Americans Have Nothing to Fear from Secularization

New York City Mayor Eric Adams attends midnight mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan on Dec. 25, 2022.  (Selcuk Acar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

By Phil Zuckerman

Back in February, New York mayor Eric Adams blamed America’s never-ending school shooting epidemic on a lack of religion. “When we took prayers out of schools,” he proclaimed, “guns came into schools.”

It’s a well-worn trope.

For example, Texas congressman Louie Gohmert recently said exactly the same thing, as has former House minority whip Steve Scalise, and former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee, and countless others who beat the same old drum, claiming that if Americans turn their back on God, God will turn his back on Americans. As former U.S. Attorney General Will Barr argued, the godlessness of secularism is a “social pathology” which leads to communal breakdown, societal immorality, and, ultimately: “great evil.”

The facts, however, don’t support such theocratic alarmism.

After all, if godlessness led to national chaos and depravity, then we would expect to find those countries that are the least religious to be the most corrupt, impoverished, unhealthy, and crime-ridden. But we find exactly the opposite. The most godless democracies on earth today — Japan, Sweden, South Korea, Norway, Estonia, the United Kingdom, and the Czech Republic – are all nations where a majority of people no longer believe in a God, and yet boast impressive levels of societal health and well-being, with high rates of wealth, low rates of violence, excellent healthcare, and so forth. Indeed, five out of these seven highly secular nations rank in the top-twenty on the United Nations’ Human Development Index.

Of course, atheist dictatorships – such as the former Soviet Union – are bloody and repressive. But so, too, are religious dictatorships. Therefore, we need to set aside such unfree nations, where the lack of liberty and wanton violations of human rights are justified either in the name of God or no god. Instead, we need to look at democracies — and what we find is that secularization is no threat to their civil or moral order.

Consider the case of Japan. Not only has it never had a dominant Christian heritage, but both of Japan’s religious traditions — Shinto and Buddhism — have been in sharp decline over the past half-century. Despite such secularization, Japan has among the lowest murder rates in the world and highest GDPs. Then there is Norway, where Christianity has plummeted in the last half-century, with rates of belief in God, church attendance, and church membership at all-time lows – and yet Norwegian society is simultaneously characterized by excellent schools, health care, elder care, access for the disabled, gender equality, low violence, and economic prosperity.

To be sure, it is not that such nations are thriving because of their secularism; such correlation does not establish causation. But as to Mayor Adams’ insistence that godlessness leads to social depravity – that thesis can be soundly rejected.

Let’s consider our own nation.

The ten states that are the least religious, such as Vermont, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin, fare much better on standard measures of societal health and well-being than the ten most religious states, such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Heck, the murder rate alone in highly devout Mississippi is ten times that of highly secular Vermont. And healthcare is far better in the more irreligious states than the more religious. Indeed, on just about any measure of societal well-being, states that have undergone the most amount of secularization are faring better than those that are extremely devout. Clearly, to blame societal ills on a lack of religious faith doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. For if taking teacher-led prayer out of schools leads to gun violence – then how to explain the fact that there are no such prayers in the schools of most democracies around the world, and yet, they don’t have anywhere near the gun violence that we do?

Religion does a lot of good by providing community, charity, comfort, inspiration, and hope. And the dramatic decline of religious belief and behavior in America will certainly change our communities and families. But to blame our nation’s gravest ills on a widespread loss of faith is to ignore the fact that there is simply no evidence that secularization leads to societal chaos or moral depravity. Our nation’s troubles will not be solved by such faulty argumentation. We need to confront our problems rationally, with reason and evidence, and not be swayed by politically-motivated theology that neither addresses the true causes of our problems, nor respects the God that so many Americans still believe in.

Phil Zuckerman is Professor of Sociology at Pitzer College, and the founding chair of the nation’s first Secular Studies Program. He is the author of several books, including What It Means to be MoralThe NonreligiousLiving the Secular LifeFaith No More, and Society Without God, and the editor of several volumes, including The Oxford Handbook of Secularism and The Social Theory of W.E.B. Du Bois. Most recently, he has co-authored Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society with Isabella Kasselstrand and Ryan T. Cragun.

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