Field of Science

Non-religious nations have higher quality of life

Quality of life is a pretty nebulous concept. There's a lot of coffee-table chat about which places have the best quality of life, but is it really possible to measure it objectively?

Well, yes it is, an one way to do it is to do what a team from The University of Arizona and Washington State University have just done.

They began by assuming that 'Quality of Life' is a thing that has effects and causes. It basically sits in between them as a mediating factor. They used a sophisticated model to unpick the relationships (if any) between these effects (in their model, these were life expectancy at birth, infant mortality rate and suicide rate) and a basket of factors that might feasibly cause differences in life quality.

They found eight factors had a significant effect on quality of life: divorce rate, public health expenditure, doctor/population ratio; per capita GDP; food supply; female and male adult literacy rate, and population with access to safe drinking water. The model crunched all these, along with the effects, and spat out a Quality of Life rating for the 43 countries they analysed.

Belgium came out top, followed by France, Denmark, Spain and Germany. The USA came in 7th, and the UK was 11th. Bottom of the pile was Sri Lanka, the Dominican Republic and, at lucky number 43, El Salvador.

So I took their data and plotted it against the World Values Survey data on how important God is in people's lives. And this is what the plot looks like.

You probably won't be surprised to hear that the top nations tended to be the least religious (unfortunately there's no data on this variable for Belgium or a bunch of the other nations, which is why some are missing).

This analysis joins all the others - the least religious countries are more democratic, more peaceful, have less corruption, more telephones, do better at science, have less inequality and other problems, and are generally just less dysfunctional.

Cue discussion over which causes what!
Rahman, T., Mittelhammer, R., & Wandschneider, P. (2011). Measuring quality of life across countries: A multiple indicators and multiple causes approach Journal of Socio-Economics, 40 (1), 43-52 DOI: 10.1016/j.socec.2010.06.002

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


  1. In my opinion it's more likely that a higher quality of live is making people less dependent on salvation, but rather letting them enjoy living in their corresponding circumstances. So first there needs to be some development for people to become less anxious and dependent on religion.
    But somehow I doubt that there's a straightforward link between the two.

  2. Is this the part where we say, "No shit, Sherlock!" This has been well known for quite a while now. :)

  3. Being an American, I want to always look at these studies and see how their choice of "Quality" factors are biased because I see us as having very high quality. But you keep throwing out these different studies and correlations and wearing me down !
    Excellent joining of data - thank you.
    BTW, I don't remember if you discussed this, but is anyone looking for an up turn in "Importance of God" in otherwise irreligious, secure and happy countries since their economies tanked? Iceland would be good, no?

    Also, I hope you will be analyzing the recent study talking about the inedibility of religion.

  4. Sabio, the thing about the USA is that it doesn't do too badly only many measures of security. It came about equal to Sweden in this study, for example.

    The USA has higher religion than you would expect given the living conditions (alternatively, it has better living conditions than you'd expect given the amount of religion!). Why that might be is a mystery, but probably is to do with the unique social history of the USA.

    I've been looking out for studies on what is happening to religion in the aftermath of the meltdown, but nothing but anecdotes so far. I don't expect much change, because religious beliefs tend to be set fairly early in life and then don't change that much. And the poor economy hasn't yet had much effect on death and health.

    Inedible religion?

  5. Well Mycroft, always good to have independent confirmation. =D

  6. I lean toward thinking religosity is a bogus term but I do notice the Sweden is low in the importance of God in your presentation and elsewhere ranks high in religosity. Qo what is being measured?

  7. Definitely holds true for my second home, Japan (where I lived for five years). Safe, well-organized, peaceful, the Japanese are super-technologically savvy (far ahead of the US), have socialized medicine, and are generally, less, well, dysfunctional. That being said, I love American sense of humor far, far better (we can make fun of ourselves--whoo-hoo!) Also love our green spaces and free (rather than paid) parks and libraries. But yes, that non-religious nations have a better quality of life I find unsurprising. Not being religious frees up the mind from the idea that we are somehow not responsible for the bad stuff we do because of a higher calling. My mantra: today's religions are tomorrow's mythology. Fun to study, but wouldn't want to be subjected to it for real. Great study--enjoyed reading it!

  8. All you have shown is a bad understanding of stats. A regression line on a scatter plot like this shows nothing. Even if your data is correct. The best you could really say is that there is no relationship between religiousness and quality of life.

  9. There's also a graph showing that a decrease in piracy correlates with an increase in global warming, should we all become pirates to stop global warming? This 'study' assumes too much and draws no real conclusions


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