I once attended a conference in Botswana where there was much discussion on the problem of corruption in Africa. One speaker caused a debate by declaring that Africa could solve corruption by adopting a moral foundation based on religion. Religion will improve society, was her message.
But is this true? In part 1 of this series, I argued that, in South Africa at least, the inclusion of the Christian God in the apartheid constitution did not guarantee moral governance or a prosperous nation. In this article, I will take a broader look at the ‘sick society’ hypothesis that some Christians advocate. If religion really improves a country’s well-being, and secular humanism causes harm, then we would expect to see a positive correlation between religion and societal health in various countries. Unfortunately for the ‘sick society’ advocates, the statistics don’t seem to be that conclusive.
Consider the following indicators of societal health:
- Infant mortality rate;
- Poverty rate;
- Murder rate;
- Literacy rate;
- AIDS/HIV infection; and
- Gender equality.
Phil Zuckerman, in this article from Free Inquiry, explores these indicators and finds that secular nations are generally better off than religious ones. In fact, the top ten scoring nations in the United Nations Human Development Index (a general score of societal health) include countries such as Norway, Sweden and Australia, which have high proportions of atheists. Not only do secular nations fair well in terms of all these indicators, they also rank as the least corrupt countries in the world, as well as the most happiest.
Consider Norway. Although Norway doesn’t have a clear boundary between church and state, it is the country with the largest humanistic organization in proportion to its population. According to the Global Peace Index it is the most peaceful country, and it has the third largest GDP per capita in the world. Norway is full of non-believers, but it seems to be prospering.
However, before secular humanists begin to celebrate, there are two things to consider. First, one statistic is not so rosy: non-religious nations generally have higher suicide rates than religious nations. Secondly, Zuckerman wisely alludes to what is probably the most important adage in statistics: correlation doesn’t imply causation. The fact that religious nations generally score poorly doesn’t prove that religion is the cause of poor societal health. Without further research, it is also premature to confidently conclude from these few figures that secular humanism causes healthy societies. There might be other unknown or known factors at play that determine societal health, such as politics, economics and history.
But it seems, from these few indicators, that religion doesn't play much of a role at all. A nation-wide belief in God doesn't seem to be an important prerequisite for a healthy or prosperous nation.Part 3: Idealising the past