I’ve long been interested in Paul’s work because it addresses a whole bunch of fascinating questions – why are Americans so religious when the rest of the developed world is increasingly secular? Is religious belief beneficial to societies? does religion make people behave better?
Many believers assume, without question, that it does – even that there can be no morality without religion. They cite George Washington who believed that national morality could not prevail without religions principles, or Dostoevsky’s famous claim (actually words of his fictional character Ivan Karamazov) that “without God all things are permitted”. Then there are Americans defending their country’s peculiarly high levels of popular religious belief and claiming that faith-based charity is better than universal government provision.
Atheists, naturalists and humanists fight back claiming that it’s perfectly possible to be moral without God. Evolutionary psychology reveals the common morality of our species, and the universal values of fairness, kindness, and reciprocity. But who is right? As a scientist I want evidence. What if – against all my own beliefs – it turns out that religious people really do behave better than atheists, and that religious societies are better in important respects than non-religious ones, then I would have cause to rethink some of my ideas.
This is where Gregory Paul and his research come in. I have often quoted his earlier, 2005, research which showed strong positive correlations between nations’ religious belief and levels of murder, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse and other indicators of dysfunction. It seemed to show, at the very least, that being religious does not necessarily make for a better society.
Now there is new research:
The 1st world nations with the highest levels of belief in God, and the greatest religious observance are also the ones with all the signs of societal dysfunction. These correlations are truly stunning. They are not “barely significant” or marginal in any way. Many, such as those between popular religiosity and teenage abortions and STDs have correlation coefficients over 0.9 and the overall correlation with the SSS is 0.7 with the US included and 0.5 without. These are powerful relationships.
Why is America so religious? Because conditions are so terrible:
Americans, he says, suffer appalling stress and anxiety due to the lack of universal health care, the competitive economic environment, and huge income inequalities, and under these conditions belief in a supernatural creator and reliance on religious observance provides relief. By contrast, the middle class majorities of western Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan have secure enough lives not to seek help from a supernatural creator.