Religion doesn’t improve society: more evidence

February 23, 2020 • 10:15 am

Religion is often touted as essential as a kind of secular glue, keeping society moral and empathic. Indeed, some say that even if there isn’t any evidence for a God, we should promote belief anyway because of its salutary side effects—the “spandrels” of belief.

This “belief in belief” trope, as Dennett calls it, is counteracted by lots of evidence, including the observation that there’s a negative correlation between the religiosity of a country and both its “happiness index” and various measures of well being. Because this is a correlation rather than a causation, we can’t say for sure that religion brings countries down while secularism brings happiness, but there’s certainly no support at all for the thesis that religion promotes well being.

That’s the point made in this new article in The Washington Post. It’s a response to Attorney General William Barr’s recent claim, in a speech at Notre Dame, that religion is essential to maintain morality and that its erosion causes dire consequences. Some of Barr’s quotes from that talk:

Modern secularists dismiss this idea of morality as other-worldly superstition imposed by a kill-joy clergy. In fact, Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct.

They reflect the rules that are best for man, not in the by and by, but in the here and now. They are like God’s instruction manual for the best running of man and human society.

By the same token, violations of these moral laws have bad, real-world consequences for man and society. We may not pay the price immediately, but over time the harm is real.

Religion helps promote moral discipline within society. Because man is fallen, we don’t automatically conform ourselves to moral rules even when we know they are good for us.

But religion helps teach, train, and habituate people to want what is good. It does not do this primarily by formal laws – that is, through coercion. It does this through moral education and by informing society’s informal rules – its customs and traditions which reflect the wisdom and experience of the ages.

In other words, religion helps frame moral culture within society that instills and reinforces moral discipline.

And, added Barr, the rise of secularism is accompanied by a moral decrepitude afflicting America:

By any honest assessment, the consequences of this moral upheaval have been grim.

Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground.

In 1965, the illegitimacy rate was eight percent. In 1992, when I was last Attorney General, it was 25 percent. Today it is over 40 percent. In many of our large urban areas, it is around 70 percent.

Along with the wreckage of the family, we are seeing record levels of depression and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing numbers of angry and alienated young males, an increase in senseless violence, and a deadly drug epidemic.

As you all know, over 70,000 people die a year from drug overdoses. That is more casualities in a year than we experienced during the entire Vietnam War.

I will not dwell on all the bitter results of the new secular age. Suffice it to say that the campaign to destroy the traditional moral order has brought with it immense suffering, wreckage, and misery. And yet, the forces of secularism, ignoring these tragic results, press on with even greater militancy.

In response, columnist Max Boot cites some statistics that counteract Barr’s claims, and also give results of an international survey showing, as such surveys invariably do, that religious countries are not better off. Click on the screenshot to read the article:


Boot notes this:

Barr’s simplistic idea that the country is better off if it is more religious is based on faith, not evidence. My research associate Sherry Cho compiled statistics on the 10 countries with the highest percentage of religious people and the 10 countries with the lowest percentage based on a 2017 WIN/Gallup International survey of 68 countries. The least religious countries are either Asian nations where monotheism never took hold (China, Japan) or Western nations such as Australia, Sweden and Belgium, where secularism is much more advanced than in the United States. The most religious countries represent various faiths: There are predominantly Christian countries (the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Armenia), Muslim Pakistan, Buddhist Thailand, Hindu India — and countries of mixed faiths (Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Fiji).

Now there are data from 68 countries in this survey, but they show various indices of well being in only the 10 most religious and ten least religious. But the differences are still striking:

However, I’ve also published data (analysis by readers) on a lot more countries showing that the more religious the country, the less happy are its inhabitants: there’s a strong and significant negative correlation between the UN’s “happiness index” and religiosity among dozens of countries. Further, you see the same negative correlation between the religiosity of countries and various indices of their well-being, like their rank on the “successful societies” scale. This is also true among states within the U.S.

Further, among many countries, the index of poverty—how poor a country is—is positively correlated with religiosity.

