The world gets more secular as it gets better: data continue to show that religion is unnecessary and inimical to healthy and moral societies

August 30, 2021 • 9:15 am

Shall we start the week with some good news? How about the increasing secularization of the world, as described and explained in Foreign Affairs by political scientist Ronald Inglehart?

We’ve read about Inglehart before, including his excellent book with political science collaborator Pippa Norris, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics WorldwideI highly recommend that book. Its thesis, one emphasized in Inglehart’s new article, is that religiosity of a country is a symptom of “existential insecurity”. As a country becomes ridden with “ill-being”, and its inhabitants insecure, poor, unsure whether their government can help them financially, or when they’re old or ill, its inhabitants either turn to religion or are loath to relinquish their religion. Religiosity, in this scheme, is a thermometer whose temperature is negatively correlated with social well being.

There’s a lot of evidence adduced in the pages of this website for that hypothesis, including the observation that a country becomes more religious in times of trouble; that the more “successful societies”, as measured by amalgamating many measures of societal well-being, are the least religious; and that the happiest societies are also the least religious.

For example, here’s the correlation, calculated by a reader, between the happiness of a country’s inhabitants, as measured by the UN’s 2018 “World Happiness Report”, and its religiosity. 52 countries are included:

Here, from another post, is a correlation between the frequency of prayer of a country’s inhabitants and the degree of income inequality as estimated by the Gini Index. The more income inequality (a measure that correlates negatively with people’s feeling of well being), the more religious the society:

And here’s the correlation among 17 Western countries between Gregory Paul’s “successful societies scale”, using 25 measures of societal well being, versus the religiosity of that society. Again (even leaving out the U.S., which is the most religious of Western nations and also one of the least “successful”, the worse off a country is, the more religious its inhabitants.

Now these are correlations and not necessarily indicative of causality, or of its direction. One could posit, for example, not that existential insecurity promotes religion, but that religion promotes existential insecurity, unhappiness, and ill-being. That seems unlikely, though, especially because in a given country an increase in insecurity fosters increased religiosity in later times. But as Inglehart and Norris posit (and Inglehart in the article below), existential security as a dissolver of religion makes many predictions that are met. At the very least, existing sociological data give NO support to the frequent claim that societies need religion as a social glue, and that without religion a society will degenerate into despair, criminality, and so on. But the religionists still keep harping about how we “need” religion. It’s the “little people” argument, but it’s time that the little people grow up and look at the facts.

Click on the screenshot to read:

I’ll give a few quotes, but do read the article. First, the thesis:

. . . since 2007, things have changed with surprising speed. From about 2007 to 2019, the overwhelming majority of the countries we studied—43 out of 49—became less religious. The decline in belief was not confined to high-income countries and appeared across most of the world.

Growing numbers of people no longer find religion a necessary source of support and meaning in their lives. Even the United States—long cited as proof that an economically advanced society can be strongly religious—has now joined other wealthy countries in moving away from religion. Several forces are driving this trend, but the most powerful one is the waning hold of a set of beliefs closely linked to the imperative of maintaining high birthrates. Modern societies have become less religious in part because they no longer need to uphold the kinds of gender and sexual norms that the major world religions have instilled for centuries.

Although some religious conservatives warn that the retreat from faith will lead to a collapse of social cohesion and public morality, the evidence doesn’t support this claim. As unexpected as it may seem, countries that are less religious actually tend to be less corrupt and have lower murder rates than more religious ones. Needless to say, religion itself doesn’t encourage corruption and crime. This phenomenon reflects the fact that as societies develop, survival becomes more secure: starvation, once pervasive, becomes uncommon; life expectancy increases; murder and other forms of violence diminish. And as this level of security rises, people tend to become less religious.

The exceptions to the declining religiosity are notable. One is India, which is almost surely attributable to the rise of the Hindu-centric Bharatiya Janata Party and the relentless Hindu osculation and Muslim-dissing of Prime Minister Modi and his BJP government. And the Muslim countries, some of the most religious in the world, remain some of the unhappiest in the world.

Two points. First, why is this change happening?  There are several reasons, one being the increasing well being of the world’s inhabitants. In this sense Pinker was right, as the death of religion fosters rationality, which fosters well being, and that, in turn, fosters less religiosity. As Inglehart notes,

Influential thinkers from Karl Marx to Max Weber to Émile Durkheim predicted that the spread of scientific knowledge would dispel religion throughout the world, but that did not happen. For most people, religious faith was more emotional than cognitive. And for most of human history, sheer survival was uncertain. Religion provided assurance that the world was in the hands of an infallible higher power (or powers) who promised that, if one followed the rules, things would ultimately work out for the best. In a world where people often lived near starvation, religion helped them cope with severe uncertainty and stress. But as economic and technological development took place, people became increasingly able to escape starvation, cope with disease, and suppress violence. They become less dependent on religion—and less willing to accept its constraints, including keeping women in the kitchen and gay people in the closet—as existential insecurity diminished and life expectancy rose.

