Wednesday, December 12, 2012

You can be good without religion

Many people have suggested that society needs religion to be good. In contrast, I think there's some decent evidence that more secular societies are better in many ways. According to The Moral Landscape, location 2557-62 on the kindle version:
And on almost every measure of societal health, the least religious countries are better off than the most religious. Countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands—which are the most atheistic societies on earth—consistently rate better than religious nations on measures like life expectancy, infant mortality, crime, literacy, GDP, child welfare, economic equality, economic competitiveness, gender equality, health care, investments in education, rates of university enrollment, internet access, environmental protection, lack of corruption, political stability, and charity to poorer nations, etc.
He cites  "Society without God" by Phil Zuckerman.

Now I'm not saying that atheism is for everyone; I think many people are actually better off religious, whether you're better off religious depends a lot on your personal circumstances and background. But I do see this as good evidence that as America becomes more secular, it's not going to fall apart. It's entirely possible to have a good, non-religious society, and to be a good non-religious member of society. Many deists, atheists, and non-religious individuals have made very substantial contributions to society. I'll list a few of my favorites:

  • Thomas Jefferson
  • James Madison
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Albert Einstein (seriously, I promise he didn't believe in a religious God)
  • Charles Darwin
  • Stephen Hawking
  • Bill Nye
  • A couple of my heroes, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett
  • George Soros
So there's no lack of awesome non-religious role models out there, including many of the founders of this country, our most prominent scientists, and the most generous philanthropists in the world. I hope that as America becomes more tolerant and diverse, that non-religious individuals and atheists like myself will be as accepted and trusted as religious individuals.


gavinomics said...

Do you admire anyone that is religious? If so, who?

Bennion said...

Sure. The Dalai Lama would be a prime example.

I admire great people for their good attributes, even if they have attributes I don't like. For example, Isaac Newton's scientific contributions astound me and inspire profound admiration, although he in other ways I think he was completely bonkers. Same with Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and many others.

The main point of my post, though, is to push back against people who think that if the country becomes less religious then it'll fall apart, or that non-religious people are less trustworthy.

gavinomics said...

I have never read Harris mostly because the impression I get from other thinkers is that his arguments are so embarrassingly bad. Perhaps that is a reflection of the type of philosophers and authors that I read—many who are non-religious though—but it seems that I have heard it from a few different authors so I never bothered reading anything by Harris.

As for his argument about scandinavian countries, it may be true that they have some of the aspects of "societal health" that Harris mentions, but I don't see much connection with religion. Take crime for example, my understanding is that crime is more prevalent in countries with high immigration and mobility. Immigration to America is much higher than immigration in the scandinavian countries mentioned. This evidence counts a big defeater to Harris' argument that religion causes crime. Also, if these Scandinavian countries are so great, why aren't immigrants trying so desperately to get into them.

Now crime happens to affect life expectancy. But, if you factor out crime and car accidents and factor in child deaths from other countries to more accurately reflect the statistics, then America has the highest life expectancy in the world (maybe Japan is a bit higher).

Religious America is also happier than the Scandinavian countries mentioned. In fact "Religious people are nearly twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives as are secularists (43 percent to 23 percent)" —

Also, according to social scientist Patrick Fagan, kids who come from a family of much higher religious activity (regardless the religion) do better in school even when correcting for socioeconomic status. Religious children have lower rates of getting expelled or suspended from school. They have lower rates of theft, crime, drug and alcohol abuse. The more religious a women is, the more likely she is to get a bachelors degree. Among adults, more religious activity is strongly correlated with lower rates of adultery, and crime, and higher degrees of education.

Now you may say that correlation does not prove causation which is an appropriate objection, but if I can't use it, then it is not appropriate for Sam Harris to use it in the other direction. I only mentioned crime and life expectancy. I think it wouldn't be too hard to cast doubt on some of the other "societal health" indicators that Harris mentioned.

Bennion said...


I've enjoyed reading Sam Harris's books, although he doesn't build off any of the traditional moral philosophy literature, and writes simply for non-philosophers. I understand why traditional philosophers might not like that.

I personally do see some connection with religion, although I'm not certain which way the causation runs. Generally societies with a high level of social security have lower religious belief. I think that's partially because people with a lot of uncertainty in their lives need religion to cope with it. There's some research to support this.

