Does religion foster bad behavior, or does faith really strengthen society?
Why can’t we all be Japanese?
Religion fosters bad behavior
By © Martin Foreman
Word Count: 795 words
Publication date: November 13, 2005
Several weeks ago, a ground-breaking study on religious belief and social well-being was published in the Journal of Religion & Society. Comparing eighteen prosperous democracies from the US to New Zealand, author Gregory S Paul quietly demolished the myth that faith strengthens society.
Drawing on a wide range of studies to cross-match faith – measured by belief in God and acceptance of evolution – with homicide and sexual behavior, Paul found that secular societies have lower rates of violence and teenage pregnancy than societies where many people profess belief in God.
Top of the class, in both atheism and good behavior, come the Japanese. Over eighty percent accept evolution and fewer than ten percent are certain that God exists. Despite its size – over a hundred million people – Japan is one of the least crime-prone countries in the world. It also has the lowest rates of teenage pregnancy of any developed nation.
(Teenage pregnancy has less tragic consequences than violence but it is usually unwanted, and it is frequently associated with deprivation among both mothers and children. In general, it is a Bad Thing.)
Next in line are the Norwegians, British, Germans and Dutch. At least sixty percent accept evolution as a fact and fewer than one in three are convinced that there is a deity. There is little teenage pregnancy , although the Brits, with over 40 pregnancies per 1,000 girls a year, do twice as badly as the others. Homicide rates are also low – around 1-2 victims per 100,000 people a year.
At the other end of the scale comes America. Over fifty percent of Americans believe in God, and only 40 percent accept some form of evolution (many believe it had a helping hand from the Deity). The US has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy and homicide rates are at least five times greater than in Europe and ten times higher than in Japan.
All this information points to a strong correlation between faith and antisocial behavior – a correlation so strong that there is good reason to suppose that religious belief does more harm than good.
At first glance that is a preposterous suggestion, given that religions preach non-violence and sexual restraint. However, close inspection reveals a different story. Faith tends to weaken rather than strengthen people’s ability to participate in society. That makes it less likely they will respect social customs and laws.
All believers learn that God holds them responsible for their actions. So far so good, but for many, belief absolves them of all other responsibilities. Consciously or subconsciously, those who are “born again” or “chosen” have diminished respect for others who do not share their sect or their faith. Convinced that only the Bible offers “truth”, they lose their intellectual curiosity and their ability to reason. Their priority becomes not the world they live in but themselves.
The more people prioritize themselves rather than those around them, the weaker society becomes and the greater the likelihood of antisocial behavior. Hence gun laws which encourage Americans to see each other not as fellow human beings who deserve protection, but as potential aggressors who deserve to die. And hence a health care system which looks after the wealthy rather than the ill.
As for sex… Faith encourages ignorance rather than responsible behavior. In other countries, sex education includes contraception, reducing the risk of unwanted pregnancies. Such an approach recognizes that young people have the right to make their own choices and helps them make decisions that benefit society as a whole. In America faith-driven abstinence programs deny them that right – “As a Christian I will only help you if you do what I say”. The result is soaring rates of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
Abstinence programs rest on the same weak intellectual foundation as creationism and intelligent design. Faith discourages unprejudiced analysis. Reasoning is subverted to rationalization that supports rather than questions assumptions. The result is a self-contained system that maintains an internal logic, no matter how absurd to outside observers.
The constitutional wall that theoretically separates church and state is irrelevant. Religion has overwhelmed the nation to permeate all public discussion. Look no further than Gary Bauer, a man who in any other western nation would be dismissed as a fanatic and who in America is interviewed deferentially on prime time television.
Despite all its fine words, religion has brought in its wake little more than violence, prejudice and sexual disease. True morality is found elsewhere. As UK Guardian columnist George Monbiot concluded in his review of Gregory Paul’s study, “if you want people to behave as Christians advocate, you should tell them that God does not exist.”
I might express that another way. The flip side of Monbiot’s argument is that God would be an atheist…