Society Is Better Off Without Religion: The Supporting Research

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Yesterday, I saw a link on the Richard Dawkins Foundation page for an article called “The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions” written by Gregory Paul for the Evolutionary Psychology journal.  Naturally, I was curious. Not everybody eagerly sits down to read a 30-page academic journal article, but I did. And it was worth it.

This study has the potential to be revolutionary. It certainly underscores the intention behind why I write this blog: to dismantle the privilege religion has over American society. This article is amazingly comprehensive and yet concise in its demolition of religious privilege. Having little concern for arguments over the existence of God, the study focuses on the effects of religiosity in society and implications about the nature of religious belief in humanity. The results are damning for the United States, which is far more religious than any of its fellow 1st-world countries.

It is important to note that this study has vital implications for the fate of our economy, our healthcare system, and our social policies.

If these issues are of any interest to you, I highly recommend reading the full article. (The PDF can be found at the link above; if it is no longer accessible there, please feel free to email me and I can share the file with you that way.) Knowing that many will not take that time, I want to offer a breakdown of what this study found. Below, I’ll parse out the abstract so it’s easier to follow, share some excerpts (with emphasis added for readability), and also share some of the interesting diagrams found in the study.

The Abstract

Here is a point-by-point extrapolation of the study’s abstract to help you understand the implications of the study.

Better understanding the nature, origin and popularity of varying levels of popular religion versus secularism, and their impact upon socioeconomic conditions and vice versa, requires a cross national comparison of the competing factors in populations where opinions are freely chosen. Utilizing 25 indicators, the uniquely extensive Successful Societies Scale reveals that population diversity and immigration correlate weakly with 1st world socioeconomic conditions

There is common belief among United States conservatives that diversity is a weakness and that immigration hurts our economy. Among many other findings, this study offers that population diversity and immigration are “too weak to be primary causes of the divergence in 1st world conditions” (p. 23). In other words, the United States’ low ranking on the Successful Societies Scale, or SSS (which uses “over two dozen indicators to assess and compare societal and economic indicators in the 1st world” [p.3]), cannot be blamed on its diversity or immigration. Read more discussion on this matter on p. 23.

…and high levels of income disparity, popular religiosity as measured by differing levels of beleif and activity, and rejection of evolutionary science correlate strongly negatively with improving conditions.

Take a moment and let that sink in. I’ll paraphrase it, in case that helps. Improving socioeconomic conditions are held back when there is financial inequality, religious privilege, and a denial of evolutionary science. (Needless to say, the United States features interestingly in this study as an outlier.)

The historically unprecedented socioeconomic security that results from low levels of progressive government policies appear to suppress popular religiosity and creationist opinion

So, when progressive government policy helps foster a society where citizens feel safe and comfortable, those citizens are more likely to let go of religion.

conservative religious ideology apparently contributes to societal dysfunction

That’s right. There is a correlation between conservative religious ideology and societal dysfunction.

…and religious prosociality and charity are less effective at improving societal conditions than are secular government programs.

So all those “faith-based initiatives” that President Bush supported (and that President Obama continues to support) tend to actually be less effective than government run programs.  More on this point in the excerpts below.

The antagonistic relationship between better socioeconomic conditions and intense popular faith may prevent the existence of nations that combine the two factors.

The United States is perhaps a telling example of how popular faith has held back socioeconomic development, while many of our peer nations show how their better conditions lead to the abandonment of popular faith. This begs the question of whether our “great nation” can move forward (particularly in this time of economic crisis) if we still “cling to guns and religion” (Obama wasn’t wrong) the way that we do.

The nonuniversality of strong religious devotion, and the ease with [which] large populations abandon serious theism when conditions are sufficiently benign, refute hypotheses that religious belief and practice are the normal, deeply set human mental state, whether they are superficial or natural in nature.

There are many who believe that humans are designed or have evolved to believe in supernatural forces. The results of this study suggest that religion is not something ingrained, but in fact a survival mechanism:

Instead popular religion is usually a superficial and flexible psychological mechanism for coping with the high levels of stress and anxiety produced by sufficiently dysfunctional social and especially economic environments. Popular nontheism is a similarly casual response to superior conditions.

I think that is so revelatory. The evidence shows that religion is a self-dependent spiral. Religion holds back socioeconomic development and weak socioeconomic development helps maintain religion. With that in mind, it’s easy to see why “conservative” and “religious” are interchangeable in American society and politics. Religious groups have to be conservative to maintain their control over society.

I don’t know about you, but I find this all to be extremely validating as an atheist and compelling as a social scientist. (Relating this to “spirituality” in higher education will be a who separate post, I expect.)

