On his eponymous website, Robin Ince—comedian, writer, and co-host of the popular “The Infinite Monkey Cage”—has a nice piece on “Do we need religion to be a decent society“? He’s an atheist, so of course the answer is “no!”. The post is actually Ince’s notes for a debate he had two days ago:
On Saturday, I took part in an Intelligence Squared debate at Wilderness festival. The debate was “The world needs religion, just leave God out of it”. For the motion were Selina O Grady and Douglas Murray, against, Peter Atkins and Myself.
I am glad to say we won.
I won’t summarize Ince’s points in detail, but was pleased to see that he agrees with me on two points. The first is that religious societies aren’t the most functional ones, despite the frequent claim that religion brings societal health:
…why does the USA have murder rates five times worse than Japan and Sweden (the Republic of Ireland is only about 40% worse) , incarceration almost 10 times worse than Sweden, a higher suicide rate amongst the young (and as Al Alvarez wrote in his study of suicides, The Savage God, the more religious the nation is the less likely it is to declare suicide as cause of death), The US has Twice the mortality amongst under fives than Japan and Sweden, Rep of Ireland is slightly less than USA on under 5 mortality, and let us not forget the statistics on sexual disease and abortion, number one for gonorrhea, number one for syphilis and number one for abortion, and we are not talking by a little bit, we are talking 40 to 50 times more than Japan and Sweden. Thank goodness the USA has religion, or imagine what state it would be?
If religion has lauded powers of altruism, empathy and community, surely the most religious nation on the rich nation list should not be so low on the successful qualities of life scale?
In fact, as sociologists have demonstrated, there’s a strong negative correlation between societal health and religiosity. Now this is a correlation, not a demonstration of causation, but other studies suggest that it is causal in this way: when people get more disenfranchised and poorer, when income inequality rises and free medical care declines, when incarceration and venereal disease increase, and so on, societies become more religious. And that increase in religiosity follows in time the decrease in societal health, suggesting the direction of causality.
Second, and also like me, Ince sees social reform as the solution to religion:
Before we go running to the advertising agency and ask them to brainstorm this godless religion of delight and get it up on the billboards, we should look at where so much of societies problems may come from, and that seems to be inequality far more than lack of dogma, tribalism or religion.
While Sweden and Japan and are amongst the four nations with lowest income inequality, the USA is the highest. Sweden and Japan are the lowest on the health and social problems list , while the USA is, by some long way, the highest. This is true on child well-being too. Religion sounds like a nice thing for a nice society, but the evidence is just not there. Values can exist without religion as their anchor.
Religion is a much easier answer than the politically and economically difficult issue of creating a more equal society.
Ince ends this way—precisely the way I finish many of my talks on the problem of religion and how to dispel it:
Religion may have once been the opium of the masses, but can’t we build a better world where the opiates and illusions are not required at all.
On that issue Marx had it right. I’d like to see somebody make a tee-shirt that said, “No, religion is not here to stay.”
h/t: several readers who pointed Ince’s piece out to me.