I stumbled across this study that's been floating around the atheosphere (my new word for the atheist blogosphere), and since I think some people are getting it a bit wrong, I want to comment on it.
It's a study on atheism worldwide, comparing countries with high and low degrees of atheism and seeing… well, how those countries are doing. It's by Phil Zuckerman, Ph.D. titled Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns. (Sorry for the link to the cache; the original link was broken.)
Here's the article's summary, the bit that's been going around:
"In sum, countries marked by high rates of organic atheism ["organic" means "not forced by a dictatorial government" - GC] are among the most societally healthy on earth, while societies characterized by non-existent rates of organic atheism are among the most destitute. Nations marked by high degrees of organic atheism tend to have among the lowest homicide rates, infant mortality rates, poverty rates, and illiteracy rates, and among the highest levels of wealth, life expectancy, educational attainment, and gender equality in the world. The only indicator of societal health mentioned above in which religious countries fared better than irreligious countries was suicide."
An extremely interesting bit of data. Fascinating. Informative. Useful.
But since atheists and naturalists and skeptics are always yakking on about how correlation doesn't prove causation, I feel that we need to be extremely careful here -- and not jump to the conclusion that atheism makes people happy.
There's a flip side of this study that I've also seen, and it's very relevant to this question: In the U.S., the conservatively religious "red" states have higher rates of crime, divorce, etc. than the more liberal, less strictly religious "blue" states. Some atheists have used this data (which I can't find a link for now, sorry) to bolster their arguments that religion doesn't actually make people moral… and that in fact, it does the opposite.
But I think this is bass-ackwards. I think it's putting the cart before the horse, the effect before the cause.
I don't think atheism causes social health and prosperity.
I think it's the other way around.
And the author of this study agrees.
"I am in no way arguing that high levels of organic atheism cause societal health or that low levels of organic atheism cause societal ills such as poverty or illiteracy. If anything, the opposite argument should be made: societal health causes widespread atheism, and societal insecurity causes widespread belief in God." (Emphasis mine.)
If you think about it even for a second, it makes sense. If people are happy in this life, if they're healthy, well-fed, secure; if they have work they care about; if they feel connected to their society and feel that they have a stake and a say in it -- and if they have a fair expectation that their children will have the same -- there isn't anywhere near the same need for a belief in God and an afterlife.
And if people are poor and hungry and sick; if they do back-breaking labor with little or no hope of escape; if their society is corrupt and oppressive and they feel powerless to do anything about it -- and if life sucks for their children as much or more as it does for them -- then the need to believe in an afterlife that's better than this one becomes a whole lot more pressing. When you look at the red state/blue state thing in this light, it becomes much more clear: Religion doesn't increase the crime rate or the divorce rate. Poverty and despair increase both the crime/divorce rate, and the prevalence of religion.
(More on this in a later post about atheism and social justice.)
I've also seen studies showing that when people have better education, they're more likely to be non-believers. And that's extremely important. If a good education -- exposure to scientific information, methods of critical thinking, diverse lifestyles and philosophies, etc. -- is part of what softens the ground for atheism… well, one of the factors that makes these healthy atheist countries healthy is a high level of educational attainment. A country with an educated citizenry is more likely to be a country with an atheist citizenry.
But I digress, and I want to sum up. I'm going to quote from the study again:
"Again, to suggest that widespread belief or non-belief in God is the cause of societal health or societal pathology is not my intention. Rather, I am simply seeking to clearly establish that high degrees of non-belief in God in a given society clearly do not result in societal ruin, and high levels of belief in God do not ensure societal well-being."
That's the point. The point isn't that atheism makes individuals happy and a society stable. The point is that it doesn't do the opposite. Contrary to the belief of many religious believers, people without God's moral guidance -- or the fear of eternal burning and torture -- do not run wild in the streets looting and murdering and having sex with farm animals. They live their lives; they do their jobs; they take care of one another. They do okay. Quite well, in fact.
I'm going to quote from the study one last time, since Dr. Zuckerman makes this point so clearly and succinctly:
"This is an important fact to stress because politically-active theists often equate atheism with crime, immorality, and societal disintegration. From Muslim fundamentalists in Iran to Christian fundamentalists in Indiana, the argument is loudly trumpeted that belief in God is “good for society” -- an ultimate panacea -- while rejection of the belief in God is bad for society. The above discussion reveals that this thesis is baldly incorrect."
Thank you, Dr. Zuckerman.