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National Secularity, Individual Religiosity, and Human Flourishing

By August 1, 2009 No Comments

When I first read the Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens “new atheist” argument–that all religions are “dangerous”
(as well as false)–I thought: these
guys are ill-informed. To counter their
stories of religion’s horrors we have stories
of religion’s heroes–from the anti-slavery
movement’s leaders to the founders of universities,
hospitals, and hospices. Moreover,
we now have massive new social science
data showing religion’s associations
with human happiness, health, and helpfulness.
And thus was born the impulse
to pen A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and
Atheists: Musings on Why God is Good and
Faith Isn’t Evil

But for us religious folk there is, amid
the feel-good results, a troubling fact of life.
If you were to be relocated to another country,
and wished it to be a civil, safe, healthy
place, you should hope for a relatively irreligious
place–perhaps a Scandinavian
country, or maybe Australia, Canada, or
the Netherlands. Indeed, notes sociologist
Phil Zuckerman in Society Without God:
What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell
Us About Contentment
and related essays,
countries with the highest rates of happiness,
life expectancy, literacy, income,
gender equality, and education are relatively
secular. So are the countries with
the lowest rates of homicide, infant mortality,
AIDS, and teen pregnancy. “The
Virtues of Godlessness,” trumpeted one
of his articles.

Such analyses have been faulted for
cherry-picking both their social health
measures (for example, excluding suicide)
and their countries (omitting, North Korea,
China, Vietnam, and the former Soviet
states). Instead, they focus on secular
countries whose values were shaped by a
Judeo-Christian heritage.

Still, Zuckerman has a point, as I confirmed
by harvesting new Gallup survey
data from 152 countries. Countries where
most people say that religion is not an important
part of their daily life and where most
people have not attended religious services
in the last week, tend to be countries where
people report high quality of life. Folks in
highly religious countries (think Pakistan,
Uganda, the Philippines) mostly rate their
lives well below the best possible life.


In A Friendly Letter, I extended this association
between secularity and the good
life by comparing U.S. states. The Southern
states all have higher religious-adherence
rates than do the West Coast states.
They also have slightly higher divorce rates,
and much higher crime, teen pregnancy,
and smoking rates. So, by some measures,
it again looks like the least religious places
are the healthiest and most civil. Ouch.

States and countries vary in many
ways, including not only religiosity but also
literacy and education, culture and ethnicity,
and income and financial security.
When we compare countries or states–comparing all such things at once–we risk committing the “ecological fallacy,” which
the forthcoming Cambridge Dictionary of
defines as “The inference that
what is true of group members in general
is true of a particular individual who is
a member of that group.” The more telling
story is told at the level of individuals’
life experience. And, ironically, the correlations
across individuals run the other
direction. Although religion comes in both
healthy and toxic forms, religiously engaged
individuals, on balance, tend to be happier,
healthier, more generous, less crime-prone,
and less often involved with premature sexuality
and pregnancy.

Consider happiness. Ed Diener, the
world’s leading happiness researcher, tells
me that the negative correlation across nations
between religiosity and life satisfaction
disappears when controlling for income,
and that “religious people have higher life
satisfaction in most every nation.” So it is
in the countries for which I have examined
data. For example, in the National Opinion
Research Center’s repeated “General Social
Survey” of 47,909 Americans since 1972,
“very happy” people ranged from 26 percent
of those who never attended a religious
service up to 48 percent of those attending
more than once a week.


Likewise, the most religiously engaged
Americans were half as likely as never-attenders
to be divorced and about one-fourth
as likely to smoke or have been arrested.
Thus, highly religious states have higher divorce,
smoking, and arrest rates, but highly
religious individuals have
lower–much lower–divorce,
smoking, and arrest rates.
Consider, also, who is most
generous with their money
and time. Many American
surveys have found worship
attendance to be a major
predictor of generosity. In
one earlier Gallup survey, 46
percent of “highly spiritually
committed” Americans volunteered
with the infirm, poor,
or elderly, as did only 22 percent
of those “highly uncommitted.”
Robert Putnam, of
Bowling Alone fame, tells me
that, even after controlling for
other factors, religiously engaged
Americans are more involved in community,
in giving to secular organizations,
and in volunteering (as I believe he will be
reporting in his forthcoming book, American

Gallup finds the same to be true worldwide.
Across regions and religions, faith-active
people are most helpful. Compared
to those less religious, the most religious
(who say religion is important in their daily
lives and who attended a service in the last
week) are about 50 percent more likely to
report having donated money to charity in
the last month (see figure), volunteered time
to an organization, and helped a stranger.


This consistent finding–that actively
religious folks tend to be more humane
than heartless–expresses the help-giving
mandates found in all major religions, from
Islamic alms-giving to Judeo-Christian

And then there’s the oft-reported
association between religious engagement
and health. Several massive epidemiological
studies have followed lives
through time to see what predicts ill
health and premature death. The well-replicated
finding, which researchers
have scrambled to explain, is that religiously
active people are less likely to
die in any given year and enjoy longer
life expectancy. The faith-health correlation,
which remains after controlling
for age, gender, ethnicity, and education,
appears partly as the result of religion-related healthier lifestyles (recall
the lower smoking rate), and partly the
result of faith-related communal support,
stress management, and positive

I know, I know. Many people of faith
die young, or are unhappy, self-centered,
and bigoted. In surveys, evangelicals
(compared to mainliners and the nonreligious)
have been more antagonistic
toward gays, more likely to support torturing
suspected terrorists, and more
opposed to taxing themselves to support
care for their neighbor’s health and
welfare. “Christians have given Christianity
a bad name,” lamented Madeline
L’Engle. Indeed, the worst examples of
anything–medicine, business, politics,
science, religion, and even atheism (remembering
the genocidal Mao, Pol Pot,
and Stalin)–can make it look evil. But
in general, actively religious people are
healthy, happy, and civil.

I hasten to remind people: these
data do not validate theism. The benefits
of faith are irrelevant to its truth claims.
And truth is ultimately what matters. (If
theism’s central claim is untrue, though
comforting, what honest person would
choose to believe? If true, though discomfiting,
what honest person would disbelieve?)

But the data do challenge the anecdote-fueled new atheist argument that
religion is an overriding force for evil.
Moreover, they help us appreciate a
spirituality that gives meaning to our
lives, connects us in supportive communities,
motivates morality and altruism,
and offers hope in the face of adversity
and death.

Hope College social psychologist
David G. Myers is author
of seventeen books, including
A Friendly Letter to Skeptics
and Atheists: Musings
on Why God is Good and
Faith Isn’t Evil