Society without God

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 22, 2009 in General Atheism,Resources,Reviews

atheist

Christians often assert that religion is necessary to keep a society healthy, happy and moral. They say that a society without God would be immoral, loveless, and miserable. This is not just the position of Pat Robertson and Bill O’Reilly, or even just of mainstream evangelicals. It is even proclaimed by professional Christian philosophers like Keith Ward1 and John Caputo.

Until recently, this assertion could not be tested because all societies were deeply religious. Moreover, the first atheistic societies had atheism forced upon them by brutal dictators (Hoxha’s Albania, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia), and thus were hardly models of a healthy society.

Only near the dawn of the 21st century did Planet Earth see a few societies of “organic” (unforced) atheism emerge: most notably, Denmark and Sweden.2 So, now that we finally have a natural experiment on the issue, does the data confirm or deny the claim that religion is necessary to maintain a healthy, happy and moral society?

society_without_godSociety without God (2008) is sociologist Phil Zuckerman‘s analysis of the societal and moral health of these two atheistic societies.

So, what do the data show about the health, happiness and morality of these non-religious societies?

The data could hardly be clearer. Denmark and Sweden rank among the most well-developed, wealthiest, most democratic, most free, most entrepreneurial, least corrupt, least violent, most peaceful, healthiest, happiest, most egalitarian, best educated, most charitable, and most environmentally compassionate societies in the entire world.

Well-developed

As of the 2008 United Nations’ Human Development Report, which ranks nations on a measure of “human development” (long and healthy life, education, and standard of living), Denmark is 14th and Sweden is 6th. (In contrast, the 50 least-developed nations are all highly religious.) Another “summary” measure is The Economist‘s Quality of Life Index, which ranks Denmark and Sweden 9th and 5th in the world.

Wealthiest

Sweden and Denmark are ranked 17th and 18th in GDP per capita, according to the International Monetary Fund. In fact, the list of the top 20 wealthiest nations in the world is dominated by non-religious nations. Denmark and Sweden rank 3rd and 10th in financial satisfaction. Also note that among the 50 poorest countries on Earth, all are extremely religious.

Most democratic

According to World Audit, Denmark and Sweden are the most democractic nations on earth. The Global Democracy Ranking lists them at #1 and #3. The Economist‘s Democracy Index ranks them 1st and 5th.

Most free

The Heritage Foundation ranks Denmark and Sweden 6th and 11th on economic freedom. They rank 8th and 4th in freedom in decision making. Reporters Without Border ranks them 14th and 7th in press freedom, with Freedom House ranking them 3rd and 5th.

Most entrepreneurial

The World Economic Forum ranks nations by economic competitiveness, and nearly all the top spots are dominated by non-religious nations, including Denmark and Sweden. The same story holds for specific measures of entrepreneurship, for example Denmark and Sweden rank among the top 5 nations where it is cheapest to start a new business.

Least corrupt

Transparency International ranks Denmark and Sweden as the 1st and 4th least corrupt nations on earth.

Least violent

Denmark and Sweden both rank low in murders per capita. Both Fox & Levin (2000) and Fajnzylber et. al. (2002) found that all the nations with high homicide rates were extremely religious, and that the nations with the lowest homicide rates tended to be relatively non-religious. Good statistics on other measures like rape and violent crime are difficult to compile because nations measure crime differently, and such statistics are often more a measure of the effectiveness of a nation’s justice system and a culture’s willingness to report crimes than they are a measure of actual incidences of violence.

Most peaceful

Denmark and Sweden rank 2nd and 6th on the Global Peace Index, whose top ranks are dominated by non-religious nations.

Healthiest

Again, according to the 2008 Human Development Report, Denmark and Sweden are ranked among the top 20 nations on life expectancy, and are ranked 3rd and 4th for the lowest infant mortality rates in the world. UNICEF’s 2007 State of the World’s Children report ranks Denmark, Sweden, and the similarly non-religious Netherlands as the three best countries in the world concerning “child welfare” (their safety, education, and health). In terms of physicians per 100,000 people, Denmark is 14th and Sweden is 6th.

