“Too much religion is bad for a country,” asserts Max Boot in a recent Washington Post op-ed. Boot cites a number of indicators—average GDP per capita, unemployment rates, poverty rates, homicide rates, life expectancy, infant mortality, education, and degree of political liberties—that suggest that “less religious nations are much better off.” Indeed, Australia, Sweden, Belgium, the United Kingdom, and Japan, some of the least religious nations in the world, rank best in the aforementioned categories, while many of the most religious nations in the world (the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, Thailand, India, Nigeria) are among the worst. America represents a unique case in this regard, being both wealthy and developed, but more religious than her Western counterparts. Would she be better off if her religious practice were to decline to levels found elsewhere in the developed world?
An Incomplete Narrative regarding Developed Countries
At first glance, given the stats cited above, one might be inclined to think that religion represents yet one more archaic element of society worthy of being cast off into the dustbin of history. Generally speaking, the most developed, successful, and prosperous nations on earth are the least religious. Moreover, in many areas—such as life expectancy, the rate of children living in single-parent households, and the rate of homicides by firearms—the United States, whose church attendance rates are similar to what they were in 1940, is doing worse than other developed nations that are less religious.
Yet such comparisons need to account for other factors as well. For example, almost every developed country cited as an exemplar for America to follow is suffering from catastrophically low birth rates that endanger each country’s economic viability and socio-cultural stability. And low birth rates are attributed to lifestyle choices associated with economic affluence, accessibility to contraception, and a lack of religious observance (practicing religious families tend to have more children). Those who argue that immigration can solve the economic problem find that it can further aggravate the socio-cultural stability problem, and that once immigrants settle, their birth rates soon decline to that of their host country. This in turn can become a serious political and security issue, as rising violence and radicalism in the United Kingdom, France, and Sweden demonstrate. Having high life expectancy and low unemployment and poverty doesn’t do a nation much good if it’s on the way to a population collapse.
Besides a demographic crisis, developed countries are experiencing unprecedented levels of social isolation, depression, and loneliness. South Korea, Belgium, and Japan have some of the highest suicide rates in the world. In contrast, some of the most religious countries rank as some of the least suicidal in the world: Papua New Guinea (119th), the Philippines (159th), and Pakistan (169th), for example. In Japan, in turn, there is an increasing phenomenon of “Kodokushi,” where elderly people die alone and remain undiscovered for long periods of time. Elsewhere, former British Prime Minister Theresa May in 2018 established a “minister for loneliness,” because more than 9 million people in the UK—about 14 percent of the population—“often or always feel lonely.” Government research found that about 200,000 older people in Britain “had not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month.”
These trends are compounded by the proliferation of socially isolating, addicting forms of entertainment like pornography, video games, social media, and smartphones that affect rising numbers of Westerners. Between 5 to 8 percent of the adult population in the United States is either addicted to pornography or engages in what the medical community assesses as excessive porn use. Numbers are estimated to be similar in the United Kingdom. Millions of Americans are classified as having compulsive video-game behavior, while there is increasing scientific consensus that handheld digital technology is similarly dangerous in its addictive qualities. Being well-educated and living longer may not be so great if one lives depressed and suffering from compulsive addictions, then dies alone and forgotten.
Religion Isn’t Just Good for the Soul
Many are familiar with the plethora of scientific research that demonstrates that those who engage in religious or spiritual activities have better health than those who do not. As researchers at the Mayo Clinic concluded: “Most studies have shown that religious involvement and spirituality are associated with better health outcomes, including greater longevity, coping skills, and health-related quality of life (even during terminal illness) and less anxiety, depression, and suicide. Several studies have shown that addressing the spiritual needs of the patient may enhance recovery from illness.”
Yet religious observance also has significant beneficial effects across a host of sociological categories. University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox has argued:
On average, religion is a clear force for good when it comes to family unity and the welfare of children—the most important aspects of our day-to-day lives. Research, some of it my own, indicates that, on average, Americans who regularly attend services at a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque are less likely to cheat on their partners; less likely to abuse them; more likely to enjoy happier marriages; and less likely to have been divorced.
