Secular Societies Fare Better Than Religious Societies

Phil Zuckerman Ph.D. The Secular Life

Secular Societies Fare Better Than Religious Societies

If religion withers, does society rot? Clearly not.

Posted Oct 13, 2014

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 therefore 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/, 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 wreaking 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.


1. Really you got to be kidding me! What about the old communist system on the Soviet Union. That was a secular society with millions of people died. What about the Chinese communist how many millions died. What about all the people from North Korea Who have died.

1a RESPONSE: Good point. It is true that some of the worst societies have been atheistic/communistic. But in those cases, religion was wiped out by dictators. It was snuffed out by evil regimes. The people were forced to be secular, they didn’t choose it freely. When you look at societies that have freely become secular, the results are good. When people simply stop being religious of their own free will, the results are not disastrous at all. Just the opposite, as this piece shows. And if you’re going to bring up atheist dictators, what about religious dictators? From the Ayatollahs to Pinochet, from Baby Doc Duvalier to Idi Amin…not pretty….the bottom line is that all dictatorships are evil, be they religious or secular…so let’s look at the democratic world. In that realm, the secular clearly fare better than the religious.

1b Thanks for your input. There is indeed a big difference between imposed and voluntary secularism

2 I am an atheist myself and I agree with much of what you have said but did you really have to link Ebola to religiosity of the victims? Scientists currently believe that the Ebola virus most probably originated from apes. Not a lot of Monkeys or Apes in Sweden AFAIK. The more mammals you have then the greater the risk that their viruses will eventually infect humans. Bats are a particularly good vector for transmitting viruses to grazing animals and to humans. The bats roost in the tree, poop on the grass below which is then eaten by cattle and horses. I spent some time living in the subtropical suburb of Hendra in Queensland Australia. There are two major horse-racing tracks with lots of stables. Also lots of Moreton bay fig tree that the local fruit bats love to roost in. The result was the Hendra virus, deadly to both horses and humans. Read about it. Although, I must admit, racehorses are bred from Arabian horses, so the ones that died were probably Muslim.


It did seem a bit tangential, yet there are differences which may be relevant. Victims in Africa tended to distrust the medical help available and keep away from doctors. They may also have turned to religious means of cure. It is also reported that funeral practices could have helped spread the disease. In the UK we have much more confidence in our government and medical systems and, I hope, generally better education and understanding of disease. We’ve had Ebola in the UK before and it has been contained. So maybe religion doesn’t have a direct effect on outcome, but other factors in society that may be related even indirectly do.

2. Thank God! Welcome to America where we have freedom of religion. That principle deserves the credit for our success over the past 2 centuries more than secularism. Furthermore, militant secularism/atheism is as grave a danger as fanatical theocracy. Parents who despise God raise children who think they are gods, and parents who spurn morality lessons raise children who think they can write their own rules. We raised a generation who learned their 10 Commandments from "Law and Order" reruns and horror movies. The atrocities of the last century show the danger of moral relativism. The insistence that ‘enlightened secularism’ will usher in an era of peace and happiness is not just wishful thinking but dangerous cult doctrine propaganda.

4 Correlation is not causation. The south has always been comparatively poor, and the country was built on Christian values of hard work and self-reliance. Religion is not the cause of poverty. Nor is secularism the cause of prosperity in the north. In fact, over the last few centuries, worldwide, the correlation with prosperity is highest with Christianity. Japan was successful but they had state sponsored Shinto and persecuted Christians. In Germany, the "Protocols" was required reading for high school students. Clearly the long term correlation with peace and prosperity is highest with Christianity coupled with the freedom to believe what you want, southern states included.

Our continued prosperity is the result of entrenched Christian values which are now at risk. The rise of secularism is just idolatry of the human form, which brings its own dangers such as ‘mental illness’ and ‘drug addiction’ and the belief that we don’t always have free will, which is in my opinion a central religious teaching. You may not like all the morality lessons of the ancients (and can cherry pick the offensive ones) but for the most part they are perfectly valid even today and yet you seem to think that children don’t need to learn them. Or else you think that the government should be teaching them. Which these days will just create a generation of communists. And we all know the atrocities that can result in. Anti-Christian/secular societies (Communists/Russia/China, Japan, and Germany) caused the most destruction over the last century.

RESPONSE 4a The New York Times in late November, 2011 (28/29th) published the result of a Germany study of social justice in the 31 OECD countries. Iceland, the Scandinavian countries and The Netherlands filled the first six places and not one of them is strongly religious. The last five places were the USA, Chile, Greece, Mexico and Turkey. The best English language or English heritage country was Canada at eighth. Australia didn’t rate too well at 21st, mainly because successive Federal Government have been too impressed by, and too willing to follow, the USA. I am an atheist/secularist and I would back my ethics and sense of justice against at least 95% of people who are religious. In my mid-eighties I do many hours of social work per week and give away about 20% of my moderate retirement income to people who need it more than I do. Many of my atheist/secular friends do the same.

4B The analysis is not surprising, but what is possibly relevant is that there is a strong positive correlation between religiosity and poverty/ illiteracy/ low educational attainment. High educational standards are associated with lower crime, greater prosperity, greater wellbeing – and low religiosity. So the causal link might be educational attainment, rather than the impact of religiosity per se on morality.

4C The secular societies tend to be more left leaning, so have a better social safety net. As the result they have less social inequality which may be the reason they do so well. I’ve seen attitudes from more right wing Christians in America which I find shocking. Our NHS is seen as evil because it is supported by taxation. Where in the UK a Christian may see the NHS has espousing "Christian Values" of caring for others, the Americans I have talked to have seen it as anti-Christian because they believe Christ was a libertarian, and getting someone else to pay for your healthcare is not the value of "Self-reliance" mentioned above. I’ve seen American Christians say that it’s fine for someone who doesn’t have health insurance to just die as they should be self-reliant.

5 The usefulness of the category he is using:

In Zuckerman’s own words printed elsewhere. “Finally, a church should never be theorized about as "a single, undifferentiated entity" (169), but rather, churches should be understood as "complex organizations, encompassing multiple points of contact with their members that may bear on individual decisions to participate in politics" (184).”

Journal of Church and State, doi:10.1093/jcs/csq046 , Advance Access publication May 24, 2010

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