Religious Belief and Social Pathology in the USA

Posted on November 22, 2008


According to research published in the Journal of Religion and Society this week, developed countries which are predomiantly secular seem to suffer fewer social ills like murder, suicide and teenage pregnancy.  The apparent bogeyman of the piece is the USA, which, while being the most religious Western society, has rates of murder, incarceration, abortion, syphilis, gonorrhoea and inequality equivalent to third world countries.  You can read a summary of the article at the Times.

The study is correlational, and whether religion actually causes social ills remains a moot point.  However, there is surely something to be said for the impact of religous tradition and taboo on education and public debate.  More importantly, perhaps, the kind of triumphanist faith that seems to be prevalent among certain communities in the US is clearly anathema to the critical, normative ideals of the Enlightenment.  What is intriguing, however, is that these same ideals informed the perspectives of the founding fathers.

So we have the following contradictory situation:  on the one hand, the strict separation of church and state is purportedly guaranteed by the first amendment to the constitution; yet on the other, the pledge of the allegiance to the flag identifies the republic as “one Nation under God“.

The report generated a lot of (typically hamfisted) debate at Newsvine.  One contributor suggested that the problem with the US is not religion, but diversity of belief.  It does not seem as if the writer is aware of the worrying tone of their hypothesis.  Conformism does not sit well with the cosmopolitan and egalitarian ideals of America, but it does seem to be entailed by evangelical Christianity.  It need not be thought, however, that Christianity should be like this at all.  In the Bible, Christ preaches tolerance, while the Apostles often come out with stuff like this.

America’s social ills can’t all be neatly explained with reference to Pauline Christianity.  But it might go some way to explaining some of the ideological constraints on who can speak and what they may say.