Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Does religion improve a nation’s well-being? (Part 2)

A global view

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

12 comments:

CyberKitten said...

KP said: one statistic is not so rosy: non-religious nations generally have higher suicide rates than religious nations.

I remember studying this in college. In religious countries that hold suicide to be a sin such deaths are often recorded as something else to spare the families of the deceased. In secular countries this problem does not exist to the same extent - so that could be one factor for explaining the difference.

Curtis said...

Interesting post. I was wondering, part way through, if you would acknowledge that correlation does not mean cause. It would be interesting to see further studies that look at the deeper causes regarding religion and the overall value of life in a country.

Glugster said...

A person can have a moral lifestyle without practising religion. I don't know why religous people think that morals are the sole property of their respective religions. I do not have to believe in God, to know that rape, murder, etc. is wrong.

Glugster said...

"Secularism is a religion, a religion that is understood. It has no mysteries, no mumblings, no priests, no ceremonies, no falsehoods, no miracles, and no persecutions."

Robert G. Ingersoll [1833-1899] Well known post civil war American political speechmaker and Secular-Humanist.

Glugster said...

"Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private schools, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and the state forever separated."

Ulysses S. Grant [1822 – 1885] A graduate from West Point, Commanding General of the Northern Army in the Civil War and US President.

OK, I'll shut up now.

Glugster said...

OK, last one, I promise:

"atheism leads a man to sense, to philosophy, to natural piety, to laws, to reputation: all of which may be guides to an outward moral virtue..."

Francis Bacon, Sir [1561-1626] was an English philosopher, statesman and essayist but is best known for leading the scientific revolution with his new 'observation and experimentation' theory which is the way science has been conducted ever since.

By the way; Great blog!

Lorena said...

"First, one statistic is not so rosy: non-religious nations generally have higher suicide rates than religious nations."

Yes, I heard that when I was in grade 7 at my Christian school. They said the rate of suicide in Sweden was very high. I never forgot that, and I attributed the problem to the Swed's lack of faith.

Now that I am a "hidden", I realize that religion provides a very strong social network--one that the secular world hasn't been able to replicate even minimally.

I guess society at large hasn't evolved enough to replace the social structure that throughout history was given by religion. So, we find ourselves without a place to go regularly to meet our friends.

On top of that, we have computers and satellite TV to keep us happy at home. Going out and meeting others is a huge effort. When things are going well, it is fine and dandy. The problem is that when things are going wrong, we have no-one to talk to about our problems.

Secularism is not the problem, the lack social interaction is.

Lui said...

I don't know if you've seen the series of lectures from the Atheist Alliance International that was held recently in the US. One of the speakers, the screenwriter and author Matthew Chapman, said something that I think is very relevant. He spoke of the high levels of faith in the US among the general populace, and linked this with the level of poverty, lack of job security, and lack of adequate health care coverage. When people have to worry all the time about their next pay cheque, they need something else to turn to. In a nation like Norway, these services are more robust and there is a more equitable distribution of wealth, less poverty, and more job security. People aren't thinking about being throw onto the street if they get sick; they have more peace of mind in these respects. So it isn't so much that religion causes social problems (though it undoubtedly does in many cases, but for the sake of argument, let's assume that it doesn't at all) as it is that the social conditions bred by brutal economic policies and massive inequality drives people to look for something that makes their lives bearable. Without addressing these core issues, America will remain deeply religious. And of course, what causes people to turn to God is often what causes them to turn to crime. It is perhaps there where religion takes on a truly sinister dimension, as it promises a prosperous afterlife in return for eschewing rationality. Mix that with poverty, and it’s never a good combination.

Damned_Nation said...

I don’t know why we shy away from God and i don’t know why we seem to think that we can live life without him. I have been doing just that for the last six years. I completely denied the very existence of God. I would throw everything science has at Christians. I would mock and belittle them to the point of humiliation. My point is that when my life was getting to much for me and all i could think of as a solution was to end it, i turned to God as a last resort. I'm so glad that i did not slit my wrists that day. He is real and he loves all of us. He has given me a second chance at life. And the spiritual warfare is just beginning. I found this blog because i was searching for similar cases like mine. Last night i woke to a group of dark figures in my room. This is the second time in a week that i have seen demons in room. They don't want to let me go. And they have the same hold on me that they have on you. Whatever you feel that God has done to let you down, i promise you everyone has felt it. The difference being in how much faith you have. I let go of my faith six years ago and i can tell you now that path is a dark and lonely road. I'm not trying to sound self righteous here and telling you that you are wrong, because that is not what I’m trying to do here. God WILL find a way back into your life. I just pray for your sake it's not too late.

rodolfo said...

Damned_nation,

You wrote:
Last night i woke to a group of dark figures in my room. This is the second time in a week that i have seen demons in room. They don't want to let me go

You're hallucinating. This is a symptom of some type of mental disorder that you may or may not be aware of. I advise you to seek help immediately. It is nothing to be ashamed of. 1% of the world's population suffers from this. Get help before it's too late. Seriously!

Lui said...

"And they have the same hold on me that they have on you."

Please don't presume that you can simply extrapolate from your experiences and apply them to others.

"I'm not trying to sound self righteous here and telling you that you are wrong, because that is not what I’m trying to do here."

If you say so.

"God WILL find a way back into your life. I just pray for your sake it's not too late."

Yes, God often does find a way into our lives: via screaming evangelists, interference in science education, faith-based terrorism and governors who can't do their jobs and instead call on their citizens to pray for rain. The nice thing would be to get God OUT of our lives, once and for all.

Korolev said...

I appreciate your thoughts on the matter - again because they are similar to mine. I'm grateful that although you are an atheist (like me), you don't call all religious people idiots - you're very level-headed, and it's nice to know that people like that exist in the world.

I myself sometimes fly off the handle at religious people - some even in my own family, and I'm not proud of doing that. Thanks for reminding me that you can respect a person even if they do not share the same opinion.

Live long