Politic Religion

by John Quiggin on October 9, 2005

The idea that religion has a major influence on the nature of politics has been getting quite a run lately. There’s this Journal of Religion and Society study claiming that Religious belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide. On the other hand, here’s Niall Ferguson claiming that A faith vacuum haunts Europe. And Tom quotes Tory Michael Ancram saying much the same thing.

One striking feature of these completing claims is that the alleged effects are the opposite of what might naively be expected. According to the Journal of Religion and Society study, religion is supposed to cause things condemned by Christianity, and most other major religions. On the other hand, Ferguson appears concerned (as usual) with the decline of martial virtues that are antithetical to Christianity as preached by Jesus. At least that’s the only sense I can make of the leap in his final sentence where he asks

how far has their own loss of religious faith turned Britain into a soft target—not so much for the superstition Chesterton feared, but for the fanaticism of others?

What’s even more striking to me is how little difference the presence or absence of religious belief seems to make to social outcomes. Americans and Europeans, or Red-staters and Blue-staters, don’t seem to behave in radically different ways. The differences that can be observed statistically are pretty fragile and don’t have any obvious relationship to the inferences you might make if you supposed that one group believed in the Bible and the other did not. Neither the Ten Commandments nor the teachings of Jesus seem to command any more practical adherence in America than in Europe, while it’s hard to see how free-market economics and military unilateralism have any particular basis in Christianity.

The (apparent) unimportance of religious belief for social outcomes was one the great surprises of the 20th century, although, like most negative results, its significance is not fully appreciated. In the 18th and 19th centuries, nearly everyone thought that religious belief made a big difference, for good or ill. Enlightenment figures like Diderot believed that man would never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

On the other side of the fence, most people who thought about the issue in the 19th century agreed with Voltaire that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him, since social order could never be maintained without the availability of Heaven and Hell to supplement earthly rewards and punishments.

So far at least, it seems that neither side is right. As Ferguson points out, the collapse of religious belief in Britain has not produced an Age of Reason – superstitions of all kinds flourish. And Parliamentary politics goes on much as it has for the past century or two, despite the greatly diminished influence of kings and priests. On the other side of the coin, there is no sign of imminent social collapse. In fact, although some objective social indicators are worse than in the past and some are better, it’s hard to recall a time when predictions of societal doom were less prevalent, and less attended to, than they are today.

So, we reach the conclusion that “you go to your church, and I’ll go to mine (or not, as I please)” and, while it may make a difference to our relative prospects of eternal bliss, it’s not going to change much here on earth. This is, I think, a good thing. The more that religion is a purely private matter, with no particular social implications, the less likely we are to fight about it.

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The Sharpener » The decline of Christianity in Britain
10.10.05 at 10:49 am



Matt 10.10.05 at 7:32 am

On the study, as Matt Yglesias pointed out it’s a bit misleading, perhaps, in the the US is a big outlyer in both religiousity and social disfunction. We here are both much more religious and much more socially disfunctional. But, if you take out the US, there is no clear trend, Yglesias claims, so it’s not clear which factor is causal. I don’t mean this to be a defense of religion, since in the US I do think it’s pretty closely tied up w/ many of our social pathologies, but only that the study seems to be a bit distored since one major group looked at is so far outside the rest.


John Quiggin 10.10.05 at 7:50 am

I agree with both Matts here. I doubt that any concrete conclusion can be reached. But if religion really made the kind of difference people expected in the 18th and 19th centuries, the effects would be evident to all.


abb1 10.10.05 at 7:51 am

Mr. Ferguson writes:

…Yet it is not the spread of such mumbo-jumbo that concerns me as much as the moral vacuum that de-Christianization has created. Sure, sermons are sometimes dull and congregations often sing out of tune. But, if nothing else, a weekly dose of Christian doctrine helps to provide an ethical framework for life. And it is not clear where else such a thing is available in modern Europe.

