Phil Zuckerman


Whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Sikh, there is one common belief that all religious fundamentalists share: worship of God and obedience to his laws are essential for a peaceful, healthy society. From Orthodox rabbis in the occupied West Bank to Wahhabi sheiks in Saudi Arabia, from the pope in Vatican City to Mormons in Salt Lake City, the lament is the same: God and his will must be at the center of everyone's lives in order to ensure a moral, prosperous, safe, collective existence.

Furthermore, fundamentalists agree that, when large numbers of people in a society reject God or fail to make him the center of their lives, societal disintegration is sure to follow. Every societal ill-whether crime, poverty, poor public education, or AIDS-is thus blamed on a lack of piety. A most disconcerting example of this worldview was expressed in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, when Jerry Falwell blamed the terrorists attacks on America's "throwing God out of the public square," further adding that "when a nation deserts God and expels God from the culture . . . the result is not good."

If this often-touted religious theory were correct-that a turning away from God is at the root of all societal ills-then we would expect to find the least religious nations on earth to be bastions of crime, poverty, and disease and the most religious nations to be models of societal health. A comparison of highly irreligious countries with highly religious countries, however, reveals a very different state of affairs. In reality, the most secular countries-those with the highest proportion of atheists and agnostics-are among the most stable, peaceful, free, wealthy, and healthy societies. And the most religious nations-wherein worship of God is in abundance-are among the most unstable, violent, oppressive, poor, and destitute.

One must always be careful, of course, to distinguish between totalitarian nations where atheism is forced upon an unwilling population (such as in North Korea, China, Vietnam, and the former Soviet states) and open, democratic nations where atheism is freely chosen by a well-educated population (as in Sweden, the Netherlands, or Japan). The former nations' nonreligion, which can be described as "coercive atheism," is plagued by all that comes with totalitarianism: corruption, economic stagnation, censorship, depression, and the like. However, nearly every nation with high levels of "organic atheism" is a veritable model of societal health.

The twenty-five nations characterized by organic atheism with the highest proportion of nonbelievers are listed in Table 1. When looking at standard measures of societal health, we find that they fare remarkably well; highly religious nations fare rather poorly. The 2004 United Nations' Human Development Report, which ranks 177 countries on a "Human Development Index," measures such indicators of societal health as life expectancy, adult literacy, per-capita income, educational attainment, and so on. According to this report, the five top nations were Norway, Sweden, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands. All had notably high degrees of organic atheism. Furthermore, of the top twenty-five nations, all but Ireland and the United States were top-ranking non-believing nations with some of the highest percentages of organic atheism on earth. Conversely, the bottom fifty countries of the "Human Development Index" lacked statistically significant levels of organic atheism.

Irreligious countries had the lowest infant-mortality rate (number of deaths per 1,000 live births), and religious countries had the highest rates. According to the 2004 CIA World Factbook (, out of 225 nations, the twenty-five with the lowest infant-mortality rates had significantly high levels of organic atheism. Conversely, the seventy-five nations with the highest infant-mortality rates were all very religious and without statistically significant levels of organic atheism.

Concerning international poverty rates, the United Nations Report on the World Social Situation (2003) found that, of the forty poorest nations on earth (measured by the percentage of population that lives on less than one dollar a day), all but Vietnam were highly religious nations with statistically minimal or insignificant levels of atheism.

Regarding homicide rates, Oablo Fajnzylber et al., in a study reported in the Journal of Law and Economics (2002), looked at thirty-eight non-African nations and found that the ten with the highest homicide rates were highly religious, with minimal or statistically insignificant levels of organic atheism. Conversely, of the ten nations with the lowest homicide rates, all but Ireland were secular nations with high levels of atheism. James Fox and Jack Levin, in The Will to Kill, looked at thirty-seven non-African nations and found that, of the ten nations with the highest homicide rates, all but Estonia and Taiwan were highly religious, with statistically insignificant levels of organic atheism. Conversely, of the ten nations with the lowest homicide rates, all but Ireland and Kuwait were relatively secular nations, with high levels of organic atheism.

