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field of yellow flowersStudies have compared believers and atheists on lots of issues—compassion, mental health, happiness, intelligence, quality of marriages, and even antidepressant consumption. I have little interest in the game where the Christian and atheist each present studies to show how their group is superior in this or that social category. My interest lies more in which worldview is more accurate.

Nevertheless, we often hear that Christianity leads to a better society—or, perhaps more often, that the loss of Christianity leads to a worse society. In this scenario, God is furious about our acceptance of homosexuals or abortion or whatever, so he allows the 9/11 attack or Hurricane Katrina or the latest school shootings.

But this is a claim that we can test.

Researcher Gregory Paul used public records of social metrics such as suicide, lifespan, divorce, alcohol consumption, and life satisfaction to compare 17 Western countries (the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Canada, and 12 European countries). He concluded:

Of the 25 socioeconomic and environmental indicators, the most theistic and procreationist western nation, the U.S., scores the worst in 14 and by a very large margin in 8, very poorly in 2, average in 4, well or very well in 4, and the best in 1. . . .

Because the U.S. performs so poorly in so many respects, its cumulative score on the [Successful Societies Scale is lowest,] placing it as an outlier so dysfunctional relative to the other advanced democracies that some researchers have described it as “sick.” (p. 416)

The metrics in which the U.S. ranks worst out of the 17 countries are homicides, incarceration, under-5 mortality, gonorrhea, syphilis, abortions, teen births, marriage duration, income inequality, poverty, and hours worked.

But it’s #1 in God belief, prayer, belief in heaven and hell, and in rejection of evolution! That’s not much consolation to the Christian, however, because this study destroys the notion that religious belief is correlated with societal health.

What causes what?

Why do we find this correlation of secularism with social health? And in what direction should a society move to improve social health?

Conditions in America are decent in spite of the strong influence of Christianity, not because of it. From a related article by Gregory Paul and Phil Zuckerman, here are the secrets to making a secular society:

It is to be expected that in 2nd and 3rd world nations where wealth is concentrated among an elite few and the masses are impoverished that the great majority cling to the reassurance of faith.

Nor is it all that surprising that faith has imploded in most of the west. Every single 1st world nation that is irreligious shares a set of distinctive attributes. These include handgun control, anti-corporal punishment and anti-bullying policies, rehabilitative rather than punitive incarceration, intensive sex education that emphasizes condom use, reduced socio-economic disparity via tax and welfare systems combined with comprehensive health care, increased leisure time that can be dedicated to family needs and stress reduction, and so forth.

As a result the great majority enjoy long, safe, comfortable, middle class lives that they can be confident will not be lost due to factors beyond their control. It is hard to lose one’s middle class status in Europe, Canada and so forth, and modern medicine is always accessible regardless of income. Nor do these egalitarian cultures emphasize the attainment of immense wealth and luxury, so most folks are reasonably satisfied with what they have got. Such circumstances dramatically reduces peoples’ need to believe in supernatural forces that protect them from life’s calamities, help them get what they don’t have, or at least make up for them with the ultimate Club Med of heaven.

The U.S. is the anomaly among its peers. Why does its large, educated, comfortable middle class cling to belief in a supernatural creator? Paul and Zuckerman say that it’s because they are insecure: salaries and jobs are under pressure from companies eager to cut costs, health insurance is uncertain, social pressure to keep up with the Jones increases debt, and so on. A single extended illness can bankrupt a family.

They also reject the popular hypothesis that America’s separation of church and state has encouraged a vibrant mix of Christian denominations that have had to fight for market share, making a stronger Christianity. They cite Australia and New Zealand who both have a strong separation of church and state but far less religiosity.

What use is faith?

They conclude that a healthy society eliminates the need for faith.

Every time a nation becomes truly advanced in terms of democratic, egalitarian education and prosperity it loses the faith. It’s guaranteed. That is why perceptive theists are justifiably scared. In practical terms their only . . . hope is for nations to continue to suffer from socio-economic disparity, poverty and maleducation. That strategy is, of course, neither credible nor desirable. And that is why the secular community should be more encouraged. . . .

The religious industry simply lacks a reliable stratagem for defeating disbelief in the 21st century.

So perhaps many of us have it backwards. This is not a contest between religion and secularism that will determine the quality of society. Rather, the quality of society will determine whether religion or secularism will thrive. In a dysfunctional society, religion helps pick up the pieces, but in a society where life is secure, religion is unnecessary and withers away.

Do you want a religious society or a healthy one? You can’t have both.

Incredibly, I’m sure many American Christian leaders would happily choose a religious society over a healthy one.

Celebrate life: live better, help often, wonder more.
— Motto of the Sunday Assembly

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 1/6/14.)

Image credit: Peter Mooney, flickr, CC

CROSS EXAMINED In his first career, Bob Seidensticker designed digital hardware and was a contributor to 14 software patents. Since then, he has explored the debate between Christianity and atheism for...

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