Question of the week: Religiosity and Social Dysfunction

And now it’s time for a tougher question.

Many religious people of the Abrahamic tradition (which means Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) claim that the belief in God is important because such belief is necessary to produce a healthy, peaceful, just, law-abiding, and even economically prosperous society. It is further claimed that the absence of religious belief will contribute strongly to social dysfunction. This is an idea with deep roots especially in America. For example, Benjamin Franklin stated that “religion will be a powerful regulator of our actions, give us peace and tranquility within our minds, and render us benevolent, useful, and beneficial to others.” The national mythology of America has from the beginning included the idea that America is an “exceptional” society, a “shining city on the hill” which serves as an example to the world of what a Godly, peaceful and prosperous society is like.

Today, organisations like the Discovery Institute work to undermine confidence in Darwinian evolution science, and to promote creationism and intelligent design, precisely because of the hypothesis that overt religiosity is socially beneficial, and that a secular society will degenerate into chaos. Indeed the social benefits of faith are sometimes taken as evidence for the existence of God, when other forms of scientific evidence are unavailable or doubtful. Numerous surveys also show that many people in America believe that religiosity is necessary for peace and prosperity in society.

However, at this time I have been able to find only one professional sociology essay which puts this hypothesis to the test: “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies” by Gregory Paul, published in the Journal of Religion and Society, 2005. in this essay, the author compares the rate of belief in God to several indicators of social health, such as the rates of murders, youth crime, STD infections, teenage pregnancies, and abortions. What he found was exactly the opposite of what the religious conservatives would expect: he found that the higher the rate of religiosity in a prosperous democratic country, the higher the rate of social dysfunction. Here is a quote:

Although they are by no means utopias, the populations of secular democracies are clearly able to govern themselves and maintain societal cohesion. 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 acheiving 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 social disaster is therefore refuted.

Read the whole essay here. A similar conclusion was also reached in a book-length treatment by Phil Zukerman, which was discussed in a recent edition of the New York Times.

My question is: Given this statistical correlation between religious belief and social dysfunction, would Pagans be any better than Christians, Jews, or Muslims at delivering a peaceful and healthy society? Even if judged by our own standards? I must admit, I have my doubts.


Many pagans claim that since we are less judgmental and more celebratory, less dogmatic and more open-minded, that we would be immune from such problems. Most pagans are strongly individualist, and don’t wish to impose their values on the world in an evangelical way. We don’t have an equivalent of the Ten Commandments, nor a body of texts which are treated as a “Word of God” scripture by nearly everyone. We are concerned mainly with our own spiritual experiences, and we usually share them with a small circle of personal friends and family. Therefore, many would want to say that Pagan beliefs would not result in higher rates of social dysfunction.

Yet Pagans sometimes reason remarkably similarly about the social benefits of their beliefs. For instance, an anonymous comment on this very blog observed that the practice of ritual can have a beneficial therapeutic effect. Furthermore, the pagan movement does have social and political values. Many pagans will describe religious reasons for their commitment to feminism, animal rights, environmentalism, socialism, libertarianism, or even anarchy. Thus the claim that pagans care only about their own spiritual development is not strictly true; not all the time.

Furthermore, the pagan movement is also replete with dysfunction, from gossip and rumour-mongering to prestige-competition and psychological manipulation. Here in southern Ontario the witch-warring and “bitch-craft” is fairly minimal. But in other pagan communities I’ve visited or been a part of, the witch-warring has taken the form of arson attacks, death threats, litigation in the courts, and character assassination in the mainstream news media. Widespread belief in many gods, in magic and the supernatural, in fate and destiny, in karma, and so on, has not delivered the Golden Age. Will it ever? Why? Or, why not?

Don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of things about pagan culture that I really like. I find it very uplifting to seek Imbas in the forests with the Druids. I love feasting, drinking, and singing with the Asatru. I’m delighted by the re-enactment of mediaeval fertility customs like mummers plays and morris dancing. I love performing at bardic circles, and drumming at the fire pit at the camps. Like many, I once hoped for the day when we could create a self-sustaining pagan community, founded upon pagan values. Nowadays, I worry that if such a community was ever built, it would probably be hell.

I thank my friend Helmut for bring Gregory Paul’s essay to my attention a few months ago. I also tip my hat to Jason, who in yesterday’s installment of the Wild Hunt Blog discussed a similar issue.

