Are Secular Nations Happier?


Westboro Baptist bigotsAre less-religious or more secular nations happier than religious ones? Studies suggest yes.

Personally, I would certainly be happier in a more secular nation if it meant fewer angry, nasty, fanatic believers like the Westboro Baptist congregation (see picture, right), or the faux-faith anti-mask/anti-vaccine, pro-disease protestors,* or any of the frothing anti-choice, anti-abortion protestors who appear around medical clinics.

I suspect many among us would also live much more happily without their disruptive, often vicious, pseudo-religious behaviour. But as a democratic, liberal society we are remarkably tolerant of their bullshit and antics because they claim it’s religion-based and we seem content to accept that makes it okay. (Well, some folks are. I, however, am not, although my opposition to them is merely through words.) Fortunately for Canadians, the Westboro and others of the worst, radical, theocratic American wingnuts aren’t here, but their counterparts are, and they seem to be growing in numbers (I suspect in the guise of the PPC, but that’s another post…).

Faith seems to make some people very unhappy and angry, which would seem the opposite effect one should expect. Their faith encourages them to rage-protest other people’s beliefs, happiness, lifestyles, and contentment. And often to hurt and even kill others who don’t share their toxic faith. They only seem to smile when they get media attention, which is often because bad news and nastiness always make headlines. Media seldom seem to question why religion fuels such anger and hatred, or why unhappy people continue to be religious. If your religion makes you hate, it’s time to change religions. Or, better yet, have none at all.

Jerry Coyne, on his blog Why Evolution is True, reports on a recent study that suggests,

…a country becomes more religious in times of trouble; that the more “successful societies”, as measured by amalgamating many measures of societal well-being, are the least religious; and that the happiest societies are also the least religious.

Interesting analysis. During the recent “troubled times” since 2016, a virulent form of power-grubbing pseudo-faith masquerading as Christianity arose around Putin’s Puppet (aka Donald Trump) and continues in his ongoing, offside efforts to overturn democracy. But is faux faith the same as real faith? How does one tell the difference? (Hint: if your pastor or minister is a millionaire, has a private jet, or lives in a mansion, it’s fake faith).

First I have to question how anyone can effectively measure something as ephemeral as happiness. Is it what you own? How you feel about your government? How happy you are with services paid for by your taxes? Your sexual life? Your religious life? If you have enough books to read? If you have high-speed internet? If you have a sufficient supply of alcohol or cannabis? Happiness is such an ephemeral emotion.

That’s a digression for now. I may come back to it. Right now, I’m more interested in how religion (or the lack of it) affects the notion of happiness in nations (that includes real religion as well as the Talibangelists and other fraudulent pseudo-religions).

Coyne’s conclusion is that the less the religion, the happier the people. Looking at the people in Afghanistan today cowering under the brutal Taliban, or women in Texas brutalized by repressive legislation like the recent anti-woman/anti-abortion/anti-life laws. it’s not hard to see how at least some forms of religion can be the source of massive unhappiness and oppression. At least the non-believers of my acquaintance all seem as happy or happier than any of those with religious faith.

However, I suspect Coyne’s analysis is more than somewhat biased. Coyne, an American evolutionary biologist, doesn’t care much for religion, at least the organized, institutional sort. Well, he has my sympathies to a large degree, especially when you consider how religion has devolved into such a con game in his own nation.

Coyne’s first book, Why Evolution is True, is one of the best, recent explanations of the mechanics and processes behind evolution I’ve read (and I have read many). The science is well-explained, up-to-date, and concise. It’s important to have books like this in an age of increasing science denial and illiteracy: it’s highly recommended reading (if you’re a creationist, you can leave now because I have little patience for your self-imposed ignorance).

I’ve just finished reading Coyne’s second book, Faith vs Fact: Why Science and Faith Are Incompatible but found it a bit of a pedantic slog at times. Coyne is an unapologetic atheist, less strident than, but certainly siding with, the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (both of whom I have read and respect). Like them, he focuses on religious belief in the supernatural (faith) and compares it to empirical and provable facts (aka science; hence the book’s title). And like his peers, he tends to ignore any value in church community interactions and relationships. There’s a whole social component to religion that often gets overlooked.

