Religion, Atheism and Human Wellbeing
Religion and Human Prosperity
We have seen that religion is often associated with a number of social maladies, including crime, teen pregnancy and poor health. Why is religion correlated with negative outcomes on a national and international level? Why do nonreligious people and societies often outperform their religious counterparts?
There are two major reasons for this phenomenon. The first is that prosperity causes less religion, and the second is that less religion causes prosperity.
Prosperity causes less religion
As societies become healthier, wealthier and wiser, they tend to become less religious. This is because religion primarily serves two purposes: (1) to answer questions about life and the world, and (2) to answer questions about morality and ethics. In light of ever-improving science and advancing technology, people simply need religious explanations less and less. This is why as various countries have become more prosperous over the centuries, their populations became less devout.
Questions which once seemed impenetrable except by appealing to God or the heavens—the weather, bad luck, death, disease, mental disorders, the origin of the earth, the nature of the cosmos, the formation of babies, etc—today are either completely or almost completely explainable by rational naturalism. As knowledge increases, definitive answers are found, and religious explanations that were created in times of little or no knowledge, are simply discarded.
People in wealthier, healthier and smarter societies realize that morality, if it is to have any meaning for humans at all, ultimately comes down to human life itself: lengthening human life, broadening human life, making human life happier and more pleasant and more fulfilling. People immersed in worldly goods and pleasures will value things that maintain or enhance their worldly wellbeing.
Secularism causes prosperity and religion does not
More controversially, secularism and less religious adherence can actually cause greater prosperity. This is not always the case, of course, but it occurs often enough to warrant our attention.
As society becomes less religious, it places more emphasis on the matters of this world and this life. Rather than devoting the bulk of their waking hours to questions of theology, God’s plan, or the niceties of prayer, people focus on worldly concerns. It should come as no surprise when they end up doing better in those worldly concerns than people who don’t focus as much on them.
A nation that uses public money to build hospitals, infrastructure and to educate children in science and history will do better in health, education and economic wealth than another nation using public money to build temples of worship, train healers and sorcerers, print copies of the holy book, or setup commissions to investigate witches and heretics. Quite simply, if humans turn their attention to doing well in this life, then they do.
Secularism as a superior mentality
As a system for attaining knowledge and answering questions, religion relies principally on two things. The first is supernatural forces, such as gods, ghosts, demons, ancestor spirits and black magic. The second is subjective experiences, including the insights gleaned from praying, miraculous occurrences, and the claims of ancestors, prophets, faith healers and religious officials.
Neither supernatural forces nor subjective experiences are generalizable, testable, verifiable or repeatable. This is fundamentally why religion does not provide reliable answers to anything.
By contrast, in the realm of secular rationality, knowledge comes from naturalism and objective analysis. Naturalism is the working assumption that nothing exists except this natural world. Even if one may believe in a god, one can still adhere to naturalism by assuming, for instance in a crime scene investigation, that there was nothing at work during the crime except things in the natural world. An objective point of view that removes personal opinion, emotional appeals, bias and prejudice is also seen as essential in the world of secular knowledge.
Roots of prosperity and wellbeing
The natural resources of the earth, laws of nature and rules of logic have been the same since the dawn of humanity. Yet our modern prosperity has only been enjoyed for a few centuries. People always had the ability to build microscopes and control electricity. But it was only when they began to think in new ways, look at the natural world in new ways, that they actually accomplished these things.
Europeans of the 17th century did not have bigger brains or stronger muscles than Semitic people of the 1st century. But they did have a greater appreciation for the scientific method, worldly values of freedom, justice and citizenship, and greater curiosity than could be satisfied by a simple "God did it."
Religion, secularism and political freedom
Secularism can also cause greater political freedom. Religions, large and small, are often led by an elite, and this elite has a vested interest in maintaining their power and privileged position. They may wield political power themselves, or claim divine right to ally with secular leaders. Either way, religion may have a negative effect on democratization, and a supporting role in absolutism. Most of history's monarchs and dictators benefited greatly from their relationship with prominent religious leaders, from the medieval Popes to the modern Wahhabis.
A secular population will be primarily concerned with rights, freedoms and opportunities in this life and this world. Therefore they are more likely to demand political rights and democratic institutions in the here and now. A religious population is more likely to comfort themselves by reading the holy book, accept the justifications of the social elite, and turn their attention to the next life.
Religion, atheism and prosperity: conclusions
By now it should be obvious why irreligion is so often correlated with human prosperity. Wealthy modernized populations have far less need for the ideas, values, constraints or guidance of religion.
Nonreligious people also must rely exclusively on logic, reason, objective evidence and a naturalistic worldview in order to answer almost all of their questions. Religious people can use these things too, but also have the option of using feelings, subjective experiences and perceived supernatural forces as legitimate means of explanation.
When attention is turned to matters of crime, economic development, public health, political expression, media censorship, foreign policy or a variety of other challenges, the secular approach, by virtue of its superior assumptions and better methodology, will deliver results where the religious approach does not.
- "Society without God," by Phil Zuckerman
- Human Civilization, Progress and Advancement
- Religion, Atheism and Wealth
- Religion, Atheism and Crime
- Religion, Atheism and Health
- Religion, Atheism and Teen Pregnancy
- Top 10 Leaders of Religious Violence
- Secular Morality and Secular Rights
- Church and State Separation