It is said over and over again by religious conservatives: without faith in God, society will fall apart. If we don't worship God, pray to God, and place God at the central heart of our culture, things will get ugly.
In his classic Reflections on the French Revolution, Edmund Burke argued that religion was the underlying basis of civil social order. Voltaire, the celebrated Enlightenment philosopher, argued that without theism society could not function; it is necessary for people to have “profoundly engraved on their minds the idea of a Supreme being and creator” in order to maintain a moral social order. Alexis de Tocqueville similarly argued that religious faith is “indispensable” for a well-functioning society, that irreligion is a “dangerous” and “pernicious” threat to societal well-being, and that non-believers are to be regarded as “natural enemies” of social harmony.
More recently, Newt Gingrich has argued that any country that attempts to “drive God out of public life” will surely face all kinds of social problems, and a secular country would be “frankly, a nightmare.” Indeed, in the aftermath of the wanton massacre of schoolchildren in Newton, Connecticut, Newt Gingrich publicly proclaimed that such violence was the obvious and inevitable result of secularism in our society. Mike Huckabee agreed.
Religion – or so the age-old hypothesis goes – is therefor a necessary glue for keeping society together. And conversely, secularism is a danger to societal well-being. For if people turn away from God and stop being religious, then crime will go up, corruption will increase, perversion will percolate, decency will diminish, and all manifestations of misery and malfeasance will predominate.
It is an interesting hypothesis. Perpetually-touted. And wrong.
Consider, for instance, the latest special report just put out by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (and recently summarized on the website 24/7wallstreet.com), which lists the ten states with the worst/best quality of life. According to this multivariate analysis which takes into account a plethora of indicators of societal well-being, those states in America with the worst quality of life tend to be among the most God-loving/most religious (such as Mississippi and Alabama), while those states with the best quality of life tend to among the least God-loving/least religious (such as Vermont and New Hampshire).
If you are curious as to which states are the most/least religious, simply check out the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey. It’s all there. And then you can go ahead and check out how the various states are faring in terms of societal well-being. The correlation is clear and strong: the more secular tend to fare better than the more religious on a vast host of measures, including homicide and violent crime rates, poverty rates, obesity and diabetes rates, child abuse rates, educational attainment levels, income levels, unemployment rates, rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy, etc. You name it: on nearly every sociological measure of well-being, you’re most likely to find the more secular states with the lowest levels of faith in God and the lowest rates of church attendance faring the best and the most religious states with the highest levels of faith in God and rates of church attendance faring the worst.
And guess what? The correlation holds internationally, as well.
As I’ve discussed in my book Society Without God, and as I extensively elaborate on in my newest book Living the Secular Life, those democratic nations today that are the most secular, such as Scandinavia, Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, etc., are faring much better on nearly every single indicator of well-being imaginable than the most religious nations on earth today, such as Colombia, Jamaica, El Salvador, Yemen, Malawi, Pakistan, the Philippines, etc.
As University of London professor Stephen Law has observed, “if declining levels of religiosity were the main cause of…social ills, we should expect those countries that are now the least religious to have the greatest problems. The reverse is true.”
Consider some specific examples.
The Save the Children Foundation publishes an annual “Mother’s Index,” wherein they rank the best and worst places on earth in which to be a mother. And the best are almost always among the most secular nations on earth, while the worst are among the most devout. The non-profit organization called Vision of Humanity publishes an annual “Global Peace Index.” And according to their rankings, the most peaceful nations on earth are almost all among the most secular, while the least peaceful are almost all among the most religious. According to the United Nations 2011 Global Study on Homicide, of the top-10 nations with the highest intentional homicide rates, all are very religious/theistic nations, but of those at bottom of the list – the nations on earth with the lowest homicide rates -- nearly all are very secular nations.
Heck, look where Ebola is currently wrecking havoc? It isn’t in highly secular Sweden. Or highly secular Estonia. No – it is in various African nations where God is heavily worshipped, church is heavily attended, and pray is heavily engaged in.
* * *
Do societies fall apart when they become more secular? Clearly not.
And thus, the age-old hypothesis that religion is a necessary requirement for a sound, safe, and healthy society can and should be put safely to sleep in the musty bed of other such flagrant fallacies.