Study suggests God is bad for society.

The Times Online in the U.K. has an interesting article on a recent study which concludes that the more religious a society is the more social problems it tends to have. In other words, contrary to popular thought, belief in and worship of a God is not only unnecessary for a healthy society, but high levels of such belief may actually be damaging to the society in question. The study compared the social performance of countries with a more secular bent, such as Britain, with the social performance of the United States which tends to be much more religious:

“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.

“The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so.”

Gregory Paul, the author of the study and a social scientist, used data from the International Social Survey Programme, Gallup and other research bodies to reach his conclusions.

He compared social indicators such as murder rates, abortion, suicide and teenage pregnancy.

The study concluded that the US was the world’s only prosperous democracy where murder rates were still high, and that the least devout nations were the least dysfunctional. Mr Paul said that rates of gonorrhea in adolescents in the US were up to 300 times higher than in less devout democratic countries. The US also suffered from “uniquely high” adolescent and adult syphilis infection rates, and adolescent abortion rates, the study suggested.

When you put us up against other countries such as Japan, France, and the Scandinavian countries we look even worse. Granted there are more factors involved in social performance than religious belief, but it still puts the lie to the oft-repeated claim that belief in a moral creator is necessary for a moral society. This doesn’t surprise me at all as one of the basic tenets of Christianity is that get-out-of-jail-free card known as repentance.

It is said there is no sin you can commit which Jesus will not forgive so long as you sincerely repent. Murder someone? Hey, it happens. Rape? No problem. Skinned small children alive, made them into stew, and then fed them to their parents? As long as you admit the error of your ways and honestly ask Jesus for forgiveness then it’s all water under the bridge. That’s pretty big of the guy, but hardly the sort of thing that inspires folks to act in a particularly moral fashion even with the threat of Hell to motivate them. Seriously, when you’re on the verge of death and the prospect that you might go to Hell for some of your actions starts to sink in it’s probably really easy to be sincere in your request for forgiveness. And if your sins aren’t as bad as making small children into stew then it’s pretty easy to rationalize them away at the time your committing them.

In the Baptist church I attended as a child we were taught that if you continued to commit sins throughout your life and relied on repentance later to save your ass then your heavenly reward wouldn’t be as good as it might be if you tried your best to live a sinless life. The idea was that you’d still get into Heaven it just wouldn’t be the really nice part of Heaven, which sounds like a good motivation to be as good as possible until you realize that even the shittiest part of Heaven is still going to be a damn sight better than the nicest part of Hell. For a lot of folks it seems like as long as they think they can get into Heaven despite how they’ve lived their lives then they’re not too concerned with what part of Heaven they manage to make it into. Too many Christians are of the “do as I say not as I do” variety (Pat Robertson is their king) and if they actually behaved in the fashion that Jesus laid out in the Bible then perhaps there wouldn’t be any studies indicating that high religious belief in a society is damaging to its social performance.

It is interesting to me that my own personal experiences seem to jive with what the study has concluded. Some of the most immoral people I know are also some of the most pious and this fact has contributed greatly to my general cynicism of people who wear their religion on their sleeve with great enthusiasm. The biggest warning flag that goes off in my head is when someone starts a sentence with “Jesus spoke to me and told me I should tell you about what he wants.” There’s a lot of people out there that seem to think they know what Jesus wants to tell me and they often seem to contradict each other. This Jesus fellow could put an end to all this nonsense if he just addressed each of us individually and told us to mind our own damned business with regards to what he wants anyone else to do. Oh, wait, that makes sense and eliminates the need for faith. Can’t have that. Silly me.

You can read the full study here: Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies PDF File.

25 thoughts on “Study suggests God is bad for society.

  1. As much as I’m inclined to agree with this study, I suspect the connection between religiosity and social problems is more complex than claimed here.  Imho, another major cause of both social problems and religiosity is too much television.  The tidy moral picture of the world that fits between commercials is the real religion of America.

  2. Did the study take into account religious diversity? Or even social diversity more generally? How much social and religious diversity is there in Japan, France, Scandinavia, etc?

