Sins of the believers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 March, 2007, 12:00am

They published an opinion poll in Britain recently in which 82 per cent of the people surveyed said that they thought religion did more harm than good. My first reaction, I must admit, was to think: that's what they would say, isn't it? In 'post-Christian Britain', only 33 per cent of the population identify themselves as religious. If you stripped out recent immigrants - Polish Catholics, Pakistani Muslims, Indian Hindus - then the number would be even lower.

In the US, where over 85 per cent of people describe themselves as religious believers, the answer would surely be very different, as it would be in Iran or Mexico. But then, I remembered an article that was published a couple of years ago in the Journal of Religion and Society, in which social scientist Gregory Paul set out to test the assertion that religion makes people behave better.

If that is true, then the US would be heaven on Earth, whereas Britain would be overrun with crime, sexual misbehaviour and the like. Mr Paul examined the data from 18 developed countries, and found just the opposite: 'In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, [venereal disease], teen pregnancy and abortion', while 'none of the strongly secularised, pro-evolution democracies is experiencing high levels of measurable dysfunction'.

How interesting. Now, to be fair, only one of the 18 countries examined (Japan) was not Christian or 'post-Christian', so maybe this just shows that high levels of Christian belief correlate with a variety of social ills. There's really no way of testing that.

There's not even any way of knowing if other religions will eventually experience the same decline in belief as the people who believed in them get richer, more urban and better educated. Even in what used to be Christendom, the US didn't follow that path, after all. But the question is not whether religion will continue to flourish. It is whether that makes people behave better, and the data says 'no'.

I never thought that religion really made people behave any better, but apart from the occasional pogrom or religious war, it hadn't occurred to me that it would actually make them behave worse. But there may be a clue in the fact that the more religious a country is, the less it spends on social programmes, perhaps on the assumption that God will provide. There is a strong link between how secular a country is and how much it spends on social welfare and income redistribution.

It's not that religious people choose to do bad things more often: indeed, they are probably more likely to get involved in charitable activities. Maybe it's just that when they talk about transforming people's lives, they don't think in terms of big, state-run systems - so lots of people fall through the cracks. Whereas the godless, all alone under the empty sky, decide that they must band together and help one another through large amounts of social spending, because nobody else is going to do it for them.

Or maybe there is some other reason entirely, but the numbers don't lie: the more religious a country is, the worse people behave in their private lives. Thank God they didn't survey the correlation between strong religious belief and war.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries