In a rapidly changing world, some things do remain the same. One such thing is religion’s capacity for mischief.
Examples are legion. The mullahs of Iran, who as religious leaders might be expected to be moral leaders, oppress their own people and make trouble throughout their region. Saudi Arabia, an Islamic theocracy, beheads dissenters and murders the occasional journalist. The Taliban, driven by faith, treat women worse than perhaps any other society in history.
Jewish religious extremists threaten Israel’s impressive democracy, to say nothing of its social peace. Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, is doing something rather similar as he and his devout followers transition his country into a Hindu state.
Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, cheers Vladimir Putin on in his aggression against Ukraine, adding religious license to an imperialist venture.
And I mustn’t forget to mention America’s Christian evangelicals who oppose equal rights for gays while enthusiastically supporting the moral degenerate Donald Trump. And, in the spirit of internationalism, their missionaries have succeeded mightily in exporting the gay-bashing to Africa.
What they haven’t done is raise moral standards in their own country. The most godly U.S. states—mostly southern—have consistently higher murder rates than the highly secular states.
This follows the international pattern. Societies that are the most religious—strong belief in God and high religious participation—tend to have the highest violent crime rates, while societies in which faith and church attendance are the weakest tend to have the lowest. Secular countries are also generally more peaceable and less corrupt.
Not that these relationships are due solely or even mostly to religion. Societies with high crime rates also tend to be poor, and poverty, or at least inequality, is a cause of many social ills including crime. But then, is it possible that poverty, too, is linked to religiosity?
The connection of religion to violence is not surprising. People are religious as much to be members of a tribe as they are to seek moral guidance. And tribalism breeds hostility—us against them.
In any case, the good news is that religion is declining world-wide, more in high-income countries, particularly in the U.S., but elsewhere as well.
According to Ronald Inglehart, Professor of Political Science emeritus at the University of Michigan, several forces are driving the trend. Most important is the decline in the need for high birth rates. Women, and men, have long been encouraged in behaviour that resulted in high reproduction to counter low longevity and high infant and child mortality. For religions, it was reproduce prolifically or disappear.
With higher life expectancies and drastically reduced infant and child mortality, religious norms have been challenged. As societies become more secure, they become more secular, and give “increasingly high priority to self-expression and free choice, with a growing emphasis on human rights, tolerance of outsiders, environmental protection, gender equality, and freedom of speech.” Moral norms at least as strong replace those of religion.
The shift is away from trust in a particular faith and its dogma toward a morality based on more inclusive and more humane principles. And a welcome shift it is.