Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images
The Atheists' Case for Fighting Poverty

The Atheists' Case for Fighting Poverty

By Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

A new study by Pew Research analyzes data from more than 40,000 people in 40 countries who were asked this provocative question: “Do you need God to be moral?” It is of course a staple of religious thought that without religion, the world would be morally anarchic; as Ivan Karamazov famously said in Dostoyevsky’s novel, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”

But Pew’s question has already been answered by philosophers and sociologists with a resounding “no.” Beginning with Plato’s Euthyphro argument, most thinking people have realized that God’s nature and desires cannot in principle be sources of morality (in such a case anything God dictated would be moral regardless of its content), but that religion merely codifies and promulgates moral sentiments derived from evolution, reason, and other secular sources. And of course there are millions of nonbelievers who lead ethical lives, not to mention the many countries in Europe whose citizens are largely irreligious but somehow keep their societies from falling into the abyss. Finally, despite the loosening grip of religion on much of the world, nearly every index of morality, as Steven Pinker shows in The Better Angels of our Nature, is on the rise.

Pew’s poll, however, found that citizens of most countries see God as a requirement for morality, but that this answer is far more common in poorer than richer countries. Here are Pew’s data broken down by country:

As you see, the wealthier countries of Europe and Asia have fairly high proportions of people who reject the notion that God is necessary for morality, while Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East (with the exception of Israel) show much stronger opinions that goodness requires godliness. Much of Latin America is also in line with that view. Note that Americans agree with Pew’s question more frequently (53 percent) than do citizens of any surveyed European country, while our more sensible Canadian friends agree much less often (31 percent)

Pew also plotted the proportion of people in each country who see belief in God as necessary for morality against the “wealth” of that country (expressed as per capita gross domestic product). As you see below, the correlation is strong and statistically significant. Clearly, those who live in richer countries see a weaker connection between religion and morality. There are two outliers, though (circled in the plot). As Pew notes:

Two countries, however, stand out as clear exceptions to this pattern: the U.S. and China. Americans are much more likely than their economic counterparts to say belief in God is essential to morality, while the Chinese are much less likely to do so.

What is curious here is that Pew doesn’t discuss the relationship between the answer to their question and the religiosity of the countries surveyed. Surely a critical factor involved in the relationship shown in the first figure is belief in God. And much data supports that. Another Pew survey, as well as one from NORC and the University of Chicago, show that Sub-Saharan African countries, and those in the Middle East, are among the most religious countries in the world. The U.S. is the most religious of First World countries, and China, because of its Communist past and general lack of theistic religions, is notably nonreligious. Greece and Poland are more religious than Britain or France, and Canada is less religious than the U.S.

In other words, if in the second graph you plotted religiosity of these nations versus the goodness-requires-God quotient, you’d get the same strong relationship, but a positive one. That’s a no-brainer, because clearly countries that are more religious will have inhabitants who see morality as more closely tied to God.

Another curious omission is one relevant to the second figure showing a negative relationship between a country’s wealth and its belief that God is required for morality. Why, exactly, does that relationship exist? The answer is becoming increasingly clear in sociological studies such as the three cited at right: The degree of religious belief within a countryor within a state in the positively related to how socially dysfunctional it is. And sociologists have quantified that dysfunction using indices like average income, income inequality, homicide and incarceration rates, longevity, and so on. Although this work has been done largely in Western countries, I’m confident that if measures of social well-being were applied to the highly religious countries of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, they would also be deemed deeply dysfunctional.

Although we don’t know the precise cause of the more-well-being/less religion relationship (it’s possible, for example, that religion produces dysfunctional societies, or there’s some unidentified factor affecting both religiosity and well-being), there are suggestions that social dysfunction is an important cause of higher religiosity. Why? Perhaps because people turn to God for hope and solace when they can’t get it from the policies of their government or from a national ethos that citizens should be taken care of. In that sense, Marx was right to indict religion as the “sigh of the oppressed creature.”

Pew gives one other finding:

There are also significant divides within some countries based on age and education, particularly in Europe and North America. In general, individuals age 50 or older and those without a college education are more likely to link morality to religion. For example, in Greece, 62% of older adults say it is necessary to believe in God to be a moral person, while just 29% of 18- to 29-year-olds agree. In the U.S., a majority of individuals without a college degree (59%) say faith is essential to be an upright person, while fewer than four-in-ten college graduates say the same (37%).

