Those Who Don’t Believe in God Still Can Be Good

By Jeremy Fejfar, November 28, 2010

The case is sometimes made that belief in a god is healthy for a society, that it somehow keeps a population behaving well and not reverting back to behave in a manner more akin to our other primate cousins. Some say that even if there is no god watching over us, it is better to believe that there is for the sake of society. But is this actually the case?

There are many countries with various levels of religiosity, and studies have compared aspects of societal health, peace, violence, etc. For instance, Vision of Humanity (www.visionofhumanity.org) is an organization focused on working towards global peace through a number of initiatives. In 2008, they conducted a survey of 144 countries and allocated them a Global Peace Index score based on 23 indicators derived from political, social, economic, and academic factors. This score ranged from 1 to 5, with 1 being the most peaceful. They then lined the countries up, from 1 to 144 according to the score they received. The results are as follows: For countries with a majority of Muslims (all countries are over 94% Muslim except Nigeria (78%) & Sudan (76%)) :

  • Iraq 144 (3.341)
  • Afghanistan 143 (3.285)
  • Somalia 142 (3.257)
  • Sudan 140 (2.922)
  • Palestine 139 (2.888)
  • Pakistan 137 (2.859)
  • Nigeria 129 (2.602)
  • Yemen 119 (2.363)
  • Saudi Arabia 104 (2.167)
  • Iran 99 (2.104)

For countries with a majority of Christians (all countries are over 94% Christian except Cuba (89%), Brazil (87%), & the USA (72%)):

1. Colombia 130 (2.645)
2. Venezuela 120 (2.381)
3. Honduras 112 (2.265)
4. Guatemala 111 (2.218)
5. Ecuador 109 (2.211)
6. Brazil 85 (2.022)
7. USA 83 (2.015)
8. Ukraine 82 (2.010)
9. Cuba 68 (1.856)
10. Argentina 86 (1.851)

Compare those numbers to the following countries with large atheist populations (percentage following each number is the percent of Atheists in the population):

1. Sweden 6 (1.269) 85%
2. Vietnam 39 (1.664) 81%
3. Denmark 2 (1.217) 80%
4. Norway 2 (1.217) 72%
5. Japan 7 (1.272) 76%
6. Czech Rep 11 (1.328) 61%
7. Finland 9 (1.322) 60%
8. France 30 (1.579) 54%
9. Germany 16 (1.392) 49%
10. Hungary 27 (1.575) 48%

The averages for where the groups fell on the listing was, on a scale from 1 (most peaceful) to 144 (least peaceful), was 129.2 for ‘Muslim countries’, 96.6 for ‘Christian countries’, and 14.9 for ‘atheist countries’, and every one of the atheist countries were more peaceful than the United States.

In the Journal of Law and Economics, a study was published in 2002 looking at the homicide rates in 38 non-African nations. The 10 countries with the highest homicide rates were highly religious, while the 10 countries with the lowest homicide rates were secular nations with high levels of atheism (except for Ireland).

In 2009, another study that examined the differences between religious and secular countries was published in the online journal Evolutionary Psychology. Gregory Paul’s study looked at 25 different measures of social dysfunction, and compared how religious societies fared against secular ones. By now it should come as no surprise that the secular countries faired much better than the religious ones. Here are just some of the aspects where improvement was strongly correlated to a society being more secular: homicide, incarceration, suicide, infection with sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, teenage pregnancy, and the human poverty index.

But is this effect also seen within the United states? A 2008 Gallup survey asked the question, “Is religion an important part of your daily life?” The top ten most religious states (85%-74% answered ‘yes’) were: Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Texas. The top ten least religious states (42%-55% answered ‘yes’) were: Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Rhode Island, Nevada and Connecticut. Crime rate statistics from 2009 ranked the 20 most dangerous states (based on rates of assault, burglary, murder, motor vehicle theft, rape, and robbery). Making the list of the 20 most dangerous states- 9 out of 10 of the most religious states, whereas only 2 of the non-religious states made the list (Nevada and Alaska). North Carolina ranked #1 in the nation for burglary, Louisiana #1 for murder, and South Carolina #1 for assault.

When one looks at prison populations, atheists are dramatically underrepresented when compared to the general population. Surveys show the atheist prison population to be well below 1%. Certainly atheists are not the evil, immoral degenerates that we are often presented to be. In fact, 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences do not believe in a god, yet they continue to advance the frontiers of human understanding and immeasurably improve our lives.

When one looks at the available evidence, it is clear that the correlation between secularism and societal health is strong. But this should not be extended to conclude that religion causes social dysfunction. Correlation does not necessarily equal causation. There could easily be other factors that are causing or contributing to the negative effects that are seen. So while we cannot conclude that religion causes societal harm, what can be said is that a high level of religiosity in these countries and states has not prevented or remedied the societal ailments that are present. Further, the assertion that societies or individuals lacking a belief in a god are more immoral or lawless is soundly refuted.

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