After more than two centuries of research and speculation into the foundations of economic and social progress, the secret has been discovered by an expert illustrator of dinosaurs. It’s atheism.
Gregory S. Paul’s claim in a little-known American magazine, the Journal of Religion & Society, made headlines around the world recently1. He used social science data to correlate social dysfunction and bad health with religious belief in the United States, Canada, Japan and a number of European countries. He found that “in almost all regards the highly secular democracies consistently enjoy low rates of societal dysfunction, while pro-religious and anti-evolution America performs poorly”.
Mr Paul’s professional background is a rather unorthodox one to be launching such earth-shattering claims. He is not a sociologist, economist, philosopher or theologian, but a freelance scientist and artist who is best known for his research into therapod dinosaurs and the excellence of his artwork. He was a consultant for the film Jurassic Park and has illustrated books like Predatory Dinosaurs of the World and The Complete Illustrated Guide to Dinosaur Skeletons.
Nothing daunted, Mr Paul believes that he uncovered a scandal “almost entirely neglected by social scientists”. Using figures from the World Health Organisation and the UN Development Program, he finds that levels of homicide, youth suicide, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy, and abortion are far higher amongst the highly religious folk of the United States than countries like Norway, Japan and France. In fact, says Paul, the US is “almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so”.
Secularisation explains why the Europeans have developed much more peaceful and cohesive societies. “Only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical ‘cultures of life’ that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex-related disfunction, and even abortion,” he writes. “The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted.”
Although most speculative articles in academic journals quickly gather dust, Paul’s seems to have struck a chord. There is something about graphs, charts, bibliographies and the phrase “peer-reviewed” which confers credibility upon the the most outlandish theories. Guardian columnist George Monbiot, for instance, gleefully concluded that this impressive research effort, however tentative, showed that “if you want people to behave as Christians advocate, you should tell them that God does not exist”2 . And in fact it does seem that Paul is on to something. Rapid secularisation in Western Europe does seem to accompany good health and economic progress. Judging from comments by various god-botherers on the internet, it did rattle some believers.
However, it takes only a minute of reflection to see that there are gigantic flaws in Mr Paul’s analysis, flaws so large and so obvious that his speculations should never have been published in a academic journal.
First of all, correlation does not mean causality. If the number of storks in Sweden were to rise and the number of births were to rise, what justification is there for arguing that there is a correlation between the two? Mr Paul fails to explain why atheism should make people nicer and why religion should make them more dangerous. When compared to Western Europe, the US is exceptional not only in the strength of its religions, but also in the size of its population, its geographic size and its ethnic diversity. Any of these may be important factors in determining the level of social health.
Secondly, you would expect that in the long run richer countries would have less social dysfunction. And the evidence for religion being a positive influence on economic growth is fairly strong. A century ago Max Weber argued that Protestantism was responsible for the development of capitalism and the astonishing economic growth of Europe. The popular historian Niall Ferguson has recently argued that the decline of Protestantism has been accompanied by a decline in Europe’s work ethic, leading to economic stagnation in Germany and elsewhere. He has even proposed a debate about the “the Atheist Sloth Ethic and the Spirit of Collectivism”.3 Robert Barro, one of America’s best-known economists, has contended that economic growth is correlated with a belief in hell — a more specific marker for religiosity than belief in God.4
Third, whatever causes economic growth and social health, it is bound to be deeply rooted in the history and culture of a country and not easily eradicated. Western Europe has only experimented with mass secularisation since World War II – a blip in Europe’s millennia. It could be that its current prosperity is the flowering of past Christianity, rather than latter-day secularisation. As lack of faith sinks deeper into the culture, will indicators of social health continue to be positive? Only time – perhaps another century – will tell.
Fourth, Mr Paul ignores what he calls “second and third world nations” like the secularised nations of Eastern Europe, because he deems information from them incomplete or less reliable. But secularisation has made great headway in Eastern Europe after two generations or more under Soviet domination. Had they been included, the correlation of atheism with social health would have been largely negative. Until about 15 years ago, for instance, Albania was the world’s only officially atheist state. It is now the poorest country in Europe. The former bulwark of world atheism, Russia, has some of the worst health statistics in the developing world, with the life expectancy of Russian men lower now than it was in Czarist times.