I don’t get it – what’s wrong with, say, secular humanism filling the moral vacuum? Why does he think the Christian doctrine is irreplaceable?


Brendan 10.10.05 at 8:08 am

As always it’s the unexamined assumptions that are interesting. Would Ferguson be just as happy to argue that a weekly dose of Islamic doctrine helps to provide an ethical framework (and in the strict use of the words ‘ethical framework’ it’s difficult to see why not). Or, for that matter, Hindu or Buddhist? His other point is vapid: the US has hardly abandoned its religious beliefs but it is just as much (or more) a target for the fanaticism of others.

The Journal article is interesting but not conclusive. My understanding is (was?) that religious belief tends to be correlated with longer life: Paul and Maryland touch on this issue but say that the studies which demonstrate this are ‘questionable’ but provide no further details. Surely you could get clearer results by looking at the US itself? Is it not the case (or is it just a myth) that the big cities are more secular than the Midwest? What are the relevant statistics from these places?

In any case the article can be found here: http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html


des von bladet 10.10.05 at 8:12 am

The most interesting thing is that the vacuum can quite satisfactorily go unfilled for a very great many purposes.

The link between a grand prescriptive theory of social behaviour and social behaviour as it is actually behaved is not, which is to say, so strong as is (still) routinely alleged.

The main mistake moral theoristes make, which is to add, is the entirely understandable one of over-estimating their theories’s importance.

(Is this a good point to plug Berger and Luckmann’s The Social construction of reality as being an excellent place to look when contemplating these sorts of something? If so, it is. We may remark in passing that this result generalises quite broadly to “philosophy”, which acts, or doesn’t, as an attempt to synthesise rationalisations for beliefs and opinions conspicuously lacking any practical need for such support.)


Bro. Bartleby 10.10.05 at 9:02 am

“I don’t get it – what’s wrong with, say, secular humanism filling the moral vacuum?”

In the words of Secular Humanist Apostle Steve Allen:


Nabakov 10.10.05 at 9:04 am

“Why does he think the Christian doctrine is irreplaceable?”

The blockbuster novel for the Anglo world in the first decade of 20th century was Guy Thorne’s “When It Was Dark, published in1903, and which postulated that an evil Jewish financial mastermind would fake evidence that Christ never rose from the dead.

This was held to be utterly cataclysmic at the time. WIWD enthusiastically painted a picture of a hellish world where Christianity was discovered to be based on a lie.

“..waves of lawlessness and fierce riot”, “morals… spat upon and cursed” and “Its reality cannot be more vividly indicated than by the statement – CONSOLS ARE DOWN TO SIXTY-FIVE.” Shock! And Horror!

Nowadays “The Da Vinci Code” will probably spin off into a cookbook series next.

Yeah, Christianity’s quite replaceable. However, a lot of mad, empty and scared energy has still gotta go somewhere.


Tim 10.10.05 at 9:56 am

Check out Soft Patriarchs, New Men by W. Bradford Wilcox, a comparative study heavy on survey data on how men spend their time. (Disclosure: I work for the U of C Press) Wilcox finds that churchgoing (especially evangelical Christianity) does in fact make fathers more attentive to their kids. You listen to someone tell you to care for your kids for an hour every sunday, some of it’s gonna stick.

The flip side (for social progressives) comes in the relationship, not between fathers and children but between husbands and wives. Evangelical men do less housework, but their wives don’t mind that they do more.

Wilcox’s focus is within the family, not on politics per se. But for those who might think that evangelicals come home from church to beat their children, it’s a valuable corrective (people who claim to be evangelicals but who don’t go to church, OTOH, do beat their children — actually going to church is important).

That’s the 30-second summary. Read the book; it’s worth it.


steve kyle 10.10.05 at 9:59 am

Certainly its true that religion when mixed with politics leads to conflict – People who think god supports their politics are much less apt to compromise than people who dont. We see this today in the US where not only has the (supposedly) godly adminstration polarized discussion more than in anyone’s memory, but it has also embarked on a a literal Crusade in the middle east.