Again, these are correlations, and not necessarily causal relationships. It’s possible, for example, that other factors play a role. In fact, I think they do, but they surely don’t point to religion in any way as promoting either morality or well being.

My theory, which is not mine but that of many sociologists, is that religion (as Marx maintained) is the last resort of a population which has poor well-being. Suffering and povery-stricken people look to God for help and succor when their society can’t provide them. That could cause the correlation. In other words, religiosity doesn’t cause dysfunctional societies, but dysfunctional societies maintain religiosity because that’s the only hope people have. And of course maintaining such hope erodes the will of people to actually do something to improve their society.  Further, as well being increases, religiosity diminishes as the eternal press of secularism in the modern world no longer comes up against impediments.

As I wrote previously:

 Although I’m not a Marxist, Marx may have gotten it right when he said, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

Author Boot ends his article this way:

Fundamentalists may be unhappy that religious observance has declined over the decades, but the data shows that, by most measurements, life has gotten much better for most people. There is little evidence that a decline in religiosity leads to a decline in society — or that high levels of religiosity strengthen society. (Remember, Rome fell after it converted to Christianity.) If anything, the evidence suggests that too much religion is bad for a country.

Well, I’d put it another way: if a country is not well off, it tends to retain religion. But never mind: the conclusion of myself, Boot, and many sociologists—that there’s no evidence that high religiosity improves society—remains sound. I can’t imagine a survey of well being and religiosity that shows a positive relationship, and I know of no such results.

h/t: Randy

51 thoughts on “Religion doesn’t improve society: more evidence

  1. William Barr’s recent claim, in a speech at Notre Dame, that religion is essential to maintain morality and that its erosion causes dire consequences.

    Not sure when I first encountered this, or to whom it is attributed, but it has stuck with me: “When people say we need religion, what they really mean is we need police.”

  2. In 1965, the illegitimacy rate was eight percent. In 1992, when I was last Attorney General, it was 25 percent. Today it is over 40 percent. In many of our large urban areas, it is around 70 percent.

    I’m sure he’s got thoughts on no-fault divorce, too. This is such an antiquated way of thinking, the fact that it is even referred to as ‘illegitimacy’ is baffling to me.

      1. On top of that in 1960 having a child out of wedlock was hidden by a variety of ways,
        One being the shotgun wedding another a trip to some place for a while. I wonder what the adoption statistics are for the times cited. Today there are I suspect more foreign born adoptions made as there are less local babies available.

  3. “In fact, Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct.”

    Sure, if we use our evolved behavior as a social species to throw out the actual religion-specific parts. Or does this sophomoric liar think we should go full Genesis/Joshua/Judges/Westboro Baptist?

  4. I though Boot took down Barr completely and all the studies and stats prove it. But as always with religious people, it makes no difference. The brainwashing is complete and generally not reversible. And that shows that if you want things to become worse, just add religion. With Barr and the current Supreme Court we are on our way.

  5. Bill Barr is part of the Christian nationalist movement. Author Katherine Stewart is quoted in her new book saying this about the movement:

    “It is not a social or cultural movement. It is a political movement, and its ultimate goal is power. It does not seek to add another voice to America’s pluralistic democracy but to replace our foundational democratic principles and institutions with a state grounded on a particular version of Christianity answering to what some adherents call a “biblical worldview” that also happens to serve the interests of its plutocratic funders and allied political leaders…This is not a “culture war.” It is a political war over the future of democracy.”

    There are so many reasons to oppose Trump that it is easy to lose track. But, he represents the culmination of decades of agitation by Christian nationalists, a major constituency of the Republican Party. Secularists and atheists may be growing in numbers, but they are not a political movement. Christian nationalism is one that is a well-oiled machine. The politically helpless secularists are confronting a fanatical attorney general, a right-wing Supreme Court, and a Republican Senate. Although a minority in numbers, Christian nationalists are on the cusp of foisting a theocracy on this nation. Those who are carping about who the Democratic nominee could be should remember this.