  3. How much religious diversity is there in the U.S. really?
        I recently wathced a documetary on Iran that drew some similar general conclusions.  After the revolution, condoms, sexual education etc. were banned by the revoultionary guards.  The population doubled in a single generation and the social ill’s that acompany rapid growth became apparent.  now many of those same banned things are back because they are good social policy and the extremists in goverment learned their lesson at the cost of the Iranian people. 
      Social policy based on religious fervor makes for bad policy.  Social policy should be based on good social Science not the fairy tales of 2000 years ago. 
      Oops I used the S word.

  4. How much social and religious diversity is there in Japan

    In Japan, about 1% of the population considers itself Christian (the number, though, is growing).  The majority of the rest of the population may be considered Shintoist (79%), Buddhist (81%).  Those numbers add up to well over 100%, so Shinto and Buddhist traditions are often mixed.  There are various sects of Buddhism (not sure about Shintoism).

    When asked what religion a Japanese person is, though, most of them will say non-religious (unless they are Christian).  Shinto and Buddhism has almost become more like a tradition than a faith for many Japanese.

    WONDERFUL country, BTW.  smile

  5. I always wondered if poor social conditions fostered religiosity, or if religiosity begat poor social conditions.  Mostly it seems that poor social conditions creates the perfect breeding ground for fundies, who in turn run their countries to the ground, and then creates even more ardent fundies in a viscious cycle.

  6. Well, as much as I agree with the central thesis (that religiosity is no guarantee of morality), the research presented here isn’t so great. Most of us already know that drawing inferences from correlational studies can be very problematic (My favourite correlational study is an oldie that demonstrates that in certain countries, condom use significantly correlates with the number of appliances in a household). What I’m saying here is that there’s quite possibly a third variable problem that he hasn’t addressed.

    In addition, while the author argues that there are differences between countries on all these variables, he doesn’t demonstrate that any of these differences are statistically significant -and if they aren’t, you can’t assume that the differences mean anything other than statistical noise.

    I also have a problem with the scales on his charts—they look like they truly mean something when they probably don’t. For example, look at the figure that shows life expectancy and religiosity. On this figure, it looks like a big deal to show differences between countries in terms of life expectancy, but there are so many confounding variables, I can’t remotely buy the idea that a mean life expectancy of 78 years compared to 76 years is remotely meaningful in terms of religiosity. To place scales on a figure that make small differences seem large is irresponsible, in my opinion.

    Last (but not least), he’s got no meaningful way to compare religiosity across these countries. Therefore all we have is his word that the countries that are ‘least moral’ are also ‘most religious.’

    I completely buy the idea that belief in human evolution negatively correlates with religiosity, but there’s no surprise there at all. I also agree that there is no scientific reason to believe that the religious are any more moral than anyone else. (In fact, high religiosity does tend to correlate with some troubling personality characteristics such as authoritarianism and low levels of openness to experience)—at least it does in fundamentalist Americans. However, I don’t think bad research is useful to anyone.

  7. It is interesting to me that my own personal experiences seem to jive with what the study has concluded. Some of the most immoral people I know are also some of the most pious and this fact has contributed greatly to my general cynicism of people who wear their religion on their sleeve with great enthusiasm.

    Yeah, but those aren’t real Christians! –
    That’s the answer, always, and it leads me to wonder if a true Christian could ever exist.

    We’re all just rotten peaches:

    Rotten peaches rotting in the sun
    Seems I’ve seen that devil fruit since the world begun
    Mercy I’m a criminal, Jesus I’m the one
    Rotten peaches rotting in the sun
    (Bernie Taupin)

    (Sorry, I was listening to Madman Across the Water when I wrote this)

    Doesn’t the Bible say we are all broken?

    Rom 3:10 As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one:
    Rom 3:23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;
    Rom 5:12 Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:

    And still so many feel, even while being born to sin, that they can advise others correctly how to be pious. Step right up little children: It’s the blind leading the blind!

    Hey God! Bruce Springsteen called: He wants his nickname back.

