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Religious Belief & Societal Health
New Study Reveals that Religion
Does Not Lead to a Healthier Society
by Matthew Provonsha
It is commonly held that religion makes people more just, compassionate, and moral, but a new study suggests that the data belie that assumption. In fact, at first glance it would seem, religion has the opposite effect. The extensive study, “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religi-osity and Secularism in the Prosperous Demo-cracies,” published in the Journal of Religion and Society (moses.creighton.edu...) examines statistics from eighteen of the most developed democratic nations. It reveals clear correlations between various indicators of social strife and religiosity, showing that whether religion causes social strife or not, it certainly does not prevent it.
The author of the study, Gregory S. Paul, writes that it is a “first, brief look at an important subject that has been almost entirely neglected by social scientists … not an attempt to present a definitive study that establishes cause versus effect between religiosity, secularism and societal health.” However, the study does show a direct correlation between religiosity and dysfunctionality, which if nothing else, disproves the widespread belief that religiosity is beneficial, that secularism is detrimental, and that widespread acceptance of evolution is harmful.
Paul begins by explaining how far his findings diverge from common assumptions. He even quotes Benjamin Franklin and Dostoevsky to show how old these common-misconceptions are. Dostoevsky wrote, “if God does not exist, then everything is permissible.” Benjamin Franklin noted, “religion will be a powerful regulator of our actions, give us peace and tranquility within our minds, and render us benevolent, useful and beneficial to others.”
To this day, the belief that religiosity is socially beneficial is widespread in America, especially amongst politicians, as Paul notes: “The current [at that time] House majority leader T. DeLay contends that high crime rates and tragedies like the Columbine assault will continue as long schools teach children ‘that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized [sic] out of some primordial soup of mud.’” But this view is not exclusively Republican, Paul explains, or even conservative: “presidential candidate Al Gore supported teaching both creationism and evolution, his running mate Joe Lieberman asserted that belief in a creator is instrumental to ‘secure the moral future of our nation, and raise the quality of life for all our people,’ and presidential candidate John Kerry emphasized his religious values in the latter part of his campaign.” Surveys show that many Americans agree “their church-going nation is an exceptional, God blessed, ‘shining city on the hill’ that stands as an impressive example for an increasingly skeptical world. ”This assumption flies in the face of the actual statistical evidence that Paul examined.
The study focuses on the prosperous democracies, because “levels of religious and nonreligious belief and practice, and indicators of societal health and dysfunction, have been most extensively and reliably surveyed” in them. Also, “The cultural and economic similarity of the developed democracies minimizes the variability of factors outside those being examined.” With a database of 800 million people, this study is far more reliable than results based on smaller sample sizes used in other such studies. The data are also current and extensive, collected in the middle and latter half of the 1990s and early 2000s from the International Social Survey Programme, the UN Development Programme, the World Health Organization, Gallup, and other well-documented sources.
For this study’s purpose, “dysfunctionality” is defined by such indicators of poor societal health as homicide, suicide, low life expectancy, STD infection, abortion, early pregnancy, and high childhood mortality (under five-years old). Religiosity is measured by biblical literalism, frequency of prayer and service attendance, as well as absolute belief in a creator in terms of ardency, conservatism, and activities.
Paul’s results are presented in nine charts. The first compares acceptance of evolution with various indicators of religiosity. From this Paul concludes that, “The absence of exceptions to the negative correlation between absolute belief in a creator and acceptance of evolution, plus the lack of a significant religious revival in any developed democracy where evolution is popular, cast doubt on the thesis that societies can combine high rates of both religiosity and agreement with evolutionary science. Such an amalgamation may not be practical.” He adds: “When deciding between supernatural and natural causes is a matter of opinion large numbers are likely to opt for the latter,” and that, “Conversely, evolution will probably not enjoy strong majority support in the U.S. until religiosity declines markedly.”
All of the subsequent results that compare religiosity against dysfunctionality show a basic correlation between the two, though anomalies exist. Paul’s second figure (Figures 1 and 2 here) shows a positive correlation between religiosity and homicide rates.
Figure 1 and 2
The United States is a strong exception, experiencing far higher rates of homicide than even (strongly theistic) Portugal, while Portugal itself is beset by much more homicide than the secular developed democracies. Hardly a “shining city on a hill” to the rest of the world, Paul writes that, “The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is exceptional, but not in the manner Franklin predicted. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly.” This deviates immensely from what most Americans consider to be common wisdom: that religion is beneficial. “But in the other developed democracies religiosity continues to decline precipitously and avowed atheists often win high office, even as clergies warn about adverse societal consequences if a revival of creator belief does not occur.”
Despite the best efforts of “pro-life” Americans, abortion rates are much higher in our Christian nation, and lowest in relatively secular ones such as Japan, France, and the Scandinavian countries (Figures 3 and 4). 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 (Figures 5 and 6). This would seem to indicate that there is a positive correlation between religiosity and dysfunctionality, but what does that mean?
Figure 5 and 6
The question is one of causation, and there is no clear answer. Whether religion leads directly to dysfunctionality, or religions merely flourish in dysfunctional societies, neither conclusion from this study flatters religion. The first tells us that religion is a hindrance to the development of moral character, and the second that religion hinders progress by distracting us from our troubles (with imaginary solutions to real problems). This study is complicated enough that I do not think that we can draw definitive negative conclusions about religion. But we can at least conclude, contrary to popular belief in this country, that it is not a given that religious societies are better, healthier, or more moral. What we can be clear about from this study is that highly religious societies can be dysfunctional, whereas by comparison secular societies in which evolution is largely accepted display real social cohesion and societal well-being. As is always the case in science, more data and additional research will help clarify our conclusions.
The Health Benefits of Faith:
In a study comparing the associations between faith and health, a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center physician has shown the improvements in life expectancy of those who attend religious services on a weekly basis to be comparable to those who participate in regular physical exercise! Dr. Daniel Hall compared the impact of regular exercise, statin therapy and religious attendance, and showed that each accounts for an additional two-to-five years of life. "This is not to say that religious attendance should replace primary prevention such as exercise, or a proven drug therapy, such as statin therapy, but it does suggest that regular religious attendance is associated with a substantially longer life expectancy, and this warrants further research," cautions Dr. Hall.
Humanism always fails to deliver said goal... only tragedy.
Morality is never relative.
eah, keep on laughing there, big guy. In your haste though, you neglected to notice that Skeptic Magazine was quoting a 3rd party study published in the Journal of Religion and Society. Not so funny now, is it? Well, maybe for me it is.
Hmmm...Humanism always fails huh? I hope you can back that up, otherwise you're just spewing crap. Do you even know what Humanism is for you to say that?
Guess what?!...Wrong again. Morals are developed by society. They're not just somehow discovered one day, they are created and learned throughout time with many different factors.
Uhh read much? You printed an article from skeptic magazine which is only about a study in the Journal of Religion in Society.
Everyone but you seems to already know that humanism as political body = communism. The track records speak for themselves bigbert.
Guess what?!...Wrong again.
I've already thoroughly trounced you on this topic here
Whammy, quit doing this to yourself. You're really tarnishing your name here. Go back and read the thread. You'll see that I didn't debate the crap you spewed because I started anticipating a debate. I could of course go back and set you straight there, as I took notes on the BS you were telling Soul Slayer there for the debate, but then I'd have 3 threads I would need to reply to you on, instead of just the standard 2.
P.S. Morals are RELATIVE. That's why there's different cultures in the world. Humanism holds that there are several different solutions, and the fact that there's various cultures only goes to back that theory up.