And though it can have no empirical claim to validity whatever, I cant help but notice the apparent correlation between bible thumping evangelists and moralizers and social disfunctions such as gambling, prostitution, etc. One could call this the Elmer Gantry effect, and perhaps its just our malicious glee in hypocrisy exposed that makes the correlation seem to be there, but then again perhaps it is real. Personally I am not surprised that a worldview which obsesses about sex and sin leads to some kinky acting out. On the other hand if I believe what I just wrote I should become born again in order to spice up my sex life!


Hogan 10.10.05 at 10:02 am

I don’t get it – what’s wrong with, say, secular humanism filling the moral vacuum? Why does he think the Christian doctrine is irreplaceable?

It’s not really an ethical framework if you don’t get it from a social superior standing above you.


pdf23ds 10.10.05 at 10:21 am

“On the other hand, Ferguson appears concerned (as usual) with the decline of martial virtues that are antithetical to Christianity as preached by Jesus.”

Don’t you mean “as preached by Paul”? I don’t think the Gospels themselves have much to say about sexual or marital mores.


pdf23ds 10.10.05 at 10:32 am

I can see why you chose the quote you did from the Ferguson article, but I thought this one deserved a little ridicule:

Chesterton feared that if Christianity declined, “superstition” would “drown all your old rationalism and skepticism.” When educated friends tell me that they have invited a shaman to investigate their new house for bad juju, I see what Chesterton meant.

I would try to parody it, but I’m afraid my sense of humor is kind of dead today.


des von bladet 10.10.05 at 10:48 am

pdf – can I call you pdf? – “martial” and “marital” are two (2) quite different words. (Jesus is widely caricatured as a peacenik by leftistes such as Quiggin.)


abb1 10.10.05 at 11:26 am

Come to think of it, a religious doctrine does, of course, have an advantage over a secular one – it has a supernatural all-knowing all-powerful enforcer. If you view the lower classes as a bunch of children who can’t control themselves, then it’s the decisive factor. But if this is what he has in mind, then he should come out and say it.

The same supernatural being watching your every move is probably a factor contributing to ‘high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide’ in those more religious societies. It must be quite stressful to be under a microscope every second of your life; no privacy.


Detlef 10.10.05 at 11:42 am


The study doesn´t claim that religious belief can cause damage to a society “because it is not the purpose of this initial study to definitively demonstrate a causal link between religion and social conditions”. It simply “present[s] basic correlations of the elemental data. Hoping to “spark future research and debate”.

Its goal is simply to look at a hypothesis:
Theists often assert that popular belief in a creator is instrumental towards providing the moral, ethical and other foundations necessary for a healthy, cohesive society. Many also contend that widespread acceptance of evolution, and/or denial of a creator, is contrary to these goals. But a cross-national study verifying these claims has yet to be published. … Agreement with the hypothesis that belief in a creator is beneficial to societies is largely based on assumption, anecdotal accounts, and on studies of limited scope and quality restricted to one population…

And they conclude looking at the data (homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion etc.) that “[t]he non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted.”.



Troutsky 10.10.05 at 12:04 pm

As for the mellow times we supposedly live in, because “predictions of societal doom” are “less prevelant and less attended to” does not necessarily decrease that likelihood, but may indicate a higher level of subjugation. While no DIRECT correlation may exist between religious attitudes and social conditions, it seems to me religiosity of the masses causes a submissivness which is then translated into acceptance of the status quo and a denigration of “free thinking”.But I could be wrong.


neruda_boy 10.10.05 at 12:12 pm


Sebastian holsclaw 10.10.05 at 12:40 pm

“I don’t get it – what’s wrong with, say, secular humanism filling the moral vacuum?”

