How To Get Rid of Religion


A few weeks ago I mentioned and linked to a PuffHo essay by Nigel Barber, an evolutionary psychologist. His thesis, with which I agree (and for which there’s a lot of evidence that I’ve posted on this website), is that the religiosity of a country is highly correlated with the dysfunctionality of the society; that is, the more dysfunctional a society, the more religious it is.

“Dysfunctionality” has been measured in various ways, including Greg Paul’s “Successful Societies Scale” (SSS), measures of income inequality (the Gini coefficient), and other indices of social-well being, including levels of education and health care, child mortality, and so on. (For one example; see Greg Paul’s paper on religiosity and the SSS.) This correlation also holds within the United States: the states having less “well being” (e.g., those mostly in the South) are more religious.

Based on these data and others (including demonstrations that increases in religiosity in America follow rather than precede or are concurrent with rises in income inequality), a good working hypothesis is that religiosity is higher when the citizens of a country feel more helpless, more dispossessed, and less likely to be taken care of by society. In such circumstances people turn to their only recourse: the supernatural sky father who is said to help them.

If our goal is to eradicate superstition, then, we must first create a society in which people feel more secure, and more equal to their fellows.  I’ve long been making this point, as have others, and it’s also one that Michael Shermer emphasized in his talk on Saturday (he wasn’t at mine earlier in the day, so he might be unaware of our agreement about this).  But we both stressed the relationship between religiosity and social well-being in our podcast. And we both agree with this statement by Marx, often taken out of context:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”.

This is a succinct summary of what I see as a profound truth. And I think it’s the explanation for why the U.S. is the most religious of First World nations: data show that although we’re a wealthy and technologically advanced society, we also rank highest on indices of social dysfunction.  In contrast, atheistic northern Europe is quite socially functional.

Written By: Jerry Coyne – WEIT
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  1. I can understand why people who think life is a bum deal want to cling on to ideas that they will be ‘compensated ‘ for suffering.

    That doesn’t explain why some people who are affluent and relativelt prosperous also hold radical religious beliefs.  All the 9/11 shower were college educated and did not come from deprived backgrounds.

    Has the researcher established a link between deprivation (unwellness) and an environment that sways a population to religious fervour or is this a function of having a lousy education and indoctrination?

    Sir Peter Medawar observed that even in developed countries people are largely educated beyond their analytical capabilities.

  2. I’ve always thought that arguments about how religion hurts society or makes people less moral are the wrong way to argue for atheism. For one thing the scientific evidence is far from conclusive. For every study such as the one  Coyne references you can find others that shows how religion helps societies be more cohesive and moral. Indeed as people like Dennett and Scott Atran have pointed out, if there weren’t SOME benefits to humans from religion, then religion is an incredible paradox. Religion requires all sorts of precious resources (time, food sacrifices, required behaviors, etc.)  If there were NO benefits at all it would be quite strange that essentially EVERY primitive society ever studied has some type of religious ritual.

    For another thing the research on the anthropological and sociological benefits and harms of religion is very immature. To try and bias any scientific research agenda, i.e., by starting with the preconceived notion that religion is nothing but bad, is just bad science.

    For me the reason to move beyond religion is simpler. Its not true. The hypothesis that people made up religious stories and dogma as a first attempt to understand the world makes infinitely more sense and is supported by all the evidence we have.  There is no reason for a rational person to believe in the supernatural explanations. Whether believing in things that aren’t true might make you a better person is for me irrelevant. I want to find out the truth, even if (which I sincerely doubt but can’t logically rule out) somehow knowing that truth made me a less moral person in some way.

  3. … religion will be with us until we create more just, more egalitarian, and more caring societies.

    I think that to make that claim is to go too far. Is it possible to attain that kind of society without first getting rid of the very thing that people use to justify hate, violence, sexism, and racism? We can, however, address the lack of education, health care and income security, even right under religion’s nose.