A review in The Atlantic notes,

…Coyne focuses on the epistemological. He notes that religion has always advanced hypotheses about the cosmos and the origins of life—matters that he argues belong within the realm of science. He bluntly evaluates faith’s record of teachings about the natural world as a “failure of religion to find out the truth about anything.” Worse, he states, faith from the start leads humans toward “thinking that an adequate explanation can be based on what is personally appealing rather than on what stands the test of empirical study.”

Coyne’s main focus in the book is also religion in his own nation. The USA, where it plays such a major role in everything,  has been called the most religious nation in the West. (The nation is home to the radical, pseudo-Christian fundamentalists — disparagingly called the Talibangelists — who are actively involved in trying to install a theocratic, authoritarian, white supremacist state that almost succeeded with Donald Trump).

Coyne doesn’t spend time exploring the theocratic Islamic states, like Iran, or the large and powerful influence of religion in African, Southeast Asian nations, or India and its neighbours. He doesn’t identify which religions have which sorts of control or influence around the world.

He barely acknowledges that faith — that is, belief without evidence — is widespread outside formal religion. Millions of people believe in astrology, “psychics,” magic rocks, reflexology, homeopathy, alien abductions, chemtrails, fad diets, witchcraft, vaccine conspiracies, the New World order, Trump won the election, and a myriad of other codswallop, conspiracies, and cons. Faith isn’t entirely restricted to religion. You don’t need to be religious to believe in claptrap.

Coyne is particularly concerned with American belief in creationism and how that defies science and evidence, yet is still being pushed by ignorant legislators. Well, being an American evolutionary biologist, he would naturally be concerned that creationism is being pushed into American schools beside or instead of actual science and facts. Teaching creationism is equivalent to teaching astrology instead of astronomy. Or detox and fad diets instead of nutrition. A civilized nation should have no truck with that sort of claptrap.

America is not alone in promoting creationist piffle in education, but that’s Coyne’s focus. His book does not have the international scope of Hitchens’ book, God is Not Great. I’d be interested in reading how, say, their own form of creationism is foisted on Islamic or Hindu education systems.

In his blog, Coyne references a paper from the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that adds,

…better government services were related to lower religiosity among countries (Study 1) and states in the United States (Study 2). Study 2 also showed that during 2008-2013, better government services in a specific year predicted lower religiosity 1 to 2 years later. In both studies, a combination of better government services and quality of life was related to a particularly low level of religiosity.

This suggests “better government services” are those provided with little to no religious influence on or interference in providing them. Religious interference has historically affected services to women most, particularly reducing or disallowing their access to reproductive rights, including abortion, but also social, educational, voting, and cultural rights (in the USA, women couldn’t even have a credit card in their own name until 1974, or attend Harvard until 1977).

And, in uber-religious, misogynist, Talibangelist Texas, women who even attempt to get an abortion (or anyone who aids them) after six weeks have a $10,000 bounty on their heads that any redneck mouthbreather can collect. Truly a terrifying, repressive place to live (as Coyne says on Oct. 15, “Texas designed the law to be enforced by vigilantes rather than the state!)

Christopher Hitchens, in his book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Allen & Unwin, 2007), wrote,

There still remain four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.

Hitchens also wrote in that book a comment that exemplifies Texan pseudo-religion:

One recalls the governor of Texas who, asked if the Bible should also be taught in Spanish, replied that “if English was good enough for Jesus, then it is good enough for me.” Rightly are the simple so called. (p.110)

Talibangelists have no interest in the morality or ethics of communal goals or pursuing the greater good except where it furthers their theocratic agenda. One American church is offering “‘religious exemptions’ to COVID-19 vaccine mandate” that anyone selfish, stupid, or inconsiderate enough (one suspects that most if not all of the takers will be Trump supporters) can buy, download, and attempt to use to excuse themselves from helping others through the pandemic. Religious exemptions to vaccinations are simply an excuse to avoid the inconvenience of helping others or accepting civic responsibilities.

In the USA, anyone can start a religion, open a church, claim to speak to and for their deity, and benefit from donations and tax-free status without much more effort than opening a can of beans. And with little to no oversight, and no taxation, hucksters can con and scam their congregations legally. I’m sure there would be greater all-round happiness in the USA if these people were regulated and taxed. Or, better yet, jailed.

Little wonder the USA is considered the West’s most religious nation, the “wild west” playground for a myriad of pseudo-religious grifters, hoaxsters, con artists, and “spiritual advisors” (where else but the USA could a money-grabbing looney like Paula White get such influence?). No, not every preacher, priest, and pastor in the USA is a money-grabbing con artist, but the honest ones who may even be in the majority don’t get the headlines. Or the money.