Probably nothing is wrong with that, but you would have to identify what they moral precepts of secualr humanism are–and I’m not sure that has been comprehensively done. (At least I’ve never seen it).


Antoni Jaume 10.10.05 at 1:17 pm

While no DIRECT correlation may exist between religious attitudes and social conditions, it seems to me submissivness of the masses causes an acceptance of the status quo which is then translated into religiosity and a denigration of “free thinking”.But I could be wrong.



abb1 10.10.05 at 1:37 pm

Sebastian, I am not a philosopher, but it seems to me that moral precepts of secualr humanism are based on familiar ideas of the enlightenment, ethics based on reason. You don’t really need Jesus Christ to tell you what’s right and what’s wrong, do you?

Details are not important here, the point is that in order to have a coherent system of ethics one doesn’t need to believe in supernatural forces.


EricD 10.10.05 at 2:26 pm

It has seems to me that the view that religion is the foundation of moral behavior has the causes backward and is often damaging.

It is backward because the development of persons and cultures inclined to moral behavior are, by and large, well explained by evolutionary psychology, game theory, and cultural selection. Tribes that favor theft, murder, adultery, etc., are likely to find themselves impoverished and conflict-ridden, neither succeeding through competition nor by spreading their culture through emulation. Thus, the moral content of religions derives more from moral impulses than the reverse.
The view that religion is the foundation of moral behavior is often damaging, I speculate, because the belief that only supernatural edicts, rewards, and punishments justify moral behavior makes moral behavior more fragile. When those beliefs fail, the operations of the rationalistic mind may conclude that morality is bunk. This fragility could help to explain any excess of immoral behavior found in religious societies. (Of course, the idea that one can be forgiven almost anything may contribute as well.)


Donald Johnson 10.10.05 at 2:39 pm

I think many of the ethical values people have in the West come from Christianity. This isn’t the same as saying that we Christians (yeah, I’m one) actually live up to our ideals better than non-Christians, but for instance, the idea that poor people are equal to rich people (if not better) is something that you find clearly taught in much of the Bible, and the Old Testament prophets and Jesus seem to have a rather low opinion of the rich and the powerful. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think you find this attitude expressed very often in Greek and Roman culture 2000 years ago. The leftwing concern for the poor has Jewish and Christian roots and it’s not exactly original to say that Marx is a heretical Old Testament prophet. (One whose prophecies went rather wrong in many respects.) Yeah, I know that Christian heritage also produced religious wars and justified slavery–my point is that it also had positive effects which people shouldn’t take for granted.

As for the enlightenment, I wonder what sort of values “reason” would produce if we came from a strictly classical Greek and Roman heritage. I can’t see an abolitionist movement based on the writings of Plato or Aristotle.


Donald Johnson 10.10.05 at 3:00 pm

Incidentally, I don’t consider Marxism one of the positive results of the Old Testament concern for social justice. But there’s obviously a connection. Since I brought up the commies, I also don’t get secularists who condemn religion on the grounds that it causes religious wars, persecutions and other manifestations of fanaticism. It’s as dishonest as religious believers who claim that leftwing secular atheism automatically leads to the gulag. The problem is fanaticism of any variety, including anti-religious fanaticism.


abb1 10.10.05 at 3:16 pm

Yes, dogmatism is the problem. Yet secular dogmatism is somewhat easier to deal with – at least it’s based on rational thought, there is a possibility to confront it logically. Not so with religious dogmatism.


Martin James 10.10.05 at 3:38 pm

There seems to be some definitional issues about society that are critical.

The “societal” measures here seem to be aggregated individual measures: murder, mortality, health, abortion, etc.

Are the really societal measures? Since we are all evolutionists now, shouldn’t we be looking at populations, reproductive success and changes in genetic frequency.

Does secularism promote biological fitness more than religion? In the short run secularism is correlated with below replacement low fertility rates. In order for secularism to be long run successful from here on, the high fertility religious populations would have to show substantially higher future pre-reproductive mortality.

