Cause/Correlation with (Non-)Religious Countries and Well-being

Cause/Correlation with (Non-)Religious Countries and Well-being November 12, 2016

I recently posted an excerpt from a book by Galen et al (The Nonreligious):

With the exceptions of China and Vietnam (both nondemocratic nations), the majority of the most secular countries in the world today are actually doing quite well. Indeed, many of them are among the most successful, healthy societies on earth. For it is generally among the most secular societies today that we find the greatest levels of social harmony, civility, freedom, equality, peacefulness, and prosperity. The greatest levels of inequality, oppression, crime, corruption, and destitution can be found in highly religious nations.

Otto T. Goat stated, in the comments section:

It’s possible quality of life in those countries would be even higher if the people in them were religious.

So I will deal with that today. First of all, as a fellow commenter posted:

In order for possibility statements to provide additional, logical value they either need to be transferred to probability statements involving evidence or need to be transferred to logical statements that provide a cohesive argument (syllogism). Your statement could just as easily be changed to the following and have exactly the same additive value:

>>>It’s possible quality of life in those countries would be lower if the people in them were religious.As such your statement does nothing at all to push the results forward.

The Possibiliter Fallacy — possible therefore probable.

Indeed, Otto’s quote could go either way. It would be that if religiosity was higher in those countries, then their wellbeing would go down. He has brought nothing but an empty possibility to the table. But, fair enough, it could be the case. Let me return, then, to the book in question to see if there are any answers.

We have to be careful, of course, not to confuse correlation with causation. The preceding discussion in no way proves that secularity causes positive societal outcomes, in and of itself. It is conceivable – if not more than likely – that the success/failure, well-being/depravity, or unhealthiness/healthiness of various societies today have little to do with the secularity/religiosity of their population, but rather, are more likely the result of a host of various and disparate historical, political, and economic factors, perhaps related colonialism, the exploitation of foreign labor, access to natural resources, resilience to disease. weather, and so forth. Or, as a fair amount of data seems to suggest, perhaps both secular and societal success are caused by some third variable, such as rates of educational attainment. Or perhaps both levels of secularity and societal well-being are causally linked to welfare expenditures. These are all interesting, plausible possibilities.

However, the correlation/causation story that appears to make the most sense – and currently has the best data to support it – comes from the work of Pippa Noris an Ronald inglehart…. As you will recall, Norris and Inglehart show that it is not necessarily the case that religion causes societal disarray, nor that secularity causes societal well-being. Rather, it is just the opposite. According to their analysis, in countries characterzed by high degrees of societal health, where most people live relatively secure lives, having easy access to food, shelter, health-care, education, and living peaceful, supported and unthreatened lives, we tend to find the highest rates of secularity, atheism, agnosticism, and theistic indifference. Conversely, in those countries most beset with societal ills, we generally find the highest rates of religioisity and theism. Thus, atheism and societal well-being are indeed most likely causally linked, but it is the latter (societal well-being) that most likely causes the former (secularity), and not the other wy round. Independent researcher R. Georges Delamontagne’s research reveals jsut that: it is not a lack of secularity that causes societal dysfunction, but societal dysfunction that impedes secularity.

The two aspects that I think are the most important here are

1) security/volatility/control

2) education

Education is interesting because there is a correlation of more education and less belief in god. Make of that what you will, but I draw fairly simple conclusions… As The Economist stated in 2014:

JUST one extra year of schooling makes someone 10% less likely to attend a church, mosque or temple, pray alone or describe himself as religious, concludes a paper* published on October 6th that looks at the relationship between religiosity and the length of time spent in school. It uses changes in the compulsory school-leaving age in 11 European countries between 1960 and 1985 to tease out the impact of time spent in school on belief and practice among respondents to the European Social Survey, a long-running research project.

By comparing people of similar backgrounds who were among the first to stay on longer, the authors could be reasonably certain that the extra schooling actually caused religiosity to fall, rather than merely being correlated with the decline. During those extra years mathematics and science classes typically become more rigorous, points out Naci Mocan, one of the authors—and increased exposure to analytical thinking may weaken the tendency to believe.

Another paper, published earlier this year, showed that after Turkey increased compulsory schooling from five years to eight in 1997, women’s propensity to identify themselves as religious, cover their heads or vote for an Islamic party fell by 30-50%. (No effect was found, however, among Turkish men.) And a study published in 2011 that looked at the rise in the school-leaving age in Canadian provinces in the 1950s and 1960s found that each extra year of schooling led to a decline of four percentage points in the likelihood of identifying with a religious tradition. Longer schooling, it reckoned, explains most of the increase in non-affiliation to any religion in Canada between 1971 and 2001, from 4% of the population to 16%.

The most recent paper also showed that each extra year in the classroom led to a drop of 11 percentage points in superstitious practices, though these remain common. Two-fifths of respondents said they consulted horoscopes, and a quarter thought that lucky charms could protect them. Other research has shown that religious beliefs and practices seem to make people happier, and in some circumstances healthier and wealthier, too. But to argue that such benefits more than offset the gains from extra education would require a leap of faith.

The first point is more nuanced, though. What appears to be going on is that belief in God allows some kind of metaphysical safety net and feeling of security at times of turmoil, threat and insecurity. This insecurity theory can be seen as religion as reassurance. Immerzeel and van Tubergen state, of research concentrating on 26 European nations:

…it appears that all kinds of insecurities play a role. Specifically, we find, among others, that religiosity is higher among people who have an insecure job position, whose parents were unemployed, whose parents had a lower status job, who have experienced a war in their own country, who have lost their partner, and who reside in a country with lower social welfare spending and a higher unemployment rate. On a more general level, it is concluded that both (i) economic and existential; (ii) past and present; and (iii) individual and contextual insecurities are important in explaining (cross-national) variation in religiosity.

In other words, religion is a psychological mechanism that is functional. This is primarily what my friend James A. Lindsay looked at in his book Everybody Is Wrong About God, for which I was consulted. God and religious belief are functional and play psychological roles in humans. As soon as we can fulfil those roles in other ways, secular ways, we have no need for God. So, whilst secularity itself does not cause greater well-being in and of itself, the association with all those other beneficial ideals is clear.

The other problem is that religions are usually strict moral codes that are woefully outdated and result from a fundamental lack of understanding of the world. As such, it is no wonder that minorities and otherised portions of society feel better served under secularised nations. You only have to look at the imminent threat to women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights to understand this. In strict Christian Dominionism, you could argue for adulterers to be stoned. So I think secularised nations are obviously going to be healthier places to live.

It’s very tempting for a white male in the US, or a Saudi Sunni Whabhist male in Riyadh to argue otherwise.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment