The Great Chain

The Great Chain

Friday, September 24, 2010

Why I Don't Believe - Highly Religious Societies

Conventional wisdom would hold that highly religious societies would be the safest, most stable and most moral societies on Earth. These highly religious societies, afterall, place a premium on adherence to the divine will.  They profess fealty to the supposed author of morality and the spirit of justice and righteousness that allegedly flows from Him.  It would only be natural to assume that societies in which religious virtues are highly valued would be far safer, more stable and more ethically sound than those societies that eschew the divine path. Given the conventional wisdom that morality is a fruit borne of religion, it seems utterly unfathomable that a society which does not value religious virtue could possibly produce a society more fair, just, safe, equitable and moral than those which highly value religious inspiration.  But that is exactly what the data indicates. Indeed, when one begins to look closely at the countries with the highest rates of religiosity, several incredibly disturbing trends become manifestly clear.

Perhaps the most striking commonality among extremely religious societies is their almost uniformly abject poverty. Societies in which 90% or more of the population claim that religion is an important part of their daily lives, comprise the overwhelming majority of the world's poorest countries. When averaged, the citizenry in these extremely religious societies earn an average of approximately $9.89 per day.  In stark contrast citizens in the 30 least religious societies on Earth earn an average of approximately $70.03 per day.

There are, of course, some rather glaring exceptions to this rule. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are countries whose citizens enjoy both a high standard of living and place a premium on religious devotion. What is notable about Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE and what readily distinguishes them from their desperately poor brothers and sisters of the faith, is that Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE are all incredibly tiny city states with very small populations that happen to sit atop incredibly rich reserves of one of the most precious commodities on Earth – Oil. Saudi Arabia, while larger than Qatar and the UAE, similarly, sits atop the largest and most easily accessible ocean of oil on the planet. It should be noted, however, that prior to the development of the Saudi, Kuwaiti, Qatari and United Arab Emirates oilfields, those states were almost as desperately poor as their highly religious brethren.

Of the thirty poorest countries on the planet, only two possess populations in which less than 85% consider themselves 'highly religious.'  Of the thirty richest countries on the planet, only seven possess populations in which over 70% consider themselves 'highly religious,' and in total only 48% of citizens in those countries consider themselves 'highly religious.'

It is, of course almost impossible to say whether a state's extreme religiosity is a cause of or a reaction to its abject poverty. As any statistician will be quick to point out, correlation does not equal causation.  To be sure, many of the desperately poor and extremely religious states that persist in Africa were the same states that were plundered by Europeans during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many of these states continue to suffer from the self-inflicted wounds of civil war.

The woes of the extremely religious states are not limited simply to abject poverty. Extremely religious states not only constitute the overwhelming majority of the world's poorest states, but also possess the lowest rates of literacy and the lowest levels of education. Again, it is impossible to say for sure whether extreme religiosity causes or is the result of exceedingly low education and literacy rates, however, it is notable that many religions, including the Catholic Church in many of the most literate countries in the modern world, actively opposed literacy for many years. Muslim states and clerics often did the same, discouraging literacy in order to maintain their effective monopoly on religious interpretation. Indeed, dogmatic adherence to religious principles is and always has been a powerful militating factor against widespread education and literacy since it enables lay people to determine for themselves what their sacred texts actually say, thereby lessening the power of the priesthood.

Extremely religious states, are not only overwhelmingly poor and undereducated, but also suffer from widespread disease, famine, hunger and perilously low life expectancy rates. Indeed, the average citizen in one of the top ten most extremely religious states, has a life expectancy of 64.45 years, less than 16.18 years that of the average life span in one of the top ten least religious states. This discrepancy, of course, is not merely a function of religiosity, but is also strongly linked to poverty and education since poor and underdeveloped countries tend to not only have little or no resources to tend to the sick and dying, but also lack the education and technology necessary to administer higher levels of medical care. Not only is there not enough money, there aren't enough doctors.

