Can secular nations learn anything from religious ones?

Grandpa's Friends, by David Flam

Secular nations fare better at societal wellbeing, but religious ones may fare better at the personal level

– by B. T. Newberg

Are secular nations lost without religious faith?

Phil Zuckerman suggests not.  Yet the secular may still have something to learn from the religious.

The study

Zuckerman’s 2009 study, “Atheism, Secularity, and Well-being”, analyzes a host of national and state data.  Since the paper is freely available for download, I’ll only go over a few of the most crucial introductory details.

First, Zuckerman brings together data for a range of non-religious folk, including atheists, agnostics, seculars, and “nones” (who report “none” when asked what their religion is).  He is careful to define these terms and distinguish their relevant data.  More secular nations are those with higher percentages of such folk, with the most secular nations in the world including Japan, South Korea, Israel, and many nations of Europe.  China may also rank high, though data is unreliable.

Second, “things can be messy.”  Some, especially in the East, have religions without belief in a personal God.  Naturalistic communities, including HP, would seem to be part of that messiness.  The data’s implications are ambiguous for such folk.

Finally, virtually every finding presented here is complicated with counterexamples, so by all means review the data yourself and draw your own conclusions.

Now, on to the interesting stuff…

Secular nations fare better on a societal level

On virtually every measure of societal health and well-being, the most secular nations are at or near the top.  This includes:

  • national indexes of happiness and well-being
  • violent crime and homicide
  • infant mortality
  • economic equality and competitiveness
  • health care
  • standard of living
  • education
  • women’s equality and rights
  • environmental protection
  • reading, math, and science scores
  • peacefulness
  • prosperity
  • quality of life

The pattern also seems to fit for states within the U.S.  Less religious states scored higher on these measures.

The one notable exception to the pattern is suicide.  The most recent WHO findings reveal a pretty fair mix of religious and secular nations at the top.  Secular nations do not fare better, though perhaps not worse either, on this point.

In reviewing these findings, we should be careful to avoid simplistic assumptions.  For example, does secularity lead to greater societal wellbeing, or does societal wellbeing lead to secularity?  Or does a third factor lead to them both?  Correlation is not causation, as they say.

In any case, it is clear from the data that secularity is not a one-way ticket to chaos.

Religious nations may fare better on a personal level

On measures of personal well-being, the data are ambiguous but seem to favor the religious.  Zuckerman observes:

While acknowledging the many disagreements and discrepancies above, the fact still remains that a preponderance of studies do indicate that secular people don’t seem to fare as well as their religious peers when it comes to selected aspects of psychological well-being.

These aspects include:

  • sense of life satisfaction and well-being
  • hope and optimism
  • coping with sad or difficult life events
  • dealing with chronic illness or the death of a loved one

Data coming from America might be attributed to the psychological toll of being part of a “widely un-liked, distrusted, and stigmatized minority,” Zuckerman notes.  Others echo the same idea.  However, that would not explain data from nations where secularity is in the majority (e.g. Japan 70-80%, Sweden 46-85%).  It’s not clear from Zuckerman’s study whether the pro-religion findings include non-American data or not.

If it is true that the religious do fare better on the personal level, then it would seem they still have something to teach us.

What this means for naturalists

First of all, it means secular social structures do just fine without religion, at least at the societal level.

Second, it means secular folk might well ask what it is about religion that correlates with greater wellbeing at the personal level. Can we develop secular structures that provide something similar?

Finally, it provides further context for naturalists developing new religious and secular traditions.  Leaving behind outdated religious concepts will not rip society apart at the seams, nor plunge us into moral chaos.

We may, however, give ourselves permission to learn a trick or two from traditional religions.

Religion: Nations with the most non-believers

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18 Comments on “Can secular nations learn anything from religious ones?

