Field of Science

Are atheist nations thriving?

Regular readers of this blog will know that nations with a lot of atheists tend to come out on top on a number of measures of 'societal success' - wealth, education, life expectancy, and corruption, for example. They also score higher on a general measure called the Peace Index.

So when I learned that Gallup had published a new international ranking, the Global Well Being Index, I naturally wanted to see how national scores on this measure compare with atheism.

A core part of their measure is the number of people who report they are thriving, defined as follows:
Gallup measures life satisfaction by asking respondents to rate their present and future lives on a “ladder” scale with steps numbered from 0 to 10, where “0” indicates the worst possible life and “10” the best possible life. Individuals who rate their current lives a “7” or higher and their future an “8” or higher are considered thriving.
I compared the percentage of people in each nation who say that they are 'thriving' with the percentage who say that religion is "Not at all important' to them (data from the 5th wave of the World Values Survey). So this isn't a comparison of individual piety with individual 'thriving' - it's a comparison of national averages.

The top graph of the three shows how it pans out. Countries with more atheists also have more people who say that they are thriving. But the relationship is pretty weak (the R-squared of 0.17 means that about 17% of the variation in 'thriving' is explained statistically by the variation in atheism - although cause and effect could go either way, of course).

That's not too surprising. Given that countries with more atheists also tend to be wealthier, I was expecting the relationship to be even stronger.

The weak relationship is explained in part by the fact that there are two kinds of countries with lots of atheists. There are countries where atheism is organic, driven by high living standards. And there are countries where atheism has been imposed (the communist and ex-communist countries).

The comparison between these two different kinds of atheist countries is revealing.

Among countries that have never been communist, there is a much stronger relationship between the percent of atheists and the percent of people thriving. The outlier, Japan, has many atheists but is not thriving - no doubt due to the lacklustre economical performance in recent decades.

Communist and ex-communist countries, however, without exception score very badly on the 'thriving' index. What's more there is no relationship - or perhaps even a slightly negative one - with the numbers of atheists. I suspect this is because the dead hand of communism is still dragging people down in these nations.

There is an interesting symmetry between China and Japan. The first is undergoing wild economic growth, while the latter is in the doldrums. And yet they both have similar numbers of atheists, and neither are thriving!

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. Ooo that is really interesting.

    There could be some mixing of cause and effect here. I suspect that someone who is not thriving is more likely to feel the need to have religion in his life, in order to feel like his bad luck will be repaid in the afterlife, etc. Someone who is thriving, on the other hand, might enjoy attributing his accomplishments to his own personal awesomeness.

    American Fables

  2. Communism is a religion, said my father, who was an immigrant from Hungary in the aftermath of the revolution of 1956.

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  4. @speedwell
    Totally agree that it can be. I just finished Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, which definitely paints that picture. I do hold out hope that communism can be done right, though. Just don't tell any of my American friends that I said that.

    American Fables

  5. After your caveats, perhaps a title re-work that points more toward the truth would be:

    "Thriving Nations breed Organic Atheists"

  6. Maybe! I remember a blog post from Andrew Gelman recommending that when talking about correlations you should put them the 'wrong way' round. i.e. if you think x causes y, you should write 'Is Y linked to X' - just to ram home the point that we can't determine causality from a correlation.

  7. Communism is a religion, said my father, who was an immigrant from Hungary in the aftermath of the revolution of 1956.

    At this risk of falling a bit for the No True Scotsman fallacy, I have written something very similar. For those not wanting to click through, I argue that secular totalitarianism is an oxymoron, because totalitarianism presumes an infallible entity (whether a single dictator, or the state collectively) and that any idea which ascribes infallibility is by definition a religion.

  8. @ Tom
    Agreed. Cause the way you write it, invites the other thinking. Your blog is about teaching people to think scientifically, so the title can undue the hard work of your writing.

  9. Regarding ex-communist eastern and central European countries: in most of them, churches have a very high social status even though most people do not follow their teachings. In Poland, the catholic church highly influenced people's personal choices even during communism (the abortion rate was said to be high because women did not use contraception for religious reasons and preferred to confess one abortion in a while rather than continuously sinning by taking the pill). In most post communist countries, churches are nowadays heavily subsidised, and they make huge efforts to influence public debates and legislation (in Hungary e.g. against a new civil code and against state recognised civil partnerships).
    So, (besides the 'communism as religion' thing) these countries' 'atheism' was not so total as it may seem(not even for Poland).
    On the other hand, the Czechs have a tradition of atheism and secularism much older than communism.
    Also, many people still don't see themselves as governing their own lives, they don't rely on themselves but rather expect the government to furnish solutions.

  10. @ david browning
    communism cannot be "done right" because it is intended to destroy, not edify or make better. that's the lie that is told about communism. we can make it work in nation D even though it is obviously a joke in nation B. Look at nation has better medical care than the free nations, better education, all that nice stuff. .....yet with all these so called frilss, people died trying to leave, with nothing but the clothes on their backs....why is that, david? in every single communist country...where they tried to do it right...people died trying to leave. those that stayed suffered under constant surveillance by their "friends" and relatives. some utopia, huh? in all these years, why haven't they "gotten it right" nation after nation...destroyed in an attempt to make it right. HOWEVER, this does not mean that i am an "american patriot" waving the flag, shouting capitalist slogans. no, no, no. i DESPISE what this government stands for. EVIL EVIL EVIL. i hate it. but, to try and "get communism right this time" again using useful idiots and dumb downed population is just as evil.


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