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.

This entry was posted in Archive 2007-2009 and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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