  1. Great post. I won’t belabor the point because I’m sure its obvious to everyone here, but “religiosity” and “belief in god” aren’t the same thing, though they generally come bundled. It isn’t at all clear that belief in god fosters well-being, though it is clear that such a belief isn’t required for well-being. This is true even at the level of individuals, as the mother who seeks consolation in church after the death of her child might interpret the healing effects of a social network as evidence that God has eased her suffering.

    As you point out, the question then becomes whether we can create secular structures that provide these benefits, and I think the answer is yes. The Unitarian universalists are one example, and Adam Lee recently featured a guest post on his blog about a secular church being founded in Calgary.

    http://bigthink.com/daylight-atheism/the-calgary-secular-church

    But a troubling question remains: even if we can replace religious structures with secular ones, and even if this might be beneficial to people, is it a good idea to do so? Religions fit particular grooves worn into our minds by evolution, and even clear instructions – “if you see the Buddha in the street, kill him” – can end up being ignored as philosophy fades into fundamentalism. I don’t know if a person could have been more clear in not wanting to be deified than Siddhartha Gautama, but I see buddhists bowing to statues of him all the time. It just seems like world views tend to drift in that direction. As much as I love the idea of embellishing the fabric of my life with threads from religion, maybe I shouldn’t, or at least not tell more than a handful of people about it.

    Might it be better if myth and science stayed divorced?

  2. Good comment.

    It has occurred to me that perhaps there are certain “attractor states” toward which religions are inevitably drawn, like religion developing toward supernormal beings, as in the Buddhist example. I know from personal experience that it’s possible to have fulfilling naturalistic religion, but at the level of a cultural movement perhaps it will be drawn toward such attractors.

    Nevertheless, I’m not willing to go on “perhaps.” I want to see if it’s really possible.

  3. This is an excellent outline of why development of naturalistic forms of spirituality will be so important. Thanks! 🙂

  4. It’s unfortunate to have to point this out, but let’s remember: correlation is not causation.

    There are many social and political reasons why nations that get ahead on measurable societal factors have also incurred a higher rate of secularism, and they don’t necessarily boil down to religions holding a society back.

    I’m not saying you directly implied this, BT, but you didn’t do anything to disclaim it, either, and these studies are too easily read as rah-rah for secularism, when that may not be the case.

    • >I’m not saying you directly implied this, BT, but you didn’t do anything to disclaim it, either

      Not only did I disclaim it, but I spelled out the exact consequences of it for this case, AND linked to a paper that proposes that societal wellbeing leads to secularity rather than the reverse:

      “In reviewing these findings, we should be careful to avoid simplistic assumptions. For example, does secularity lead to greater societal wellbeing, or does societal wellbeing lead to secularity?”

      >they don’t necessarily boil down to religions holding a society back.
      >these studies are too easily read as rah-rah for secularism, when that may not be the case.

      The message of this article is nothing like you imply, in fact it’s quite the opposite. The message is: secular nations don’t *need* religions to function well; meanwhile, religious nations still have something valuable to teach us.

      I think you should re-read the article. I don’t know how I could have been more explicit about these things.

  5. BT, I didn’t read the paper you linked to but I did read your article closely. Your “disclaimer” actually directly says the link is causal: “Does secularity lead to greater societal wellbeing, or does societal wellbeing lead to secularity?”

    You present the reader with exactly two options, in which either a healthy society ditches religion or ditching religion makes a healthy society.

    We should be open to the possibility of a third factor (or numerous of them) that may influence both secularity and various social gains.

    A good parallel would be correlating education statistics with race. As of 2000, which was the last time I studied the topic, having an advanced degree in the US correlated highly with being of white/Caucasian background. If I were to ask, “Does being white lead to being educated, or does being educated lead to being white?” I’d be asking a highly misleading, and truly offensive question.

    I think that hinges on how you could be more explicit about these things.

      • Insofar as the phrasing did suggest a causal relationship of some kind, I agree. I suggested the causal direction might go either way.

