Field of Science

The dependence of religion on dysfunctional societies

This is a timely new study by Gregory Paul. Back in 2005, he published a controversial paper showing that religious societies seem to be more dysfunctional. In a paper just published on Evolutionary Psychology he takes this argument a stage further and adds a bit of statistical rigour.

The cornerstone of the paper is the 'Successful Societies Scale", which is constructed from 25 separate indicators - things like murder and suicide rates, prison population, mortality, sexually transmitted diseases, abortions, marriages, deaths, alcohol consumption, poverty and unemployment.

There's a clear, statistically significant relationship - worse societies are more religious. With different measures of societal health and a different group of nations (only wealthy ones), this nicely corroborates the conclusion I reached in my independent analysis published last month.

My analysis used income inequality as a proxy measure of societal health. The interesting thing about Paul's new 'Successful Societies Scale' is just how well it correlates with income inequality (that's shown in fig 33, shown on the right here).

And just to cap it all, here's another figure, from a new book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level. They use their own multi-component measure of societal health, and also find a close correlation with income inequality.

In other words, income inequality really does seem to be a good barometer of how stressful and downright dangerous society is. And that, in all likelihood, is probably why it correlates so strongly with religiosity.

Paul, Gregory (2009). The chronic dependence of popular religiosity upon dysfunctional psychosociological conditions Evolutionary Psychology, 7 (3), 398-441

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.


  1. The countries looked at all seem to be Western democracies. I understand why focussing upon those makes sense and have no problem with it. I am curious, however, how the numbers work for other kinds of countries. Have you looked at that? I'd be particularly interested in seeing what the numbers look like for Poland, where I live. I suspect that you'd find that whereas it used to not fit your picture (given a previous high level of income equality but, also, high level of religiosity) it must be rapidly moving into line, somewhere towards the US end of things. Of course, in communist times, income equality did not mean much as it was not money which was a measure of one's personal power. The power inequalities that existed were entrenched in the one party system and, were that taken into account, I think communist Poland would have fitted into the picture fairly well. At the same time, I have no idea as to the indicators of social health that Paul considers. I'd have to dig about for them. I may well do that.

  2. In your last paragraph you said "In other words, income inequality really does seem to be a good barometer of how stressful and downright dangerous society is. And that,in all likelihood, is probably why it correlates so strongly with religiosity"

    This shows your anti-religion bias.
    Let us consider a hypothetical correlation study between suicide rates and religiosity.Let me say you get a positive correlation. Does that mean religion teaches suicide?The truth is most of the world's great religions do not.

    Then how do we get a positive correlation?We must observe who is committing suicide in the first place.As religiosity is increasing in certain populations,suicides could be happening in the 'non religious' groups of the population.

    All the correlation studies you quote may be perfectly correct.Please do realize that though religious societies seem to be more dysfunctional,it could be that dysfunction could be the result of the 'non religious' perpetrators of dysfunction in the system and that religion is helping the victims of societal dysfunction to carry on without adding further dysfunction!

  3. Dheeraj,

    I think you might be missing the point here. The only claims made by the blogger are that the rate of "religiosity" (which I'm assuming in this case has something to do with the number of people who profess some sort of faith) correlates with both dysfunction and inequality in a select group of developed,mostly western countries. The article presents no hypothesis as to why, so assuming that he is somehow claiming that religion is the direct cause of the problem is incorrect, just as it is in your suicide example. You may be correct that the level of dysfunction or inequality in a society drives the number of people who seek out religion as a way to comfort themselves, but this hardly invalidates the point the blogger is making. These data might just as easily be interpreted to mean that religion may be sought out for the comfort it provides, but is ineffective at providing any REAL (mensurate) help to persons in a dysfunctional society.

  4. Konrad, Poland's an interesting case - it suffered to some extent the social problems that the rest of former communist nations did, with the difference that the catholic church played a central role in opposition to communism. So there's a few factors pulling in different directions.

    Here's some stats from the database I have> Poland is about in the middle for most things, except a high modern homicide rate.

    Corruption perceptions: 21 out of 51 (high is good)
    Control of corruption: 28 out of 57 (high is bad)
    Current homicide: 31 out of 42 (high is bad)
    Peace index: 26 out of 55 (High is bad)
    Current inequality: 27 out of 54 (high is bad)
    Historical inequality: 8 out of 56 (high is bad)
    Historical Infant mortality: 34 out of 56 (high is bad)
    Historical life expectancy: 29 out of 57 (high is good)

  5. Doug, that's exactly right. Here's how Gregory Paul interprets his findings:

    The nonuniversality of strong religious devotion, and the ease with large populations abandon serious theism when conditions are sufficiently benign, refute hypotheses that religious belief and practice are the normal, deeply set human mental state, whether they are superficial or natural in nature. Instead popular religion is usually a superficial and flexible psychological mechanism for coping with the high levels of stress and anxiety produced by sufficiently dysfunctional social and especially economic environments. Popular nontheism is a similarly casual response to superior conditions.

    Personally, I think that there is some evidence that religion is a cause, as well as a consequence, of societal problems. It's indirect though. Basically, religious people are less in favour of government welfare.

  6. Tom,

    Thanks for the follow-up. I may need to track the original article down. I agree that excessive religion can be both a cause and a consequence of dysfunction. One of the dissapointing things I see here (in the USA) is that it is used as a wedge between people. Religious fundamentalists, especially, are continually drawing a distinction between themselves and "the culture", by which they seem to mean everyone who disagrees with them. It borders on paranoia.

  7. It is interesting to see the figures for Poland as they certainly do differ from the perception of the Poles, themselves. Referring back to my previous comment, I gather that the measures for inequality are based on earnings or capital and not some broader measure of personal power. It is rather convenient that in capitalist societies one can be used as a measure of the other. I am still wondering, however, to what degree the analysis generalises outside of western democracies and, if it does break down, whether you think that is because there is a substantially different process going on there or if it is simply because the measures you have used do not necessarily translate well to those kinds of societies (as my example with Poland was really aimed at suggesting).

  8. Hi Konrad, it's an interesting point, because clearly the status inequalities in communist countries were greater than their income inequalities suggest. In my analysis, I used mean income inequalities over a 25-yr period (1971-1996) and it seemed to work quite well for non-western countries. Maybe that indicates that status is less important than security? After all, the social safety net was pretty good, and life for the most part pretty predictable (you weren't going to lose your job), in the communist bloc.

  9. Evolutionary psychology is pseudoscience (Stephen Jay Gould, Massimo Pigliucci)


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