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Monday, February 13

Moderate Religion is NOT Good for Societies

The Data Does Not Lie

Gregory S. Paul

Many a religious moderate and liberal are fuming. They are peeved because "mainline" religion is waning even more rapidly in America than is the religious right they believe is ruining organized supernaturalism, while atheism makes major gains as a segment of the population to the distress of theists in general (> Theomoderates and liberals like Chris Hedges are further upset with how they are being disrespected by both religious fundamentalists from one end, and the "new" or more correctly assertive atheists from the other.

According to centrist religious supernaturalists whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or whatever, not only are they not the ones not responsible for the ills of modern societies, they are part of the levelheaded solution. In their opinion it seems eminently logical that the proposition that middle of the road moderate as well as liberal religion is more beneficial than either of the contentious extremes of fundamentalist theism on the one hand or assertive atheism on the other. Surely it is the common sense center that best understands how to run the societal show, not those extremist zealots on either side. Right?

And it is not just theists who subscribe to the notion that moderate faith being is fine. A number of nontheists go for it as well. Among them Chris Mooney who opposes serious criticism of center-left denominations and doctrines by the likes of Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and myself. In this view it is the religious right alone that should be targeted by atheists, who should pander to the supernaturalist middle so they can be engaged as allies in the grand struggle with theoconservatism.

A godly advocate of the moderate religion is the best thesis is Johns Hopkins's William Egginton, who slanders assertive atheists as fundamentalists despite the term applying to theists who strictly adhere to their particular scriptures—it makes no more sense than does labeling antisupernaturalists who strongly oppose belief in ghosts and speaking to the dead as fundamentalists. But there is a funny thing about his recently published In Defense of Religious Moderation. It is anti-scientific. Looking through his thin book of opinions one is hard pressed to find data and analysis that actually supports the belief that supernaturalism is OK as long as it is not fundamentalist. It was a very big mistake.

Then again, no one else has actually tested the issue. Including me who should have known better. It is certainly possible to do so, their being sufficient evidence on hand (I published the basic stats in the below EP paper). If the temperate faith is good if not the best hypothesis holds up, then the larger the portion of the population that is moderately pious then the more successful the society should be. At the least conditions should not worsen the more theomods there are. Societies that are either more fundamentalist or atheist should be worse off. If the fundamentalists are right then the most theocon societies should be doing the best while more moderately religious and atheistic populations suffer. And if ungodly irreligion has the advantage then it alone should be associated with the best socioeconomic conditions while the two alternatives correlate with the opposite. So which of the alternatives is right?

It's a matter of statistics and analysis. And the results are not at all ambiguous. In my technical paper in Evolutionary Psychology ( I constructed the first and still the most comprehensive comparison of overall societal conditions in the prosperous democracies yet compiled, the Successful Societies Scale (see for a less technical discussion). It is a compilation of about two dozen major indicators of societal and economic health, all scored and tallied up for each country on a 0-10 scale, with 0 being the very worst and 10 the very best.

Successful Societies Scale, Popular Religiosity-Secularism Scale

It has become fairly well known that the correlation between the SSS and overall religiosity in the EP paper shows a very strong trend in which less religious supernaturalism is associated with markedly better socioeconomic conditions. This is visually obvious in the plot, and is statistically confirmed by the Pearson correlation value of 0.705 that is so strong it qualifies as a statistician's dream. This is true because the most religious and Christian 1st world country, the US, scores below an embarrassingly low 3, so far down that its 1st world status is marginal. The most atheistic democracies score the highest, 7 and even an 8, with the religiously intermediate countries scoring between 4 and 7. One could hardly ask for a better real world result. The outcome means that no highly religious nation has ever been as successful as the most atheistic democracies, and as I explain in the EP paper there are core reasons why this will always be true.

That religion is a societal negative is no longer particularly controversial in sociological circles, it having been verified by a rapidly growing body of studies comparing both nations at large, and the situation within the US ( This includes a new paper by Luke Galen in Mental Health, Religion and Culture that debunks the common wisdom that religious individuals tend to do better than their atheist counterparts. But what about different wings of religion? Do they produce different results as different theists claim?

In the EP paper levels of fundamentalist religiosity in 1st world countries were correlated with the SSS. Because fundamentalism is founded on strict acceptance of scripture as written I used Bible literalism as the basic measure of theoconservatism. The results showed that higher levels of fundamentalism are strongly associated with higher levels of socioeconomic dysfunction. This too can be seen visually in the plot, and is statistically verified by the strong correlation of -0.549. Within the US the most theocon regions tend to have the highest rates of dysfunction. This is not surprising for multiple reasons. Fundamentalism is both a reactionary response to modernity whose old style responses to societal problems (reliance on scriptures in which lethal violence is ordained by the god figure, violent punishment of children, rejection of gun control, opposition to comprehensive sex education) is combined with an embrace of the radical laissez-faire capitalism (opposition to universal health care and welfare, job insecurity and union bashing, plutocracy enhancing policies) that is the socially Darwinist recipe for degrading societal conditions for the majority—it is one of the great ironies of modern times that the theocons who denounce Darwinian science are the strongest advocates of Darwinian economics ( At the same time, the superior societal conditions produced by the progressive secular policies the religious right loves to hate suppress the popularity of religion right as well as left.
Successful Societies Scale, Fundamentalists-Atheists

I also compared levels of popular atheism with the SSS in the EP paper. If Egginton et al. are correct about the "extremes" being similarly bad, then the more atheism there is in a nation then the worse off the citizens should be, as they are with more fundamentalism. But the data shows the opposite. More atheism is strongly correlated with better conditions, the Pearson correlation of 0.547 soundly verifying the atheist advantage.