    1. Mr Barr is part of, or at least a proponent of, ‘Opus Dei’, a fundamentalist Catholic organisation, the militant arm of the RCC as it were. We should not expect any reality-based insights from him.

      1. I agree. See my comment re Barr, Opus Dei, and taqiya that I posted several hours ago (prior to the above comment by you) though it just showed up.

  6. Barr is both right and wrong. I think there are situations in which a religious community can gain cohesiveness through common practice and custom. The Jewish diaspora and Mormon solidarity come to mind. Sometimes church communities come together to feed the poor, etc.
    Barr is wrong in saying these positive values are not available to secular communities. He’s also wrong to think that the departure from rationality inherent in faith is not a drag on civilization, not to mention the psychological stress imposed on believers who have doubts. Many people are oppressed by religious hierarchies. In particular, women and children living in patriarchies sustained by religion. So, the down side of religion is a heavy price to pay for what Barr sees as the benefits.

  7. “In other words, religiosity doesn’t cause dysfunctional societies, …”

    I suggest that religiosity doesn’t cause (much) dysfunction, *if* coupled with liberal democracy and church/state separation.

    Fortunately, Christianity today (though not in the past) is often linked with those things. Another major religion, however, is not.

  8. Bill Barr is an immoral fool. He’s simply trying to perpetuate the supernatural system that was popular at the time and place of his birth, and he lacks the reasoning skills to understand the erroneous nature inherent in his lack of objectivity.

    He has zero credibility on moral issues.

    1. In fact Bill Barr’s active role in keeping innocent kids in cages is strong evidence that his brand of supernatural thinking is very deficient in encouraging moral behavior.

  9. “… but there’s certainly no support at all for the thesis that religion promotes well being.”

    Well, religion promotes the hell out of well being but I doubt it causes it. I know what you mean though, and agree. /S

    1. I’ve read that those who attend church regularly are happiest, those who do not attend (me included) are next, and those who attend rarely are least happy. Cite? No, sadly I’ve not got one. AA, which requires faith in God, seems to work. No evidence for religion as solace, as balm, as social glue? I guess I have trouble accepting, tho I’m non-religious. Anyone else? How do you work thru such reluctance, perhaps nostalgia?

      1. No, I’m sure you’re right. My cousin was a hell raiser when she was young and got into trouble. Drugs, alcohol, etc. She eventually joined the Mormon Church and now is stable. So, yes, in many situations, for many people, the religious rout to happiness seems to work. The question remains – can a well structured secular society provide a helpful environment for most people? Does religion also cause harm to society that outweighs the good?

        1. I’ve often wished that there were secular equivalents to going to church once a week. I know there are groups that try to do this but it really doesn’t work as a neighborhood gathering for lots of reasons. Even if such a thing existed, I wouldn’t go for a morality lesson.

          1. A friend of mine goes to a Meetup group (meetup is an online group thing) that talks about anything they want to talk about. It’s called “Hungry Minds” and they get together to discuss things like free will, etc.

            1. Yes, I’ve used Meetup before to meet various computer programming interest groups. I’ve met with limited success in that endeavor. I haven’t used it to look for anything like your Hungry Minds group. I’ll give it a try. Thanks!

            2. I searched on Meetup for Hungry Minds and it didn’t turn up anything within a 50-mile radius. I’ll search for something similar. I believe Meetup has keywords and/or categories associated with each group. What are they for Hungry Minds?

              1. You might find luck with a book club. Although you’d have to discretely inquire as to what kind of books they reviewed.

              2. True but if one can’t express a personal preference here, then perhaps one can’t anywhere. No offense to all you fans of bodice rippers out there.

              3. I think Hungry Minds is more localized. People call stuff all kinds of crazy things. Their group is described as:

                If you have a mind and are looking to feed it with new and challenging ideas, then come belly up to the rhetorical table. Everyone welcome -people of all political, religious and philosophical slants. All that is required is an open and hungry mind that is willing to accept nourishment from the thoughts of others. Various types of meet ups focused on expanding the mind -mainly through issue focused informal discussions.

                It probably falls under philosophy.