In 2006 and 2009, the United Nations conducted a comprehensive survey of the life expectancy, literacy rate, and income of the nations of the world. Its analysis of the data generated what was named the Human Development Index, a composite indicator of the relative level of human development as measured by the education, longevity and material well-being of a state's citizenry. This Human Development Index, when mapped against a society's religiosity reinforces the very same trends that have been set forth above, namely that as a societies' religiosity decreases, the education, life expectancy and material well-being of its citizenry increase. The trend is unmistakable and tracks almost exactly with the religiosity of an individual state. Indeed, with only a handful of exceptions, whose well-being can be readily attributable to their material prosperity as a result of their abundant natural resources, extremely religious states are the worst states on Earth in which to be born.

The exact opposite is true of the least religious states on the planet. Those lucky enough to be born in largely atheistic or agnostic societies, live longer, safer, more comfortable lives and enjoy a level of education and material well-being that is literally unheard of in all but a handful of highly religious societies.

Theists I have debated, argue vociferously that religiosity has nothing to do with the well being of these societies, that the irreligiosity of more wealthy, more literate, more healthy states is simply a byproduct of human arrogance, that since these societies are decadent and wealthy, they are unaware of or do not see the need for God. They criticize affluent societies for their excesses and perceived moral decay. One can hear variations on this theme in he diatribes against American consumerism, against television, against pornography, against sexual freedom, against reproductive freedom, against drug and alcohol use, against the 'coarsening' of culture and our supposed immorality. This theme is so prevalent in religious dogma that one need only watch the Trinity Broadcasting Network or listen to a sermon for a few minutes or listen to the Vatican lament the wretched moral decay of the modern world before one becomes well versed in the iniquity of our craven civilization. Indeed those who eagerly await Armageddon and the end of the world regularly cite those things listed above as signs of the coming apocalypse.

But is the modern world really so immoral? Is it so mired in lust and sin and gluttony and filth and crime? Are irreligious societies truly so morally bankrupt? Once again, the answer is clearly no. Guess which societies are the most generous and donate the most money and time to charitable organizations, most of which are concerned with bringing food, shelter, medicine and economic assistance to less advantaged societies. It is once again, the irreligious nations that donate most generously and most ardently to disadvantaged societies. Who are the recipients of this largesse? The most impoverished, and ironically, the most religious citizens on Earth, are the recipients of massive amounts of aid from those, who, one would think, would have no incentive whatsoever to give anything at all. Afterall, they don't know God. They don't have anyone watching them. They don't have anyone keeping score. They don't have anyone to provide them with morality or ethical guidance. Extremely irreligious societies are the most generous societies on Earth, willingly giving of their own material wealth, not out of a sense of divine duty or a desire to reap rewards in some afterlife, or even for any tangible geopolitical gain, but out of genuine human compassion. Why then do these countries behave so ethically even while they turn their back on the supposed author of morality? How can they possibly justify helping their disadvantaged brethren and giving unto the least of us when they don't have a parable telling them to do so or the threat of divine sanctions if they do not?

Even more distressing than the generosity of the irreligious, is their appalling overall adherence to the rule of law. One can only assume that God abhors crime. Regardless of the religion in question, all religions condemn theft, robbery, rape, murder, insurrection, rebellion, etc.. Violence, except when specifically sanctioned by God, is considered taboo under nearly all mainstream religions. There are of course, exceptions, and some religions treat women and other ethnicities as lesser creatures, but presumably despite the express words of these texts, I believe there is some agreement among even the most religious minded of my brothers and sisters, that rape, robbery, murder and naked aggression are immoral and are to be condemned. One would therefore assume that the most religious societies would be relatively free of such criminal and civil strife, that their adherence to the principles of morality set forth by the Almighty would guide them safely and morally through troubled times. One would conversely assume that those irreligious societies, those that knowingly shun the word of the divine and shun the path of morality He sets out would enter a moral morass and would thereby engender a society filled with violence, crime, rape, robbery, murder, aggression, hostility and horrors.  Such a society, one would assume, would be only one step above the Hobbesian war of all against all.