The explanation is almost surely that older Americans and Europeans are more religious than younger ones, while more educated individuals in the U.S. are less likely to be religious.

Some data from American states, discussed by columnist C. J. Werleman at Alternet, support the idea that social dysfunction is associated with higher religiosity. As Werleman notes:

Staying with the U.S., this correlation between a high rate of poverty and high degree of religiosity is supported by a 2009 Pew Forum “Importance of Religion” study that determined the degree of religious fervor in all 50 states. The study measured a number of variables including frequency of prayer, absolute belief in God, and so forth. Led by Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas, nine of the top 10 most religious states were southern. Oklahoma ruined the South’s clean sweep by sneaking in at number seven.

Not coincidentally, led again by Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas, nine of the top 10 poorest states are also found in the South, while northern and pacific [sic] states such as Wisconsin, Washington, California, New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont are among the least religious and the most economically prosperous.

The relationship among countries of the world, then, is mirrored among states within the U.S. And politicians recognize this. Since religion helps people cope with hard lives, encouraging religiosity not only pacifies the population, but also keeps them from taking social action to better their lot. Werleman continues:

In an earlier piece, I wrote that the primary reason for abject child poverty in these Southern states is that more than a third of children have parents who lack secure employment, decent wages and healthcare. But thanks to religion, these poor saps vote for the party that rejects Medicaid expansion, opposes early education expansion, legislates larger cuts to education, and slashes food stamps to make room for oil and agriculture subsidies on top of tax cuts and loopholes for corporations and the wealthy. Essentially, the Republican Party has convinced tens of millions of Southerners that a vote for a public display of the Ten Commandments is more important to a Christian’s needs than a vote against cuts in education spending, food stamp reductions, the elimination of school lunches and the abolition of healthcare programs.

...While the Republican Party retains its monolithic hold on the South, the rest of America remains deprived of universal healthcare, electric cars, sensible gun control laws, carbon emission bans, a progressive tax structure that underpins massive public investment, and collective bargaining laws that would compress the income inequality gap. In other words, without the South’s religiosity, “America” would again look like a developed, secular country, a country where it’s probable for an atheist to be elected into public office, and where the other 50 million law-abiding atheists wouldn’t be looked upon as rapists, thieves and murders.

That comes pretty close to a call for Northern secession, but Werleman’s words ring true. The secularization of Europe has accompanied a growing recognition that governments must provide social safety nets for their most disadvantaged people. This connection is not a coincidence, and is one reason that, as a nonbeliever, I see religion as holding back today’s world.

While I see no necessary relationship between atheism and belief in social reformthe kind of reform that makes people more economically and socially secure, and provides government-sponsored healthcareit’s obvious that if we want to eliminate religion’s hold on the world, we must also eliminate the conditions that breed religion. In that sense, Marx was right.

This view differs from that of the so-called “social justice warriors,” who see a necessary philosophical connection between atheism and “social justice.”  I don’t agree. Atheism is simply a lack of belief in gods, and has no necessary link to any social view, liberal or otherwise. The connection I see instead is a tactical and practical one: If, as atheists, we’re interested not only in our own convictions, but in also convincing others to believe (or, in this case, disbelieve), then we must deal with the factors that promote religious belief. If those include social dysfunction, as I think they do, then eliminating faith will require reinforcing and expanding social structures that provide well-being for everyone. And even if that kind of change eliminates faith only slowly, most of us, religious or not, can agree on the need for a more just and egalitarian America.

Providing universal healthcare and reducing income inequality are good places to start.

Jerry A. Coyne is a Professor of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago and author of Why Evolution is True, as well as the eponymous website. A version of this post originally appeared there. 

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Norris, P., and R. Inglehart. 2004. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Paul, G. 2009. The chronic dependence of popular religiosity upon dysfunctional psychosociological conditions. Evol. Psychol. 7:398-441. Solt, F., P. Habel, and J. T. Grant. 2011. Econonomic inequality, relative power and religiosity. Social Science Quarterly 92:447-465.

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