Is Belief in God Hurting America?
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From Dostoyevsky to right-wing commentator Ann Coulter we are warned of the perils of godlessness. "If there is no God," Dostoyevsky wrote, "everything is permitted." Coulter routinely attributes our nation's most intractable troubles to the moral vacuum of atheism.
But a growing body of research in what one sociologist describes as the "emerging field of secularity" is challenging long-held assumptions about the relationship of religion and effective governance.
In a paper posted recently on the online journal Evolutionary Psychology, independent researcher Gregory S. Paul reports a strong correlation within First World democracies between socioeconomic well-being and secularity. In short, prosperity is highest in societies where religion is practiced least.
Using existing data, Paul combined 25 indicators of societal and economic stability — things like crime, suicide, drug use, incarceration, unemployment, income, abortion and public corruption — to score each country using what he calls the "successful societies scale." He also scored countries on their degree of religiosity, as determined by such measures as church attendance, belief in a creator deity and acceptance of Bible literalism.
Comparing the two scores, he found, with little exception, that the least religious countries enjoyed the most prosperity. Of particular note, the U.S. holds the distinction of most religious and least prosperous among the 17 countries included in the study, ranking last in 14 of the 25 socioeconomic measures.
Paul is quick to point out that his study reveals correlation, not causation. Which came first — prosperity or secularity — is unclear, but Paul ventures a guess. While it's possible that good governance and socioeconomic health are byproducts of a secular society, more likely, he speculates, people are inclined to drop their attachment to religion once they feel distanced from the insecurities and burdens of life.
"Popular religion," Paul proposes, "is a coping mechanism for the anxieties of a dysfunctional social and economic environment." Paul, who was criticized, mostly on statistical grounds, for a similar study published in 2005, says his new findings lend support to the belief that mass acceptance of popular religion is determined more by environmental influences and less by selective, evolutionary forces, as scholars and philosophers have long debated.
In other words, we're not hardwired for religion.
Paul also believes his study helps refute the controversial notion that the moral foundation of religious doctrine is a requisite for any high-functioning society - what he dubs the "moral-creator hypothesis."
Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College whose research looks at the link between religion and societal health within the developed world, agrees with that assertion. "The important thing we're seeing here is that progressive, highly functional societies can answer their problems within a framework of secularity. That's a big deal, and we should be blasting that message out loud," he contends.
Zuckerman says the findings are consistent with his own data, collected for his 2008 book Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment — a portrait of secular society in Denmark and Sweden — and his forthcoming Faith No More: How and Why People Reject Religion.
Scandinavian countries, in particular, have achieved high levels of economic strength and social stability, and yet the influence of religion there is in steep decline, perhaps the lowest in recoded history. Coincidence or not, those countries also rank among the world's happiest populations. In The Netherlands' Erasmus University Rotterdam's annual World Database of Happiness the same Northern European countries that score low in religiosity rank high in reported levels of happiness. (The U.S ranked 27th).