For century after century, there has been an unchallenged belief that social problems would be greatly diminished if only more people fervently believed in a god.
The basis for all moral behavior had to originate with what were given as the laws of the god. Without the god's commandments, humans would kill each other without provocation, rape would be commonplace, no person's belongings would be safe because everyone would steal from each other, dishonesty would rule, adultery would replace monogamous marriage, older people would have to provide for themselves or perish.
Because humans were incapable of developing moral, ethical behavior, animalistic chaos would be the rule.
It turns out the opposite is true. A peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Religion and Society at the Catholic Church's Jesuit Creighton University (http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html) and a more recent paper in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology (www.epjournal.net/filestore/EP073984414.pdf) should be required reading for everyone interested in reducing a wide range of violence and other social problems.
Apparently the studies' author, Gregory S. Paul, is the first person to ever objectively look at the correlation between prosperous democratic countries' conservative religiosity (measured by the unquestioned belief in a god and the rejection of evolution) and a wide range of indicators of social dysfunction, including the rates of murder, rape, teen-age pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, divorce, economic disparity, life expectancy, child mortality and others. What Paul found is that, in country after country, as the prevalence of conservative religiosity increases, so do the rates of these dysfunctional behaviors. The United States, as the prosperous democratic country with the highest percentage of citizens with the conservative religious beliefs defined above, ranks at or near the top (or should I say bottom) in many of the categories of dysfunctional behavior.
How could this be? It has been suggested that the values and behavior taught by religions are imposed on the individual from without, that the only reason certain behavior should be done or avoided is because a spirit being wants it that way, and if the individual believes in the existence of the spirit being, he or she will be rewarded upon death. The values "belong" to the spirit being, not the individual. To complicate this, most religions have also taught that it is sometimes very virtuous to kill, destroy and take property, etc. when it is done against those people who do not believe in the one true religion.
By contrast, the nontheist individual's values are generated from within. They arise from the individual's reasoning and logic, leading to the understanding and acceptance of most of the same behaviors taught by religions. In other words, the right and wrong then "belong" to the individual, not to some spirit being.
At the same time, the problems such as venereal disease, teen-age pregnancy and abortions are more prevalent in the religious population because of the lack of effective sex education. Too often their youngsters are simply taught that sexual activity is prohibited until marriage and therefore the young person has no need for any information until then. In addition to open dialog in the home, the secular community is in favor of incorporating comprehensive sex education into the public school system, along with meaningful classroom education on the negative consequences of impulsive, premature sexual activity. Once again, knowledge and reason prevail over ignorance.
Some religious groups have not placed a high value on higher education. This has had the effect of causing more religious believers to be employed in jobs that require less knowledge and skills. This in turn means they have lower incomes, the lower incomes mean lower standards of living and more poverty. That pushes more people into committing property crimes and the accompanying violence. By contrast, the more education a person has, the less likely he or she is to be religious, commit crimes, engage in violence or be imprisoned.
I believe that religions need to seriously rethink how they teach social values and behaviors. They have had the faithful for at least an hour on most Sundays, week after week, over the entire course of their lifetimes, in which they can preach/teach ethical and moral behavior. In most denominations children receive Sunday school education every week. Many others offer full time schooling through high school or even college.
The secularists have only the guidance of the parents, a few books, and, if they are fortunate, the type of classes on ethics, morality and spirituality described in this column a few weeks ago by Kathy Ivey. And of course, they have facts, science, reason and logic to guide them to those values.
Hank Zumach is president of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.