Inglehart also suggests that the increasing conservatism of Republicans in the United States, combined with the party’s evangelical Christianity, has turned off younger and liberal voters, pushing them away from faith.

But, he believes, the most important factor driving increasing secularization is the change in women’s roles from being breeders (necessary in ancient times because there was so much infant mortality) to limiting the number of children they have.  Yet pro-fertility dicta still persist in many religious doctrines as “moral rules” (e.g., Catholicism’s dissing of contraception and Orthodox Jews’s view of women as baby machines). As people realize they don’t have to obey this rules any more, their religiosity declines.

This change can be quantified via a “World Values Survey”, which ranks countries’ acceptance of divorce, abortion, and homosexuality on a ten-point scale (lower scores indicate more conservative views). This score has been rising everywhere—except in Muslim countries. There appears to be a tipping point around 5.0 above which secularization is accelerated:

The tipping point is around the middle of the scale, at 5.50: lower scores indicate that a majority of the country’s people harbor more conservative views, and higher scores indicate that a majority have more liberal views centered on individual choice. Around 1981, majorities in every country for which we have data supported pro-fertility norms. Even in high-income countries, the mean scores ranged from as low as 3.44 (Spain), 3.49 (the United States), 3.50 (Japan), 4.14 (the United Kingdom), and 4.63 (Finland) to as high as 5.35 for Sweden—then the most liberal country but with a score still slightly below the scale’s tipping point. But a profound change was underway. By 2019, Spain’s mean score had risen to 6.74, the United States’ to 5.86, Japan’s to 6.17, the United Kingdom’s to 6.90, Finland’s to 7.35, and Sweden’s to 8.49. All these countries were below the 5.50 tipping point when first surveyed, and all of them were above it by 2019. These numbers offer a simplified picture of a complex reality, but they convey the scale of the recent acceleration of secularization.

This trend has been spreading to the rest of the world, with one major exception. The populations of the 18 Muslim-majority countries for which data are available in the World Values Survey have stayed far below the tipping point, remaining strongly religious and committed to preserving traditional norms concerning gender and fertility. Even controlling for economic development, Muslim-majority countries tend to be somewhat more religious and culturally conservative than average.

Inglehart notes that the trend is not inevitable, and could be reversed with a major catastrophe, like nuclear war or a big pandemic, which would increase existential insecurity and therefore religious belief. Nor is the trend all that rapid (though it’s more rapid that I would have suspected), with secularization proceeding as one generation with more secular ideas replaces the previous one.

Finally, one more quote to show that it’s not necessary for a country to be religious to be healthy and moral:

Since 1993, Transparency International has monitored the relative corruption and honesty of government officials and business people around the world. Each year, this watchdog group publishes the Corruption Perceptions Index, which ranks public-sector corruption in 180 countries and territories. These data make it possible to test the actual relationship between religiosity and corruption: Is corruption less widespread in religious countries than in less religious ones? The answer is an unequivocal no—in fact, religious countries actually tend to be more corrupt than secular ones. The highly secular Nordic states have some of the world’s lowest levels of corruption, and highly religious countries, such as Bangladesh, Guatemala, Iraq, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, have some of the highest.

Clearly, religiosity does not cause corruption. Countries with low levels of economic and physical security tend to have high levels of religiosity and also high levels of corruption. Although religion may once have played a crucial role in supporting public morality, that role shrinks as societies develop economically. The people of religious countries are slightly more likely to condemn corruption than the people of less religious countries, but the impact of religion on behavior ends there. Religion may make people more punitive, but it does not make them less corrupt.

This pattern also applies to other crimes, such as murder. As surprising as it may seem, the murder rate is more than ten times as high in the most religious countries as it is in the least religious countries. Some relatively poor countries have low murder rates, but overall, prosperous countries that provide their residents with material and legal security are much safer than poor countries. It is not that religiosity causes murders, of course, but that both crime and religiosity tend to be high in societies with low levels of existential security.

The evidence suggests that modern societies will not descend into nihilistic chaos without religious faith to bind them, but that may not always have been the case. In early agrarian societies, when most people lived just above the survival level, religion may have been the most effective way to maintain order and cohesion. But modernization has changed the equation. As traditional religiosity declines, an equally strong set of moral norms seems to be emerging to fill the void. Evidence from the World Values Survey indicates that in highly secure and secular countries, people are giving increasingly high priority to self-expression and free choice, with a growing emphasis on human rights, tolerance of outsiders, environmental protection, gender equality, and freedom of speech.