I think immigrants aren't pursuing the Scandinavian countries because they want to go somewhere with large communities of their own culture. A lot of immigrants come here because of its physical proximity to Mexico, and we already have big communities of Mexicans and Hispanics. The Scandinavian countries have tough immigration policies are very far north.

Your data that results in America having the highest life expectancy in the world sounds a bit cherry-picked to me, but it could be a consequence of our very high healthcare spending.

As for the supposedly link between the religious and happiness, I quote Psychology Today:

"In religious countries, including the U.S., religious people describe themselves as happier (1). In relatively godless countries, such as the Netherlands, or Denmark, religious people are not happier (2).

This striking inconsistency between the U.S. and godless countries may have a fairly simple explanation. Religious people are in the majority in the U.S., but in a minority in Denmark and the Netherlands. Feeling part of the mainstream may be comforting whereas being in the minority is stressful...

According to Gallup data for 2010, the happiest nations were Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands."

I do think religion and conservative ideology have some comforting effects, because they believe people get what they deserve (in the next life if not in this one), God is just, charity doesn't help people, etc. But these effects are not huge on their overall happiness level.

As for the last statistics, I think they're mostly wrong. I'll list a few findings and a source:

"And within America, the states with the highest murder rates tend to be the highly religious, such as Louisiana and Alabama, but the states with the lowest murder rates tend to be the among the least religious in the country, such as Vermont and Oregon.

And these findings are not limited to murder rates, as rates of all violent crime tend to be higher in 'religious' states. Zuckerman also points out that atheists are very much under-represented in the American prison population (only 0.2%).

Zuckerman cites a 1999 Barna study that finds that atheists and agnostics actually have lower divorce rates than religious Americans.

He also cites another study, in Canada, that found conservative Christian women experienced higher rates of domestic violence than non-affiliated women.

...teens who make religion-inspired 'virginity pledges' are not only just as likely as their non-pledging peers to engage in premarital sex, but more likely to engage in unprotected sex."

So in the end, we can probably both agree that there is some doubt about the effects caused by religion. Some effects are probably good, some are probably bad. All I'm asking is that religious people don't treat non-religious people or atheists with suspicion or distrust, and maybe stop lamenting the increasing secularity of America as something horrible that's going to ruin America.

gavinomics said...

I wish I had time to respond to this. Hopefully, I will find some time this weekend. I like the topics you address. They are worth talking about.

gavinomics said...

I do have one quick thought before I return to the sociology conversation.
People like me are not so much concerned about the honest individual atheist, but we are concerned about the rise of secularism in general. One reason is that we see many atheist groups as very intolerant. It seems that they are far more intolerant of religious people than religious people are intolerant of atheists. We see many atheist groups as trying to use coercion from government to banish all public displays of our religious heritage and tradition. We see atheists as stifling our right to free and public speech and even the right to conscience. I don't see comparable activism against atheism from religious groups. That is why many are concerned about the rise of secularism.

Bennion said...

I could not disagree more. It's weird to hear someone who is part of the 73% Christian majority worry that the less than 2% of the population who are declared atheists are being intolerant of his beliefs. It's the atheists who are perhaps the most distrusted minority group in America, and the ones who bravely fight to be treated neutrally by their government often experience intense persecution and rejection from their communities. If you think the Christians are more tolerant of atheists than vice versa, you probably are unaware of what many of these atheists go through. I'll try to gather some of the more touching stories I've heard and post some later.

gavinomics said...

Its not a matter of distrust. I don't understand what trust has to do with this topic.

Its a matter of "wow, look how much influence less than 2% of the population has over the rest of us when they use the law to promote their agenda."

By the way, I think that you are probably more tolerant than most atheists, and perhaps most Christians.

Bennion said...

It all has to do with acceptance, and trust is part of that.

Yes, atheists do have a large influence on the population, but then the population is made of lots of small minority groups and they are all protected when the government must be neutral. Heck, one of the families that sued a Texas school to stop prayers in 1995 was a Mormon family. In order for minority religions to really be fully accepted at schools, the school needs to be neutral towards all religions. The lawsuits that are keeping the government neutral on religion are protecting you too.

If you read many of the stories of the atheists and others that start lawsuits, you'll be shocked by the level of intolerance shown by many Christians.

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