Here’s Tom Rees’s interpetation of the data:
the graph (as shown on the right) shows a dramatic and strong relationship between religiosity and corruption.
This does not mean that religion causes corruption. A more likely explanation is that a common, third factor explains both. And the obvious explanation is wealth. Rich countries tend to be both irreligious and honest. Poor countries have endemic corruption and religion. Indeed, after controlling for GDP, the statistical relationship between corruption and religion disappears.
The question then remains as to how these factors fit together. Does low corruption stimulate economic growth, reducing poverty and so reducing the importance of religion in people’s lives? Or does secularisation reduce corruption, thereby stimulating economic growth?
Sandholtz & Taagepera analyse the data and find that, for non-communist countries, both secularism and wealth play a role. Using factors derived from the World Values Survey, they find that a factor related to secularisation and a factor related to wealth (the the survival/self-expression dimension) both contribute to decreasing corruption, although the impact of the self-expression factor is about twice that of the secularisation factor.
The take home? Secularisation probably does decrease corruption. And it certainly doesn’t increase it.
The graph dismisses the former Soviet Union because both the secular and religious countries within it suffer ’til today from the endemic corruption nurtured under communism. Not much of a fair fight though for the religious countries when you throw out the possibility in advance that the deliberate secularism of the USSR might have been a contributing cause for the high corruption in those countries. But the communist countries were likely more corrupted by economic systems that were in failure than by their secularism. One might even blame its corruption on the “religious” devotion to communism that made it resistant to independent thought and to empirical disconfirmation. It is not characteristic of all secular societies that they need to have any of the authoritarianism or dogmatism of communism, in fact secularism should ideally be characterized as an opposition precisely to those things not just in religion but at least equally in government.
And the graph still makes the case that there is a notable correlation in non-communist countries between decreased prayer and decreased corruption. Just as Rees notes in interpreting this data that the corruption in more prayerful countries correlates as much with poverty as with religion. Religion and corruption are stronger in poorer countries and likely for separate reasons. Nonetheless, however, religion is not able to stem the tide of corruption where there is poverty and lack of religion does not increase corruption where otherwise there is affluence. In short, the key to minimizing corruption likely lies much more in minimizing economic desperation than in increasing religiosity.
Rees explains his method and his results thusly:
The 2009 Global Peace Index has just been released. It’s basically a ranking of how turbulent and warlike a country is.
They put it together by assessing 23 criteria, including foreign wars, internal conflicts, respect for human rights, the number of murders, the number of people in jail, the arms trade, and degrees of democracy (Guardian).What I’ve done in the figures here is to take data from the World Values Survey on the percentage of people in each country who say they are a committed atheist, and also on the percentage of people who say that they go to a religious service at least once a month.
Then I split the sample into two equal groups, based on their score on the Global Peace Index. The ones in the ‘Peaceful’ group are countries with a GPI score less than 1.8.
Sure enough, peaceful countries have more atheists and fewer regular worshippers. The difference is highly statistically significant (P=0.001 or less) – in other words it’s real, not just a chance finding.
Now, there are several possible reasons for this. It could be that people living in turbulent countries turn to religion, or it could be that religion is not a good way to structure modern society. Or it could be that some other factor or combination of factors (democracy? free speech? education? government welfare?) generates citizens who are both peaceful and non-religious.
it’s another blow to the idea that secularization leads to social meltdown. Atheist countries are, in fact more peaceful.
And, finally, religion doesn’t prevent abortion:
A new analysis of data from the US National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health has revealed no relationship between how religious a woman is and whether her first pregnancy ends in an abortion.
A woman who had gone to a religious school was 5 times more likely to have had an extra-marital abortion than a woman who went to a state school.
If you want to minimize abortions, teach teens about birth control and make it available.