– 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.
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
- women’s equality and rights
- environmental protection
- reading, math, and science scores
- 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.