Religiosity and the Wellbeing of Nations

Last week Gallup International and the Worldwide Independent Network of Market Research released a survey that ranked sixty-five countries around the world on religiosity based on 63,898 interviews. The two least religious countries by percentage of respondents “claiming either to be not religious or atheist” are China (90 percent) and Sweden (78 percent). Surprisingly, Israel ranked high on the least religious countries with 65 percent of citizens claiming to be either not religious or atheist. Indeed, many Jews consider themselves secular. The picture is dramatically different in the West Bank and Gaza, though, with only 19 percent of survey responders identifying as nonreligious.

The study also identifies some variables related to religiosity, noting that those without an education are the most religious (though religious people are a majority in all educational levels), and noting the stronger variable—income. People with low to medium income are much more religious than those with a medium high to high income. This raises potential explanations based on psychological characteristics, life experiences, and outcomes of the less educated or less economically fortunate that may lead to susceptibility to religious belief. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, richer countries tend to be less religious than poorer countries. China and the United States are stark outliers.

The United States also demonstrates the reverse trend of religiosity by age. The survey’s authors found that worldwide younger people identified as more religious than older, a contrast to decreasing religiosity among young people in the US.

The Patheos blog Epiphenom compared this newest study of the least religious countries with the recently released Social Progress Index, an assessment of human welfare across nations through benchmarking their “Basic Human Needs,” “Foundations of Wellbeing,” and (access to) “Opportunity,” and found that the least religious countries did better in social progress.

Epiphenom ranked the countries by percentage of reported atheists and nonreligious and split them into three groups: most religious, in the middle, and least religious. In every case, when compared against the Social Progress Index categories, the most religious countries did the worst with the least religious countries outperforming in basic human needs, wellbeing, and opportunity.

A similar analysis was done on the United States by Jerry A. Coyne in 2012 using a 2009 Gallup poll ranking the religiosity of states and the Human Development Index (HDI) which measures twenty-five traits, “including corruption, income disparity, child mortality, access to medical care, suicide rates, and so on.” When adjusted for income inequality, there is a negative correlation between religiosity and wellbeing as measured by the HDI.

This is by no means a new path of exploration for sociologists as the correlation between religiosity and human wellbeing is not only a scientific question, but has been a philosophical one for ages.

And the question is indeed deeper than religiosity’s correlation with wellbeing. There are many studies that show religious believers feel greater life satisfaction or happiness than atheists (I don’t know any that study humanists specifically, but I’d be curious to know if the answer there is very different), though a recent study suggests that religious believers and secular nonbelievers experience similar levels of mental health. But does that constitute an actually better-lived life or simply an emotionally rationalized one? Does religion actually prevent the development of proper coping skills and stunt our emotional development? And is life satisfaction enough? Or is ignorance bliss? And finally, can humanism provide a cushion if and when a believer’s bubble breaks?