Religion and prosperity

It is well documented that less religious nations tend to be more prosperous. This is most true of the advanced democracies, but also usually holds elsewhere – see how officially atheistic China outperforms more pious India.
The trend tends to hold up within countries too: the most irreligious US states are better off than the most theistic. And over time, the global rise in nonreligion parallels that of the middle class. The big debate is not whether mass nontheism is better for societies than belief in the gods, but why the connection exists. A new study attempts to answer this. (Science Advances,

One possibility is that the better people feel they are doing, the less they feel the need to seek the aid and comfort of deities. Consumerism also converts many from frugal, pious churchgoers into irreligious materialists. In this case, religion is merely the victim of modernity. Another idea is that secularisation precedes and even drives socioeconomic gain. The latest paper backs this idea, using analysis of socioeconomic patterns in the 1900s, when theism really started to nosedive.

It finds that in most nations, and the planet as a whole, secularisation ran ahead of socioeconomic gains. It makes a good case, but I wonder if the measurements of secularisation and socioeconomics it uses are sufficient in scope to tell the horse from the cart in this way. And it is notable that the rapid rise in US nonreligion in the past decade or so, from 30 per cent to 40 per cent, is long after economic modernity.

Ultimately, the analysis suggests that the rise in personal and societal freedoms affects dogmatic spiritualistic religion (the extreme sects, American evangelicals etc) while also promoting capitalism, which tends to make lives better. Add the fast-growing set of nontheistic parents producing nonreligious children, and it looks like a potent feedback.

While we can argue over the details, the analysis is yet another science-based blow to the idea that religion is inherent and vital to individuals and societies. Instead, a world afflicted with religious strife needs to know that there is not a single example of a modern democracy that is highly religious and highly successful.

(This article appeared in print under the headline “Beyond belief” in Science Advances, and in The Week. Gregory Paul is an independent US scientist, author and palaeozoologist).

My comment: I believe one can be kind, thoughtful, generous, respectful, polite, forgiving, a good citizen and neighbor, and (hopefully) good natured without the intervention of a deity and without spending Sunday mornings in church. I personally support the absolute right of anyone to espouse organized religion if that offers peace and reassurance – just don’t sit in judgement of others.

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