In any case, in very recent times, officially atheist regimes were responsible for the deaths of countless millions of people: Nazi Germany perhaps 20 million, Stalin’s USSR, perhaps 40 million, Mao’s China, perhaps 80 million.
In short, the case for atheism as a predictor of social health is so riddled with holes that it is surprising that an editor accepted Mr Paul’s paper for publication. (It is even more surprising that it appeared in a journal published by an American Catholic institution, Creighton University, in Omaha, Nebraska.)
Why, then, did Mr Paul risk his reputation as an independent scholar to publish such a flimsy article? The answer is to be found in his interest in evolution. Although the media focused on his attack on theism, the article was obviously meant to provide ammunition for Mr Paul's comrades in America’s acrimonious skirmishes over evolution and intelligent design. Social health, he says, is also related to acceptance of evolution. “Higher rates of non-theism and acceptance of human evolution usually correlate with lower rates of dysfunction,” he says.
This is an odd argument, but it turns out that Mr Paul is a deeply religious man, even though he does not believe in God. He has a vision of man accelerating evolution so that homo sapiens can transcend his bodily and intellectual limitations to become a new and immortal species. Back in 1996, he wrote a book sketching his vision for the future. In Beyond Humanity: Cyberevolution and Future Minds , Paul and co-author Earl Cox imagine a “cyberfuture” in which men and machines merge.5
“The power of these cyberminds will extend beyond human levels in ways we cannot even imagine. These cyberbeings will proliferate in great numbers. They will design and build a robotic supercivilisation destined for outer space. The new cyberbeings will “mount up” in polymorphic enclosures, intricately designed bodies able to assume any multisensory form. Their minds will be as emotional and intuitive as ours. They will be immortal. And they will be us, if we choose.”6
In other words, Mr Paul accepts immortality, super-human beings and other characteristically religious beliefs. He is a true believer. It’s just that his religion is an odd evolutionist sect called “transhumanism”. This, of course, is utterly incompatible with traditional Christian philosophy and its insistence on the spiritual nature of man. Merging machines and men will only be possible if both are completely material.
The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama has called transhumanism one of the world’s most dangerous ideas. He thinks that the desire to transcend human imperfection with the help of technology could, if unleashed, lead to terrible inequality. “If we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind?” he asks.7
A recent book on the evolution debate, The Evolution-Creation Struggle, by Michael Ruse, a well-known American philosopher of science specialising in Darwinism, claims that “in both evolution and creation we have rival religious responses to a crisis of faith — rival stories of origins, rival judgements about the meaning of human life, rival sets of moral dictates and, above all, rival eschatologies” (8). One need not agree completely with Ruse's thesis, but Mr Paul's attempt to demolish theism certainly supports it. Rather than being a scientific refutation of the value of religion, his article is just a blinkered sectarian attack on a rival ideology. In the withering words of a Wall Street Journal columnist, it is “an attitude masquerading as a search after truth” (9).
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet
(1) Gregory S. Paul. “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies”. Journal of Religion & Society. Vol 7 (2005).
(2) George Monbiot. “My heroes are driven by God, but I’m glad my society isn’t”. Guardian. Oct 11, 2005.
(3) Niall Ferguson. “The atheist sloth ethic, or why Europeans don’t believe in work”. London Telegraph. August 7, 2004.
(4) “God, man and growth”. Economist. November 13, 2003.
(5) Paul S. Gregory and Earl Cox. Beyond Humanity: Cyberevolution and Future Minds. Delmar Thomson. 1996.
(6) Beyond Humanity, p. 4.
(7) Francis Fukuyama. “Transhumanism”. Foreign Policy. Sept/Oct 2004.
(8) Michael Ruse. The Evolution-Creation Struggle. Harvard University Press. 327pp.
(9) Theodore Dalrymple. “So That's the Reason”. Wall Street Journal. Oct 14, 2005.