Religious Belief and Societal Health: New Study Reveals That Religion Does Not Lead to a Healthier Society

By Provonsha, Matthew | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Fall 2005 | Go to article overview
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Religious Belief and Societal Health: New Study Reveals That Religion Does Not Lead to a Healthier Society


Provonsha, Matthew, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


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 Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies," published in the Journal of Religion and Society (http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/ 2005-11.html) 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).

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