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RS129 - Would the World Be a Better Place Without Religion?

Release date: March 8, 2015

Atheists often take it as a given that the world would be better off without religion. But what does the evidence so far really say? In this episode, Massimo and Julia discuss a recent  article in the Skeptical Inquirer presenting research that shows a moderate correlation between religiosity and prosocial traits like altruism. Should we doubt the research? And if not, are there other reasons to suspect that religion's net effect on the world is negative?

Julia's pick: "How to Measure Anything Workbook: Finding the Value of Intangibles in Business"

Massimo's pick: "Do lobsters and other invertebrates feel pain?"

References (5)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.

Reader Comments (16)

Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States
"Interestingly, religious activities and beliefs were negatively correlated with the use of violence among both Far Right and
Far Left extremists."
Religious activities reduced the likelihood of violence by 5 to 10%.

But Islamist extremists are a different story. So when it comes to "violent extremism" the U.S. would probably be better off without Islam. And the modern world too. Iran might still be Zoroastrian, Afghanistan might still be Buddhist, Turkey might still be Christian, Pakistan might still be India.

March 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax

As I recall, a big survey in the U.K. found that compared to Christians, non-religious people had the same level of education and home-ownership, Jews and Buddhists had a higher level, and Muslims had a lower level, so let's not pretend that all religions are equal.
If you're going to talk about religion and science, explain why so many Nobel laureates in science are Jews. They may be secular Jews, but without religion, there might not be any Jews. Why is there so much tech innovation coming out of Israel but not the Muslim world?

March 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax

Thanks for the very interesting podcast. I know you could probably easily do 8 hours on the topic, but I was disappointed in how incomplete the discussion was (especially compared to the quality of discussion I've come to expect from RS). I'm hoping that you guys will invite Luke Galen (psych professor and co-host of the Reasonable Doubts podcast) to discuss this issue further. He's talked a lot about the research on religion and morality on that podcast, and done his own published study on happiness/health and religion, and could certainly bring a lot of light to this topic.

Here are a few examples of stuff that really complicates the idea that religion is correlated with pro-social behavior, as you seemed to accept in the podcast. There are studies that show religious people are more prosocial to people in their in-group, but are less prosocial than the non-religious to outgroup individuals. There was at least one study showing that religious people are more likely to do the moral thing if they think they are being watched (or asked how they would respond in a situation), but behave just as immorally (or more immorally) when they think they aren't being monitored. There is extensive polling data showing that Christians in America (and religious people in a lot of other countries) are far more likely to be against birth control, gay rights, and equal treatment of women than the non-religious. I'm also not sure why you swept aside the population data. Looking at the data comparing markers of happiness, security, and crime vs religiosity in European countries and comparing the states in the US seems like much stronger evidence (although obviously still a correlation) that religion may note be making the world a better place than focusing on the small number of studies mostly done on a small number of university students.

I think the data is much more complicated than was presenting in the podcast, and hope you both might consider a follow-up episode at some point.

March 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel M

I agree with Daniel that these studies weren't discussed in sufficient detail. If you want to do an episode about this topic, you have to tell how they operationalized words such as prosocial and altruistic in the studies. Otherwise it doesn't mean anything.

March 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJake

by eliminating (Abrahemic) religion you eliminate the possibilities of people using interpretations to implement the various forms of divine command theory.

Further, by eliminating Dogma that is attached to accountability similar to that of divine command theory, where you have something like a father/ king/ papa/ man god who is accountable only to himself, you eliminate the sorts like Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Jung Sun, etc.

It's about accountability, and holding those things accountable in such a way that they are forced to bare responsibility and lose face in front of the masses on grounds of reason.

Massimo, please stop being an apologist.

March 12, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterputasso picasso

I enjoyed the podcast and I think the data discussed shows how complicated it is to determine what effect religion or lack thereof has on prosocial behavior. However, prosocial behavior is not the first place I would look for the damage that religion causes. 1) Religion has explicitly male chauvinist doctrines and women all of the world are repressed in its name. 2) Religion is a primary motivation for people to be opposed to a woman's right to choose. 3) Religion provides reasons to repress the LGTBQ community. 4) Religion has led to unhealthy attitudes about sexuality.

Also, your analysis of the comparison of atrocities committed by Stalin and Pol Pot to atrocities like the crusades and the inquisition was poor. What makes these kinds of atrocities possible is absolutist ideology. It is Stalin's and Pol Pot's communist ideology that led them to commit the atrocities, not their atheism. In other words, atheism wasn't ever offered as justification for their actions. On the other hand, it was specific religious doctrines that were used as justification for the crusades and the inquisition.