Concerning literacy rates, according to the United Nations Report on the World Social Situation (2003), of the thirty-five nations with the highest levels of youth-illiteracy rates (percentage of population ages fifteen to twenty-four who cannot read or write), all were highly religious, with statistically insignificant levels of organic atheism.

In regard to rates of AIDS and HIV infection, the most religious nations on earth-particularly those in Africa-fared the worst. (Botswana suffers from the highest rate of HIV infection in the world; see Conversely, the highly irreligious nations of Western Europe, such as those of Scandinavia-where public sex education is supported and birth control is widely accessible-fared the best, experiencing among the lowest rates of AIDS and HIV infection in the world.

Concerning gender equality, nations marked by high degrees of organic atheism are among the most egalitarian in the world, while highly religious nations are among the most oppressive. According to the 2004 Human Development Report's "Gender Empowerment Measure," the ten nations with the highest degrees of gender equality were all strongly organic-atheistic nations with significantly high percentages of nonbelief. Conversely, the bottom ten were all highly religious nations without any statistically significant percentages of atheists. According to Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris's (2003) "Gender Equality Scale," of the ten nations most accepting of gender equality, all but the United States and Colombia were marked by high levels of organic atheism; of the ten least-accepting of gender equality, all were highly religious and had statistically insignificant levels of organic atheism. According to Inglehart et al. in Human Values and Social Change (2003), countries such as Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands, with the most female members of parliament, tended to be characterized by high degrees of organic atheism, and countries such as Pakistan, Nigeria, and Iran, with the fewest female members in parliament, tended to be highly religious.

The acceptance of gender equality among irreligious nations may be linked to the relative acceptance of homosexuality. Inglehart et al., in Human Beliefs and Values: A Cross-Cultural Sourcebook Based on the 1999-2002 Value Surveys (2004), found that, of the eighteen nations least likely to condemn homosexuality, all were highly ranked organic-atheistic nations. Conversely, of the eighteen nations most likely to condemn homosexuality, all but Hungary were highly religious, with statistically insignificant levels of organic atheism.

A country's suicide rate stands out as the one indicator of societal health in which religious nations fare much better than secular nations. According to the 2003 World Health Organization's report on international male suicide rates (, the nations with the lowest rates of suicide were all highly religious, characterized by extremely high levels of theism (usually of the Muslim and Catholic varieties). Of the ten nations with the highest male suicide rates, five were distinctly irreligious nations ranked among the top twenty-five nations listed earlier. These five are Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Russia, and Slovenia. It is interesting to note that of the nations currently experiencing the highest rates of suicide-including the five just mentioned-nearly all are former Soviet/communist-dominated societies. (The nations of Scandinavia, where organic atheism is strongest, do not have the highest suicide rates in the world, as is widely thought to be the case.)

In sum, countries with high rates of organic atheism are among the most societally healthy on earth, while societies with nonexistent rates of organic atheism are among the most destitute. The former nations have among the lowest homicide rates, infant mortality rates, poverty rates, and illiteracy rates and among the highest levels of wealth, life expectancy, educational attainment, and gender equality in the world. The sole indicator of societal health in which religious countries scored higher than irreligious countries is suicide.

Where does the United States fit in all this? Americans are very religious. Many studies have found that only between 3-7 percent of Americans do not believe in God. Rates of prayer, belief in the divinity of Jesus, belief in the divine origins of the Bible, and rates of church attendance are remarkably robust in the United States, making it the most religious of all Western industrialized nations, with the possible exception of Ireland. When it comes to societal health, the United States certainly fares far better than much of the rest of the world. According to the United Nations' 2004 "Human Development Index" discussed earlier, the United States ranked eighth. However, when we compare the United States to its peer nations-i.e., developed, industrialized, democratic nations such as Canada, Japan, and the nations of Europe-its standing in terms of societal health plummets. The United States has far higher homicide, poverty, obesity, and homelessness rates than any of its more secular peer nations. It is also the only Western industrialized democracy that is unwilling to provide universal health coverage to its citizens. The fact is that extremely secular nations such as Japan and Sweden are much safer, cleaner, healthier, better educated, and more humane when compared to the United States, despite the latter's exceptionally strong levels of theism.

