A few weeks ago I mentioned and linked to a PuffHo essay by Nigel Barber, an evolutionary psychologist. His thesis, with which I agree (and for which there’s a lot of evidence that I’ve posted on this website), is that the religiosity of a country is highly correlated with the dysfunctionality of the society; that is, the more dysfunctional a society, the more religious it is.
“Dysfunctionality” has been measured in various ways, including Greg Paul’s “Successful Societies Scale” (SSS), measures of income inequality (the Gini coefficient), and other indices of social-well being, including levels of education and health care, child mortality, and so on. (For one example; see Greg Paul’s paper on religiosity and the SSS.) This correlation also holds within the United States: the states having less “well being” (e.g., those mostly in the South) are more religious.
Based on these data and others (including demonstrations that increases in religiosity in America follow rather than precede or are concurrent with rises in income inequality), a good working hypothesis is that religiosity is higher when the citizens of a country feel more helpless, more dispossessed, and less likely to be taken care of by society. In such circumstances people turn to their only recourse: the supernatural sky father who is said to help them.
If our goal is to eradicate superstition, then, we must first create a society in which people feel more secure, and more equal to their fellows. I’ve long been making this point, as have others, and it’s also one that Michael Shermer emphasized in his talk on Saturday (he wasn’t at mine earlier in the day, so he might be unaware of our agreement about this). But we both stressed the relationship between religiosity and social well-being in our podcast. And we both agree with this statement by Marx, often taken out of context:
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”.
This is a succinct summary of what I see as a profound truth. And I think it’s the explanation for why the U.S. is the most religious of First World nations: data show that although we’re a wealthy and technologically advanced society, we also rank highest on indices of social dysfunction. In contrast, atheistic northern Europe is quite socially functional.
In a new piece at Pyschology Today, Barber has reprised his HuffPo piece in an essay called “Why atheism will replace religion: new evidence.”
It seems that people turn to religion as a salve for the difficulties and uncertainties of their lives. In social democracies, there is less fear and uncertainty about the future because social welfare programs provide a safety net and better health care means that fewer people can expect to die young. People who are less vulnerable to the hostile forces of nature feel more in control of their lives and less in need of religion. Hence my finding of belief in God being higher in countries with a heavy load of infectious diseases.
But the data are even stronger since Barber has done a new study using not just the 17 countries studied by Greg Paul, or sixty used in studies of income inequality, but 137 societies, including important ones omitted in previous work: African countries and Islamic ones. And what he finds is that the negative correlation between societal well being and religion is even stronger:
In a new study to be published in August, I provided compelling evidence that atheism increases along with the quality of life (1). [JAC note: click his link for the abstract; I have the whole pdf and have read the preprint.]
First, as to the distribution of atheism in the world, a clear pattern can be discerned. In sub-Saharan Africa there is almost no atheism (2). Belief in God declines in more developed countries and atheism is concentrated in Europe in countries such as Sweden (64% nonbelievers), Denmark (48%), France (44%) and Germany (42%). In contrast, the incidence of atheism in most sub-Saharan countries is below 1%.
. . . In my new study of 137 countries (1), I also found that atheism increases for countries with a well-developed welfare state (as indexed by high taxation rates). Moreover, countries with a more equal distribution of income had more atheists. My study improved on earlier research by taking account of whether a country is mostly Moslem (where atheism is criminalized) or formerly Communist (where religion was suppressed) and accounted for three-quarters of country differences in atheism.
In addition to being the opium of the people (as Karl Marx contemptuously phrased it), religion may also promote fertility, particularly by promoting marriage. Large families are preferred in agricultural countries as a source of free labor. In developed countries, by contrast, women have exceptionally small families. I found that atheism was lower in countries where a lot of people worked on the land.
His conclusion is one that I think is correct:
Even the psychological functions of religion face stiff competition today. In modern societies, when people experience psychological difficulties they turn to their doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. They want a scientific fix and prefer the real psychotropic medicines dished out by physicians to the metaphorical opiates offered by religion. No wonder that atheism increases along with third-level educational enrollment.
The reasons that churches lose ground in developed countries can be summarized in market terms. First, with better science, and with government safety nets, and smaller families, there is less fear and uncertainty in people’s daily lives and hence less of a market for religion. At the same time many alternative products are being offered, such as psychotropic medicines and electronic entertainment that have fewer strings attached and that do not require slavish conformity to unscientific beliefs.
There is one problem with Barber’s study: while he shows that variables like income inequality and education are all negatively and significantly correlated with religiosity, he tests each variable independently. But of course these “independent” factors aren’t really independent: they are cross correlated. That is, countries with higher levels of education are likely to have more developed welfare states.
To remedy this, one needs some sort of multiple regression or correlation analysis to partition out the effects of independent variables. Which is more important in explaining higher religiosity: poor medical care or more income inequality? To do this one must perform a statistical analysis in which each factor is varied, holding all the others constant. Barber didn’t do this, and a proper study awaits that form of analysis.
Nevertheless, Barber’s paper is important (and I’ll link to it when it’s published) because it ups the numbers of countries surveyed, and thereby shows that the correlations between independent measures of societal dysfunction and religiosity are robust ones. As one might expect, sub-Saharan African countries and Islamic countries don’t have high levels of well-being, and they’re also intensely religious.
In the end, I think more studies like this will ultimately explain much of the variation of religious belief among the world’s nations. And it tells us something important as activist atheists or secularists. We can’t get rid of religion simply by pointing out that it’s false, disenfranchises women, fosters guilt, and so on. Yes, those are important things to do, and do make converts, but in the end religion will be with us until we create more just, more egalitarian, and more caring societies.
Barber, N. (in press). A cross-national test of the uncertainty hypothesis of religious belief. Cross-Cultural Research.
Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at:http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B00886ZSJ6/