Excerpts – Implications for US Policies

I don’t think I could fairly capture everything in this study in a blog post, but there are a few passages I found that I think are worth highlighting. The first I want to share is a paragraph from page 24:

Among the prosperous democracies all but the U.S. have adopted most or all of a set of pragmatic progressive governmental policies that have elevated these nations’ societal efficiency, success and security while reducing personal levels of stress and anxiety. These include reduced socioeconomic disparity and competition via targeted tax and welfare strategies, handgun control, anti-corporal punishment and anti-bullying policies, protection for women in abusive relationships, intensive sex education that emphasizes condom use, rehabilitative incarceration, increased leisure time that can be dedicated to family needs, and perhaps most importantly job security and universal health care that make it difficult for ordinary citizens to suffer catastrophic financial failure. Social ills are correspondingly suppressed. As a member of the 1st world the U.S. is an anomalous outlier not only in its religiosity, but in social economic and political policies as well. Provided with comparatively low levels of government support and protection in favor of less restrained capitalism, members of the middle class are at serious risk of financial and personal ruin if they lose their job or private health insurance; around a million go bankrupt in a year, about half due in part to often overwhelming medical bills. The need to acquire wealth as a protective buffer encourages an intense competitive race to the top, which contributes to income inequality. The latter leaves a large cohort mired in poverty. Levels of societal pathology are correspondingly high. The evidence indicates that the modulation of capitalism via progressive policies is producing superior overall national circumstances compared to the more laissez-faire capitalism favored in the U.S.

As you might expect, the article goes on to draw connections to these patterns with religiosity, not unlike the connections regularly drawn in this blog. But that paragraph alone sums up the United States well, and pretty fairly, I might add. We hold ourselves back. I am often accused by some  of only being passionate about atheism because of LGBT issues. This is really not the case. Look at all those issues listed up there affected by religiosity. Consider how our very quality of life is impacted. While I have a separate passion just for LGBT issues, my antitheism is representative of the greater gamut of implications reflected by this study.

Excerpts – The Ineffectiveness of Faith-Based Initiatives and Anti-Atheist Bigotry

The abstract touched on the notion that religious prosociality is actually less effective than government programming (despite prevalent contrary mythology here in the states). The study goes into more detail about how and why this occurs and the implications here in the U.S. (p. 26-27):

The lack of theistic membership appears to be detrimental in a faith-based culture because religious institutions provide socioeconomic benefits not available outside the association [citations]. Individuals frequently profit from being members of one or more connected groups [citations]; the last two citations show that salutary group activities can be as simple as regular family dinners. Such social “clubs” can be private or governmental, religious or secular – in other words Putman’s “social capital” is more efficacious than “spiritual capital.” This is particularly true in a nation like the United States where government support systems are relatively weak in favor of private alternatives; belonging to religious “clubs” can provide benefits not available to those who are unable (often due to cost) or unwilling to join secular private cooperatives. In the secular democracies people belong to critical support groups, including the health care club, simply by being citizens, boosting overall general societal health to higher levels. Thus theistic Americans tend to be happier than nonreligious citizens, but the populations of secular western nations are about as happy as and healthier than the citizens of more religious America. The means by which citizens of irreligious democracies are coping without the aid of faith-based clubs has received little research attention.

It’s all about access. As the previous excerpt addressed, the idea of unrestrained capitalism and minimal government intervention allows for greater disparities in access. This is only exacerbated by the privilege of membership in the organizations (often religious) responsible for compensating for the lack of governmental support. The control this gives religious groups can, at times, be insurmountable. Nothing exemplifies this control more than the recent Manhattan Declaration, paired with the Catholic Church’s threatening ultimatum to pull out of Washington, DC charity work if same-sex marriage is legalized.

The study goes on to analyze the effects of anti-atheist bigotry (p. 27):

The high level of ill will held and discrimination practiced against nontheists by most Americans [citations] is another potential explanatory factor for their relatively poor status vis-à-vis more religious citizens. If this (also) under researched possibility is correct, then the Christian majority is contributing to the societal difficulties associated with nontheism that Christian advocates offer as evidence of the social inferiority of nontheism. In more secular advanced nations nonbelievers presumably flourish because they are much more numerous, and are more in control of the cultural and political power structures, to the degree that they do not suffer from serious intolerance.

I think that is an absolutely brilliant observation, with many parallels to other social justice precedents. How often has the minority group been blamed for not advocating enough for themselves? We saw it just recently when the census official said, “gay leaders need to keep advocating if they want to be recognized.” You can just see the argument playing out in their heads… We condemn nonbelievers, we don’t want to be condemned, so we’ll continue to condemn nonbelievers. Of course, if they stopped condemning nonbelievers, nonbelievers would not be condemned by anybody. Oh, logic is fun.

Excerpts – Psychological Roots of Religion?