  4. Dennett also pointed out there’s a distinction between whether religion makes us better and whether it’s the best way to make us better. And whatever benefits it had in the past, (a) evolutionary theory doesn’t guarantee people themselves felt it, (b) they may have been “benefits” in an unfair sense as is typically the case with evolution (e.g. promoting group cohesion to fight other groups) and (c) they may be comparatively moot today. 

    It’s certainly true that an individual should be religious or irreligious on purely factual grounds rather than pragmatic ones, and that these are the grounds on which we should make that case; but the case for bothering to go after religion may have the additional point that doing so is justifiable on a cost-benefit analysis, depending on which way the facts swing, and so I think these issues are well worth addressing.

    It’s also important because of other issues such as what to do about religion’s influence on society, whether to have a secular government etc.

  5. In sub-Saharan Africa there is almost no
    atheism (2). Belief in God declines in more developed countries and
    atheism is concentrated in Europe in countries such as Sweden (64%
    nonbelievers), Denmark (48%), France (44%) and Germany (42%). In
    contrast, the incidence of atheism in most sub-Saharan countries is
    below 1%.

    Here’s the problem: sub-Saharan Africa..northern Europe…Black…white. Someone will always see studies like this in terms of race and prejudice.

  6. How to get rid of religion:

    Idea 1: Have a community parade/holiday mid year in conjunction with the solstice. (We can hijack Pagan holidays too.) The celebration of humanity will be a celebration of our past, present and looking forward to our future. People can dress as Neanderthals, celebrate scientific discoveries, cheer past heroes and heroins of social change, scientists. Local museums, science programs for kids, and other secular organizations can get involved.It can be made as a time of personal and societal reflection in which people pause and celebrate midyear goals, life, ideas, creativity, etc. and consider the future. It would be a local secular celebration of humanity – free from religion.

  7. All the 9/11 shower were college educated

    Hardly a meaningful example.  By “shower” I take it you mean the 19 alleged suicide-hijackers, of whom I read there were several who turned up alive and well and surprised to find their identities so spectacularly stolen.   Such mystery surrounds these 19 (mainly Saudi) identities that it’s probably best not to cite them as examples of anything.   Or had you some other “shower” in mind?

    That said, a college education is no guarantee of freedom from religious fanaticism.  Unfortunately.

  8. I know that this is way off topic, and it isn’t actually Christmas Day even if it feels like it is, but I would just like to say the following: Ahem… (clears throat) … “Woo!” And, indeed, “Hoo!”

  9. How I long for the conditions for which I evolved. A close knit group at ease and in sync with the planet. Of course I would probably be dead by now and  would be beset by the superstitions that grew into religion anyway.  And probably have fleas.  It’s hopelessly romantic, but just to get off this hamster wheel, even for a day……..

  10. I’m fond of quoting my Dad, so here’s something else he said …

    “The Catholic Church want people to have big families because it keeps them poor and ignorant”.

    And since I agree with my Dad in this case, I have no problem with the general conclusion of this reasearch.

    I do have a big problem, though, with anyone who starts using so called facts about the rich/poor divide to make political points. There are so many variables in these studies, that any conclusions are highly correlated to what the researcher or the person using the research want to believe.

  11. I don’t entirely agree. In Saudi Arabia the people receive free education from kindergarten to university, full or highly subsidised healthcare, decent salaries, and pensions. There’s also unemployment benefit. And due to the rules of Islam their car loans and mortgages are charged at no more than 3% interest (normally around 1.5%) so there’s no real chance of falling into debt. And if you do there are no real consequences because the government may absorb the debt.
    The story is the same throughout the Gulf, yet they are religiously governed and extremely god fearing.

  12. That seems to be a grossly oversimplified assessment of the situation.

    In Britain (or at least England) as far as I can see the two major christian religions (Cof E and catholic) now do seem to be the mainly the preserve of the more affluent,  educated middle classes whilst the poorer more disadvantaged people by and large seem to have little or no interest in religion at all. Or at least it is far rarer for them to take an interest in religion, pray and attend churches.