Data collected by the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey, in turn, demonstrate that Americans who regularly attend religious services are more likely to report that they are “very happy” in their marriages when compared to those who rarely or never attend.
Research also indicates that religious parents spend more time with their children, including eating dinner with their children, doing chores together, and attending events with their children. Religious parents also more frequently praise and show affection to their school-aged children. Children from religious families, presumably as a consequence, are “rated by both parents and teachers as having better self-control, social skills, and approaches to learning than kids with non-religious parents,” according to a nationally representative study of more than 16,000 American children.
It’s likely that these many positive indicators have something to do with the nature of much religious teaching itself, which promotes faithfulness, sacrifice, and care for one’s family. It’s also just as reasonable to conclude that religious experience acts as a social adhesive, binding people to one another both in families and in larger social networks and communities. Indeed, scientific research indicates that those who are involved in social activities, regardless of whether or not those activities are explicitly religious in nature, have longer lives, better physical and mental health, and a lower risk of dementia. One study, which examined data from more than 309,000 people, found that a lack of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes by 50 percent. This is comparable to the increased mortality risk caused by smoking up to fifteen cigarettes a day. It’s no real surprise, then, that those whose piety possesses a social component are generally healthier, happier, and better contributors to positive familial and social outcomes.
A Successful West Was Not Always Areligious
The secularization of the developed world must also be placed within a broader historical narrative. For centuries before the Enlightenment, anti-clericalism, modernity, and postmodernity took their toll on Western religious faith and practice, European nations were both highly pious and successful across many indicators. Beginning in the medieval era and quickening after the Renaissance, medical, educational, and technological developments in the West outpaced those in the rest of the world by significant margins. Indeed, the European colonial powers that dominated the globe beginning in the sixteenth century—England, France, Spain, and Portugal—all aggressively sought to extend their faiths to the peoples they conquered. Moreover, church attendance and explicitly Christian political movements remained strong in many Western countries (e.g. Germany, Canada, Ireland) into the post–World War II era.
Certainly the West has become less religious since the Enlightenment, though that narrative can obscure significant periods of religious revival in the West since the French Revolution. There were revivals in Victorian England, in Le Réveil and the post-Napoleonic revival of German Catholicism on the European continent, and in the Second and Third Great Awakenings in the United States. It is more accurate to speak of the acceleration of that secularization process across the West in the last two generations, which is several centuries after Western nations and their culture came to dominate the globe.
Rather than perceive some Western nations as increasingly better off as they shed the last vestiges of religious practice, I propose an alternative perspective. Increasingly secularized Western nations continue to enjoy the many benefits of their religious inheritance, such as consciences informed by Judeo-Christian beliefs about justice and atonement, and civic participation informed by Judeo-Christian teachings about personal obligation. Counter-intuitively, these transcendent qualities of faith, which eschew utilitarian aims for a greater purpose, are what create the circumstances for greater material well-being. Yet the West is exhausting that religio-socio-political capital, rejecting transcendent reality in favor of materialistic decadence and self-absorption, as Ross Douthat has argued in his recent book.
This is the great irony of the Jewish and Christian faith traditions. One must be willing to accept suffering and sacrifice for a greater purpose that transcends one’s particular material and sensual needs and desires. As Christ declared: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24–25). Dostoevsky begins his literary masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov—a tale of suffering, sacrifice, and repentance—with this verse precisely because he perceived in its promise a mysterious redemptive power capable of changing the world.
Driven by the popular chant “Hey, hey, Western Civ has got to go!” Americans have increasingly forgotten that it was the Church that fostered the very best of our civilization and culture. This includes its greatest art, architecture, and music; its economic and civic vitality; its intellectual curiosity and scientific method. Moreover, as Fulton J. Sheen argued, “Religion’s service to democracy is secondary and indirect; that is, by concentrating on spiritualizing the souls of men, it will diffuse through political society an increased service of justice and charity rooted in God.” Only a return to the “First Things” of religious faith and practice can prevent the West—and especially America—from confronting the same dilemmas that face less religious Western nations.