I wanted to provide one more excerpt, this one to expand on the abstract’s claim that religion is a “superficial and flexible psychological mechanism for coping.” Rather than intellectually challenging beliefs directly (a la Dawkins and Hitchens) or examining the brain’s biochemical reactions to “spirituality,” this challenges religious belief and behavior on a broader, more inductive evolutionary scale (p. 27-28):

If deep religious devotion is either genetically programmed to the same extent as language or materialism, or the result of a supernatural connection with an intelligent creator entity, then religious belief and practice should remain similarly universal in all populations regardless of the environmental conditions they dwell in, unless an atheistic authoritarian government suppresses mass religiosity. Instead, the ease and speed with which hundreds of millions of westerners have voluntarily abandoned dedicated piety in recent decades indicates that religiosity is a standard, albeit not unanimous, psychological response to sufficiently dysfunctional environmental circumstances as outlined above, and is superficial enough to be readily abandoned when conditions improve to the required degree. This sociological based conclusion is in accord with, and potentially supported by, the similar inference arrived at by Inzlicht et al. (2009) based on examination of neurological activity associated with religiosity. Equally important to understanding the origin of opinion on religious matters is that popular democratic nonreligiosity is similarly casual and cursory in most nontheists (as observed by Zuckerman, 2008).

In view of the reduced levels of religiosity consistently extant in populations that enjoy secure middle class lives, it can be postulated that if socioeconomic conditions had been similarly benign since humans first appeared it is unlikely that religion would have developed to nearly the degree seen in actual human history, and atheism would have been much more widespread and possibly ubiquitous since the beginning. Materialism and language in contrast would still be omipresent. Ergo, strong religiosity has all the signs of being a natural invention of human minds in response to a defective habitat, and is neither supernatural, nor genetically preprogrammed to the same extent as are more deeply set language and material desire. Because spirituality is a relatively optional attribute more comparable to writing which is not fundamental to the human condition, it is not consistently more difficult for humans to be spiritual than nontheistic (partly contra Boyer, 2008), under certain environmental conditions the opposite can be true.

The article goes on to describe the many ways the mass loss of 1st world theism contradicts potential primary causes of popular religious devotion and offers a explanation of how humans evolved a powerful institution of religion. It is incredibly interesting reading that I encourage you to explore further!

Country-Comparison Diagrams

The study includes many charts comparing the different countries and how they rank in terms of religiosity and their score on the Successful Societies Scale (which considers, among other things, homicides, incarceration, suicides, mortality, life expectancy, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage births and abortions, relationships, drug use, and various aspects of the economy). Consult the full study to see all the various charts.

Below, I’ll close by showing how the charts that compare the prevalence of specific religious populations and practices to the countries’ SSS score. The first image shows the countries represented in the study (the capital letter is how they are represented on the chart). You’ll note that the United States is significantly lower on the SSS scale than all the other countries, and its religiosity reflects that. (Click on the images to make them bigger.)

Concluding Thoughts

I think there is so much to be said about this study. I hope, at the very least, that this post has helped you better understand the content of the study (and hopefully inspired you to read more of it). As I’ve alluded throughout the post, I think this study has profound implications for society, politics, economics, healthcare, and also the further study of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and certainly how we address “spirituality” in student affairs in higher education. I’m sure I’ll be referring back to this study often in future posts.

Doesn’t learning feel great??

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There are 5 Comments to "Society Is Better Off Without Religion: The Supporting Research"

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by JeannetteMarie and Zack Ford, Zack Ford. Zack Ford said: ZackFord Blogs – Society Is Better Off Without Religion: The Supporting Research – – #p2 #atheism Please Retweet! […]

  • ZackFord says:

    There are a lot of folks reading this article this week and I would love to hear from you! I know there is some discussion taking place on reddit, but please feel free to comment here on the post as well! Thanks for your visit to my blog!

  • Treas says:

    I posted an article about the study as a Facebook link and got this reply from a friend:
    “I know that we differ completely on the subject of religion, and while I can see her point in this article, from my point of view I could say that in areas where there is a fundamental religiosity, Satan works harder on those people to turn them away from Christ and therefore we have more abortions and STDs, etc.. There are all kinds of  thoughts we could have about it. Personally though, I choose to go with what works for me. My life is easier and calmer because I believe in God and Jesus Christ. I feel their influence in my life and the covenants that I have made with God have helped me to be a better person. Because of experiences I have had, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that he truly did come to earth and atone for my sins so I (and everyone else) can return to live with God one day. By itself, that doesn’t make my community a better place, though. I don’t know why the statistics show up the way they do in this article, but I DO know what I believe and how I feel”

    She means well… : /

  • ZackFord says:

    Thanks for sharing! Your friend probably doesn’t even realize how her own words confirm the study’s conclusions:

    My life is easier and calmer because I believe in God and Jesus Christ. I feel their influence in my life and the covenants that I have made with God have helped me to be a better person.

    She’s a part of the cycle, which makes it a lot more difficult to see the situation objectively.

    The same thing is happening on another one of my posts from this week. Check out the comment exchange on my article about this week’s creationist webcast.

  • […] Positive references to Paul’s papers: Jerry Coyne, Matthew Provonsha and Zack Ford. […]

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