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God and the creation of dysfunctional democracies [The reply]

November 8, 2011 |  2:07 pm

Prayer
Michael Shermer's Friday Op-Ed disagreed with Congress' decision to reaffirm as our national motto "In God We Trust." He said that the real foundation of trust for a nation isn't God but the social contract established by humans with elements such as the rule of law, property rights, economic stability and a viable legislative system. Many commenters disagreed, arguing that God and faith are primary sources of such social goods. Here is Shermer's response to one of them:

Price Speck is incorrect when he writes that "laws do not grow trust" and that "real faith" does. Consider many of the South American countries where real faith in God and religion (Catholicism in this case) are as high as, and in some cases even higher than, they are in the United States, and yet the level of trust among citizens in many of those countries is in the basement. Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Columbia, Peru and Brazil take up half of the bottom 12 countries on Claremont Graduate University economist Paul Zak's international trust scale.

Although Speck is right about " 'Enlightened' Europe" having much lower rates of belief in God and religiosity than those here in America, its economic woes are clearly the result of a euro weakened by the potential bankruptcy of Greece and other countries, along with social unrest therein as a result of the imposition of austerity measures. Nevertheless, and contrary to Speck's claim that "real trust cannot be found without real faith," levels of trust between the citizens of European countries are among the highest on Earth, with atheistic Norway, Sweden, Finland and Germany filling up four of the top five spots on Zak's trust scale.

Finally, Speck claims that "faith begets stability," adding that religious applicants are preferred candidates for police forces. I don't know if that is the case (and would such a practice be legal?), but when it comes to societies, faith doesn't demonstrably beget stability. 

For example, a 2005 study by Gregory S. Paul in the Journal of Religion and Society titled "Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies" found an inverse correlation between religiosity (measured by belief in God, biblical literalism and frequency of prayer and service attendance) and societal health (measured by rates of homicide, suicide, childhood mortality, life expectancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion and teen pregnancy) in 18 developed democracies.

Paul concluded: "In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so.”

I do not believe that religion is the cause of these social ills, but if religion is such a powerful prophylaxis against immoral behavior, then why does it fail so spectacularly here in America?

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--Michael Shermer 

Photo: Main Place Christian Fellowship Church pastor Martin Mosier talks with Stella Dodge, 75, of Tustin, after praying with her at the church's drive-through booth in April 2003. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

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