Happiest

Ruut Veenhoven, a leading researcher on world happiness, maintains the World Database of Happiness, a ranking of nations by happiness level. Denmark currently ranks 2nd (behind similarly non-religious Iceland), and Sweden ranks 8th. Another ranking has Denmark and Sweden tied for the 2nd happiest nations on earth. Only 5% of Danes and 4% of Swedes report being “not very happy” or “not at all happy.” Nations with high rates of “organic” atheism do tend to have higher rates of suicide than highly religious nations, and this may be partially explained by their progressive policies about assisted suicide and a lack of religious taboos against suicide. That is, organically non-religious societies let people die how they want to die, rather than prohibiting people from taking their own life into their own hands. But the picture here is confusing. Though Denmark and Sweden do rank among the happiest nations on earth according to several studies, they also rank high in depressive episodes per capita. And yet, they rank 1st and 9th in life satisfaction!

Most egalitarian

According to the CIA World Factbook, Denmark and Sweden have the greatest income equality in the world. And once again we find that most of the most equal countries in the world are non-religious. And how about gender equality? Here, it should not surprise anyone that the list of most gender-equal nations is dominated by non-religious societies, including Denmark and Sweden, which also have the 2nd and 4th highest rates of women in positions of national political power (again, see the UN’s Human Development Report).

Best educated

For literacy, Denmark and Sweden are, of course, at 99%. In terms of government investment in education as a percentage of GDP, Denmark and Sweden rank 8th and 12th. In terms of adults who have finished secondary education, they rank 5th and 7th. Also note that of the 50 countries with the lowest adult literacy rates, all are extremely religious.

Most charitable

Denmark and Sweden rank 5th and 1st in official development assistance as a percentage of Gross National Income. Ranked by percentage of population who are members of volunteer organizations, Denmark and Sweden are 16th and 8th.

Environmentally compassionate

According to the Climate Change Performance Index, Sweden is 1st and Denmark is 7th in terms of doing the most to improve environmental conditions. Yale’s Environmental Performance Index ranks Sweden 3rd and Denmark 26th. Ranked by spending on pollution control as a percentage of GDP, these nations rank 8th and 13th. By percentage of of companies found to be environmentally sustainable, they rank 7th and 8th. Once again, a glance at such lists reveals that the top ranks are dominated by non-religious nations.

I repeat: Denmark and Sweden rank among the most well-developed, wealthiest, most democratic, most free, most entrepreneurial, least corrupt, least violent, most peaceful, healthiest, happiest, most egalitarian, best educated, most charitable, and most environmentally compassionate societies in the entire world.

Clearly, religion is not required to sustain healthy, happy, and moral societies.

For the theist, Zuckerman’s book should be an eye-opener. For the atheist, Society without God is a warehouse of ammunition (facts, statistics, and sources) against claims that religion is a necessary ingredient for healthy, happy, and moral society.

By the way, none of this is meant to suggest that atheism causes healthy societies. The correlation between atheism and societal health merely debunks Christian claims that religion is a necessary ingredient in a healthy society. If there is a causal link between the two at all, I would suspect the reverse: that happiness, success, wealth, education, and security tend to open the door for an abandonment of superstitious crutches.