It did not occur to yours truly to see how moderate religion performs in the EP study. That was an oversight. When I noted that Egginton's views are not scientific on a Baltimore radio program he continued to contend that moderate religion is a societal positive but failed to back up the claim. Instead he made a vague assertion that societal conditions are improving in the US, which although generally true does not mean that religious moderation is behind the change for the better. I then realized no one had run the statistics, and became most curious what they would reveal. To arrive at the number of moderates as well as liberals I subtracted the Bible literalists from the total religious in each nation examined—as you can see in the plot the US has among the largest portion of religious moderates, something that does not portend well for the religious moderation hypotheses. Before I began the analysis I was pretty confident that moderate faith would not correlate with superior circumstances, but I vaguely imagined it would not be all that bad either.
That's why it is always important to run the stats to see what is actually going down.

What should give the religion in moderation is preferable to either fundamentalism or atheism crowd a sharp sociological whack upside their collective heads is that more moderate to liberal religion not only does not correlate with better conditions, nor is it even neutral, but it too strongly correlates with inferior conditions, the Pearson correlation being -0.566. Middle of the road religion is actually about as strongly associated with adverse circumstances as is theoconservatism. Praise be to scientific statistical analysis for uncovering the cold quantitative truth.

Successful Societies Scale, Moderate-Liberal Theists

The same general pattern applies over time. Many indicators of societal dysfunction have indeed been getting better over the few decades, a major exception being a shorting of lifespans in parts of the Bible Belt. Over the same period of time atheism has been on the rise as religious activities including the more moderate expressions have withered. Longitudinal evidence that moderate faith is helping make things better is at best scarce.

Surprised? After all, theomods and theolibs favor the modern progressive policies that make societies better. But the results are in accord with the phenomenon of unintended consequences, one in which theists who help enact effective secular policies do not realize that the improving conditions that result cannot help but depress the kind of religiosity they prefer. If anything moderate denominations have proven more vulnerable to decline in the face of modernity than the more ardently reactionary theocons, which may explain why the negative correlation with superior conditions is stronger for the middle of the roaders than the right wingers. This too is supported by the stats—the Pearson correlation between higher national income disparity and more moderate religiosity is a really strong 0.726, higher than the still impressive 0.666 for fundamentalism.

So Egginton and company are just plain wrong. Even though religious moderation is not societally toxic the way theoconservatism is, it cannot survive the onset of secure prosperity that is invariably toxic to mass religious supernaturalism. No matter what its flavor, religion can never be the solution the way that democratic atheism can and is.

I will now predict how the theomods and libs will respond to the presentation of the evidence. Very few will admit they are wrong and become atheists. I say few because some that will get the reality of the situation and change their minds thereby joining the atheist groundswell. But most will not get it. They will attempt to construct new, denial based justifications for why it is OK for societies to be theistically centrist. Specifically, they will contend that since it has not been shown that theomoderation and theoliberalism are direct contributors to the grave problems of society, there is nothing wrong with the majority remaining pious as long as they are reasonable about it. These good folks will really, really, miss the point. Showing the center-left religion is not as bad as the conservative variety is like showing that living in Brazil is better than living in Somalia—true, but so what when there are Swedens and Germanys. And even more to the point, whether or not faith-based moderation is good or bad is irrelevant when the best socioeconomic circumstances kill off the faith. It just won't work. The fact is that in much of the west strong majorities no longer ask what would Jesus do, or pay much mind to any religion, and they are doing more than just fine thank you. You cannot run a civilization without language. Nor without the materialism that is the reason civilizations exists in the first place. But you can run a civilization without religion. And because the best run societies are the most atheistic, that means the best way to make cultures more atheistic is by running them as well as possible (see minutes 41:00-48:00 & 54:00-57:00 in,4561,Why-Evolution-Is-True, There is no pressing need for any supernaturalism no matter how sensible its adherents may claim it is.

Far from the ungodly extreme creating problems like the fundamentalist extreme, the denial of the gods alone has produced the goods. It follows that only advocates of atheism have the national statistics to back up their position. That means that theists conservative to liberal must put up or shut up. Moderate supernaturalists who proclaim their proscience worldview while denouncing the fundamentalists' superstitious rejection of intellectual modernity should be especially willing to produce the sociological beef before continuing to propound upon their currently speculative opinions. The Eggintons and Hedges have to show us an example of a highly religious nation that is doing as well in the major social indicators as the most atheist democracies. Or how about a 1st world country where overall conditions are improving as temperate religion rises? Then you have a case to discuss. If you can't—and you can't—then you are operating all too near the level of the fundamentalists you decry for their obtuse antiscientism (I have been challenging those who think religion is a societal positive to publish comprehensive technical studies to that effect since my first paper on the issue in 2005,, so far nothing has shown up and I am not holding my sociological breath). Continuing to make assertions in the face of contradictory data is irresponsible unless convincing countervailing evidence is produced.

It is not the assertive atheists who are acting like fundamentalists because we have the data on our side. It is the pious moderates who denounce assertive atheists as fundamentalists, despite the absence of the scriptures that fundamentalism rests upon, who are acting like fundamentalists by brushing aside inconvenient scientific facts. And this is one reason why assertive atheists are so critical of the theological moderates. The refusal of atheists to accept the unsubstantiated opinion that moderate religion is the best or even a viable societal option is not some sort of fundamentalist obstinacy, it is the only logical scientific conclusion. Nor is it any more or less extreme that denying the reality of ghosts of the geocentric theory. So why should atheists buy into the myth of supernaturalistic moderation? Seriously, you folks don't have anything to back up your claims, so why are you beating the dead horse of centrist superstition?

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Published: 2/7/2012
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