The more religious a country is, the more dysfunctional it is. That’s the basic conclusion of a study reported in The Journal of Religion and Society. A Los Angeles Times article, “The Dark Side of Faith,” summarizes the findings of the researcher, Gregory S. Paul:
He found that the most religious democracies exhibited substantially higher degrees of social dysfunction than societies with larger percentages of atheists and agnostics. Of the nations studied, the U.S. — which has by far the largest percentage of people who take the Bible literally and express absolute belief in God (and the lowest percentage of atheists and agnostics) — also has by far the highest levels of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
I’d always suspected as much. Lots of people in the United States like to put down Europe as a hotbed of quasi-socialist secular humanism, but the mostly non-religious European countries must be doing something right, because they have fewer murders and abortions than this highly Christianized nation.
Laurel and I took a trip to Victoria, B.C. soon after we got married. I remember being asked by a Canadian border guard if we had any guns or pepper spray in our car. Laurel hesitated for a second before answering and he said, “Well, do you?” She admitted that she had pepper spray in her purse because she was planning to go jogging in Victoria.
The guard looked at us with a mildly superior Canadian stare and told her, “You won’t be needing that sort of thing here.” Which, we didn’t. We felt much safer in Canada than in the United States, notwithstanding the much larger percentage of fundamentalist Christians here.
Morality has nothing to do with religiosity. If anything, this study suggests that the opposite is true: the more religious people are, the more immorally they act. My wife has observed this in her psychotherapy practice. In her experience domestically violent men often are evangelical Christians who believe that they have a God-given right to treat their wife and children any way they want.
Along these lines, in my state the longtime chairman of the Christian Coalition of Oregon is being investigated for having molested three female family members when they were pre-teens. Stories like this pop up all the time: a seeming paragon of Christian morality turns out to have been hiding a much darker persona.
A London Times piece about Paul’s study notes that religious belief can cause damage to a society:
Many liberal Christians and believers of other faiths hold that religious belief is socially beneficial, believing that it helps to lower rates of violent crime, murder, suicide, sexual promiscuity and abortion. The benefits of religious belief to a society have been described as its “spiritual capital”. But the study claims that the devotion of many in the US may actually contribute to its ills.The full study report, academically titled “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies,” can be read here.
It has some holes, no doubt. There are no sophisticated analyses of statistical significance. And the author seems to have an anti-religion ax to grind, judging by the tone of his writing.
That doesn’t bother me much. Paul deserves a lot of credit for taking a first step toward seeking a solid factual answer to a question whose answer tends to be assumed in the United States: Is religion good for a society?
President Bush and his right-wing cronies win elections by decrying the decline of religious moral values. Their policies are aimed at making religion (more precisely, the Christian religion) a much stronger societal force, the assumption being that this would be a good thing.
In reality, it wouldn’t. This study strongly suggests that a healthy society is one where religious belief is kept to a minimum and respect for science is raised to a maximum. In Paul’s words:
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. 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.
In the interest of balance, here is a criticism of the study by a Southern Baptist minister and theologian who, not surprisingly, disagrees with Paul’s thesis.