        But on a separate point, isn’t it going too far to say that the article says “either a healthy society ditches religion or ditching religion makes a healthy society”? That’s not what it says.

        The relationship is this: “the most secular societies are at or near the top”, not the only ones at the top. Conclusion: secularity doesn’t equate to a worse-off society.

        Nothing in the article says that “religions hold nations back”, and the whole thrust of the article suggests how they may perform better on some measures.

        So, if this is a “rah rah for secularity”, I don’t think it must be read as an implicit “poo poo for religion.” It isn’t a zero sum game.

        • Thanks BT.

          You asked: “isn’t it going too far to say that the article says ‘either a healthy society ditches religion or ditching religion makes a healthy society’?”

          Yes, it would be going too far to say that your article overall says this. That’s why I originally noted:

          “I’m not saying you directly implied this, BT, but you didn’t do anything to disclaim it, either.”

          I know what your point was – that secularism doesn’t harm social wellbeing – but anytime research like this is presented, especially to a pro-secularism audience, such caution needs to be emphasized, I feel.

          Thinking about it more it raises deeper questions for me. Isn’t Humanistic Paganism a religion? A branch of Neopaganism that doesn’t believe in supernatural elements?

          If that is the case, why would it particularly matter to HP readers whether secularism is A-OK in the social arena or not? I mean, you’re not secularists: you’re religious. You even pointed out that HP is part of the “messiness” and thus not in the secular camp this data applies to. So whether secular nations do okay without religion isn’t really an issue for you at all, is it?

        • >why would it particularly matter to HP readers whether secularism is A-OK in the social arena or not? I mean, you’re not secularists: you’re religious. You even pointed out that HP is part of the “messiness” and thus not in the secular camp this data applies to. So whether secular nations do okay without religion isn’t really an issue for you at all, is it?

          Of course it’s an issue, if nothing else than for the sake of understanding our world better.

          But more specifically, the “messiness” of HP, as well as other kinds of Religious Naturalism, is due to straddling the boundaries between secular and religious, having some characteristics of each, depending on how you cut your definitions. Like some religions of the East noted by Zuckerman, HP and RN can generally be described as “religions without belief in a personal God.” So are they secular or religious in the terms of the study? That messiness makes both secular and religious nations pertinent.

          >Isn’t Humanistic Paganism a religion?

          I know you probably mean this in terms of the present discussion about religion/secularity in the study. But just for the record: HP itself is not a religion, but a religious orientation in which individuals can pursue whatever more specific religion or spiritual path they choose.

        • Thank you for explaining that HP is not a religion per se.

          You also wrote:

          “Like some religions of the East noted by Zuckerman, HP and RN can generally be described as “religions without belief in a personal God.” So are they secular or religious in the terms of the study?”

          Absolutely, they are religious.

          This is a very important point in the study of religion. Consistently, people from the West assume that religion *must* be like Christianity – theistic with a personal god, based on faith, and associated with supernatural beliefs. Often Westerners then treat other sorts of religions as not-religions-at-all. This is erroneous; they are simple a *different kind* of religion.

          This misconception has consequences. It marginalizes those traditions. Then, to the extent that they are considered “not religions” it actually erodes their legal status and protection. Finally, by identifying religion as strictly theistic and supernatural, we obscure the variation of religious systems and make it too easy to dismiss all of them as irrational, when there are good exceptions.

          Humanistic Paganism is free to abjure a religious status, but when it comes to religions like Taoism, Shinto, Confucianism, etc. we should never have to ask if they are really religions or if they are secular. They choose to identify as religions: therefore they are.

        • >This is erroneous; they are simple a *different kind* of religion.

          I agree, but we’re talking about the terms of the study. If we want to know how the data applies to us, we need to be true to how the terms were defined (rightly or wrongly). Zuckerman placed us pretty squarely in the “messiness.”

    • By the way, the post has been updated to incorporate your good advice about a third factor causing both secularity and societal wellbeing.

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