This isn't a no true scotsman fallacy. The argument isn't that no true atheist would do these things, rather the argument is that atheism wasn't used as the justification for doing these things. For example, many of the killings Stalin ordered were because he was worried that these people would remove him from power. This has nothing to do with atheism. On the other hand, the inquisition was set up to explicitly combat heresy. The crusades were justified in terms of giving Christians access to Jerusalem, a place there religious teachings told them was holy. This is explicitly part of the religious ideology. The forgoing is what Dawkins means when he says there is a logical pathway from religion to atrocity and there is no such pathway from atheism to atrocity.

March 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterChris Jenson

Is there a logical pathway from anti-theism to atrocity? From believing that the world would be a better place without religion to persecuting religious institutions and people? From equating religious indoctrination with child abuse to taking away children for reeducation?

March 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax

+1 to Daniel for bringing up Dr Galen I came here to say the same thing. I felt throughout the episode that his input would have been very valuable. I hope the hosts will consider having him on to give his views an airing.

March 14, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDarcy Cowan

Religion is not the sole problem. The world would be better without DOGMA of any sort.
If people would THINK and reject all dogma then religion, North Korea, Russia, and many others would not exist.
But so long as we have lots of people who are scared to think....we will have dogma of some form.

March 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterL.Long

Thanks for the feedback, all -- I've just looked up Luke Galen and he seems like a great resource. I'll think about doing a follow-up episode with him or another expert in the field.

March 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJulia Galef

I am a recent but avid fan of the podacst and greatly admire the both of you for your no holds barred style of dicussion on topics, Julia and Massimo. As such, I've come to admire and respect your intellectual relentlessness and honesty.

Which is why I'm beyond disappointed in this particular podcast. I think Daniel and Chris already mentioned much of my key issues with the discussion. It seemed, in general, like you made a biased selection of researches, amd then failed to subject them to scrutiny as well.

If I may, here is an excerpt from a 2009 paper by Phil Zuckerman of Pfizer university which contains some studies that you might like to look into that suggest atheists/irreligious secularists have a more harmonious and altruistic worldview than their religious counterparts.
'Gay and Ellison (1993) found that – when compared to various religious groups – nonreligious Americans are the most politically tolerant, supporting the extension of civil liberties to
dissident groups.
As for gender equality and women’s rights, atheists and secular people are quite supportive (Hayes 1995b). Recent studies show that secular individuals are much more supportive of gender equality than religious people, less likely to endorse conservatively traditional views
concerning women’s roles, and when compared with various religious denominations,‘‘Nones’’ possess the most egalitarian outlook of all concerning women’s rights (Brinkerhoff and Mackie 1985, 1993; Petersen and Donnenwerth 1998; Hoffman and Miller 1997).
Additional polls reveal that abortion rights are more likely to be supported by the secular than the religious (Gallup Poll 2006; ABC News Poll 2001).
Concerning the acceptance of homosexuality and support for gay rights, atheists and secular people again stand out (Linneman and Clendenen 2009; Hayes 1995b). When compared
with the religious, non-religious people are far more accepting of homosexuality and supportive of gay rights and gay marriage (Sherkat et al. 2007; Burdette et al. 2005; Lewis 2003; Loftus 2001; Roof and McKinney 1987), and are far less likely to be homophobic
or harbor negative attitudes towards homosexuals (Altemeyer 2009; Rowatt et al. 2006; Schulte and Battle 2004; Aubyn et al. 1999; VanderStoep and Green 1988; Kunkel and Temple 1992). According to a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Survey (2008),
60 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans support gay marriage, compared to roughly 26 percent of Protestants and 42 percent of Catholics. According to Newport (2008), 76 percent of Americans who never or seldom attend church consider homosexuality morally acceptable, compared with 21 percent of weekly and 43 percent of monthly church attenders.
Additional studies consistently find that atheists and secular people tend to take a more liberal ⁄ progressive stand on a multitude of contemporary social issues (Hoffman and Miller 1997; Hood et al. 1996; Nelson 1988). For example, secular Americans were far less supportive of the U.S. invasion of Iraq than religious Americans (Smidt 2005); only 38 percent of secular Americans favored invasion compared with 68 percent of Evangelical Protestants, 57 percent of Mainline Protestants, and 58 percent of Catholics, and 47 percent of Jews. Guth et al. (2005) found that only 32 percent of secular Americans consider the Iraq War justified, compared with 89 percent of Mormons, 87 percent of Evangelicals, 73 percent of Mainline Protestants, and 84 percent of Catholics. When it comes to the death penalty, atheists and nonreligious people are also markedly less supportive than their religious peers (Beit-Hallahmi 2007; Gallup Poll, 2004). As for the general treatment of prisoners, secular people are much less supportive of retribution and are less likely to favor harsh ⁄ draconian sentencing than religious people (Grasmick et al. 1992; Blumstein and Cohen 1980). A recent survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Survey (2009) found that secular, religiously unaffiliated Americans are the group least supportive of the governmental use of torture. Concerning doctor assisted suicide, non-church attenders are much more likely to support it than weekly church attenders (Carroll 2007; Stark and Bainbridge 1996), and support for stem cell research is strongest among the secular (Nisbet 2005); Harris Poll (2004) found that 84 percent of ‘‘nonreligious’’ Americans support stem cell research, compared with 55 percent of ‘‘very religious’’ Americans. Finally, secular people are much more likely to support the legalization of marijuana than religious people (Gallup Poll, 2005b; Hoffman and
Miller 1997).'

