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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Transparency International ranks Denmark and Sweden as the 1st and 4th least corrupt nations on earth.
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.
Denmark and Sweden rank 2nd and 6th on the Global Peace Index, whose top ranks are dominated by non-religious nations.
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.
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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
- In Defense of the Soul, pages 8-10. [↩]
- 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. [↩]