Are Secular Societies Happier?

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Phil Zuckerman, sociologist and associate dean at Pitzer College in Claremont, CA, has made something of a cottage industry for himself around the meme that secular, atheistic societies fare better in measures of contentment and satisfaction than do highly religious societies. In another attempt at preaching his favorite gospel, Zuckerman has written an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, conveniently scheduled for Easter weekend.

Basically, Zuckerman’s claim is that democracies that are less religious tend to fare better in measures of happiness than societies that are more highly religious. Zuckerman points to countries such as Japan, the UK, Canada, the Czech Republic, Australia, Uruguay and the Scandinavian countries as examples of secular democracies that enjoy higher levels of satisfaction and well-being than more religious countries, such as Columbia, Jamaica, El Salvador, Yemen, Malawi, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Zukerman makes his case, as well, that states within the United States that are more secular, such as Vermont and New Hampshire, have higher standards of living and more progressive politics than states such as Mississippi and Arkansas, which have higher rates of religiosity. Zukerman points out that, for the first time in U. S. history, fewer than half of Americans report belonging to a religious congregation, and he argues that this recent surge in secularism in the United States is good news, for it portends higher levels of satisfaction and well-being for the future of the country.

There are several problems with Zukerman’s thesis, of course. First and foremost is the definition of what makes a society “better” or “happier.” Zuckerman, it seems, prefers liberal politics to conservative politics. He mentions that the more secular a society, the more likely its citizens are to support “reproductive rights, universal healthcare, gay rights, environmental protections, death with dignity, gun safety legislation and treating drug abuse as a medical rather than criminal problem.” All of that sounds great, until you get into the nitty-gritty of what exactly each of these mean in terms of practical policy, such as limiting individual freedoms, government interference in healthcare choices, expanding euthanasia laws to empower doctors to euthanize non-consenting patients and children, and the moral horror of abortion. There is also the classic distinction between a happy life and a good life to consider. The Scandinavian countries, for instance, always score high in terms of personal happiness, but they also abort nearly 100% of in utero children who are diagnosed with Down Syndrome. Purchasing happiness with the lives of innocents is not what every person would describe as a moral bargain.

Zuckerman doesn’t consider other factors that may explain higher levels of satisfaction. All of the countries he cites in this article, for instance, have very homogenous populations. Could this explain better their higher levels of satisfaction? All of them are Western democracies, except Japan (though even Japan is a Western economy). Most Westerners would consider that a significant factor. The Scandinavian countries and Japan are relieved of the burden of supporting a large military, and none of the countries listed, except the UK, have a large military or significant global military responsibilities. Could this have a lot to do with levels of satisfaction, given that their governments are able to focus more on social benefits without the financial burden of major military spending? Finally, most of these countries have a long history of embracing Western Christian mores. It’s hardly a credit to secularism that these countries retain their Christian moral foundations even while abandoning religious practice.

Zuckerman chooses not to include in his thesis the atheistic regimes of countries like China, North Korea, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, or the former Soviet Union. He claims that these countries were or are secular systems that represent “godless dictatorships that tried to forcibly destroy religion by persecuting the faithful, actively oppressing religious institutions, and making a demagogue cult out of their thuggish rulers.” Such systems, he says, are to be rightly condemned and avoided. The secular countries with higher levels of satisfaction are those that enjoyed the growth of a more organic secularism. Yet, while making an important distinction between repressive secular states and more progressive secular democracies, Zuckerman makes no such distinction between more oppressive religious traditions and more progressive ones.

At last, there is the question of whether less religiosity is even associated with greater contentment or satisfaction. It has long been recognized that religious believers enjoy numerous health benefits, psychologically, emotionally, and even physically. Religiously active people tend to describe themselves as happier and are more involved and invested in their communities. Religiously active people commit fewer crimes, including violent crimes. Religiously active people are less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol and less likely to smoke, and are more likely to be successful in overcoming these problems when they try. Religious believers have significantly lower suicide rates. Finally, the benefits of religious activity for youth has been verified by multiple studies, including greater life satisfaction, more frequent volunteering, lower drug use, later introduction to sexual activity, and other benefits. How is it that religious individuals do so much better and are so much more happy than non-religious individuals, but religious societies are so much more worse off than secular societies? It would seem that there are other reasons besides religiosity that explains the disparity. In other words, Zuckerman is barking up the wrong tree in trying to explain greater levels of contentment and satisfaction in these societies. It doesn’t seem that less religion is what explains the purported higher levels of happiness.

Zuckerman claims that, while religions do contribute to society with their charity work, this is ultimately inadequate, and that secular democracies are much better at resolving problems like homelessness and addressing social problems with what he calls “rational social policies and wise economic strategies, and setting up more responsive institutions. Affordable house and subsidized healthcare,” Zuckerman writes, “do a far better job of alleviating the suffering of the poor and the sick than faith-based charities.” One could argue that Zuckerman makes too much of government’s role and too little of religion’s role in relieving the suffering of society. First of all, churches do far more than simply run charities. They run hospitals, clinics, schools at all levels, housing projects, shelters and residential facilities, job-training programs, and so much more. Indeed, the government itself would be hard-pressed to fill the gap were religious institutions to fold up their services for the sake of the poor and others. It could be argued, too, that the government in many of our more secular cities, such as San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and others have hardly been successful in eradicating homelessness, crime, drugs, or other social ills, even given their secular perspective and plentiful resources. At the same time, the shear level of resources to which the government has access could not be replaced by the churches, even if 100% of their budgets were dedicated to such services. Suffice it to say, then, that neither the government nor the churches are in a position to handle the multiple social ills facing society without the benefit of working with each other. There’s really no reason for Zuckerman or anyone to suggest that addressing social ills is improved by recommending an either/or, government vs. churches dichotomy.

Bottom line: Zuckerman simply does not argue persuasively that higher levels of satisfaction and contentment in democratic societies is much rooted in increasing levels of secularization, and there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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