    Man stands in all his glory
    Sitting at the crossroads of the same old story
    Man got his make-up, wears it like a mask
    Hides inside a child, lives inside a glass
    Man breathes his own deceit
    Man worships his own defeat

    Oh I’m a man, I know what it feels like
    I’m a man, working on the living part of life
    You see through me, I understand
    But don’t lose hope if you can
    Have a little faith in man
    (Bernie Taupin)

    (Sorry, I was listening to Made In England when I wrote this.)

    Now Appearing! The Artist Formerly Know As YHWH!

    God’s a celebrity, that’s for sure,
    and he’s late for his opening act
    He’s got the groupies screaming for more
    before he’s even signed the contract
    He’s appearing to prove he’s back.

    He owes it to the people who
    have told him what to sing
    He couldn’t have a comeback tour
    if it wasn’t for you and me.
    It’s because of you and me

    I’ve got a list of his greatest hits:
    True marks of talent revealed
    If it wasn’t for the depressing parts
    I would like to see the film
    And yet I probably will

    I’d be too gory, this wondrous story
    We could never take our kids
    The weeping, the burning, the gnashing of teeth
    And that’s after it’s been edited
    They’d have to take a sedative

    One more night only this artist performs
    So be certain to attend
    It surely will be his best appearance
    Like you’ve died and gone to Heaven
    And for just $99.97
    (Me)

  8. As a quick aside (and a potentially unintentional derailment), if suicide is a sin and repentance can only occur before death, wouldn’t suicide be an unforgiveable sin?

  9. Brock, you are too much!LOL

    if suicide is a sin and repentance can only occur before death, wouldn’t suicide be an unforgiveable sin?

    Well, WyLD, perhaps it would depend on how you do it.  If you were to jump off the Donauturm (a local landmark) and repent on the way down, maybe you’d get a harp and not a shovel.  On the other hand, your death would then be rendered an accident made unavoidable by your airspeed at impact, and not really suicide, supposing your absolution was absolute, wouldn’t it?

  10. no zilch, it wouldnt raspberry

    jumping off a building is not an accident. It also wouldnt be suicide until you had died, so repenting half way down just wouldnt cut it.

    I wonder if it would be possible to repent after death. If it is then hell has got to be pretty empty by now.

  11. Ooo, I just loves me a good debate about the precise boundaries of sin!  But where are all the good Christians who can tell us how it really is?  Until they weigh in, we’re pretty much just whistling in the dark, aren’t we?

    Neil- I didn’t say that jumping off a building is an accident.  Obviously, if you jump off a building with the intention of dying, you’re committing suicide.  But- correct me if I’m wrong, someone- it’s the intention to die, plus the dying (you’re presumably not guilty of suicide if you fail to die- or if someone shoots you on the way down- or are you?), that constitutes the sin of suicide.  If you repent halfway down, then the intention to die is presumably forgiven, and the death that follows an unfortunate accident.  Or is it?  Perhaps God just won’t listen to you if the original intention sets off an inexorable sequence of events.

    For instance: can you be forgiven for a murder before it happens?  If you, say, plant a bomb in a church, set to go off next Monday, but confess on the Sunday before?  And promise to do your darndest to warn the churchgoers beforehand?  Or convert them to atheism, or at least socialism?  Would you be required to telephone the future victims, or would e-mails suffice?

    I’m sure glad I’m not God, having to call all these sheep/goat cases…

    In any case, I’m planning to repent after I die, so I can visit all the interesting folks first, and not leave until it gets too warm.

  12. First off I’m seeing major problems in the figures.  Figure 1 has The United States at about 62% believe in God and 47% believe in evolution.  109%?  Italy has about 50% believe in God and 66% believe in evolution.  116% of the country.  Something’s off.  Theistic evolutionists do you think?

