Monday, August 20, 2007

How Come Athiests Build Better Societies?

I hate to thieve shamelessly, but that's only a general rule. I was so intrigued by a post on Angry Bear on religion that looked into his source material myself. It's a 2005 study from the Journal of Religion and Society about the pervasive (though sometimes unconscious) tendency we have to equate high degrees of religiosity with social health.

Here's the link, if you want to read whole thing. It's fairly short.

Two centuries ago there was relatively little dispute over the existence of God, or the societally beneficial effect of popular belief in a creator. In the twentieth century extensive secularization occurred in western nations, the United States being the only significant exception (Bishop; Bruce; Gill et al.; Sommerville). If religion has receded in some western nations, what is the impact of this unprecedented transformation upon their populations? Theists often assert that popular belief in a creator is instrumental towards providing the moral, ethical and other foundations necessary for a healthy, cohesive society. Many also contend that widespread acceptance of evolution, and/or denial of a creator, is contrary to these goals….

The twentieth century acted, for the first time in human history, as a vast Darwinian global societal experiment in which a wide variety of dramatically differing social-religious-political-economic systems competed with one another, with varying degrees of success. A quantitative cross-national analysis is feasible because a large body of survey and census data on rates of religiosity, secularization, and societal indicators has become available in the prosperous developed democracies including the United States.


Among the developed democracies absolute belief in God, attendance of religious services and Bible literalism vary over a dozenfold, atheists and agnostics five fold, prayer rates fourfold, and acceptance of evolution almost twofold. Japan, Scandinavia, and France are the most secular nations in the west, the United States is the only prosperous first world nation to retain rates of religiosity otherwise limited to the second and third worlds (Bishop; PEW).

A few hundred years ago rates of homicide were astronomical in Christian Europe and the American colonies (Beeghley; R. Lane). In all secular developed democracies a centuries long-term trend has seen homicide rates drop to historical lows. The especially low rates in the more Catholic European states are statistical noise due to yearly fluctuations incidental to this sample, and are not consistently present in other similar tabulations (Barcley and Tavares). Despite a significant decline from a recent peak in the 1980s (Rosenfeld), the U.S. is the only prosperous democracy that retains high homicide rates, making it a strong outlier in this regard (Beeghley; Doyle, 2000). Similarly, theistic Portugal also has rates of homicides well above the secular developed democracy norm.

Mass student murders in schools are rare, and have subsided somewhat since the 1990s, but the U.S. has experienced many more (National School Safety Center) than all the secular developed democracies combined. Other prosperous democracies do not significantly exceed the U.S. in rates of nonviolent and in non-lethal violent crime (Beeghley; Farrington and Langan; Neapoletan), and are often lower in this regard. The United States exhibits typical rates of youth suicide (WHO), which show little if any correlation with theistic factors in the prosperous democracies. The positive correlation between pro-theistic factors and juvenile mortality is remarkable, especially regarding absolute belief, and even prayer. Life spans tend to decrease as rates of religiosity rise, especially as a function of absolute belief. Denmark is the only exception. Unlike questionable small-scale epidemiological studies by Harris et al. and Koenig and Larson, higher rates of religious affiliation, attendance, and prayer do not result in lower juvenile-adult mortality rates on a cross-national basis.

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 most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is exceptional, but not in the manner (Benjamin) Franklin predicted. 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.

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.

A couple things leap out here. We know from numerous other studies that high levels of religious participation correlate positively with health behaviors in youth (or at least tends to protect against typical teenage destructive behaviors), and we also know that teenagers tend to leave organized religion in droves about the time they get out of high school.

If, in societies that are equally prosperous, high religiosity does not correlate with positive outcomes for adults (and it clearly doesn't, because in the US, many adult 'believers' zealously kill, rape, maim, commit all sorts of sexually dysfunctional acts, and otherwise victimize themselves and others) then what might that suggest? That religion in the form that most people practice it is essentially suited to children and adolescents, but loses its effectiveness with adults? And would this be because of the evolutionary stage of religion itself, or is this a problem inherent in religion for all time?

These aren't rhetorical questions because I don't pretend to know the answers. I've been deeply attracted to religion for most of my life, but even while I was actively involved in it, I found it hard to truly believe a good deal of what was being professed. And so did a lot of other people sitting in the pews.

One thing I know: as Walter Lippmann, whose book "A Preface to Morals" I'm reading, points out: A religion that must be defended and debated is already blighted. Garry Wills said much the same thing in "What Jesus Meant": If you simply cannot accept the (Christian) story as it's presented in the only definitive source of the story that exists, then why bother with it?

It seems that it's all or nothing, logically speaking. But then again, logic has always been the enemy of religion, which is why from Christianity's earliest days, followers were exhorted not to question or probe.


NUREG said...

Consideration of the homogeneity of a population's belief systems may solve the conundrum, at least in part. In other words, what's the "density" of the value system in which you live. The higher this "density", the better the outcomes. See work done by Gruber at MIT . . .

His conclusion? "My results are striking. I find that a higher market density [how many people of your religion living near you] leads to a significantly increased level of religious participation, and as well to better outcomes according to several key economic indicators: higher levels of education and income, lower levels of welfare receipt and disability, higher levels of marriage, and lower levels of divorce. These results are robust to a variety of specification checks."

See conclusion discussion beginning page 26.

Adam Smith had a related thought in Wealth of Nations . . .

"While a man [of low condition] remains in a country village his conduct may be attended to, and he may be obliged to attend to it himself. In this situation, and in this situation only, he may have what is called a character to lose. But as soon as he comes to a great city, he is sunk in obscurity and darkness. His conduct is observed and attended to by nobody, and he is therefore likely to neglect it himself, and to abandon himself to every low profligacy and vice."

Country village = high "density"; Great city = low "density".

Anonymous said...

This isn't necessarily a contradiction. Robert Putnam's new study finds that diversity is a cause of social stress rather than social health, so being alike in any way - religious or otherwise - may be good for us, at least superficially.

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