conclusions based on unsystematic, informal everyday observation. While plenty of criticism is offered along with non sequiturs (e.g., the threat posed by the importation of religious culture into a secular milieu) and isolated speculations (not even observations but just guesses with no data to back them up!), no one has taken the time to examine the study methods to see how sound or unsound they are.

    Religious or "secular," ideologists start from a conclusion and then fit the evidence to it - and they usually seem to think everyone does this. We are all ideologists unless we find systematic and consistent ways to guard against it. People who actually do scientific work use methods that were specifically designed to guard against the inevitable tempatation to fit the evidence around preferred conclusions. They do this imperfectly, but together, these methods maximize the degree to which we are able to understand our world as it is, not as we wish it were.

    Even though religion appears to offer no advantages to society as a whole, we who have reaped the benefits of controlled observation in medicine and other areas should thank God that some of our ancestors decided to create means to correct their own biases rather than throwing up their hands and deeming all opinion equal.

    By Blogger AJ, at 8:47 AM, June 04, 2007  

  • The US is a strange place, first off. Religion is very different there than in other places. There are many religious people in Canada and we have lower crime rates, there are many religious people in Britain and they have lower crime rates. Most Muslim countries have low crime rates (despotic regimes excepted). Religion in the US is an absolutist, black and white, fear based model...filled with both extemism and hypocrisy. It's more like a big socio-political button. You wear it to "show your colours" rather than actually live by it privately. It's a mistake to use the US for a comparison.

    I'm an atheist with not much faith in either the liberal or conservative brands of religion. On a personal level I don't find religion makes people better...but I don't know that most of the people who call themselves religious actually are. Most of them just seem to want something out of religion, social support, a way to feel good about themselves...but most of them aren't willing to put aside any worldly pleasures. They want to have their cake and eat it too. I'm guessing there are just as many of those kind of "believers" in the US. I think they kind of skew the results.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:49 PM, July 30, 2009  

  • I heard from one pole that only around 30% of people who claim Christianity as there religion practice. So I agree that claiming a certain religion does nothing for society. However if people actually practiced what they think they believe(in the Christian sector) then there would be no murder. There would be no sex out of marriage(far less STDs). Not only that, but people would love others as themselves, take care of orphans and widows, stop injustice, love there enemies,... It is obvious that true Christians would be beneficial, however hypocrites could potentially be negative on the beneficial scale(from what the authors quoted studies show).

    By Anonymous Samuel, at 9:03 PM, November 16, 2009  

  • The part about the school shootings bothers me. About every student that has done a shoot out in recent years was an atheist. The perpetrators of the Columbine hated religion. That one Korean kid was atheist. The list goes on and on.

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  • Religion provides a foundation for social cohesion. Without the structure of social norms and customs, societies tend to come apart at the seems

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