    Figure 2 shows we have about 7 homicides per 100,000 people which is about .006% more than the best countries.  Figure 3 tells us nothing since we rank about the same suicide rate as the most unreligious countries.  Figure 4 shows that there is a 4% difference between us and the best 1st world countries as far as child mortality goes.  80/1000 instead of 40/1000.  I wonder how the rest of the world ranks.  Figure 5 shows a three year difference between us and Japan.  3 years, big deal.  Let’s see the rest of the world.  Figure 6 if you figure the average difference between our 15-19 year olds as far as Gonorrhea infections goes we have about 550 more infections per 100,000 or 0.55% more than the average 1st world country.  There is a .006% difference between us and the others in Figure 7.  We have 1.5% more abortions than the best first world country in that category according to Figure 8.  Finally there is a 4% difference between us and the average number of teen pregnancies according to Figure 9.

    My conclusion is that this study is nothing.  The numbers look drastically different according to the data, but when you figure percent difference we are right next to our first world neighbors all the time.  Pay attention to the percentages; the graphs are misleading.  You can’t attribute such small differences to religiosity.  I could possibly entertain blaming the political strife between the religious and unreligious as a partial cause to these small differences.  We are one of the most religiously polarized nations in the world, especially compared to the Europeans.  I really think if you want conclusive data on this issue the rest of the world needs to be included to provide more perspective.

  13. Theo- is your circle of acquaintances so monolithic that you have never heard of theistic evolutionists?  Many friends of mine would have answered “yes” to God and Evolution, making a sum of over 100%.  Just because you might think the beliefs are mutually exclusive doesn’t necessarily make them so for others.

    And Theo- did you learn dissembling with statistics from Carl Rove?  If you’re dealing with phenomena that don’t happen often, such as homicide and infant mortality, then of course the percent of occurrence will be low, and if you subtract the lowest percent of occurrence from the highest, you end up with a number which is also small.  But this “percent difference” is meaningless.  What’s pertinent is the quotient of the larger and smaller numbers.  Looking at figure 4 this way, for instance, shows us that the United States has twice the infant mortality of Japan, which doesn’t sound quite as reasurring as saying it has only 4% more.  You see, Theo, 8% is twice 4%, not “4% more”, in any meaningful way.

    Same goes for the rest of your “math”.

  14. zilch:
    is your circle of acquaintances so monolithic that you have never heard of theistic evolutionists?

    No, I know several theistic evolutionists.  I guess I was surprised the percentages would be that high considering how much crap that view gets from evolutionists and creationists.

    zilch:
    If you’re dealing with phenomena that don’t happen often, such as homicide and infant mortality, then of course the percent of occurrence will be low, and if you subtract the lowest percent of occurrence from the highest, you end up with a number which is also small.  But this “percent difference

  15. My point was not to skew the fact that in some categories we are doing twice as bad as the best ‘first world’ countries, but to show that without the ‘second’ and ‘third world’ countries we can’t have any perspective on how bad four percent difference really is.  It wouldn’t make much difference if the average third world country has seventy percent more deaths or whatever than the best first world countries.  You can’t compare where the ideal place for a first world country should be statistically if you don’t know what ideally is considered second and third world places.

    Well, Theo, I guess it depends on how “undesirable”  you think infant mortality is.  If the United States has twice (that’s 100% more, not “4%” more) the infant mortality of Japan, I would say, at the very least, there’s room for improvement, regardless of what the rate is in the Third World.  And if you insist upon including the Third World, what about Europe during the Plague?  Those rates would make even Nigeria look good.  Not pertinent.

    What you’re saying is “Hey, so what if only half as many babies die in Japan?  We’ve still got much better rates than Nigeria”.  Hmmm.

  16. zilch I think the rates should be at zero for everyone.  This is unrealistic as most would agree.  It questionable too how much room we have for improvement.  Can we really cut our infant mortality rate in half?  According to this study it would seem to suggest its as simple a matter of everyone becoming an atheist.  This study at best indirectly shows a correlation between religious nations and social problems.  Come on empiricists, is this really direct enough of a correlation for you to think the implied solution is practical?

    If you will be empirical about determining the cause of social problems then at least do it correctly.  Show me exactly how religion kills four more babies in the United States than in Japan every year.  Did the priests do it?  Did Joe Bob’s sermon on how to love your neighbor kill a baby?  Did somebody reading the Bible trying to apply “What would Jesus do?” force the baby to die?  Did the Islamic guy praying the third time a few degrees from directly at Mecca cause a baby to die?  Did the Native American doing a ceremonial dance around a bonfire kill someone’s child?  How does the “delusion” of religion do anything real to significantly raise such a statistic?  This study isn’t empirical.  It’s a joke.