I can see why people in the USA might feel happier if they were freed from the overweening religious (or more often faux-religious) presence. Maybe without the pseudo-religious “thoughts and prayers” instead of action and legislation, their government might be able to deal with such issues as gun violence and gun control more effectively. Maybe without the scam artists promoting their “gospel of prosperity” that rewards the preachers with great riches at the expense of their parishioners, people might be better off. And if these churches and their rich, conniving pastors were properly taxed, the whole nation would be much richer.

I recently read Jon Krakauer’s book about the fundamentalist Mormons, When Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (2003) and am almost finished Daphne Bramham’s similar book (2008) on the same fundamentalist cult, but with a specific focus on their Canadian arm: The Secret Lives Of Saints: Child Brides And Lost Boys In A Polygamous Mormon Sect (don’t get me started on why both the BC and federal governments have failed to enforce our laws on them…). Both books paint a frightening picture of gullibility, authoritarianism, violence, sexual abuse, incest, rape, crime, pedophilia, and twisted faith.

I’ve long felt  Mormons were a fringe religion with wacky beliefs founded by a con man, but were generally harmless. While their mainstream appears fairly normal, it’s only when compared to the utterly batshit, and utterly despicable fundamentalist cultists among them. These fundamentalist cultists sound far, far closer to the Taliban than to anything I’d call Christian. But then, they’re hardly the only sect in the USA vying for the role of most repressive faith.

And don’t get me started on the Catholic church, with its long history of oppression, violence, sexual abuse, torture, support for dictators, and its culture-destroying residential schools. Or on the whole Protestant women/witch-burning passion. Or on the Islamic jihadists in ISIS who enslave women and torture men. It’s not difficult when looking at the negative side to agree with what Hitchens wrote as the subtitle to his book: Religion Poisons Everything.

What often bemused me as I read today’s headline news is that people seem to be generally losing faith in traditional religion, but picking up more in the radical, fundamentalist, fringe (and authoritarian/oppressive) groups like ISIS or the Talibangelists (can anyone tell me why the pseudo-Christians always cherry-pick laws from Deuteronomy and Leviticus to support their faith, but ignore the Beatitudes?).

But back to Coyne. while I suspect a lot of people would be happier without religion, not merely the oppressive, repressive forms, I don’t think his analysis is entirely fair, nor comprehensive. Religion has other components outside the supernatural, like community outreach, support like food banks and shelter, gathering donations for disaster-struck areas. Even the Catholic church did the world a lot of good by copying and sharing classical works for millennia so we can enjoy them today, and for keeping literacy alive in the Dark Ages (I thank them for Cicero, Seneca, Lucretius, and Horace). So I feel a blanket approach to religion based solely on the tenets of belief is lacking.

As a non-believer, I side with many of Coyne’s (and Dawkin’s and Hitchens’) views on belief in the supernatural: I don’t get it, and it seems irrational to me. But I’m not convinced that the absence of such belief necessarily makes for more contented nations. A clear and enforced separation of church and state may do so much better (as well as better regulation and taxation of churches) so that religion cannot impact on or interfere with government services or policies. But to reach that conclusion, I think we need a different sort of analysis. Perhaps if someone could convince, say, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Qatar to become a secular state we could measure the effect. But I won’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

Me, I am happy to pursue ethical and moral philosophies rather than faith in the supernatural because they don’t require cognitive dissonance. I even get shirty when the Stoics or Buddhist sutras refer to “the gods.” I want none of it.


* The recent federal election saw a lot of similar protests by supporters of Max Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada (PPC), which, while not having an overt religious connection, had all the trappings of them: intolerance, anger, irrational behaviour, bigotry, refusal to obey laws or safety protocols, and an appeal to personal “freedom” without any suggestion of communal obligation or responsibility. Or maybe I’m confusing them with the libertarians…

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  1. Bill Malcolm

    I very much enjoy your writings when you can allow yourself the luxury of time to put aside your continuing criticism of Collingwood’s town council. That’s because I live in Nova Scotia and Collingwood’s municipal misery is not that relevant to my life — we have similar little satrapies here. It rather seems to me that your breadth of reading and memory retention thereof is rather special. Plus, of course, I tend to agree with most everything you say, having come to similar conclusions, on religions and superstitions worldwide in particular.

