Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

The Health of Nations: An Empirical Study on the Effects of Religion and Economic Policy

Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

The Health of Nations: An Empirical Study on the Effects of Religion and Economic Policy

Article excerpt

AFTER THE 1989 FALL OF THE BERLIN WALL AND THE 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, many Americans saw the Cold War victory by the most religious and libertarian nation in the free world as evidence of the superiority of individual liberty and the Christian religion over the atheistic socialism exemplified by the USSR. But the competitive test between the extremes is long over. A culture war is now being waged within the United States on two fronts: religion and economics. The capitalist/socialist economic blend that leans leftward in most prosperous nations (particularly Europe) is tilted distinctly rightward in the United States toward more libertarian capitalism. The U.S. is also the most theistic and anti-evolution of the advanced democracies, with a majority of Americans believing that religion is the vital foundation for societal success, and atheists the target of discriminatory attitudes. (1)

The various elements of this American culture war claim, often fervently, that their worldview produces the best societal results. One popular conservative talk radio host, for example, calls America "the greatest nation on God's green earth," while others proclaim that America is #1 in the world. The premises and promises of the contending viewpoints can be appealing. Liberty is a noble principle, and the libertarian socioeconomic hypothesis proffers that maximizing individual liberty by keeping government to a minimum allows each person to obtain the best results for themselves, which in turn produces maximal possible societal conditions, thereby creating the highest morality. Theism posits that a transcendent creator possesses perfect wisdom and morality and is the sole reliable source of the unconditional principles people must follow in order to enjoy successful lives and societies. The allure of these worldviews helps explain why many believe that the solution to the problems of America and the rest of the world are more religion and/or more libertarian policies. If compelling evidence for an ideal Creator really exists, and social science shows that the most religious countries enjoy the best social outcomes, then theism would be the logical choice. The same would be true of maximizing private liberty if analyses verified its efficacy.

Despite all the claims and counterclaims, there has been remarkably little effort to use sound scientific methodology and social science research to test the contending assertions. Most of the attempts to justify a given position are based on limited and selective data sets, a form of confirmation bias that reinforces rather than tests the prior convictions of the proponents of these various positions. (2) No one has produced a comprehensive comparison of socioeconomic conditions between nations of varying religious, social and economic practices to see which systems actually work better, and why. As obvious as the need is, even the United Nations has produced only the Inequality Adjusted Human Development Report that uses just four core factors. Nor have any theo-conservative think tanks produced studies that show that the most successful democracies are the most religious. Libertarianism claims to be based on rational analysis, yet the well-funded movement has failed to produce the science showing that the more liberal egalitarian (progressive) democracies are being outperformed by the more libertarian ones. Atheism likewise claims to be rational, but it too has failed to support its belief that atheistic societies are superior to theistic societies. Same for progressives. As a result, the competing claims have all been unsubstantiated beliefs.

In order to fill the yawning data and analysis gap, I published an initial test of competing socioeconomic systems and their corresponding levels of religiosity in the Journal of Religion and Society. This was followed up with more extensive data sets and statistical analysis in the online journal Evolutionary Psychology. …

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