  17. snake  snake  snake i hate god i think the so fact that we are force to belive in a god. is insane there is no god u cant see the dam thing and it wont respond back. i used to belive in god but i depended to much on him that when i really needed him he turned his back on me. now i dont belive in satan either and i dont belive in evolution i just dont belive in anything not humanly posible…….

  18. Hello,

    I am a liberal evangelical Christian.  There you have it.  Now, to the data.

    What else besides religiosity is different between the U.S. and Europe/Japan that could affect birthrate, disease rate etc.?  Loads of things.

    1.  Immigration from the third world.  Guess what, we’ve got loads more than any of the other countries stated.  We have people coming here every month that can’t tell between a sink and a toilet because they come from a village in the mountains of Laos.  We also have the worst illegal immigration problem in the 1st world.  Is there anyone here who wouldn’t argue that third world immigration contributes heavily to these figures, or at least a heck of a lot more than a fundamentalist christian would.

    2.  By the way, they do teach sex education here.  Yes, it has a lot of abstinance mumbo-jumbo, but they still teach the normal stuff like the rest of the world.  At least in Minnesota they do (northern mid-west Bible belt).

    3.  Our country is way bigger than any of the others mentioned.  We have a far more economically diverse population, a factor that greatly contributes to negative numbers in the stated categories.  Hello, Italy, we’d like your government to administer all of western Europe.  Oh, and you’re going to get double the amount of land with a whole bunch of rich people in huge cities along with Hillbillies who have never seen a computer and can’t read.  Oh, and the hillbillies will be tough to get services to, nor will they know that they want them.  Now, compare us with other countries with similar land/population situations.  Canada and Australia might be comparable, and the next ones are Russia, China, and India, which aren’t comparable at all (too many people) Maybe Brazil or Argentina could be compared, but certainly NOT Europe.  Europe has no idea what it’s like to run a country this size effectively in the modern world.  I would say we’re doing pretty darn good considering.

    4.  Guess what:  In fifty years, Britain, France, Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and Japan will be in a lot of trouble, and the U.S. won’t.  Why?  It’s called birthrate.  That’s right, birthrate is a leading indicator for economic success and political stability.  In a welfare state, you have to have constant population growth in order to fund peoples’ pensions.  When, like in Western Europe, the birthrate drops, you either immigrate tons of people or your pensions dry up, governments go broke, and chaos ensues.  So, you’ve got to immigrate a lot of people.  From what I’ve been hearing, Europeans have been pretty bad at it and the Japanese simply refuse to do it.  Now, in America, our birthrate is good.  Guess where else it’s good:  Religious nations.  The only places it’s bad is in the least religious nations:  Russia, Italy, Britain, France, Germany, to name a few.  Religious people tend to want to pass their view of God to the next generation.  The best way to do that is to have children.  So, you get higher birthrates.  In areligious societies, the focus becomes what’s best for me now, and since children are needy and annoying, they just don’t happen.  And then the society shrivels up and dies.  Ask Germany about their paying people to have children program.  Not working very well, is it?  Now, America has it’s problems and we’re about to get bitch-slapped over this war and fundamentalism is an issue, but if I had to choose America or Europe for the next 100 years, I would be an idiot to choose Europe.

    P.S.  In response to the ‘free ticket’ bit in the original story, since we don’t know when we’re gonna die, isn’t it a pretty stupid idea to wait.  And also, anyone who overly systematizes Christianity like that is reading stuff into the Bible.  Read Paul and the one thing that he is consistent about is that we preach Christ Crucified and that because our sins are forgiven we have been given new life and ought to live that life out in a Christ-like fashion, treating the planet and others with respect, and following the Will of the Triune God to the best of our abilities.  Any God worth his salt ought to be a little mysterious and NOT fit into a nice little box.  You know a good Christian when they say they know God very well but admit that He is at the same time quite beyond their understanding, since if we could understand Him, wouldn’t that make us Gods ourselves (a horrific thought, read Nietzche, and a history of the 20th century.  What a smart existentialist he was.)

