Correlations Between Religion or Secularism and Social Problems Across Developed Democracies

While searching for time series data on religiosity in the United States, I stumbled on this article entitled Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies in the Journal of Religion and Society. I wasn’t familiar with the journal, but to someone as ignorant about the topic as I, its a fascinating article with some fascinating graphs toward the end. (I would have cut out and posted a few but couldn’t figure out how.) And since it touches on some themes I’ve looked at in my Comparing Presidents series, I figured it was worth commenting on here. Anyway, some exerpts:

Among the developed democracies absolute belief in God, attendance of religious services and Bible literalism vary over a dozenfold, atheists and agnostics five fold, prayer rates fourfold, and acceptance of evolution almost twofold. Japan, Scandinavia, and France are the most secular nations in the west, the United States is the only prosperous first world nation to retain rates of religiosity otherwise limited to the second and third worlds…

Correlations between popular acceptance of human evolution and belief in and worship of a creator and Bible literalism are negative (Figure 1). The least religious nation, Japan, exhibits the highest agreement with the scientific theory, the lowest level of acceptance is found in the most religious developed democracy, the U.S.

Despite a significant decline from a recent peak in the 1980s (Rosenfeld), the U.S. is the only prosperous democracy that retains high homicide rates, making it a strong outlier in this regard (Beeghley; Doyle, 2000). Similarly, theistic Portugal also has rates of homicides well above the secular developed democracy norm. Mass student murders in schools are rare, and have subsided somewhat since the 1990s, but the U.S. has experienced many more (National School Safety Center) than all the secular developed democracies combined.

The positive correlation between pro-theistic factors and juvenile mortality is remarkable, especially regarding absolute belief, and even prayer (Figure 4). Life spans tend to decrease as rates of religiosity rise (Figure 5), especially as a function of absolute belief. Denmark is the only exception. Unlike questionable small-scale epidemiological studies by Harris et al. and Koenig and Larson, higher rates of religious affiliation, attendance, and prayer do not result in lower juvenile-adult mortality rates on a cross-national basis.

Although the late twentieth century STD epidemic has been curtailed in all prosperous democracies (Aral and Holmes; Panchaud et al.), rates of adolescent gonorrhea infection remain six to three hundred times higher in the U.S. than in less theistic, pro-evolution secular developed democracies (Figure 6). At all ages levels are higher in the U.S., albeit by less dramatic amounts. The U.S. also suffers from uniquely high adolescent and adult syphilis infection rates, which are starting to rise again as the microbe’s resistance increases (Figure 7). The two main curable STDs have been nearly eliminated in strongly secular Scandinavia. Increasing adolescent abortion rates show positive correlation with increasing belief and worship of a creator, and negative correlation with increasing non-theism and acceptance of evolution; again rates are uniquely high in the U.S. (Figure 8). Claims that secular cultures aggravate abortion rates (John Paul II) are therefore contradicted by the quantitative data. Early adolescent pregnancy and birth have dropped in the developed democracies (Abma et al.; Singh and Darroch), but rates are two to dozens of times higher in the U.S. where the decline has been more modest (Figure 9). Broad correlations between decreasing theism and increasing pregnancy and birth are present, with Austria and especially Ireland being partial exceptions. Darroch et al. found that age of first intercourse, number of sexual partners and similar issues among teens do not exhibit wide disparity or a consistent pattern among the prosperous democracies they sampled, including the U.S. A detailed comparison of sexual practices in France and the U.S. observed little difference except that the French tend – contrary to common impression – to be somewhat more conservative (Gagnon et al.).

In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies (Figures 1-9). The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is exceptional, but not in the manner Franklin predicted. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly.

No democracy is known to have combined strong religiosity and popular denial of evolution with high rates of societal health. Higher rates of non-theism and acceptance of human evolution usually correlate with lower rates of dysfunction, and the least theistic nations are usually the least dysfunctional. None of the strongly secularized, pro-evolution democracies is experiencing high levels of measurable dysfunction.

In my series on Presidents, I noted that in many instances, outcomes matching the values of those who vote Republican (both in terms of social values (e.g., abortions, marriage rates, etc.) and most economic values) were more likely to be achieved under Democratic Presidents. So this next item was especially interesting to me:

Indeed, the data examined in this study demonstrates that only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical “cultures of life” that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion. The least theistic secular developed democracies such as Japan, France, and Scandinavia have been most successful in these regards. The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted. Contradicting these conclusions requires demonstrating a positive link between theism and societal conditions in the first world with a similarly large body of data – a doubtful possibility in view of the observable trends.

I should also note… countries used in the survey were: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Great Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Japan, Switzerland, Norway, Portugal, Austria, Spain, Italy, United States, Sweden, and New Zealand.