    Even though some of the loonier churches seem to be targetting poorer communities they still don’t seem to be attending in any real number. We do have a welfare state and NHS that affords them some protection from those churches though.

    Maybe the assessment is a little bit too USAcentric?

  13. I think what we cherish most in western society is our wealth and freedom of thought , assembly and expression. Its hard to believe that wealth and modern day economics would not have come into being without the organisation of people into structured hierarchies. From an evolutionist point of view I see religion as having fullfilled that goal. We are now in a position to choose sport , etc as our new unifying themes. But I am not embittered about religion , maybe it was a neccessary step to get us to this point. And I think the idea that religion can be gotten rid of like say fascisim, is silly , If religion was to be routed out , you would want a  neurological , brain zapper gun to do that. Given our emotional and cognitive make up I’d say religion of one kind or another is here to stay.

  14. “Dennett also pointed out there’s a distinction between whether religion
    makes us better and whether it’s the best way to make us better.”

    I agree with that and pretty much everything you said. I’m not trying to defend religion, just trying to clarify the arguments that make sense to me against it. So I agree that religion not only may not be the “best way to make us better” but almost certainly isn’t. Its very hard for me to conceive that a system based on superstitious stories and identifying out groups as inherently evil is the best or even a good system.

    All I’m saying is that the science on all of this is very immature and that we shouldn’t bias it by expecting results that adhere to our preconceptions.  Nor should or do we need to cite studies on how religion makes people immoral to say people should discard it. Religion is wrong, period, whether it makes people better, worse, or both is irrelevant if you have a value system that puts the highest priority on  truth.

  15.  Even if we ignore the 9/11 case there is a lot of data on what kind of people become suicide terrorists and (contrary to what Dawkins says on a regular basis) they are not isolated desperate loners. On the contrary they tend to be well educated and have a strong sense of community and morality.  Note that a strong sense doesn’t necessarily mean a true one, obviously their values get warped to justify mass murder. Look at research by Scott Atran (Talking to the Enemy) or Robert Pape (Dying to Win: The Logic of Suicide Terrorism). Their data supports this quite strongly.

  16.  I agree, although if I had to choose between going to a Cathedral or a football game I would choose the cathedral. My feelings on allegiance to organized sports are the same as Chomsky’s. I forget the exact quote but when someone asked him about which teams he liked he said something like “I’ve never understood why I should get emotional about which group of jocks wins a particular game. These are all the guys that beat me up in high school, why should I care which ones win?”

  17.  It depends a lot what you mean by Dysfunctional. I found driving in Italy to be insane and while they aren’t the most organized country in the world I would live there in a minute if I could swing it.

  18. Another great article by Dr. Coyne.  As a matter of fact, this site, along with his site, are my lunchtime readings everyday at work.  Always keeps the mind stimulated with scientific articles and the heart pumping with religious articles.  Bravo to both sites.

  19. Thank you Red Dog.  I’ll follow your references.  Those willing to kill[and at the same time, die] for their faith/country/whatever are to my mind among the scariest people possible.   Those willing and able to con others into doing so I find even scarier.

  20.  Of the two the book by Pape is the best support for what I was saying. He has a whole section Part III of the book devoted to “The Individual Logic of Suicide Terrorism” where he goes into various psychological theories for why people commit suicide and what the available data on terrorism shows.

    The book by Atran has a lot more individual discussions with actual terrorists where they talk about their values. It can be very interesting but I also found it harder to read, I have to be in a pretty tolerant, objective state of mind to sit down and read what such people say. An interesting part of Atran’s books is that he makes some pretty strong attacks (not all of which I agree with but some I do) on the New Atheist movement including Dawkins and Harris.

  21.  The welfare state of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries is due to a resource created by nature (created by God, according to them) and not to a creative and productive activity by society as a whole. Therefore, they believe that God provides welfare, since the productivity of their societies is nonexistent. Those countries without oil would be completely dysfunctional so they cling to the idea of ​​an imaginary friend,while we in the West believe that the creativity and productivity of our countries is endless. The areas in the West where creativity and productivity are less evident people tend to seek the imaginary friend.