Again, this is simply not the case.

Far from being cesspools of criminality, murder, rape, robbery and despair, irreligious countries again, fare FAR better than their religious brethren. Indeed, irreligious societies are far safer, suffer far less violent crime, far less rape, far less murder, and far less civil strife and violence than extremely religious societies. Counter intuitive as it may seem to theists who believe morality is impossible without God, allegedly Godless societies place a far higher value on preventing and punishing criminality than extremely religious societies.  These Godless heathens place far more emphasis on engendering civic virtue in their citizenry and as a result, not only suffer far, FAR lower rates of violent crime, but also dramatically lower rates of property crime as well.

Look at the list of countries with the highest levels of religiosity and take note of the first images that come into your mind. Doubtless, poverty will be one of the first, but beyond that, one of the striking images that will pop into the head of anyone that watches television is that each of those countries are known as highly militant, highly volatile, highly violent. Images of men brandishing machine guns, RPGs, explosions, piracy. These societies are largely failed societies, societies where the glue that binds us together has broken down. While it is, as always, impossible to say whether religiosity is a cause of or reaction to such strife, the incredibly high correlation between these extremely religious societies and their abject poverty, lack of education and high levels of internal strife is troubling to anyone who posits the theory that morality is a gift from God – especially when the EXACT opposite holds true in the most irreligious societies.

Beyond even the internal strife and lack of domestic tranquility that plagues extremely religious states, one would assume that a Godly state, one whose people follow the divine path, one that adheres to divine morality, would engage its neighbors in peace, would not engage in acts of aggression or hostility. Unfortunately for the theist, reality rudely dispenses with this theory as well. Compare those extremely religious societies with those who have knowingly and expressly turned away from God and ask yourself which group of states makes war against its neighbor?

The answer should be obvious by this point.

By nearly every metric imaginable, extremely religious societies are far worse off than irreligious societies. Whether one is analyzing gross domestic product, education, literacy, life expectancy, political freedom, economic freedom, individual freedom, freedom from political terror, from hunger, starvation, freedom from disease, freedom from war, freedom from civil strife, the simple fact is that irreligious societies possess these qualities in FAR greater abundance than highly religious societies. Those societies where over 90% of the populace describe themselves as highly religious constitute over the overwhelming majority of the poorest, least educated, least healthy, least prosperous, least free, least safe and most aggressive societies in the world. In contrast the countries with the lowest levels of religious identification, constitute a large proportion of the most prosperous, highly educated, materially wealthy, free, safe and peaceful societies in the world.

Why? Why is it that those Godly societies that should be the most morally upright, the most righteous, the most resistant to the darkest impulses of man, seem almost uniformly to be those MOST susceptible to them?

Why is it that those Godless societies that should be the most susceptible to the siren song of violence and hatred seem almost uniformly to be those LEAST plagued by man's darkest impulses?

It is important to remember that correlation does not equal causation. Innumerable things are highly correlated by not caused by one another. The fact that the overwhelming majority of poor countries are also extremely religious is not the same as saying that the overwhelming majority of poor countries are poor because they are extremely religious.

What is fascinating, however, is that those countries that are now highly irreligious, were once highly religious. Indeed, several centuries ago, those highly irreligious societies were just as religious as the extremely religious societies that persist today. The rates of baptism and religious tithing in countries like France, England, Germany, rivaled or even exceeded those of the exceptionally religious countries in the modern era. What is particularly interesting, is that during the period of highest religiosity in Continental Europe, literacy, life expectancy, education, and gross domestic product were not only significantly lower than Continental Europe under the far FAR less religious Roman Empire, they were also significantly lower than the literacy, life expectancy, education and gross domestic products of societies in the Middle East.

This period in European history, in the popular vernacular, is referred to as the dark ages. This moniker connotes the fact that written history, which had been rich in the centuries prior and was again rich in the centuries after, was virtually non-existent during the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. While society was not completely stagnant during this period, it is difficult to argue that society had not taken a significant step backwards in virtually every conceivable metric. This same period of time is known in the Islamic world as the Golden Age. During this period, the Islamic world was the center of mathematics, science, literature, art, philosophy, and engineering.