  1. In Defense of the Soul, pages 8-10. []
  2. Here, I’ll reproduce Zuckerman’s sources: Greely (2003) found that 34% of Danes and 26% of Swedes are theists. As for belief in a “personal God,” Botvar (“Kristen tro I Norden” in Folkkyrkor och Religios Pluralism, 2000) found the numbers to be 20% and 18%, Bondeson (2003) measured 51% and 26%, Lambert (2003) measured 24% and 16%. According to Inglehart, similarly low figures are found for belief in life after death (30% and 33%), heaven (18% and 31%), hell (10% and 10%), sin (21% and 26%). Danes and Swedes also don’t believe the Bible is the word of God (7% and 3%, according to Botvar), and they don’t attend religious services (only 12% of Danes and 9% of Swedes attend chuch once a month, according to Inglehart). It should be noted that Norway is also one of the most non-religious nations on earth, and usually ranks similarly to Denmark and Sweden on measures of societal health. That Zuckerman didn’t write a book about Denmark, Sweden, and Norway surprises me. []

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

JohnF August 22, 2009 at 7:32 pm

I read this book a while back and it’s important for people to understand the difference between organic atheism and institutional atheism. The tired argument of Hitler, Mao, etc. is taking the discussion nowhere.
I agree that religion is not necessary for a happy and healthy society but I think the book in general is picking and choosing statistics that show atheism favorably. The only example I’m interested in illustrating is “most charitable” right now.
It is certainly true that the governments of  Sweden and Denmark give more than most developed countries but the individuals don’t hold a candle to the giving power of Americans and even some other developed countries as individual citizens. Americans on average donate more than 3 times than the american government and by most reports remove bureaucracy that eat away at the money. Volunteerism is pretty high in Denmark and Sweden but even then it’s poorly tracked compared to financial charity and there are very mixed reports when tracking it.
It also shouldn’t be surprising that countries with much higher tax rates have higher giving coming from the government simply because they have less money to donate as individuals.
If you really need me to I can dig up the links for this but you can find most of the reports from Arthur Brooks,  John Hopkins, and all kinds of places on the web. It can also open up the whole religious/conservative vs. liberal/secular can of worms but I’m not interested in having a battle of false altruism.
Others like “economic freedom”, ” most entrepreneurial” and especially “most free” are setting qualifications and measurement that is highly debated amongst economists, aside from the fact that the global recession kind of changed the situation on most of Zimmerman’s statistics.
If anything, the book should clearly illustrate that religiosity is not consistent enough to predict any social trending.
Finally to your defense, both Sweden and Denmark rank high in non assisted suicide and depression but they are still relatively low numbers and many studies relate it to weather and other factors. They are not significant to negatively impact the “happiness” index of these countries.
 

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JohnF August 22, 2009 at 7:42 pm

I put Zimmerman instead of Zuckerman… damn I should not have been reading an article about Dylan.  Still, it’s a good book, everyone should read it.

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NiroZ August 22, 2009 at 8:53 pm

As impressive a correlation it is, and indeed it proves that less religious societies can function well, one should be careful not to make the assumption that the less religious the society is, the better the society will function.

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lukeprog August 22, 2009 at 9:00 pm

JohnF,

I’m really not trying to pick and choose. Re: charity. America has the most charitable citizens on earth (though the two largest gifts in history from two American billionaires kinda skews this a bit), but what I’m saying is that Denmark and Sweden are charitable, too. I didn’t say religious countries weren’t charitable.

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foolfodder August 22, 2009 at 11:41 pm

Ok, Ok. Less religion leads to being in the most well-developed, wealthiest, most democratic, most free, most entrepreneurial, least corrupt, least violent, most peaceful, healthiest, happiest, most egalitarian, best educated, most charitable, and most environmentally compassionate societies in the world, but apart from that, what has less religion ever done for us?

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Lorkas August 23, 2009 at 6:14 am

Also note that of the 50 countries with the lowest adult literacy rates, all are extremely religious.

Shouldn’t this be under “Best Educated” instead of “Most Charitable”?

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lukeprog August 23, 2009 at 7:25 am

Lorkas:

Oops! Yes, thanks. Fixed.

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Reginald Selkirk August 23, 2009 at 9:46 am

JohnF: It is certainly true that the governments of Sweden and Denmark give more than most developed countries but the individuals don’t hold a candle to the giving power of Americans and even some other developed countries as individual citizens. Americans on average donate more than 3 times than the american government and by most reports remove bureaucracy that eat away at the money. Volunteerism is pretty high in Denmark and Sweden but even then it’s poorly tracked compared to financial charity and there are very mixed reports when tracking it.

