Funny you should ask, CBC. I’ve pondered this question many times, myself being a nice combination of a Religious Studies major, a Westerner from a relatively wealthy background (relative to most of the world, anyway), and a generally thoughtful person.
I’ll try not to spout this out as an academic review, because nobody cares. I just need to take my metaphorical axe to this thing a bit before I can sleep soundly tonight.
Here’s a quick summary, in case you didn’t click on the flashy blue link above:
This researcher guy, Gregory Paul, did some research (that’s what researchers do, apparently), and has come to the conclusion that “religion is most able to thrive in seriously dysfunctional societies”. Greg’s (we must be on a first-name basis by now) previous qualifications include: helping make Jurassic Park because he knows a lot of stuff about dinosaurs, and generally disliking religion.
I’ll start off by giving Greg props for noticing that wealthier societies in general are more secular. I would have bet a large portion of my inheritance on that anyways, but still, it’s nice to know there’s some factual evidence now.
I have to disagree with most of what was presented in the article, though. First, because it implies either that all religious people are stupid, or that all stupid people are religious, whichever way you want to look at it. He reduces religion to a “psychological coping mechanism”, because only people living in countries with issues actually seek it out. Those Scandinavians are living the dream, so they have no need for the gods helping them out anymore. Just don’t think too hard about the United States as an exception; they’re not really important.
This research was also done in 2009. So yes, it’s a little outdated, but more importantly, it’s taking a tiny slice of history and concluding that humanity has operated this way forever. Ancient Greece, the elite nation of its time, had lots of religious activity. So did most ancient tribal African and Aboriginal communities. In response, it could be argued that none of these or any other examples were ‘functional’ societies. So then what is a functional society? A wealthy, democratic, and… secular one?
My main issue with Greg’s findings is that he presents a classic example of bias. He used 25 different socioeconomic factors to determine what made a nation ‘successful’. As in, a country has to get richer and rid itself of strife to be good, and a country that’s not yet rich or safe can use religion as its crutch in the meantime. All the poor religious people in the developing world are waiting to be able to do something better with their time.
It may be that the most vulnerable people are the most religious, but for goodness sake, who can decide it’s a bad thing? Who gets to decide that a rich, cynical, atheistic life is the best life to lead? Why do those countries get to be called ‘successful’? Ghana’s GDP may be extremely low, but they’ve had free, democratic elections for decades now. Can we guarantee that the Ghanaian people would trade their God in for a new car?
The impoverished people of the world are still people, capable of making autonomous decisions. Person A, living in a developing nation, chooses to live a meaningful life by worshiping her God rather than dwelling on her material lackings. Person B, living in a developed nation, chooses to dedicate her life to comfort rather than exploring anything beyond herself. Who’s to say that B’s life has more value than A’s?