Good Without God: A Global Trend

The world would self-destruct without religion, right? It encourages people to help the needy. It promotes peace. It unites communities. Of course. Obviously. Right? Most people, regardless of which side they’re on in the religion debate, would likely accept the notion that religion is, in its moderate forms, a positive force in the world. Many religious devotees insist that without religion, society would crumble at the hands of misguidance and immorality, like our friend Mike Huckabee, who claimed that the Newtown shooting was unsurprising given the secularization America has been undergoing. Yet the facts beg to differ.

Let’s start with compassion. Many religious people are proud to claim that without god, the impulse for random acts of goodness and extensive compassion disappear. While it is easy to make this assertion based on what is commonly accepted, the religious among us would likely be taken aback by what the stats say. While it is impossible to identify with precision whether or not religion makes people more compassionate, the closest we can get to doing so might be to analyze which countries are the most charitable and compare the results with which countries are most, or least, religious. The answers are nothing short of striking. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which defined charitable as the percentage of gross national income that a country collectively donates to charity, the top ten most generous nations in the world are, in order, as follows: Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, United Kingdom, and France. Ironically, these seemingly selfless countries apparently do not look to religion for their motivation to give. In fact, it is quite the opposite; eight of the ten countries listed are in fact, according to a 2009 Gallup poll, among the top 25 least religious nations. This fact, though, fails to do the correlation justice. We have already confirmed Sweden to be the most generous nation in the world. It is also the second least religious, with a meager 16.5% of the population saying that religion plays an important role in their lives. Number two most charitable? Norway. And how religious? Fifth to the bottom. Gallup reported that only 20.5% of the Norwegian population consider religion important. A quick look at some of the rest: Denmark (4th most charitable, 3rd least religious), Finland (7th most charitable, 9th least religious), United Kingdom (9th most charitable, 8th least religious), and France (10th most charitable, 10th least religious). Among the top ten most charitable, only one reported to have over half of their population be religious, that being Ireland. Luxembourg, the third most charitable, was not included in the Gallup poll. Let there be no doubt about the strength of this correlation – the most generous countries in the world are, in fact, the least religious. And even if you are unwilling to concede that the lack of religion itself encourages people to give more, the typically undisputed suggestion that extensive compassion would wither without religion can no longer be given any credence. 

But isn’t religion a quality source for nonviolence? Well, the stats wouldn’t agree with that, either. The Global Peace Index conducted a study reporting on the most peaceful nations in the world. Once again, we find a startling amount of matches between the most peaceful and least religious countries on earth. Here are a few notable ones: Denmark (2nd most peaceful, 3rd least religious), New Zealand (3rd most peaceful, 14th least religious), Canada (4th most peaceful, 30th least religious), Japan (5th most peaceful, 7th least religious), Finland (9th most peaceful, 9th least religious), Switzerland (10th most peaceful, 29th least religious), Belgium (11th most peaceful, 21st least religious), Czech Republic (13th most peaceful, 4th least religious), and Sweden (14th most peaceful, 2nd least religious). So, people would be more inclined to partake in violence without the umbrella of religion, right? Wrong. The facts again prove that the less religious a country is, the more peaceful it tends to be. 

Therefore, compassion and peace – two of religion’s most celebrated principles – both prove to be more rampant in countries that have seemingly out-phased religion. Interestingly enough, many of the most educated countries appear to prefer secularism as well. Conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the top ten educated countries include several of our least religious, including Canada (1st most educated, 30th least religious), Japan (3rd most educated, 7th least religious), New Zealand (5th most educated, 14th least religious), Norway (7th most educated, 5th least religious), United Kingdom (8th most educated, 8th least religious), Australia (9th most educated, 12th least religious), and Finland (10th most educated, 9th least religious). Apparently, the intellects among us are also falling away from religion. 

One might be inclined to wonder where the United States falls in all of these rankings. After all, we Americans are supposed to be the leaders of western society, aren’t we? The U.S. proves to remain heavily religious, with 65% of its population saying that religion is important in their daily lives. One would expect the good old USA to contradict the correlations I have just highlighted, but for the most part, it doesn’t. It is the 19th most charitable nation in the world, according to the OECD. Peacefulness? A humiliating ranking of 88th. In education, however, the U.S. has earned its stripes, claiming the fourth spot.

My intention in underlining these statistics is not to label the religious as ungenerous, violent, and stupid. Rather, I am trying to shed light on the fact that the world is secularizing at a much quicker rate than what most of us in the U.S. would tend to think – and contrary to what religious apologists would predict, this shift is not leading our world into anarchy and disruption. In fact, it appears to be helping it. All across the globe, people are proving that religion is not only unnecessary, but not even remotely conducive, to leading a peaceful, fulfilling, and compassionate life. So if not from god, the religious ask, then from where do we obtain the compassion to care for those in need if doing so would not benefit ourselves? What many do not understand is that deep compassion can be channeled within the human mind without the presence of god. Helping others with no benefit to the self can, and is, done by people who do it for the sheer purpose of caring for the less fortunate. This, in my view, is far more honorable and humane than the good deeds done by those who are motivated more by god than by doing the deed itself. Albert Einstein said, “if people are good only because they fear punishment and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.” Let us refrain from looking to the supernatural to motivate our goodness, and instead, find the compassion within ourselves to help our fellow humans merely for the purpose of helping them. Much of the world is already doing it.

Briefly, the top ten countries in list form of each of the rankings I referenced:

Gallup poll of least religious countries (2009):

  1. Estonia
  2. Sweden
  3. Denmark
  4. Czech Republic
  5. Norway
  6. Hong Kong
  7. Japan
  8. United Kingdom 
  9. Finland
  10. France

OECD ranking of most charitable countries (2009):

  1. Sweden
  2. Norway
  3. Luxembourg
  4. Denmark
  5. Netherlands
  6. Belgium
  7. Finland
  8. Ireland
  9. United Kingdom
  10. France

Global Peace Index ranking of most peaceful countries (2012):

  1. Iceland
  2. Denmark
  3. New Zealand
  4. Canada
  5. Japan
  6. Austria
  7. Ireland
  8. Slovenia 
  9. Finland
  10. Switzerland

OECD ranking of most educated countries (2009):

  1. Canada
  2. Israel
  3. Japan
  4. United States
  5. New Zealand
  6. South Korea
  7. Norway
  8. United Kingdom
  9. Australia
  10. Finland
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