Given all the data, and the existence of happy, well-functioning societies that are both moral and highly atheistic, there’s simply no reason to claim that society “needs” religion to function properly. When you get your society functioning properly, in fact, religion goes away. And it will continue to go away as the world improves, barring a disaster like nuclear war or global climate change that devastates the planet.

People argue that religion is a necessary social glue not because the data support it, but because they are religious and want to believe it. Such is the nature of confirmation bias.

This, then, is a reason not just to be an atheist, but to be an anti-theist. Clinging to religion keeps people from looking for other routes out of unhappiness, and churches that foster archaic beliefs that make people unhappy and insecure are bad for society. In this sense, at least, religion does impede well-being.


h/t: Lenny, David

34 thoughts on “The world gets more secular as it gets better: data continue to show that religion is unnecessary and inimical to healthy and moral societies

  1. In my opinion, the first chart has the data points scattered around so much that I do not think the red line is a very good match to the trend. It appears exaggerated.

    1. Furthermore regarding the first plot, one should not calculate a Pearson correlation coefficient on an ordinal variable, the happiness score. The Pearson correlation requires two variables following a bivariate normal distribution. One should at least make sure that both variables are close to normal distributions. A Kendall or a Spearman correlation coefficient would be more sound.

      1. Well, feel free to calculate the correlation coefficient using nonparametric methods. Are you saying that you don’t think it would be significant in view of what the points look like? If that’s what you think, I bet you $25 that it’ll be significant. At any rate, I didn’t do the correlation.

          1. Which website? The one for the World Happiness Report (where the data for the first graph come from)? (It’s easily found.)

            1. JK! I was referring to all the talk about “Pearson correlation coefficients” and “ordinal variables” and “nonparametric methods” on this website.

              Just a lame stab at a joke by a non-STEM major, Peter.

    2. I agree the first graph is very scattered , However, the red line appears correct. I think that graph shows that there are other factors that might be more important.
      The second graph’s line is too flat at first (and second ) glance. In the ‘under 0.3’ inequality (‘equal countries’) there are 18 below the line, while only 8 above. In the ‘over 4.0’ inequality, we find 8 countries over the line and only four below. As said I think the correlation is stronger than the line indicates.
      For the third I’d like to see the countries. Is ‘n’ Norway or the Netherlands? Is ‘u’ the US? And if it is only 25 countries, how were they chosen? The 25 wealthiest countries? The wealthiest western countries?The graph doesn’t say.

  2. The authors say “Clearly, religiosity does not cause corruption.”

    I agree with this, but I think that it misses an important caveat. “Religion allows corrupt people to thrive. ”

    Consider the preachers of the mega churches who live in massive mansions and fly on private jet aircraft. Those same people close the doors of their church in emergencies.

    Consider the politicians who are elected because of their faith.. and the scandals that almost inevitably follow them. And how they get rich from it.

    There are actions taken today, in the name of religion, that if any one had done them without the veneer of religion would be illegal or, at least, highly frowned upon. But it’s religion, so it’s OK.

    I’ve mentioned before how being religious in prison grants special privileges that non-religious don’t get. And how religious leaders are allowed to bring in contraband (like donuts) that would otherwise be forgiven. I have discovered that religiosity doesn’t seem to play a part in parole hearings, but it probably doesn’t hurt either. I wouldn’t go into any parole hearing an say “I’m an atheist”.

      1. Used to be, opiates were the religion of the elite — back in the days from De Quincey and Coleridge to Burroughs and Coltrane.

  3. People argue that religion is a necessary social glue not because the data support it, but because they are religious and want to believe it. Such is the nature of confirmation bias.

    The nature of religion allows a lot of flexibility in confirmation bias. If “religion is the social glue holding thriving countries together” doesn’t work, they can always fall back on the tried and true “the world is a seductive snare and comfort makes people arrogant and worldly.” There’s plenty of support for that framework in most religions, including Christianity.

    A devout Christian should be able to look at those charts and claim it’s exactly what the Bible predicted. “We must be made humble before we admit we need God.”

    1. Indeed – “the world’s becoming more secular to set the scene for the Book of Revelation so actually the true believers will have the last laugh after all”. No amount of facts or statistics will convince the followers of Jimmy Jesus (as an old girlfriend’s father always referred to him) who have that kind of mindset, sadly. (I say sadly, because they will continue to try to inflict their beliefs on the rest of us and also because they will waste their lives following their delusions.)