The information presented in this discussion in no way proves that high levels of organic atheism cause societal health or that low levels of organic atheism cause societal ills such as poverty or illiteracy. The wealth, poverty, well-being, and suffering in various nations are caused by numerous political, historical, economic, and sociological factors that are far more determinant than people's personal belief systems. Rather, the conclusion to be drawn from the data provided above is simply that high levels of irreligion do not automatically result in a breakdown of civilization, a rise in immoral behavior, or in "sick societies." Quite the opposite seems to be the case. Furthermore, religion is clearly not the simple and single path to righteous societies that religious fundamentalists seem to think it is. This fact must be vigorously asserted in response to the proclamations of politically active theists. From small-town school boards to the floor of the Senate, conservative Christians are championing religion as the solution to America's societal problems. However, their pious "solution" is highly dubious and clearly not supported by the best available research of social science.

Belief in God may provide comfort to the individual believer, but, at the societal level, its results do not compare at all favorably with that of the more secular societies. When seeking a more civil, just, safe, humane, and healthy society, one is more likely to find it among those nations ranking low in religious faith-contrary to the preaching of religious folks.


My article is indebted to Gregory S. Paul's important research correlating rates of belief/nonbelief with various measures of societal health.

Further Reading

Reginald Bibby, Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Stoddart Publishing Company, 2002).
Grace Davie, "Europe: The Exception That Proves the Rule?" in The Desecularization of the World, edited by Peter Berger (Grand Rapids, Mich.:William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999).

Kim Eungi, "Religion in Contemporary Korea: Change and Continuity," Korea Focus, July-August 2003.

Oablo Fajnzylber, Daniel Lederman, and Norman Loatza, "Inequality and Violent Crime," The Journal of Law and Economics, April 2002.

James Fox and Jack Levin, The Will to Kill (Boston, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon, 2000).

Timothy Gall, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Culture and Daily Life, Vol.4: Europe (Cleveland, Ohio: Eastword Publications. 1998).

George Gallup and Michael Lindsay, Surveying the Religious Landscape (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse Publishing, 1999).

Andrew Greeley, Religion in Europe at the End of the Second Millennium (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2003).

Goran Gustafsson and Thorleif Pettersson, Folkkyrk och religios pluraism-den nordiska religiosa modellen (Stockholm: Verbum Forlag, 2000).

Michael Hout and Claude Fischer, "Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations," American Sociological Review 67, no. 2 (2002).

Ronald Inglehart, Miguel Basanez, Jaime Diez-Medrano, Loek Halman, and Ruud Luijkx, Human Beliefs and Values: A Cross-Cultural Sourcebook Based on the 1999-2002 Value Surveys, (Beunos Aires, Argentina: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 2004).

Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, Rising Tide: Gender Equality and Cultural Change Around the World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Ronald Inglehart, Pippa Norris, and Christian Welzel, "Gender Equality and Democracy," in Human Values and Social Change, edited by Ronald Inglehart (Boston, Mass.: Brill, 2003).

Peri Kedem, "Dimensions of Jewish Religiosity," in Israeli Judaism, edited by Shlomo Deshen, Charles Liebman, and Mishe Shokeid (London: Transaction Publishers, 1995).

Gerald Marwell and N.J. Demerath, "'Secularization' by Any Other Name," American Sociological Review 68, no. 2 (2003).

Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Gregory Paul, "The Secular Revolution of the West: It's Passed America By-So Far," Free Inquiry 22, no. 3 (Summer 2002).

--, "Cross National Correllations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies," Journal of Religion and Society, vol. 7 (2005).

Detlef Pollack, "The Change in Religion and Church in Eastern Germany after 1989: A Research Note," Sociology of Religion 63, no. 3 (2002).

United Nations, Human Development Report (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

United Nations, Report on the World Social Situation (New York: United Nations Publications, 2003).

Towarzystwo Humanistyczne
Humanist Assciation