The Great Chain

The Great Chain

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why I Don't Believe - Religious Societies Are More Violent, Dangerous, and Unstable than Irreligious Societies

One of the most common arguments put forth in favor of religion as the provider and arbiter of human morality is that without religion, humanity is incapable of any manner of social coherence or moral code. Without God, all values become meaninglessly relative and that without some manner of divine scorekeeper, there is no code of ethics upon which humanity can possibly agree. Some variation on this central tenet of religiosity emerges in every debate between theists and atheists and is present in nearly every discussion of morality from the pulpit. So prevalent is this assumption, that any discussion of the morality begins with the presupposition of correctness of this premise.

Given that the divine is supposedly the source of all morality, and that the divine enables humankind to act in a more moral and ethical fashion, it would be logical to presume that those regions of the world where religiosity is highest would possess citizens of the highest morality and would, as a result, have a cultures with the highest levels of domestic tranquility and peace. Certainly, one would assume, those societies where a divine code of ethics guide the hands and fates of men, would have greater degrees of domestic tranquility and peace than those societies of the godless.

Individual piety, let alone the the heart of an entire nation is, of course, difficult to quantify. No person can know the mind or heart of another, let alone those of an entire people. In the absence of that kind of personal knowledge, however, there are a number of proxies that can be used to measure the overall religiosity of a society. The percentage of citizens who attend worship services regularly. Per capita donations to religious organizations. Property ownership by religious organizations. Religious self-identification of the citizenry. Religious makeup of the political class. The distinction or unification of religious and civil courts.

Based solely on self-identification, the ten least religious countries in the world are Sweden, Vietnam, Denmark, Norway, Japan, Czech Republic, Finland, France, South Korea and Estonia. The ten most religious countries based solely on self-identification are Bangladesh, Niger, Indonesia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Morocco, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Djboutti and Egypt. Self-identification, of course, is generally based on polling data, specifically, questions like “How important is religion in your daily life?” While self-identification against the importance of religion tends to correlate very strongly with a lack of religious behavior, self-identification with the importance of religion tends to correlate much less strongly with actual religious practices, such as church attendance, donation to religious organizations, etc. Self-identification, therefore, needs to be analyzed in conjunction with actual religious practices to obtain a more robust picture of a society's true level of religiosity. More on this in a moment.

When one begins to compare societies with high levels of self-professed religiosity to those with extremely low levels of self-professed religiosity, several trends become immediately apparent. First, one would think that those societies with the highest levels of religiosity would have far higher levels of domestic tranquility than the societies with low levels of religiosity. In fact, the EXACT opposite is true. Domestic tranquility is, of course, a rather nebulous concept, so to meaningfully engage the topic, it is necessary to make some basic assumptions about human nature. First, one would assume that violent crime such as assault, battery, rape and domestic violence represent a breakdown of domestic tranquility. Second, one would assume that the murder rate would represent a similar breakdown of domestic tranquility. Third, one would assume that incarceration rates signal at the very least a discernible measure of those who cannot or will not abide by the social or moral contract. Fourth, and finally, political assassinations, and or significant civil strife and armed conflict between competing political or religious factions strongly signal a lack of domestic tranquility. Domestic tranquility is an important concept, because it represents the citizenry's ability or inability to adhere to its own moral and legal standards.

Given the presumption among theists that God is the source of morality, and given that there are at least enough commonalities among the various societies of the world, I believe that we can make the following fairly broad assumptions. Neither God nor man sanctions or encourages violent crimes such as assault, battery, rape and murder. One would only assume that God, whom most theists claim represents the better angels of human nature, and is commonly associated with peace would be similarly opposed to civil strife, political assassination and internecine warfare. Given the foregoing, one would assume that those countries with the highest levels of religiosity, who clearly crave the authority of their God and expressly state their intention to follow His will, would be those states with the LOWEST incidences of violent crime, murder, rape, torture, civil strife, internecine warfare and those with the least need to incarcerate large numbers of their population for failure to abide by His guidance.

This assumption is completely and utterly backwards.

Those countries with the highest levels of religiosity are almost uniformly the countries with the HIGHEST rates of violent crime, the HIGHEST murder rates, the HIGHEST rates of incarceration, the HIGHEST incidences of civil strife, political assassination and internecine warfare. Conversely, the countries with the LOWEST levels of religiosity, presumably those with the least morality, actually have societies in which the EVILS god and man purportedly abhor are least common. Indeed, those societies with the highest levels of religiosity are almost uniformly, among the most violent, crime ridden, dangerous, and unstable regions of the planet. Conversely, the least religious states rank anywhere near the top in ANY of the foregoing categories. Indeed, they rank nearly last in every single category. In other words, the least religious states, those states which expressly DO NOT seek to follow the moral path allegedly set out by God, actually do a MUCH MUCH better job at actually fulfilling that moral path than those allegedly fulfilling it for the greater glory of their God.

To be sure, correlation is not causation, and it is impossible to say with certainty whether high levels of religiosity cause societies to become beset by crime and become more violent and unstable, or if the political and civil instability in those regions causes the increase in religiosity as a way to cope with the deteriorating condition. The correlation itself, however, should send a wave of doubt through any who want to seriously argue that God is a necessary precondition to morality. Indeed, as one begins to look through the comparison between highly religious states and irreligious states, it becomes readily apparent that religious states not only correlate very strongly with domestic criminality, violence and instability, but also with poverty, with illiteracy, with infant mortality and with foreign aggression and hostility. Even when one controls for variables like the specific religion at issue, population density, natural resources, GDP, population homogeneity, etc., the correlation between high levels of religiosity and a whole host of societal ills remains inexplicably high. Statistics coming tomorrow!

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