Most people would assume that religious institutions are our guardians of morality, and that without them, societies would descend into chaos. But has this idea ever been tested? What impact has the rapid secularisation of Western nations had on the health of societies?
For the first time, the impact of religion on society has been subjected to dispassionate analysis, in a recent study published in the Journal of Religion and Society, under the catchy title, ‘Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies’. This cross-national comparative study examined several industrialised democratic nations comprising approximately 800 million people. The author, Gregory Paul, collated statistics on church attendance and compared them to national statistics in key areas of social health such as homicide rates, rates of teenage pregnancy and abortion.
The findings explode many ideals about the benefits of religion; revealing that the more secular a democracy, the lower its rates of social dysfunction. Generally, higher rates of religiosity correlate with higher crime rates and poorer public health.
Japan, Scandinavia, and France are the most secular developed democracies, whereas the USA emerged as the most religious: it is the only prosperous First World nation to retain rates of religiosity rivalling the Second and Third Worlds. (Another survey found that 42 per cent of Americans still hold strict creationist views, and 38 per cent favour replacing evolutionism with creationism in high schools.)
This has not helped the USA much: it has the highest homicide rate of all developed democracies. Portugal, with its quite religious population, also suffers a homicide rate higher than the norm.
The USA has more student mass-murders than all secular democracies combined; far higher rates of sexually transmitted disease (between six and 300 times higher than other democracies); teenage pregnancy rates two to several dozen times higher; and unusually high rates of adolescent abortion. This is despite the unparalleled wealth of the USA, and the fact that spending on healthcare is higher per capita there than in any other developed democracy.
The USA can also boast the world’s highest incarceration rate and second highest gun ownership rate. It is also the only Western democracy to have retained the death penalty despite its proven failure to deter crime. The USA is one of only five nations to sentence underage criminals to ‘life without parole,’ and until this year was one of only five nations in the world still executing juvenile offenders.
Gregory Paul’s study seems to point to a pattern of societal health and harmony being inversely proportional to the prevalence of religiosity. In fact, in a recent interview with Phillip Adams (Late Night Live, ABC Radio National), he said that the relatively low crime rates and high levels of societal wellbeing enjoyed by the less religious nations represent a radical and unprecedented departure from the norm of human history. The less religious we are, it would seem, the happier we become collectively.
So, why does the USA stand apart as a punitive society, why is it an outlier in areas of social violence and dysfunction and what does this have to do with religion?
The one weakness in Gregory Paul’s study is that he does not differentiate between adherents of literalist denominations and of modern, progressive churches. In Australia for instance, the Church has repeatedly been a force for justice and human rights, in its spirited defence of refugees and of fair industrial relations laws.
Americans stand out not only for their high religiosity, but also their high proportion of religious fundamentalism. In the USA, a literalist interpretation of the Bible is associated with conservative Protestantism and surveys estimate Protestants at roughly half the population.
Biblical literalists don’t just cling verbatim to harmless creationist stories. Many also favour Old Testament edicts on child punishment, based on pedagogical passages of which there are many such as: ‘Do not withhold correction from a child, for if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. You shall beat him with a rod, and deliver his soul from hell’ (Proverbs 23: verses 13-14).
Social science has solidly confirmed the fundamentalist penchant for spanking. Biblical literalists have topped the scales in several studies of punitive attitudes to children; they physically punish their children more often than do liberal-religious or secular parents. Fundamentalist parenting manuals in the USA have offered this kind of advice: ‘The spanking should be painful and it should last until the child’s will is broken’ and ‘Even though Mom spanks him, he wins the battle by defying her once again. The solution to this situation is obvious: outlast him; win.’
The 21 American States that still allow corporal punishment in schools are mostly strongholds of conservative Protestantism: the southern and mid-western States known colloquially as the ‘Bible Belt’. How successful is this ultra-religious approach to ‘discipline’? The 10 states that paddle students most frequently (in order: Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Missouri) have higher murder rates and higher incarceration rates than other States within the USA.
Some of the harshest detention centres for ‘reforming’ unruly or substance-addicted youths exist in America, and many are run by church groups. Troubled teens risk incarceration in one of many draconian ‘boot camps’ where ‘discipline’ is brutally enforced, using methods whose violence surely breaks all kinds of human rights conventions.
These ‘camps’ have attracted considerable media attention for their commitment to corporal punishment often severe. Kids are subjected to paddlings, hours of kneeling on hard floors, solitary confinement, hazing and bastardisation by brutal guards. It is hard to believe these camps are so prevalent and accepted in the USA.
It is equally hard to believe the extent of the horrors that take place behind their walls, in the name of ‘discipline’, and often in the name of God. But these horrors are well-documented, and I urge readers to visit this website here.
If there is one thing that social and developmental psychologists overwhelmingly agree on, it is that violence against children is a major probably the major cause of violence in society. The more a nation accepts violence against its children, the more it can expect its society to be plagued with violent crime and dysfunction.
I believe this to be the underlying cause of the trends identified in Gregory Paul’s cross-national study of the impact of religion. Not religion per se, but religious fundamentalism, is the most likely culprit, and its pedagogical harshness is the greatest risk for social disease.
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