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10 Responses to Question of the week: Religiosity and Social Dysfunction

  1. darakat_ewr says:

    It was Marx who said that “Religion is the opiate for the masses” and by that means he was talking about how one could use religion to keep the “masses” from thoughts of revolt, anger or dissociation with the state. And in such a phrase he was pretty right, we have the dark ages as a prime example of the state keeping the “masses” in check using religion as a means of control. Of course the printing press put a stop to that. We have seen this sort of thing time and time again as suicide “cults” continue to occur. Studies have shown it takes an average of three days for most people to be turned into completely loyal will-kill-themselves-for-god fanatic. With such a powerful tool one could easily take over the world…
    Of course mainstream secularism currently holds a tentative grip on the mainstream world, but for how long?

    The idea of a pagan nation isn’t a new one, nor is it particularly note worthy. Such a community is unlikely to be built on anything more then a wing and a prayer. With such diversity and so many “experts”, and no leader, we are unlikely to become a cult. But we are likely to tear ourselves apart at the seams. If one “path” of pagans decided they are big enough and ugly enough to look after themselves I am certain it wouldn’t be long before they were declared a cult and all hell breaks loose.

    The question should really be, do we really want such a place? Sure I have dreamed the dream of a place were the mead flows freely, the vegetables are organic, etc. etc. But such a place isn’t reality, its not a likely reality since we in-fight, argue, and above all can’t agree on what a pagan is! We need to focus on ourselves, our community as it is now. We certainly need to work on what is happening next month, or year, what things we intend to do, how we intend to do them, and above all how we can make them better next year.

  2. Anonymous says:

    (My apologies if this has already gone through – I received an error message and was not sure.)

    I’m not sure which way causality goes in this situation. On the one hand, dysfunctional and impoverished societies tend not just to /be/ more religious, but to /become/ more religious as their problems escalate. The reverse is true for prosperous societies. This suggests that religion is the consequence, not the cause, of troubled circumstances, and I can see why this would be so. A person whose life is fairly unproblematic and satisfying to them, has no reason to earnestly pursue ‘something more.’ But for someone whose life is an insoluble problem, that ‘something more’ may be all they have.

    (As an aside, this seems to make sense of the Dutchman’s embarrasment at having professed to believe – if religion is a coping mechanism, a sign of distress, then saying you believe is equivalent to weeping publically, an expression of weakness.)

    But I can construct arguments for the reverse. Religion is defined many ways, none of them entirely satisfying, but one of the best ones I’ve found is this: a religion is a conception of the most important things in life, and how one should act as a consequence. Religion, in short, is a set of priorities. From that view, Scandanavia does in fact have a ‘religion’, but it is ‘civil religion’ – traditions and customs promoting civic (as opposed to private) virtue and community cohesiveness. This is exactly the kind of ‘religion’ that would create a healthy, functional society. By contrast, the religious priorities of America are either irrelevant to social stability (personal devotion to a deity, sexual asceticism) or likely to detract from it (loyalty to bitterly combative religious and political factions). By these lights, it’s not religion or lack thereof that correlates with a healthy society, but whether your religion has its priorities straight. Arguably, any religion that /didn’t/ prioritize social behaviour over belief would be a hindrance, by distracting people from what is actually most helpful.

    I still think that economic conditions tend to drive social (and religious) development, rather than the other way around. But, that said, I’d be terrified of a society where Pagan priorities dominated. On the one hand, I’d love to see environmental stewardship and a more wholesome attitude towards sexuality prevail. On the other hand, Pagans are some of the most asocial people I’ve ever met – not unfriendly, but individualistic in the extreme. When leadership, shared norms of behaviour, interdependence, and collective identity are seen as necessary evils at best – or where the existence of conflict and disagreement is seen as reasons not to try to get along, rather than as inevitable challenges to be dealt with – there can be no ‘society’.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Templeton Foundaton

    You are very mistaken in your accusations against the Templeton Foundation. We invest seriously and substantially in evolutionary biology and are busy celebrating the Darwin anniversary with public programs and major new research initiatives. To see an overview of the work we support in the life sciences, see our 2008 Capabilities Report: http://www.templeton.org/capabilities_2008/LifeScience.html
    For one of our many Darwin year initiatives, visit: http://www.templeton.org/darwin 200.