    2. It would be interesting (and probably unethical) to build a country that promoted spiritual naturalism without supernatural gods or spirits etc. Plenty of awesome individual experiences, individual enlightenment or mindful access to less common states of consciousness. But no mass organisation of directed attention to a mythical god.

      For good or ill the people of the Western world have increasingly valued the individual over the expectations of society. Since Religion is, arguably, mostly a social expectation then the decrease in Religion should correspond to an increase in individuality.

  4. The data is pretty well spread out, and so it would be important to have a closer look at the countries that are outliers. Why are people in Bulgaria and the Ukraine so unhappy even though they are not also very religious? Why are the people in Kuwait and Brazil relatively happy while also being rather religious? One may discover important points to be made by looking at these countries.

    1. Let me hazard a guess about factors not considered in the plot. Brazil is relatively happy because of the music. Kuwait is relatively happy (without music) because of money. And Ukraine is relatively unhappy because of Ukrainian food (have you ever tried holodets?) and the proximity of Russia.
      Relative unhappiness of Bulgaria, despite the abundance of red peppers, remains a deep mystery.

      1. Haha Jon – I especially love that Brazil is happy because of the music. And perhaps also because of the Samba!

    2. The scatter of the points is of course due to the multiple other factors not considered, but I will hazard
      a guess at what some of them are. The relative happiness of Brazil is due to the music. The relative happiness of Kuwait is due to the absence of music an the presence of money. The relative unhappiness of Ukraine is due to Ukrainian food (try holubtsi or holodets). The relative unhappiness of Bulgaria, despite their music and their abundance of red peppers, remains a mystery.

  5. It’s only one datum point, but I would be interested to see Bhutan included in the data set; as far as I know the only country which prioritises National happiness.

  6. I agree that there is a negative correlation between happiness and religiosity. My guess is that unhappiness leads to religiosity rather than the other way round or maybe they both have some other root cause. Whatever the case religion does not seem useful and is actively harmful in cases like Iran and evangelicals.

  7. … President Donald Trump—a leader who cannot be described as a paragon of Christian virtue …

    Marvelous use of rhetorical meiosis, Mr. Inglehart. 🙂

  8. Being anti-religious is the opposite side of the pro-religious coin. The stronger one feels about either position, the more the can-must thought process shuts off access to any other way of thinking. It’s a trap for both camps.

      1. I mean seeing the value of the points and perspectives of folks who hold the opposing point of view. Our brains ask must I believe this point and if there is anything about the point that we think we can disprove or question, we give ourselves permission to disbelieve everything about it. We lose the ability to listen objectively. And we may lose the opportunity to connect with the person with whom we disagree.

        1. I’m all for respectful discourse, but the golden mean isn’t halfway between superstition on one hand and empiricism & rationality on the other.

          There aren’t two legitimate sides to this story.

          1. You may well be right in your judgement. Counterpoint: Antireligious philosophies have underpinned the murders of millions of people in the last century. The problem lies less with religion and more with our propensity as primates to reject and vilify “the others” since they aren’t members of our group and are therefore fair game. Religion is just one of the factors that amps up that feeling. And given the recent examples from Mao and Stalin of the damage that can be done by atheistic leaders, I lean heavily on the “us and them” framework as the major catalyst for the problems we’ve assigned to religion.

            1. Sure I agree one wants to look for something good to take away from any opposing view. However, Hitchens in Chapter 17 of “God Is Not Great” had a convincing response to the argument that Mao and Stalin were atheists, and that this somehow is a defense of the virtues of religious philosophies. His argument is based on the totalitarian nature of Abrahamic religions and of the communist regimes. And of course Stalin himself was a seminarian. Best line: “It is interesting that people of faith now seek defensively to say they are no worse than fascists or Nazis or Stalinists”. Worth a read.

  9. There is a limit to what society as a whole can do to protect its members against heat waves, storms, floods, pandemics, and other natural disasters that are increasing in frequency. Therefore, religion’s sole reliable function, that of anesthetic against feelings of insecurity, might lead to a revival of religiosity as anthropogenic climate change moves steadily along. Perhaps the dinosaurs too enjoyed a big awakening of religious sentiments toward the end of the Cretaceous period.

      1. I think the past tense is “smote.” Smitten is what Adam was with Eve and Eve with the fruit of the forbidden tree via the serpent.

        And it’s been cherchez la femme ever since. 🙂

    1. 1. If there is a limit, we haven’t come close to it. Might i recommend Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future. 2. Religion has no reliable function. A revival of religiosity would be counter productive, to say the least.

  10. I think you are all missing the most important take home, which is, Canada is the happiest place on Earth.

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