Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology at Pitzer College, is the author of Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell us About Contentment, (NYU Press 2008).
The candidates are talking a lot about God these days. During his televised conversation with Celebrity Pastor Rick Warren, Senator Obama declared that humans can’t erase evil from the world; that’s “God’s task,” he explained. Articulating strikingly similar theology, Governor Palin has recently remarked that the Iraq war was a “task from God.” Senator Biden invoked the “Lord Almighty” while questioning Ambassador Crocker during a recent Senate committee hearing, and Senator McCain — not known for his piety – has written for Time magazine that for some 20 years he’s been serious about “deepening my relationship with Christ.” And of course, no public political speech can end without the crucial, obligatory: “God Bless America.”
Why all this God-talk among our nation’s leading politicians? Simple: Americans are a religious lot. The vast majority of us believe in God, love God, and are quite certain that the worship of God is a necessary ingredient for a good, moral, strong nation. It is an age-old and well-subscribed-to theory: worship God, pray to God — and elect leaders who have a strong connection to God — and He will reward us with societal happiness, security, and prosperity. Sounds reasonable. There’s only one problem: the facts of the state of the world today don’t support the theory.
Ungodly truth be told, it is the more secular societies on earth – the ones that seem to be relatively indifferent to God – that are the most successful, safe, secure, and humane. Simultaneously, the more religious nations on earth – those marked by high rates of belief in and worship of God – are generally the most chaotic, destitute, inhumane, and corrupt.
Admittedly, atheist-communist regimes constitute an ugly experiment in human misery. North Korea is far from a beacon of societal health. The same can be said of the former U.S.S.R, China, or little Albania under former atheist-dictator Enver Hoxha. There is no question that atheism coupled with a lack of democracy can be a recipe for national disaster. But what about democracies that forgo God? When we look at international survey data on God-belief, weekly church attendance, and the importance people place on God in their lives, it is the most secular democracies – such as Japan, Denmark, Sweden, Britain, Holland, Belgium – that fare much better than the religious democracies on any objective measures of national well-being. Social science reveals that there is simply no correlation between God-belief and societal health. Or rather, there is a correlation — but in the opposite direction — with the more secular nations doing much better than the more religious.
Where is the best place to be a mother and raise children? According to the latest Save the Children Report, it is relatively godless Sweden. The worst? Extremely Godful Niger. How about murder rates? Highly religious Columbia leads the globe, while highly secular Japan is near the bottom. What about strong economies? According to the World Economic Forum, of the top ten nations boasting today’s most competitive economies, nine are relatively irreligious (the USA being the sole exception). According to the latest Global Peace Index, the top five most peaceful nations are simultaneously among the most secular, such as Denmark, which ranks in at #2. Even when it comes suicide rates, it is the former Soviet nations that lead the pack, some of which are fairly secular, but most of which are quite religious. While there are always important exceptions, the overall international pattern is unmistakable: when it comes to life expectancy, infant mortality, health care, voter turnout, employment, literacy, crime, poverty, GDP, gender equality, corruption, civil liberties, elder care, and even STDs, it is the more godless democracies on earth that are doing the best, while the more God-worshipping nations are not doing as well.
Of course, it is not that secularity or atheism directly causes good societies. It is more likely the opposite – that good, safe, successful societies tend to diminish the need for religion or the worship of God.
Either way, we shouldn’t expect the God-talk among our nation’s leaders to die down anytime soon. We Americans like God and we like to be blessed by God – it makes us feel good, it makes us feel special, and it makes us feel protected in a world which can often be difficult and dangerous. Whoever our next president is, I am certain that God and His blessings will be featured in his inaugural speech. As an American, I can accept that. As a skeptical sociologist however, I am not so sure that entreating God or his blessings will net any observable societal results.