A post by C. J. Werleman at Alternet called my attention to a new study by the Pew Research “Global Attitudes Project” that polls people on the perennial (and already answered) question, “Do you need God to be moral”? Pew’s answer, however, is a general “yes,” but that answer is far more common in poorer than richer countries. Here are Pew’s data broken down by country:
The survey involved 40,080 people.
As you see, the wealthier countries of Europe and Asia have a fairly high proportion of people who don’t think it’s necessary to believe in God to be moral, while sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East (with the exception of Israel) show a much higher belief that goodness requires godliness. Much of Latin America is also in line with that view.
Note that the U.S. is higher than any surveyed European country in its view that you need God to be moral (53%), while our more sensible Canadian friends are much lower (31%).
Pew also published an interesting plot (divided by country) of the proportion of people who think belief in God is necessary for morality versus the wealth of that country (expressed as per capita GDP). As you see below, the correlation is strong, and undoubtedly highly significant. There are two outliers, though; as Pew notes:
Two countries, however, stand out as clear exceptions to this pattern: the U.S. and China. Americans are much more likely than their economic counterparts to say belief in God is essential to morality, while the Chinese are much less likely to do so.
What is curious here is that the report leaves out any mention of the correlation between religiosity and the belief that goodness requires Godliness. For it is certain that there is another factor involved in the relationship shown above: belief in God. Those sub-Saharan African countries, and those in the Middle East, are the most religious countries in the world. The U.S. is the most religious of First World countries, and China, because of its Communist past and general lack of goddy religions, is notably nonreligious. Greece and Poland are more religious than Britain or France, and Canada is less religious than the U.S.
In other words, if you plotted religiosity of these nations versus the goodness-requires-God quotient, you’d get the same kind of relationship, but with a positive correlation. That’s a no-brainer, because clearly countries that are more religious will have inhabitants that see religiosity as more critical to morality.
Curiously, though, that obvious fact isn’t mentioned, and neither is the finding (from other studies) that religiosity is negatively correlated with average income, and especially with indicators of social dysfunction like income inequality, lack of government health care, and so on. I’m willing to bet that if sociological indices of a country’s well being were applied to sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, one would find many of those countries to be deeply dysfunctional.
Pew gives one other finding:
There are also significant divides within some countries based on age and education, particularly in Europe and North America. In general, individuals age 50 or older and those without a college education are more likely to link morality to religion. For example, in Greece, 62% of older adults say it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person, while just 29% of 18- to 29-year-olds agree. In the U.S., a majority of individuals without a college degree (59%) say faith is essential to be an upright person, while fewer than four-in-ten college graduates say the same (37%).
And, of course, older Americans (I don’t know about Europeans) are more religious than younger ones, while more educated individuals in the U.S. are less likely to be religious.
All these data show, then, is that the more religious one is, the more likely one will believe that having faith is necessary for morality. I don’t know why Pew concentrates solely on average income, age, and education, ignoring a factor clearly involved in these relationships—religiosity.
At any rate, the question about whether one needs God to be moral has already been answered in two ways: philosophically by Plato’s Euthyphro argument, and empirically, by observing that countries that are largely godless, like those of northern Europe, are just as moral—if not more so—than places like the U.S. or Middle East. Further, as the West becomes less religious, it has become, as Steve Pinker argues persuasively, more moral.
I’d like to add some data mentioned by Werleman that confirm my suspicion that what breeds religiosity is social dysfunction. Along with some sociologists, I think that those who can’t get help or security from their government, or from a national ethos that citizens should be taken care of, may turn to God for solace and hope. In that sense, Marx was right to indict religion as the “sigh of the oppressed creature.” But I fulminate; let me instead quote Werleman, who cites data supporting the negative relationship between religiosity and social well-being:
Staying with the U.S., this correlation between a high rate of poverty and high degree of religiosity is supported by a 2009 Pew Forum “Importance of Religion” study that determined the degree of religious fervor in all 50 states. The study measured a number of variables including frequency of prayer, absolute belief in God, and so forth. Led by Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas, nine of the top 10 most religious states were southern. Oklahoma ruined the South’s clean sweep by sneaking in at number seven.
Not coincidentally, led again by Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas, nine of the top 10 poorest states are also found in the South, while northern and pacific states such as Wisconsin, Washington, California, New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont are among the least religious and the most economically prosperous.
Well spoken! Werleman concludes:
In an earlier piece, I wrote that the primary reason for abject child poverty in these Southern states is that more than a third of children have parents who lack secure employment, decent wages and healthcare. But thanks to religion, these poor saps vote for the party that rejects Medicaid expansion, opposes early education expansion, legislates larger cuts to education, and slashes food stamps to make room for oil and agriculture subsidies on top of tax cuts and loopholes for corporations and the wealthy. Essentially, the Republican Party has convinced tens of millions of Southerners that a vote for a public display of the Ten Commandments is more important to a Christian’s needs than a vote against cuts in education spending, food stamp reductions, the elimination of school lunches and the abolition of healthcare programs.
. . . While the Republican Party retains its monolithic hold on the South, the rest of America remains deprived of universal healthcare, electric cars, sensible gun control laws, carbon emission bans, a progressive tax structure that underpins massive public investment, and collective bargaining laws that would compress the income inequality gap. In other words, without the South’s religiosity, “America” would again look like a developed, secular country, a country where it’s probable for an atheist to be elected into public office, and where the other 50 million law-abiding atheists wouldn’t be looked upon as rapists, thieves and murders.
He’s almost calling for secession!
While I see no necessary connection between atheism and belief in social reform—the kind of reform that makes people more economically and socially secure, and provides government-sponsored healthcare—it’s starting to seem clear that if we want to eliminate religion’s hold on the world, we have to eliminate those conditions that breed religion. In that sense, Marx was right (and now wait for the Discovery Institute to start calling me a Marxist!).
This view, which is mine, differs from that of the so-called “social justice warriors,” who see a necessary philosophical connection between atheism and “social justice”. I don’t agree—atheism is simply a lack of belief in gods, and has no necessary connection with any social view. The connection I see is a tactical and practical one: if, as atheists, we’re interested not only in our own convictions, but in convincing others to believe (or, in this case, disbelieve) likewise, then we must deal with the factors that promote religious belief. If those include social dysfunction, as I think they do, then eliminating faith will require restructuring society.
Lack of government healthcare and income inequality are good places to start.