          2. I attended a UU Fellowship years ago. They served to some degree as a refuge from our toxic Christian surroundings. Many of the members had been distressed by a Christian or Jewish upbringing. The philosophy of the church was basically humanist. They squabbled about things like how much ritual to include (not much). Curiously, they enjoyed singing hymns out of an old hymnal before the “sermon” (usually by a guest speaker followed by discussion).
            So, the place served it’s purpose creating community. I’m not sure how Universal the appeal would be.

            1. That’s Unitarian Universalism, right? It is interesting that Wikipedia calls them a religion:

              ‘Unitarian Universalism (UU)is a liberal religion characterized by a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”. Unitarian Universalists assert no creed, but instead are unified by their shared search for spiritual growth, guided by a dynamic, “living tradition”.’

              I had a friend who used to go to their meetings. Unfortunately, he passed away 20 years ago or I would ask him about them. I must admit that “spiritual growth” doesn’t sound like my cup of tea. Of course, that can mean lots of things and I doubt they really require that I grow spiritually. 😉

              1. I suspect each fellowship would be a little different, depending on the membership. The Fellowship (not big enough to be a church) I went to around 1968 was largely made up of well educated people with interests in social justice (civil rights was a big thing then) and moral philosophy. Some were activists. Some were employed as teachers or social workers. Several clinical psychologists. Much of the cohesion may have been from rejection of their past religious affiliations. There was always a sense of – “I’m glad I’m free at last!”

              2. I have a friend who is in UU. I think their minister is an atheist but they have members who are religious too. I think of them as “seekers” so they aren’t all religious but they’d almost like to be and they go visit churches and synagogues. And then there’s the singing. I’d rather be in the Satanic Temple. At least their rituals are more fun but to be honest none of it appeals to me. I have no desire to participate an any type of religion, secular or otherwise. I guess it’s because I’m an introverted life long atheist.

              3. Same here but I enjoy good conversations with smart people, possibly with beer. I’ve found a few meetups that sound promising. Perhaps I’ll get off my butt and go to one of them.

  10. Because man is fallen, we don’t automatically conform ourselves to moral rules even when we know they are good for us.

    But… if grace was sufficient for “automatic conform”ity, there wouldn’t have been a fall, right? Their mythology makes no sense.

  11. There is a clear correlation between happiness and well being and lack of religiosity. Those stats are pretty clear. Whether religion causes unhappiness and squalor, or those living in squalor and unhappiness resort to religion is not as clear, I guess abit of both.
    I also note that that Gallup poll uses the’Afganistan first’ alphabetical order in it’s results. That obfuscates and makes your .stats close to useless, or at least impractical. They should be crucified for that.

  12. I agree with Historian’s comments above and am glad to have the references to Katherine Stewart’s book and the link to the article in the Washington monthly.

    Bill Barr is a corrupt, noisome whitened sepulchre if there ever was one. In a 1995 essay he penned titled “Legal Issues In A New Political Order,” Barr asserted, “Traditional Judeo-Christian doctrine maintains that there is a transcendent moral order with objective standards of right and wrong that exists independent of man’s will. This transcendent order flows from God’s eternal law – the divine will by which the whole of creation is ordered.” This from

    “[A] transcendent moral order with objective standards of right and wrong that exists independent of man’s will”? That’s laughable coming from Barr, whose “objective standards” are all about serving the golden calf he worships. I’m sure those standards are what led the DOJ under Barr, Catholic that he is, to boot (too liberal) Catholic Charities off the list of organizations deserving of grants to combat human trafficking and substitute the fundamentalist Christian group “Hookers for Jesus”

    Salon magazine is in some disrepute on this site; however, this article on Barr’s religious views and associations is timely

    Barr ought to support S.E. Cupp, whose profession of atheism while simultaneously expressing her desire to be a theist benefits theists, not atheists. Re Cupp, from what I’ve read about her, I’d say she’s a false atheist (she’s not being satirical); she’s either phenomenally dim witted or else a plant (or as Wikipedia calls her, a “concern troll” and I’m inclined toward the latter) since she’s a consistent apologist for theism. Apparently, she also has problems with evolution.