  19. Anglophile,

    I like to read the primary sources.  There you have it.  Now, to the data:

    The original article titled Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies is found here (pdf).

    I haven’t re-read the article in depth, but my recollection is that the author pointed out correlation and left the issue of causation open to debate. Quoting the conclusions:

    The United States’ deep social problems are all the more disturbing because the nation enjoys exceptional per capita wealth among the major western nations (Barro and McCleary; Kasman; PEW; UN Development Programme, 2000, 2004). Spending on health care is much higher as a portion of the GDP and per capita, by a factor of a third to two or more, than in any other developed democracy (UN Development Programme, 2000, 2004). The U.S. is therefore the least efficient western nation in terms of converting wealth into cultural and physical health. Understanding the reasons for this failure is urgent, and doing so requires considering the degree to which cause versus effect is responsible for the observed correlations between social conditions and religiosity versus secularism. It is therefore hoped that this initial look at a subject of pressing importance will inspire more extensive research on the subject. Pressing questions include the reasons, whether theistic or non-theistic, that the exceptionally wealthy U.S. is so inefficient that it is experiencing a much higher degree of societal distress than are less religious, less wealthy prosperous democracies. Conversely, how do the latter achieve superior societal health while having little in the way of the religious values or institutions? There is evidence that within the U.S. strong disparities in religious belief versus acceptance of evolution are correlated with similarly varying rates of societal dysfunction, the strongly theistic, anti-evolution south and mid-west having markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the northeast where societal conditions, secularization, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms (Aral and Holmes; Beeghley, Doyle, 2002). It is the responsibility of the research community to address controversial issues and provide the information that the citizens of democracies need to chart their future courses.

    I’m not going to answer at length, but…

    1. Immigration from the third world.

    As far as I know, there is a correlation between a lack of education and deep religiosity. Thus, #1 is not helpful to you.

    2.  By the way, they do teach sex education here.

    Perhaps, but do they teach it well?

    3.  Our country is way bigger than any of the others mentioned.  We have a far more economically diverse population, a factor that greatly contributes to negative numbers in the stated categories.

    The author’s conclusions already answer this: “There is evidence that within the U.S. strong disparities in religious belief versus acceptance of evolution are correlated with similarly varying rates of societal dysfunction, the strongly theistic, anti-evolution south and mid-west having markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the northeast where societal conditions, secularization, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms”. In other words, yes, the U.S. is a large country, but the regional correlation between religiosity and societal problems still holds.

    4.  Guess what:  In fifty years, Britain, France, Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and Japan will be in a lot of trouble, and the U.S. won’t.

    I wouldn’t even presume that the U.S. will still exist in 50 years and if so, if it will bear any resemblance to nation of today, much less the nation of ten years ago. Between global warming, peak oil, and a number of other factors, I wouldn’t make a bet about America’s survival one way or the other. The low birth rate in Europe may just mean fewer mouths to feed with less resources available.

    Regardless, what may happen in 50 years elsewhere does not explain the correlation found here today.

  20. whoever belives in any god is dillusional.

    also people who give speeches on this forum have no life i just want to know the meaning for people thinking religion is bad for the planet.

  21. religion sees a garden that is beautiful and says that there are fairies behind it. this is so unrealistic that it defies not only logic but common sense. all the suicide bombers have a mission statement that like the missionaries tends to be overzealous and fanatical. the normal person keeps his or her religion simple and within the limits of reason. but some of the fundamentalists and zealots simply take a good thing too far. and that is where it of course turns bad. less is more is sound advice for the present decade. if you scratch an ordinary itch that ought to be enough. you don’t have to rub it bloody raw to get rid of the irritation. similarly has the taliban kept their draconian rules down to the 5 pillars and basic ethical practices maybe there wouldn’t have been so much chaos and fear in afghanistan. but no they had to take things to an extreme and thats where things turned topsy turvy.

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