Commenter Brigid alerted me to this study claiming that Religious belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide. On the other hand, Jack Strocchi points to Niall Ferguson claiming that A faith vacuum haunts Europe.
A striking feature of these completing claims is that the alleged effects are the opposite of what might be expected. According to the Journal of Religion and Society study, religion is supposed to cause things condemned by Christianity, and most other major religions. On the other hand, Ferguson appears concerned (as usual) with the decline of martial ‘virtues’ that are antithetical to Christianity as preached by Jesus. At least that’s the only sense I can make of the leap in his final sentence where he asks
how far has their own loss of religious faith turned Britain into a soft target — not so much for the superstition Chesterton feared, but for the fanaticism of others?
What’s even more striking is how little difference the presence or absence of religious belief seems to make. Americans and Europeans, not to mention Red-staters and Blue-staters, don’t seem to behave in radically different ways, and the differences that can be observed don’t have any obvious relationship to the inferences you might make if you supposed that one group believed in the Bible and the other did not. Neither the Ten Commandments nor the teachings of Jesus seem to command any more practical adherence in America than in Europe, while it’s hard to see how free-market economics and military unilateralism have any particular basis in Christianity.
The (apparent) unimportance of religious belief for social outcomes was one the great surprises of the 20th century, although, like most negative discoveries, its significance is not fully appreciated. In the 18th and 19th centuries, nearly everyone thought that religious belief made a big difference, for good or ill. Enlightenment figures like Diderot believed that man would never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest. On the other side of the fence, Nietzsche’s philosophy was built on the observation that “God is dead” and the assumption that some transcendent replacement was required if we were not to collapse in nihilistic despair. Most in the 19th century agreed with Voltaire that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him, since social order could never be maintained without the availability of Heaven and Hell to supplement earthly rewards and punishments.
So far at least, it seems that neither side is right. As Fergusson points out, the collapse of religious belief in Britain has not produced an Age of Reason – superstitions of all kinds flourish. And Parliamentary politics goes on much as it has for the past two centuries or so, despite the greatly diminished influence of kings and priests. On the other side of the coin, there is no sign of social collapse. Most obviously, crime rates are far lower than they were in the days of Victorian values, let alone in the medieval era when virtually everyone was a believer.
This is, I think a good thing. The more that religion is a purely private matter, with no particular social implications, the less likely we are to fight about it.
fn1. Ferguson briefly concedes this point in relation to sexual behaviour, but ploughs on regardless.