    Another thought, Barr has served on the board of the Catholic Information Center, Opus Dei has publicly denied that Barr is a member, but it’s hardly a secret that such reactionary Christian organizations practice their form of taqiya, religiously motivated dissimulation. Even if Barr isn’t Opus Dei, there are a number of equally if not even more reactionary secret/semi-secret RC groups on the order of Opus Dei, which just the most well-known.

  13. “Religion is often touted as essential as a kind of secular glue, keeping society moral and empathic.”
    Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian in an IQ2 interview (author of The Myths we need to survive) stated that he believes that religion is necessary. He says science gives us the power, but religion tells us how to use it.
    It seems many are still stuck on the belief that humans need help in being human. GROG

  14. I find it ludicrous and the shallowest of thinking to blame a growing secularism on suicides, family dysfunction, over-doses, violence, etc. These are economic issues, not spiritual ones. It is only those blinded by faith who can’t see the obvious reasons that American society is crumbling.

    It is a complex issue with many factors and decades in the making, but a few causes are: middle-class jobs have been rapidly replaced by robots or gone overseas; “trickle-down” economic policies have made the rich richer and the poor poorer; the “war on drugs” has incarcerated millions for no good reason and stifles addiction research and drug addiction programs without ever mitigating the drug problem; healthcare is inaccessible for millions and has been for decades causing anxiety for the future, general hopelessness, bankruptcies and death; endless wars; a (mostly Republican) government that only works for the upper echelon of society and sees those in need or who have a run of bad luck as nonredeemable losers and takers.

    I’m not saying that secularism would necessarily cure all these afflictions, but it is a fact that religion won’t.

  15. I’d go this far: If it’s true, it’s true whether there’s a god or not.
    Also: there is a very good reason why religion can degrade a country & make it less happy: Religious piety tends to become more fundamentalist, purist, judgmental & politically aggressive over time, as it has in the US & the Muslim world. This raises tensions, causes divisions, erodes the benefits of science. Besides which it’s just a damn drag.

  16. At best, religion is a proxy for moral thinking. It seems to hope that people will do good without having to think about it too much. I’d prefer them to think about it. Since there are good reasons for moral behavior, I’d prefer that people understand them and think about them. It also allows the set of good ideas to evolve to cover new situations, our newfound ability to play around with our genome for example.

    1. Alas, that’s wishful thinking. You’re using reason. They claim that all morality stems from God. What else is new?

  17. There is a large focus in this post on “religious belief” and not a lot of focus on what religious communities functionally provide to their adherents.

    Specifically, religious communities often operate as “extended families” providing mutual aid to members. If you look at the Mormons, they have an extensive charitable network to help their fellow Mormons, and this is only one example. Presumably, this would be a feature that would be attractive to someone facing economic challenges.

    While religiosity may or may not be a cause of poverty, it is a means of allaying some of the challenges of poverty, particularly where you have either a weak state or a state that doesn’t do much in the way of social insurance.

  18. Religion can inspire people to join together and show great strength and morality. The backbone of the civil rights movement were religious leaders. (Yes, I know bigots used religion to defend the oppression.)

    Many (most?) resistance movements (Tibet, South Africa) use religion for inspiration.

  19. Picture a meeting of evangelical leaders.

    Leader1: “The data is clear. As people’s lives improve, they abandon religious devotion. We know what we must do.”

    Leader2: “Indeed. We must ensure that the people’s lives do not improve.”

  20. Many years ago, at a family dinner with my sister and two brothers, my father, who loved to stimulate a conversation, and knew how I felt of the subject, asked “On the whole, has religion been a force for good, or for bad?”. While I agreed with some that religion could encourage a person to do good and charitable things and support good causes, I said those things can happen without religion, morality was created by men (and women), not by “God”–and, that religion was one of the biggest, if not the top, cause of strife, war and death in the history of humankind. Plus, every form of it asks belief in something that defies reason.

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