I am not willing to consider a simplistic dollar figure; some religious giving is bad. If the religious are giving money which will fund protests against a woman’s right to control her own body, that is bad, not neutral. If they are giving money which will fund witch-hunting in Africa, that is bad, not neutral. That giving should count against them.
 

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Reginald Selkirk August 23, 2009 at 9:49 am

foolfodder: Ok, Ok. Less religion leads to…

Correlation is not causation. I don’t think Lukeprog is positing such a cause and effect, he is merely rebutting the argument that religion is essential for a good society.
 

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John August 23, 2009 at 5:17 pm

Reginald Selkirk: I am not willing to consider a simplistic dollar figure; some religious giving is bad. If the religious are giving money which will fund protests against a woman’s right to control her own body, that is bad, not neutral. If they are giving money which will fund witch-hunting in Africa, that is bad, not neutral. That giving should count against them.

Then you are just making up the rules as you see fit and much like religion, your claims become unfalsifiable. I sincerely doubt you like that.  You can’t start saying that charity is only good when it goes to things you approve of.  Of course some relativism is required, but charity is not measured by any sociologist or economist based on the outcome or intent. It would be absurd to do so.
Some people think African aid is bad because it is often not the most efficient choice for the money. Some people argue that much government charity should be scrutinized because it is ultimately a thinly veiled political and financial investment.
The bottom line is your self evident rules of what is good charity and bad charity is anything but self evident and you have no logically sound case for arguing such in the infinitely deep pool of ethics and morality.
For what it’s worth, I have a personal distaste for a lot of religious charity as well. I especially don’t like that the most charitable people in the American per capita are also the poorest. I honestly think they should invest more in themselves not to mention my suspicions on the disingenuous reasons on why they give.


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Ben August 23, 2009 at 5:22 pm

Luke,
 
Did you have any issues with the book?
 
Ben

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lukeprog August 23, 2009 at 9:26 pm

Ben,

Actually, much of the book was taken up by accounts of his in-depth interviews. I found these parts of the book much less interesting than the facts & statistics parts. Also, I wish he had studied atheistic societies more broadly; not just Denmark and Sweden.

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Taranu August 24, 2009 at 6:33 am

Luke, You Tube user “drcraigvideos” uploaded a video called Christians give more to charity than Atheists. As it happened before I don’t know why I cannot link posts from this user to your blog, but anyway,  I think you should check it out, Craig always has something challenging to say.
 

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Reginald Selkirk August 24, 2009 at 8:48 am

John: You can’t start saying that charity is only good when it goes to things you approve of.

Who says that funding witch-hunting in Africa is a good thing?
 

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John August 24, 2009 at 11:10 am

Reginald Selkirk: Who says that funding witch-hunting in Africa is a good thing?

Many people who don’t actually know they are funding such a thing. There a plenty of ignorant old ladies out there who funnel money to dubious “christian” charities all the time.
They don’t know exactly what they are funding and are conned into donating money to a cause they think is about feeding the poor and hungry.
If you gave money to your government and a portion is spent making weapons that ultimately kill  innocent children, are you morally responsible for that? Should you be charged with assisted homicide?
You act as if the actual intent of many charities is to do evil.
I understand your disdain for ignorant religious people but its not even remotely localized to religious charity. Many “charities” are often about everything but helping their fellow man.

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Reginald Selkirk August 24, 2009 at 1:29 pm

John: Many people who don’t actually know they are funding such a thing. There a plenty of ignorant old ladies out there who funnel money to dubious “christian” charities all the time. They don’t know exactly what they are funding and are conned into donating money to a cause they think is about feeding the poor and hungry. If you gave money to your government and a portion is spent making weapons that ultimately kill innocent children, are you morally responsible for that? Should you be charged with assisted homicide? You act as if the actual intent of many charities is to do evil. I understand your disdain for ignorant religious people but its not even remotely localized to religious charity. Many “charities” are often about everything but helping their fellow man.

