25 November 2006

Religion and social health

Does religious belief have positive effects on society, and does the spread of atheism and secularism lead to an increase in social breakdown and disruption, as is often asserted?

Not according to this survey, which measures verifiable rates of homicide, teenage pregnancy, venereal disease, and other pathologies among 17 economically-comparable countries making up most of the First World [paragraph 10], and finds that these phenomena are much less common in secular than religious societies -- especially in Japan, Scandinavia, and France, the most secular societies of all [13, 19]. Even within the United States, the various pathologies occur at higher rates in the more-religious regions than in the less-religious ones [20]. Homicide rates have fallen dramatically throughout the Western world over the last several centuries [15] as religiosity declined. Even abortion becomes more common as religiosity increases [16] -- a seemingly odd finding, but plausible since aversion to or ignorance of contraception would logically lead to higher rates of unintended pregnancy, which in turn would lead to higher rates of abortion.

While this study looks only at developed countries, I cannot help recalling that Latin America (the non-Western cultural region probably most similar to the West) is generally more religious than the West and has astronomical rates of violent crime and social inequality. The most intensely religious region of the world is, of course, the Islamic Middle East -- and we all know what a cesspit of violence, intolerance, and cultural and economic stagnation that is. France and Scandinavia, long blessed with low rates of violent crime (as the study notes), have recently suffered dramatic increases such crime, particularly rape -- but this is due to the presence of large, unassimilated Muslim minorities whose roots lie in the world's most strongly religious culture.

Finally, the study's conclusions suggest a hopeful prognosis for eastern Europe, which is (with the exception of Poland) highly secular, probably even more so than the West -- especially since it has thrown off the yoke of Communism, another irrational, dogmatic, and authoritarian belief system strikingly similar to a religion in many respects. For all of eastern Europe's problems, the relative absence of inane superstition, and consequent openness to scientific thinking, can only be for the best.

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