Whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Sikh, there is one common belief that all religious fundamentalists share: worship of God and obedience to his laws are essential for a peaceful, healthy society. From Orthodox rabbis in the occupied West Bank to Wahhabi sheiks in Saudi Arabia, from the pope in Vatican City to Mormons in Salt Lake City, the lament is the same: God and his will must be at the centre of everyone's lives in order to ensure a moral, prosperous, safe, collective existence.
Furthermore, fundamentalists agree that, when large numbers of people in a society reject God or fail to make him the centre of their lives, societal disintegration is sure to follow. Every societal ill-whether crime, poverty, poor public education, or AIDS-is thus blamed on a lack of piety. A most disconcerting example of this worldview was expressed in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, when Jerry Falwell blamed the terrorists attacks on America's "throwing God out of the public square", further adding that "when a nation deserts God and expels God from the culture … the result is not good".
If this often-touted religious theory were correct-that a turning away from God is at the root of all societal ills-then we would expect to find the least religious nations on earth to be bastions of crime, poverty, and disease and the most religious nations to be models of societal health. A comparison of highly irreligious countries with highly religious countries, however, reveals a very different state of affairs. In reality, the most secular countries-those with the highest proportion of atheists and agnostics-are among the most stable, peaceful, free, wealthy, and healthy societies. And the most religious nations-wherein worship of God is in abundance-are among the most unstable, violent, oppressive, poor, and destitute.
One must always be careful, of course, to distinguish between totalitarian nations where atheism is forced upon an unwilling population (such as in North Korea, China, Vietnam, and the former Soviet states) and open, democratic nations where atheism is freely chosen by a well-educated population (as in Sweden, the Netherlands, or Japan). The former nations' nonreligion, which can be described as "coercive atheism", is plagued by all that comes with totalitarianism: corruption, economic stagnation, censorship, depression, and the like. However, nearly every nation with high levels of "organic atheism" is a veritable model of societal health.
The 25 nations characterised by organic atheism with the highest proportion of nonbelievers are listed in Table 1. When looking at standard measures of societal health, we find that they fare remarkably well; highly religious nations fare rather poorly. The 2004 United Nations' Human Development Report, which ranks 177 countries on a "Human Development Index", measures such indicators of societal health as life expectancy, adult literacy, per-capita income, educational attainment, and so on. According to this report, the five top nations were Norway, Sweden, Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands. All had notably high degrees of organic atheism. Furthermore, of the top 25 nations, all but Ireland and the United States were top-ranking nonbelieving nations with some of the highest percentages of organic atheism on earth. Conversely, the bottom 50 countries of the "Human Development Index" lacked statistically significant levels of organic atheism.
Irreligious countries had the lowest infant-mortality rate (number of deaths per 1,000 live births), and religious countries had the highest rates. According to the 2004 CIA World Factbook, out of 225 nations, the 25 with the lowest infant-mortality rates had significantly high levels of organic atheism. Conversely, the 75 nations with the highest infant-mortality rates were all very religious and without statistically significant levels of organic atheism.
Concerning international poverty rates, the United Nations Report on the World Social Situation (2003) found that, of the 40 poorest nations on earth (measured by the percentage of population that lives on less than one dollar a day), all but Vietnam were highly religious nations with statistically minimal or insignificant levels of atheism.
Regarding homicide rates, Oablo Fajnzylber et al., in a study reported in the Journal of Law and Economics (2002), looked at 38 non-African nations and found that the ten with the highest homicide rates were highly religious, with minimal or statistically insignificant levels of organic atheism. Conversely, of the ten nations with the lowest homicide rates, all but Ireland were secular nations with high levels of atheism. James Fox and Jack Levin, in The Will to Kill, looked at 37 non-African nations and found that, of the ten nations with the highest homicide rates, all but Estonia and Taiwan were highly religious, with statistically insignificant levels of organic atheism. Conversely, of the ten nations with the lowest homicide rates, all but Ireland and Kuwait were relatively secular nations, with high levels of organic atheism.
Concerning literacy rates, according to the United Nations Report on the World Social Situation (2003), of the 35 nations with the highest levels of youth-illiteracy rates (percentage of population ages 15 to 24 who cannot read or write), all were highly religious, with statistically insignificant levels of organic atheism.
In regard to rates of AIDS and HIV infection, the most religious nations on earth-particularly those in Africa-fared the worst. (Botswana suffers from the highest rate of HIV infection in the world.) Conversely, the highly irreligious nations of Western Europe, such as those of Scandinavia - where public sex education is supported and birth control is widely accessible - fared the best, experiencing among the lowest rates of AIDS and HIV infection in the world.
Concerning gender equality, nations marked by high degrees of organic atheism are among the most egalitarian in the world, while highly religious nations are among the most oppressive. According to the 2004 Human Development Report's "Gender Empowerment Measure," the ten nations with the highest degrees of gender equality were all strongly organic-atheistic nations with significantly high percentages of nonbelief. Conversely, the bottom ten were all highly religious nations without any statistically significant percentages of atheists.
Acknowledgment from the author: my article is indebted to Gregory S. Paul's important research correlating rates of belief/nonbelief with various measures of societal health. Reprinted with permission from Free Inquiry, the magazine of the Council for Secular Humanism.