Progress and Religion

Progress and Religion

It is an interesting fact that most economically developed democracies, with the exception of the USA, have become more secular. Research indicates that the extent to which people emphasise religion and engage in religious behaviour could, indeed, be predicted with considerable accuracy from the level of a society’s economic development.

In their book Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics World-wide, Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, using multivariate analysis, demonstrate that a few basic development indicators such as per capita GNP, rates of HIV/AIDS, access to improved water sources and the number of doctors per hundred thousand people, predict with remarkable precision how frequently the people of a given society worship or pray.

When we analyse these findings we find, not surprisingly, that religion is most popular in vulnerable societies, but on the other hand those societies where, on a day to day basis, survival seems largely secure, religion plays a lesser role.

So the thesis proposed here is that, all things being equal, the experience of growing up in less secure societies will predispose us more to taking on religious practices. On the other hand those born into more secure societies are far less likely to assume religious practices.

It seems obvious that those who are not troubled on a continuing basis with existential angst have less need for religious convictions. But there is another trend that might cause concern. Over time the birth rates in postindustrial societies have reduced. Thus we have the dual impact that whilst the richer societies are becoming more secular they have largely static, and in some cases, reducing populations.

On the other hand poorer societies are not only more religious, they have increasing populations. Indeed their higher fertility rates are a significant factor in their continuing poor economic outcomes. The traditional religions practised in these poorer countries have a number of common factors. They seek to:

  • maintain the strength of the family,
  • encourage people to have more children,
  • encourage women to stay at home and raise the children,
  • forbid abortion, divorce and anything that interferes with high rates of reproduction.

Of course, some of these aspirations are positive, but overall they have a negative impact on a society’s ability to progress economically.

Peter Watson in his book The Age of Atheists wrote:

“It should be no surprise then that these two interlinked trends mean that rich nations are becoming more secular, but the world, as a whole, is becoming more religious.”

Indeed Watson argues that religion can be best understood as a sociological rather than a theological phenomenon. One might therefore argue that the “success” of religion is a by-product of the “failure” of some countries to modernise. Or even more concerningly, the “success” of religion might serve to inhibit economic development.


An indication of the effect of this dynamic on Christianity for example is reflected in the fact that a hundred years ago 80% of the world’s Christians lived in Europe and the United States. Today 60% of them live in the developing world.

Now I wonder if this information shouldn’t give us concern to be a little careful here.

In many developed countries, particularly in Western Europe indigenous fertility rates are very low. Consequently population increase is often dependent on migration. Most immigrants arriving in these countries are from poorer, less developed and consequently more religious societies. As a consequence such countries are likely to experience de-secularisation.

If progress and development, as we saw above, are correlated with a decline in religious practice, this might give us cause for concern that some of these developed countries might in time revert to more traditional values that are antithetical to such progress.


Confronting the Death Penalty

Capital punishment is barbaric and abhorrent. It is fitting that we should make whatever efforts we can to save the two currently on death row in Indonesia. But I wonder at our integrity in this issue. We wait until some of our own nationals, who have been convicted of a major crime, viz drug-smuggling, before we raise our voices.

In underdeveloped, mainly Muslim countries, people are being sentenced to death for the most trifling offences. In such countries blasphemy is often used as an excuse to wreak vengeance on someone for whatever reason. We should be raising our voices strongly condemning these atrocities. It would make our pleas for the two drug-smugglers more credible and ensure we had more integrity on the issue.

For example I read a press article recently of a woman sentenced to death in Pakistan. A certain Asia Bibi, 47, a Christian farmworker, was sentenced to death for blasphemy after her Muslim co-workers claimed that she had defiled the well on which they depended for their water, by drinking from the same well as them.

In every such case our voices should be heard in condemnation!

And let us not be too critical of Indonesia’s Prime Minister, Joko Widodo, if he continues his hard line with respect to the Australian drug-smugglers. He is, after all, playing to a domestic constituency. There are many examples of Australian Prime Ministers making poor policy decisions to pander to parochial interest groups. We saw one this week when the government announced it was considerably reducing the value of land acquisitions by foreigners that would need to be approved by the Foreign Investment Review Board. It is easy to give you a long list of such decisions. Is not the Indonesian Prime Minister subject to the same or possibly even greater pressures?


7 Replies to “Progress and Religion”

  1. We shouldn’t forget that the West’s progress toward secularism, progress and enlightenment has not been linear or uninterrupted. The destruction of traditional, religious art as part of the English Reformation was on a par with the dynamiting of the great Buddhas at Bamiyan and other acts of religious inspired vandalism by the Taliban. It took Central Europe centuries to rebuild its population after the Thirty Years War. Untold cultural treasures were destroyed by the Catholic Church in Latin America. Well into the twentieth century a British citizen could be tortured and murdered for their religious loyalties in Northern Ireland. There are a thousand other examples and you don’t have to go to the Balkans to find them. Maybe a few lapses in what we call the Developing World might be something we can cope with eventually if we expect to achieve world wide prosperity through secularisation.

    The argument that the two Australians on Death Row in Indonesia should not be executed because now they are rehabilitated is not convincing.
    It reminds me of Dr Samuel Johnson’s words: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
    It would be fascinating to know whether such an obvious and laudable rehabilitation could have been achieved in an Australian jail without the threat of capital punishment.
    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that they should be executed either and I would like to see them serving a sentence imposed in an Indonesian court in an Australian jail but I think we need to come up with better arguments than that now they are changed men if we want to convince the Indonesians who do believe in capital punishment for such crimes.

  2. To intentionally and clinically take a human life for any reason is abhorrent. I am concerned for the emotional well being of those on death row but also for the other people who are associated with this clinical, ritualistic killing of another human being. No other species comes close to inflicting this level of cruelty over the several years leading up to and including an execution. As a species we are capable of the greatest levels of compassion and cruelty. Capital punishment demonstrates the deepest depths of our cruelty. It is worth remembering that less than 50 years ago in Australia we were still executing people and the death penalty still exists in some parts of the US. One of the truly ugly parts of our human nature I think. Indonesia is not backward or primitive for doing this. They are simply wrong like everyone else that does it.

  3. Your comments on the death penalty are well taken. As a consistent opponent of the death penalty under any circumstances, I welcome your argument. It is a pity that the Australian politicians who may still support Tony Abbot’s extreme and irrelevant threats do not seem to understand the simplest of arguments that you outline.

    I am concerned also about your own situation with the floods in Queensland. I hope you and your family are safe and your property unharmed.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Chris. Although it was a very harrowing experience we all came through the cyclone OK, all safe with houses intact. We had to endure some days without power, water, telephones or Internet connection. Things are gradually being restored but it looks like we will be without power for some time yet.

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