    Gary Rosen
    Chief External Affairs Officer
    John Templeton Foundation

    • admin says:

      Re: Templeton Foundaton

      Hello Gary,

      May I say I’m very impressed with how quickly this reply appeared.

      I chose to mention the Templeton Foundation mainly because Gregory Paul mentions them in his aforementioned study, published in the J of Religion & Society. You can see this for yourself: I have provided the link in the body of the blog post.

      If you request it, I’m prepared to study the links you provided and to alter my blog post if necessary.

      As the holder of a doctorate in Environmental Ethics, and with experience working as a “freelance researcher” with clients that have included the Government of Canada, I am also willing to offer the Templeton Foundation my services. Email me privately, and I will be happy to send you my academic C.V.

      Brendan Myers, Ph.D

  4. dubhlainn says:

    To me, this seems to be a macro-discussion of the the idea that if one converts or takes on a specific religious viewpoint all their problems will be solved. Life just doesn’t work that way. However religious belief may indeed help us deal with those problems. So while no, wide spread belief in any religious tradition will not lead us to peace and greater health but a religious landscape where individuals are free to find and express what-ever religious system works for them (or lack there of) that inspires them and helps them envision a better future may indeed inspire people to work towards such a goal.

    This is certainly not the religious landscape in the US where many Pagans (and other minority religious peoples) continue to hide their religious viewpoints and associations for fear of harm.

  5. alfrecht says:

    I think the way you’ve phrased the initial proposition, which is the way it is phrased in all the cases I’ve heard it from the proponents of “faith as panacea to society’s ills,” is actually the problem itself: belief in God is important to producing healthy, peaceful, just, law-abiding citizens, etc.

    As I’ve mentioned on many other occasions, I think religion is better served by not being inextricably tied in people’s minds, or in their supposed practices, to the concept of belief, or of the necessity of a creedal basis for things.

    So, instead of working to teach virtue, ethical decision-making, understanding through experience, and so forth, instead specifics of indoctrination are instead emphasized, one’s sins being forgiven one is instead the cure-all, and people without adequate information or the ability to make a moral decision and not be swayed by the overabundance of their repressed desires in a moment of stupidity and weakness end up with lots of teenage pregnancies and STDs (because “God forbid they even know about contraception or prophylactics”), child abuse of all sorts, lapses in business ethics and financial solvency, and any number of other social ills which are rather rampant in the U.S., as one example. (And, as I’m sure you’re aware, Ireland as well…though many folks in Ireland think they’re as “secular as France” [HA!], with Catholicism still running something like 90% of schools in the country, that’s a big problem…)

    Having said that, I’m not certain that many pagans would be able to do better. The number of pagans who get into the act in order to have sex with random people for ritual reasons and the like is still higher than it ought to be…and that’s just for starters…

  6. earthmystic says:

    Brendan, thanks for a thoughtful post. I’m of the opinion that the worst thing that ever happened to Christianity was the Constantinian Shift — as a religion, it is far more effective as an underground movement, functioning on the margins of society. As soon as it got a whiff of social prestige, it quickly began to ape the organizational structure of the Roman Empire, and … well, the rest is history.

    When I was active in the Neopagan community, friends and I would talk about what Paganism would look like in 2000 years — and our biggest fear was that it would eventually achieve the same kind of sociopolitical hegemony that Christianity has enjoyed for the past 1500 years. We felt that a politically dominant Paganism would eventually sell out its soul, quite similar to what has transpired in Christianity.

    I think Christians who go on ad nauseum about how religion is the glue that holds society together are actually advocating a religion that has specifically been fabricated to bless the status quo. I think if Jesus of Nazareth were to show up today, he would be about as happy with mainstream Christianity as he was with the Pharisees of his day. In other words, he would attack it relentlessly for its collusion with empire.

    I think Neopagans are fortunate to be on the margins, even though sometimes there is a social price to pay. I can understand why Pagans would want social prestige and political dominance. But there’s a long history of revolutions that seek to replace unjust structures only to, in the end, basically replicate the tyranny in a new guise. I don’t know that the Earth can afford to have Paganism meet such a fate.

  7. vogelbeere says:

    Hi Brendan,
    You might be interested to read Richard Carrier’s Sense and Goodness without God.

    I think it’s difficult to disentangle the causes of witch-wars from other factors (e.g. being ostracised in childhood).

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