    The American passion for navel-gazing to the exclusion of any curiosity whatsover regarding other countries and societies is annoying. And you say Coyne is guilty of this outlook in his second book. I think it is an American trait to regard everywhere else as unimportant, unless happenings there somehow affect America, in which case it always seems to be evaluated as a threat. It wasn’t until after my retirement a decade ago that I had the time or gumption to read more widely on politics, only to discover that even US progressives are belly-button lint pickers compared to citizens of almost everywhere else. If it didn’t happen in the USA, it’s unimportant to the vast majority of these people, clear across the political spectrum. Moreover, they are flummoxed when you point out this blinkered outlook. Never occurred to them, and doesn’t change them one bit anyway. One’s observations to them on that point are but a minor hiccup in their beeline to write almost exclusively about the USA. A very strange country with very strange citizenry, in my view. And that’s even before we get to “religion”.

    Furthermore, there is a decided component of the US left who are as anti-vax as any any PPC night crawler. Drawing on the decades of “better living through chemistry” horrifying herbicides, insecticides, GMO crops and bio-nonsense for profit, these brilliant people of the Kennedy Jr variety have decided that mRNA vaccines are the work of the debbil hisself and should be avoided on principle, while Fauci is an undereducated little opportunistic runt beholden to the Pharma industry. Yes, to them, mRNA vaccines are bio-weapons of the plutocracy. Their arguments sound and read almost identically to the most right-wing of nutbars, if more eruditely written, but they seem unaware of it. The same old hoary “facts” from 18 months ago are regarded as givens, and masks are useless. Happy in their own little echo chambers, they are as incurious of other opinions as they are of other countries. Amazing. And the mere suggestion that they cannot see that “experimental” vaccines actually work (and know less than nothing about the dozen or more conventional Covid vaccines extant worldwide, even their own J&J variety initially made to appalling standards at a Baltimore plant after it failed to produce uncontaminated AZ) shows that they are completely unwilling to acknowledge facts that don’t agree with their opinions. In other words, they are true blue Yankees, unwilling to change or acknowledge new facts because their minds are made up and that’s it. I therefore no longer expect new revelations on the human condition to emanate from the USA.

    • Thanks for the kind words. I love writing almost to the point of obsession, but sometimes get distracted to pontificate on local issues. Having been a municipal councillor here for three terms, and a reporter/newspaper editor for a dozen years, I feel an obligation to rend asunder the sycophants and willfully ignorant on the current council. Local media is either too lame or too friendly with the mayor and councillors to be honest or effective in actually doing their job and covering the corruption here. Someone has to do it, although I often think the public prefers not to know.

      But my first love is writing about what I read, what I watch (as in movies and TV), what I ponder. I take my inspiration from Michel de Montaigne, who wrote about whatever amused (or bemused) him at the moment.

      Yes, I agree that the left has its own share of “bozos, beaners, and bonkers” (to quote the Firesign Theatre). But like most things leftish, they are generally disorganized and inept at presenting it in any cohesive manner. The usual New Age piffle, from reiki to reflexology, astrology to homeopathy, seems to have more staying power among many lefties, but they don’t take it to the streets demanding “rights” to eat gluten-free pasta or have all new homes feng-shui-ed before occupancy.

      Mostly I rail on about the right because it has drifted into bigotry, small-mindedness, conspiracy nonsense, and demagoguery. The alt-right is much more than I can stomach. They’ve fallen a long way from the Conservatives worthy of my admiration (in Ontario, John Robarts and Bill Davis come to mind as the last of them worthy of respect; federally I think back to Robert Stanfield, Joe Clark, and Kim Campbell as the last of the best of that lot).

      I also suffer from terminal sarcasm, which comes from being a genetic skeptic, and an incurable allergy to hypocrisy. So perhaps my writing tends to get a trifle sharp-stick-in-the-eye at times.

      Back in the days when I wrote for American magazines, I had many discussions with my American editors and friends about American-centric views and their blindness to anything outside their borders. I agree: they couldn’t see it and were often puzzled as to why I couldn’t see things from their perspective. (Rick Mercer did some viciously funny videos called “Talking to Americans” in which he spoofed them mercilessly about Canada’s national igloo and other jokes. I never tire of watching them. They are on YouTube, I believe.)

      Anyway, thanks for reading my humble efforts at pretending to be smart. I promise I’ll write about more than local issues in the future. In fact, I’m working on something now…

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