1) There is a distinction between not knowing something, and thinking it is good. You seem to gloss over it.
2) As for the use of my tax money, I am not given a choice. Charitable contributions are voluntary.
3) Witch-hunting in Africa is evil. If religious charities knowingly fund such activities, then they are doing evil.

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John August 24, 2009 at 3:12 pm

 

Reginald Selkirk: 1) There is a distinction between not knowing something, and thinking it is good. You seem to gloss over it.

On the contrary, I’m trying to highlight that very distinction and highlight the fact that most people think they are doing good whenever they give to charity no matter what qualifications you put on it.

You create an arbitrary (really magical)  level of reason that everyone on the planet must somehow have so that anyone hunting witches deep down knows they are evil and continue to do it anyway.
I’m sure you yourself have met incredibly misguided people who are doing what seem to be clearly negligent acts yet you learn they at least think they are doing good.
I don’t think mothers are doing evil when they refuse vaccination for their children.  I just think they are misguided and that sadly it can have tragic results.
As far as government giving, I don’t consider taxes “giving” and was not discussing such.

 

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lukeprog August 24, 2009 at 4:57 pm

Taranu,

I wonder if churches are considered charities. If so, then this is no surprise. Christians believe there is a God-given law demanding that they give to churches. (At least, this is a popular modern interpretation.)

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John August 24, 2009 at 5:15 pm

 

lukeprog: Taranu,I wonder if churches are considered charities. If so, then this is no surprise. Christians believe there is a God-given law demanding that they give to churches. (At least, this is a popular modern interpretation.)

 
 
Churches are considered charities but religious people in the U.S. (which is the talked about statistic given the high religiosity and wealth of the country) give more to secular charities than non religious as well.
 
I don’t really think it makes them better people by any stretch nor do I even believe many religious people who give should be giving as much.
 
Arthur C. Brooks book Who Really Cares? is the easiest source for a lot of it, though much like Zuckerman there are real liberties taken with some ot the statistical analysis.
 
In defense of a lot of church charity though, it is in many cases the most efficient form because much of the labor is free and the money often goes to hard goods like food and clothing. There is some dirty proselytizing but some studies had shown that it was not the majority of religious aid.
 

 

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lukeprog August 24, 2009 at 9:32 pm

John,

Thanks for the info!

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Michael September 3, 2009 at 9:55 pm

Great post, thanks for submitting to the COTG.
I think your last paragraph is especially important in that it’s much more plausible that having a healthy society led to a decline in religion — and when counteracting theist arguments it’s very easy to get into a wording that puts the cart before the horse.

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Mark November 30, 2009 at 2:56 pm

“So, what do the data show about the health, happiness and morality of these non-religious societies? The data could hardly be clearer. Denmark and Sweden rank among the most well-developed, wealthiest, most democratic, most free, most entrepreneurial, least corrupt, least violent, most peaceful, healthiest, happiest, most egalitarian, best educated, most charitable, and most environmentally compassionate societies in the entire world.

The data hath spoken! Uptopia! W00t!!

So what the $#%@ are you waiting for Luke? Move there today! Sounds like paradise!

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lukeprog November 30, 2009 at 8:49 pm

Problem is, Scandinavia is cold.

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Rob January 7, 2010 at 1:14 pm

I haven’t read the preceding comments, as I suppose I should, but it might be worth mentioning that most of these relatively flourishing “atheistic” or “non-religious” nations are post-Christian nations, and that their current state bears a crucial relation to a heritage constituted by beliefs and values peculiar to Judeo-Christian theism. Which is why it might make sense for an atheist to encourage Christianity in Africa ( –at least of a variety, of course, which doesn’t collude with and inflame existing evils).

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