Saturday, November 28, 2009

is belief in god hurting america?

AlterNet | According to a new study, prosperity is highest in countries that practice religion the least. From Dostoyevsky to right-wing commentator Ann Coulter we are warned of the perils of godlessness. "If there is no God," Dostoyevsky wrote, "everything is permitted." Coulter routinely attributes our nation's most intractable troubles to the moral vacuum of atheism.

But a growing body of research in what one sociologist describes as the "emerging field of secularity" is challenging long-held assumptions about the relationship of religion and effective governance.

In a paper posted recently on the online journal Evolutionary Psychology, independent researcher Gregory S. Paul reports a strong correlation within First World democracies between socioeconomic well-being and secularity. In short, prosperity is highest in societies where religion is practiced least.

Using existing data, Paul combined 25 indicators of societal and economic stability — things like crime, suicide, drug use, incarceration, unemployment, income, abortion and public corruption — to score each country using what he calls the "successful societies scale." He also scored countries on their degree of religiosity, as determined by such measures as church attendance, belief in a creator deity and acceptance of Bible literalism.

Comparing the two scores, he found, with little exception, that the least religious countries enjoyed the most prosperity. Of particular note, the U.S. holds the distinction of most religious and least prosperous among the 17 countries included in the study, ranking last in 14 of the 25 socioeconomic measures.

Paul is quick to point out that his study reveals correlation, not causation. Which came first — prosperity or secularity — is unclear, but Paul ventures a guess. While it's possible that good governance and socioeconomic health are byproducts of a secular society, more likely, he speculates, people are inclined to drop their attachment to religion once they feel distanced from the insecurities and burdens of life.

"Popular religion," Paul proposes, "is a coping mechanism for the anxieties of a dysfunctional social and economic environment." Paul, who was criticized, mostly on statistical grounds, for a similar study published in 2005, says his new findings lend support to the belief that mass acceptance of popular religion is determined more by environmental influences and less by selective, evolutionary forces, as scholars and philosophers have long debated.

In other words, we're not hardwired for religion.