No impossible, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

We rich people with educated wives need some cultural innovations to survive.


Thomas Palm 10.10.05 at 3:43 pm

The correlations that remain if the outlier USA is removed is child mortality and teenage pregnancy and abortion. This makes sense to me: religion isn’t strong enough to remove our sex drive, but it can be strong enough to remove sex education. Teaching abstinence just doesn’t work unless you have a society where everyone is watched cloesly enough that they have no chance to commit any sins.


russell 10.10.05 at 4:10 pm

As the kid of a very secular couple (atheist mother, agnostic father), and as the spouse of the daughter of conservative, Southern Baptist parents, tom’s remark that evangelical fathers (re: Soft Patriarchs) are more attentive towards their children strikes me both as surprising if true, and as patently suspect on its face. The number of hours that a dominant father spends with his children does not quantify attentiveness very well, and my intuition–admittedly biased and based on personal experience only–is that highly religious fathers tend to be controlling and oppressive to a degree conspicuously higher than secular fathers. But these are my prejudices only. I’d love to take a look at the book tim suggests. Thanks for the recommendation.


Bob B 10.10.05 at 4:34 pm

“dogmatism is the problem. Yet secular dogmatism is somewhat easier to deal with. . . Not so with religious dogmatism.”

Quite so. The trouble, of course, is that religious dogmatism is divinely sanctioned so it is bound to be correct. Mind you, Marxist regimes usually have straight forward ways of dealing with dissent, which is why the scale of democide in established Marxist regimes exceeds that of the infamous fascist tyrannies.


Dale 10.10.05 at 5:18 pm

It seems to me that it might be hard to distinguish between secular and religious dogmatism. Was Soviet Marixm secular or religious?
Was Nazism secular or religious?

I think Donald Johnson is on the right track here. Or, I guess I mean that I hold very similar views to what he has expressed here.


dix hill 10.10.05 at 9:40 pm

Organized religion has it over secular humanism in that it’s organized. Religious groups have schools, liturgies, and other rituals/traditions to inculcate and enforce their doctrines.


Zackary Sholem Berger 10.10.05 at 10:20 pm

So let me get this straight. The paper did not use multivariate analysis, or control for other covariates, using only correlations of “raw data” (in the authors’ words)? Permit me to remain unconvinced.

The U.S., for good or ill, is different from Western European nations in many, many ways. Where religious observance is to be found on the causal pathway leading to, say, homicide is not clear at all, and looking at unadjusted correlation coefficients is somewhere far away from Godliness. (Or secularism. Whatever floats your boat.)


MTraven 10.10.05 at 10:42 pm

Secular humanism may be a fine foundation for an individual’s morality, but does not seem capable of playing the same social role. People don’t flow in droves every Sunday to hear secular humanist lectures, and encouraging independent thinking is not likely to produce the sort of social cohesion that faith-based religions can muster (and bring to the voting booths).

I think Feguson’s point is a combination of the above observation together with a conservative view of society as held together by common beliefs of which religion is a most important one. Secular, pluralist societies are not gonna play their proper role in the clash of civilizations. From your perspective and mine, that’s fine, but what if such societies are vulnerable to attack from stronger, more fanatical groups of believers?

There are people prepared to die for their religion, but fewer are prepared to die for the separation of church and state.


Mischa 10.11.05 at 1:51 am


Maybe not Plato & Aristotle, but Stoicism (the biggest philosophy in the late Roman Republic and the early Empire) might well have come up with abolitionism, given time…after all, Christianity needed lots of time too!

And as for the (political) equality of rich & poor, granted what you say about the Hebrew prophets, that was a major tenet of Athenian democracy.


Harald Korneliussen 10.11.05 at 2:02 am

pdf wrote: “I don’t think the Gospels themselves have much to say about sexual or marital mores.”

