Religious Dysfunction

Religious Dysfunction

According to one sociologist, countries that have abandoned religion by choice are among the most stable, peaceful, free, wealthy, and healthy.

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The source: “Is Faith Good for Us?” by Phil Zuckerman, in Free Inquiry, Aug.–Sept. 2006.

When Jerry Falwell blamed the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Americans’ lack of piety, he spoke for many religious conservatives who believe that the failure to place God at the center of national life is responsible for crime, poverty, disease, and ­warfare.

To the contrary, Phil Zuckerman, an associate professor of sociology at Pitzer College, writes that “the most secular ­countries—­those with the highest proportion of atheists and ­agnostics—­are among the most stable, peaceful, free, wealthy, and healthy societies.” The presence of atheists and agnostics doesn’t cause a country to be better off, he says, nor does the presence of religiosity plunge a nation into chaos. The ­well-­being of a nation is caused by political, historical, economic, and sociological factors quite separate from religious ­beliefs.

Even so, the top five nations on the United Nations’ Human Development Index—­Norway, Sweden, Australia, Canada, and the ­Nether­lands—­are all in the top 25 in proportion of nonbelievers. Between 64 and 85 percent of Swedes and 19 to 30 percent of Canadians say there is no God. The other countries are in between. The bottom 50 countries on the human development index lack statistically significant levels of ­atheism.

Zuckerman does not count the countries, such as North Korea and Vietnam, where atheism has been imposed. But nations where citizens have abandoned religion by choice tend to fare well on measures of ­well-­being such as life expectancy, literacy, income, and education, while highly religious states do ­poorly.

Less religious countries have the lowest infant mortality rates in the world, religious countries the highest. Among the 40 poorest countries in the world, all but ­one—­Viet­nam—­are deemed religious. Two separate studies of ­non-­African countries show that most nations with the highest rates of homicide are religious, while those with the lowest rates are generally ­not.

The exception to the trend is suicide; people who are religiously observant tend to be less likely to kill themselves than ­others.

“Belief in God may provide comfort to the individual believer, but, at the societal level, its results do not compare at all favorably with [those] of the more secular soci­eties,” Zuckerman ­writes.

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