  22. And? The argument put forth is that there is a correlation between religiosity and a dysfunctional society which I disagree with on account of the prosperous Gulf. You can try as hard as you want with your convoluted argument to back up the original, but what you’re actually doing is making a completely different and more relevant point: That the more important correlation is between wealth and dysfunction.

    Africa couldn’t possibly have more natural resources, it has absolutely everything and in abundance, but the wealth stays within the ruling elite which one could argue is the key reason for the entire continent (except for the north and very south) being about as dysfunctional as is humanly possible.

    Allow the people to prosper and your society will evolve. The problem with social evolution is that the higher the social gains the less control can be exerted by the rulers.

  23.  Its very difficult to separate out cause and effect in this kind of analysis. Does a dysfunctional society (or religion) cause wealth inequality or does wealth inequality cause a dysfunctional society/religion? Or (as I suspect is the case) are there really no straight forward cause -> effect relations here but rather a complex interplay between the variables and other issues (e.g. Jared Diamond would argue geography plays an important role).

    That is why I think that Coyne and others are wrong when they say that “How to get Rid of Religion” is to point to scientific studies that show religion is correlated with a dysfunctional society. IMO we don’t know nearly enough about the science here to claim a simple causal relation. Also, it could be possible that religion has significant benefits as well as harm to a society So if we go with Coyne’s approach then every time some study by an anthropologist demonstrates a positive effect of religion we have to ignore or downplay the results because they don’t fit into our ideology. That’s not the way to do good science.

    My argument against religion is much simpler. Its not true.  Its stories that were made up by primitive people and while it may have served some benefit in the past and may still provide some benefit to un-educated people there is no rational justification for an intellectual person who values truth to continue to believe in it.  That hypothesis is totally consistent with any  anthropological explanation for religion I’ve ever heard and doesn’t bias our future study of what religion really is all about.

  24.  You talk about the West and Saudi Arabia as if Saudi Arabia just sprang up from nowhere and the West had nothing to do with it. There was no Saudi Arabia until WWII and the US and UK had a great deal to do with it. FDR met with and gave support to the house of Saud as they established a nation (which they named after themselves). Later after WWII there were very serious outbreaks of secular democracy in the middle east, e.g., in Egypt and Iran and the US supported Islamic fundamentalism as a bullwark against these nationalistic secular movements. We claimed that they were a bullwark against “godless communism” but in reality it was  about defeating secularism and nationalisma because along with nationalism went a desire to nationalize oil wells and keep some of the profits for the people in the country. The most extreme Islamic fundamentalist groups that we now consider our worst enemies were created by the US and UK, groups like the Islamic Brotherhood and Al Queda.

  25. I don’t even know where to start? Virtually everything you’ve said is factually incorrect. I mean, for starters I haven’t once mentioned anything to do with the rise of the country.

    Secondly, there most certainly was a Saudi before WWII, in fact the first wells were pumping long before the war started.

    Thirdly, the US had very little to do with the formation of the country but everything to do with the discovery of oil (after the failure of the British, and they very nearly failed too, only finding oil out to sea during an extended deadline). And the lucky old yanks now rake in 2% of the revenue as a result.

    Apart from the inaccuracies there’s the patronisation which I’m not going to bother with as it isn’t your fault you don’t know that I live here and have worked for Aramco.

  26. I’m sorry you found my argument somewhat convoluted. What I meant is that many Arabs from the Gulf States believe that their huge oil wealth is “God given” and the distribution of this wealth is because their ruling classes follow the precepts of Coran. The North Europeans don’t have this miraculous concept because they depend mostly on their own manufacturing and creation of goods and services with a high added value and they trust themselves and don’t need any sky fairy to protect them. That’s difference of the two welfare societies. That’s difference between the two welfare societies.

  27.  Really? And you know this how? And may I ask again what exactly this has to do with the religiosity/dysfunction argument? They’re religious and stable, the fact that stability is due to natural resources and welfare is irrelevant.

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