Well, OTOH, there’s the no sex in heaven thing which Jesus explained to the Saduccees, and the rules on divorce are made more strict. So perhaps not much, but certainly some. As much as you can expect, considering that the gospels aren’t all that big.


abb1 10.11.05 at 2:23 am

Secular dogmas are often propagated the same way: education camps, daily party or workplace meetings, pledge of allegiance in US schools. And it works too. For a Western intellectual to yearn for education camps would be unthinkable, of course, but for some reason organized religion is acceptable.

As far as defending yourself against a fanatical groups of believers – I don’t think Christianity is necessarily a good dogma in this respect, with its ‘turn the other cheek’ concept. He should be promoting wahhabism or something.


Ray 10.11.05 at 2:50 am

“In order for secularism to be long run successful from here on, the high fertility religious populations would have to show substantially higher future pre-reproductive mortality.”

Or be good at attracting the children of the religious and turning them into secular adults. The mid-west breeds ’em, the coasts make them their own, kind of thing.


Dix Hill 10.11.05 at 9:16 am

“For a Western intellectual to yearn for education camps would be unthinkable, of course, but for some reason organized religion is acceptable.”

Well, in the West we have freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, etc. So yes, organized religion is acceptable. So are bowling leagues and the Rotary Club.


Steve LaBonne 10.11.05 at 9:21 am

For Sebastian among others: if people actually followed just one simple “secular humanist” ethical precept- the inverse form of the Golden Rule- the result would be a society far more humane than any that has ever been informed by any variety of belief in the supernatural. I don’t think the problem lies with presence or absence of ethical precepts; it’s not as though, since at least the time of Constantine (i.e. the time when “reasons of state” began, as they have continued ever after, to trump religious teaching whenever the two threatened to conflict), there have ever been many Christians who actually did what they were supposed to.


clew 10.11.05 at 1:43 pm

That’s a good argument, about Judeo-Christianity and respect for the poor; it’s been going on for a while. Gibbon was fiercely criticized for not ascribing *all* of the improvement in the status and treatment of slaves, during the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, to the rise of Christianity. One of his more reckless critics argued that any decent person would admit that Christianity is fundamentally incompatible with slaveholding, leading to one of my favorite footnotes ever, the comment that “Gibbon, it should be added, was one of the first and most consistent opponents of the African slave-trade.”

Garrison Keillor’s monologues are weekly secular lectures, much loved and discussed, profoundly moral, sure of an audience.


Uncle Kvetch 10.11.05 at 3:27 pm

As far as defending yourself against a fanatical groups of believers – I don’t think Christianity is necessarily a good dogma in this respect, with its ‘turn the other cheek’ concept. He should be promoting wahhabism or something.

C’mon abb1, surely you’re aware that whatever “Christianity” Ferguson might have in mind has little to nothing to do with the actual teachings of Christ.


MTraven 10.11.05 at 4:58 pm

Send a kid to secular humanist camp! Our motto: “we’ll smack the jesus out of your child.”


abb1 10.12.05 at 7:43 am

Well, in the West we have freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, etc. So yes, organized religion is acceptable. So are bowling leagues and the Rotary Club.

Well, and it’s still acceptable. What Ferguson seems to want, though, is for religion to be the norm. And when something becomes the norm and you now need to follow the suit to make sure you get promotions, to make sure your loyalty is not questioned by the authorities, etc. – then it’s not too different from a Vietnamese re-education camp anymore, is it?


pdf23ds 10.12.05 at 9:07 am

“As far as defending yourself against a fanatical groups of believers – I don’t think Christianity is necessarily a good dogma in this respect, with its ‘turn the other cheek’ concept.”

Eh. I think many prominent American strains of Christian fundamentalism are pretty militant. A lot of Christians are very good at selectively ignoring or rationalizing away parts of the Bible. I don’t think specific doctrines are really the main drivers or inhibitors of fanatacism.

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