I would very much like to see a more balanced, less insensibly apologetic discussion om the topic in the future, sure you ever decide to touch upon it again.
Best wishes,
Ashhari :)

March 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAshhari Lokuge

Oh dear. Bad typo. That's *Pitzer University :)

March 17, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAshhari Lokuge

"atheists and secular people tend to take a more liberal ⁄ progressive stand on a multitude of contemporary social issues"

Right... at least in the U.S., probably not in China. And if you're liberal/progressive like them, then naturally you agree with them that legalizing pot and appeasing Islamists and being nice to murderers makes the world a better place, but if you're not, then you don't.

For example, I would ally with pro-Israel Christian Zionists against the self-hating Jew president of the Secular Coalition for America who just announced that he no longer supports Israel because it's not secular enough for him.

March 18, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax

I'd agree with Ashhari. This was a pretty selective look at things, only looking at those things which the religious and atheists agree are immoral (i.e murder, theft etc) but not looking at obvious issues like homosexuality, abortion in the case of congenital fetal abnormalities where the mother's life is at risk, Women's rights in general, etc where the very religious don't even see their actions as immoral, or even death penalties for apostates (Islamic states) or other grave human rights abuses don't through religion.

Why don't these issues feature in measures of "prosocial" things or altruism?

It's not that a particular person will commit more (clear) crimes or not in his own capacity that is the issue at all. It's arguing against a straw man in the hurry to prematurely kill one's own sacred cows. Rather the issue is that one will work to deny rights and/or issues arise at the state level in a religious state etc.

March 30, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCathal
Would the World Be a Better Place Without Religion?

Basically nope... Well because Religion is just part of the social structure we live in but it doesn't represent enough of the complexity of our Human Culture. We would still be dealing with Politics, Education, Social-Class, Economics, Race Relations, Laws, Values etc. etc.. These aspects of our lives would still bring about much of the problems that Countries deal with today. These are areas that we struggle to improve today and they are not directly linked to Religion so just by removing something like Religion, it wouldn't affect how those other areas in our lives play out so basically we would end up with all the same problems we see today. Removing Religion is not enough to see significant change in the World. For that, you would need to change the way the Socioeconomic conditions operate within Societies.

And lastly I'd like to add that if we all of a sudden had no Religion in the World, people like that Max feller we see here in the Comments would still carry heavy Xenophobic type sentiments because we would still have people following Ideology & Dogma because like I said before, all those other aspects in our lives that produce this sort of behavior would still be around.
December 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto
The "Catholic League" largely misrepresents Catholicism, the Catholic Church, and Catholic People generally. Bill Donohue routinely makes a fool out of himself. Donohue claims 200,000 members, but really has many many fewer, and he does not represent the views of the billion or more Catholics worldwide. Donohue makes slanderous statements about lots of people and organizations, and obviously slandered Julia's brother as well.

It makes sense that both extremely religious and extremely nonreligious people would reject the authority of a researcher, since they both have strongly held moral beliefs.

Communism and Fascism really are types of religions. In Communism god = government. In Fascism god = the nation (very similar to Communism). We could also consider Antitheism and Atheism "religions" in the sense that they include a doctrine of beliefs. Perhaps we should consider all ideologies, religious and otherwise, against one another an determine which ideology produces the best people and the best society. Secular Humanism and Liberal forms of religion might perform really well.
December 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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