A few weeks ago I mentioned and linked to a PuffHo essay by Nigel Barber, an evolutionary psychologist. His thesis, with which I agree (and for which there’s a lot of evidence that I’ve posted on this website), is that the religiosity of a country is highly correlated with the dysfunctionality of the society; that is, the more dysfunctional a society, the more religious it is.

“Dysfunctionality” has been measured in various ways, including Greg Paul’s “Successful Societies Scale” (SSS), measures of income inequality (the Gini coefficient), and other indices of social-well being, including levels of education and health care, child mortality, and so on. (For one example; see Greg Paul’s paper on religiosity and the SSS.) This correlation also holds within the United States: the states having less “well being” (e.g., those mostly in the South) are more religious.

Based on these data and others (including demonstrations that increases in religiosity in America follow rather than precede or are concurrent with rises in income inequality), a good working hypothesis is that religiosity is higher when the citizens of a country feel more helpless, more dispossessed, and less likely to be taken care of by society. In such circumstances people turn to their only recourse: the supernatural sky father who is said to help them.

If our goal is to eradicate superstition, then, we must first create a society in which people feel more secure, and more equal to their fellows.  I’ve long been making this point, as have others, and it’s also one that Michael Shermer emphasized in his talk on Saturday (he wasn’t at mine earlier in the day, so he might be unaware of our agreement about this).  But we both stressed the relationship between religiosity and social well-being in our podcast. And we both agree with this statement by Marx, often taken out of context:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”.

This is a succinct summary of what I see as a profound truth. And I think it’s the explanation for why the U.S. is the most religious of First World nations: data show that although we’re a wealthy and technologically advanced society, we also rank highest on indices of social dysfunction.  In contrast, atheistic northern Europe is quite socially functional.