P.Z. Myers, at Pharyngula, points us to a very well-done study by Gregory S. Paul, in Creighton University’s Journal of Religion & Society, that examines the correlation between popular religiosity in a culture, belief in evolution, and a wide range of social dysfunctions, including homicide, teenage abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, and juvenile-adult mortality.
The data are mainly from a cross-national collaborative study conducted in 1998 that interviewed more than 20,000 people in 17 of the world’s developed and developing democracies. Paul also includes data from Portugal, as an example of a second world European democracy. A society’s level of religiosity was measured by its citizens’ belief in a higher power, their acceptance of a literal interpretation of the Bible, frequency of prayer, and church attendance. Acceptance of evolution was also measured and shows a strong negative correlation, as might be expected, with levels of religiosity.
Not surprisingly, the US scores high on the popular religiosity scale. “Japan, Scandinavia, and France are the most secular nations…[;] the United States is the only prosperous first world nation to retain rates of religiosity otherwise limited to the second and third worlds”.
Also not surprisingly, at least to some of us, the US also scores high on every measure of dysfunction, spectacularly high on some of them, such as murder, teenage abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, and violence by schoolchildren. (Abortion rates, by the way, were only taken into account from those countries in which abortion is at least as legal and accessible as it is in the US.)
That high positive correlation is not an anomaly; it carries across the board.
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 most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is exceptional, but not in the manner [Benjamin] Franklin predicted. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly. The view of the U.S. as a â€œshining city on the hillâ€? to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health. … No democracy is known to have combined strong religiosity and popular denial of evolution with high rates of societal health. Higher rates of non-theism and acceptance of human evolution usually correlate with lower rates of dysfunction, and the least theistic nations are usually the least dysfunctional. None of the strongly secularized, pro-evolution democracies is experiencing high levels of measurable dysfunction….
If the data showed that the U.S. enjoyed higher rates of societal health than the more secular, pro-evolution democracies, then the opinion that popular belief in a creator is strongly beneficial to national cultures would be supported. Although they are by no means utopias, the populations of secular democracies are clearly able to govern themselves and maintain societal cohesion. Indeed, the data examined in this study demonstrates that only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical â€œcultures of lifeâ€? that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion. The least theistic secular developing democracies such as Japan, France, and Scandinavia have been most successful in these regards. The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted. Contradicting these conclusions requires demonstrating a positive link between theism and societal conditions in the first world with a similarly large body of data – a doubtful possibility in view of the observable trends.
There is [also] evidence that within the U.S. strong disparities in religious belief versus acceptance of evolution are correlated with similarly varying rates of societal dysfunction, the strongly theistic, anti-evolution south and mid-west having markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the northeast where societal conditions, secularization, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms
The conclusion is inescapable: religious democracies are more dysfunctional; secular democracies are healthier.
Paul’s paper deals only with correlations, not causes. It’s possible that a highly dysfunctional society drives people to religion. But Paul points out that his analysis of the data demonstrates the need for more research, not only to test his findings, but to start looking into the causal factors underlying the correlation between societal dysfunction and high levels of religious belief.