In Europe, religiosity was at its apex. The state and the church were essentially a single entity. Monarchs sought the blessing of the Church and would fight wars on its behalf to obtain it. In most European countries, the Church was the largest property owner in society. And while the Church lived at the height of its power, prestige and glory, the commoner, the peasant, the artisan, lived on the verge of starvation, in abject poverty, scratching out an incredibly difficult living in the midst of the ruins of an earlier, brighter age.

At the same time, thousands of miles away, the Islamic world was approaching its zenith. While Islam was incredibly potent and powerful, it was not inextricably intertwined with the state as it was in Europe. The Islamic world, in contrast to Europe, was remarkably cosmopolitan and secular. It indulged in philosophy in a way that Europe would not or could not for another three centuries.

At some point, however, the trajectories of these two civilizations began to shift. The Crusades would radically alter both the Middle East and Europe and cause the paths of these two great civilizations to essentially switch places. Given the fact that the Crusades spanned two centuries, it is incredibly difficult to ascribe a single motive to them, for there were many different and competing motivations for each subsequent wave. Obviously, interest in the plunder and spoil of war was an obvious motivating force, and just as it had motivated the Gothic tribes to invade the Roman Empire, so it obviously motivated the Crusader armies to plunder the richer cities of the Middle East. And just as the Roman Empire had been dumbfounded by the tenacity of their 'barbarian' invaders, the Islamic world was stunned by the ferocity of the Crusader armies. Forced to expend great amounts of resources defending itself, and culturally rocked by the seemingly endless Crusaders, the Islamic world began a long slow process of religious retrenchment.

While Europe, gradually moved towards a path of greater secularization, greater individual freedom, less interest in the supernatural and religious order that had governed it since the fall of Rome. The Middle East gradually shifted towards a path of greater integration of church and state, greater control of the individual, and heightened interest in following the dictates of scripture. In Europe, this shift led to radical new philosophies of governance, agriculture, art, science, mathematics, metallurgy, this surge of new ideas and philosophies is known as the renaissance, and dramatic innovations in all manner of fields began to revitalize European societies. In the Middle East, the reintegration of Church and State led to the demonization of philosophy and a gradual retrenchment and fear of modernity. The Middle East became increasingly isolated and introspective, gradually retreating inside its borders.

What is truly interesting is that low overall standards of living, of life expectancy, gross domestic product, literacy, art, technology, science, are not simply present in extremely religious societies, but actually follow the spread of extreme religiosity. What is even more interesting is that the reverse is also true, that as societies become more secular and less interested in religiosity, life expectancy, literacy, art, science, technology and gross domestic product tend to increase. This hints that the obviously correlative relationship between religiosity and societal stagnation and decay may represent something more than simple correlation, but may hint at causation.

As I have said ad nauseum, such a position is ultimately unknowable. There are no reliable measures of gross domestic product or literacy rates from any part of the first millennium.  There are few reliable measures of gross domestic product or literacy rates for much of the second millennium either.  The information is of course, a thousand years old and much of it is second hand, hearsay, self-serving and anecdotal. Nevertheless, that information dovetails exceptionally well with the pattern that persists into the modern world.

Regardless of whether the relationship between societal decay and stagnation and religiosity is merely correlative, or causal, the fact remains that the notion that some manner of religiosity and deity worship is a necessity for morality and moral behavior is simply not borne out by the facts. In reality, the MOST irreligious societies on Earth, those that expressly and knowingly state that they DO NOT follow any divine authority are the MOST civil, law abiding, peaceful, literate, well educated and giving societies on Earth. They PRACTICE what the divine preaches – to treat thy neighbor as thyself. The question that remains, is that if God doesn't motivate them, if the divine scorekeeper and the threat of eternal damnation and or eternal paradise doesn't motivate this morality, what does?