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.