An atheist in Africa. My perspective on whether religion does a country any good.

Do we need religion to create a moral, just and fair society? (Initially posted on my blog at www.timhopwood.blogspot.com)

 One of the most common arguments I hear for religion is that it assists in creating a moral framework to guide us in the creation of a just, safe and fair society. There is a simple way to ascertain whether or not this is the case: we simply look at the statistics. What countries in the world are the most just and fair? Where are women and children the safest? What countries have the lowest murder and rape rates? Which have the least inequality and disparity of wealth? Where are civil liberties most protected? In other words, where on the planet is life the best for the average citizen?

 Conversely, where is it the worst in these regards? And now what proportion of these populations are religious? These figures are easy to find, and after all, the bible says, “By your fruits you shall be known.”

 It soon becomes clear that a number of countries feature regularly on the best and worst lists. Honduras, El Salvadore, Ivory Coast, Jamaica and Venezuela have the five worst per capita murder rates. Where I live, South Africa, comes in at number 8, with 31,8 homicides per 100 000. It also features at number 1 for rape statistics, but rape statistics are the most unreliable of all, for a huge variety of reasons.

 These murder statistics, it must be pointed out, are not accurate across the board, as the governments of most African countries do not keep accurate track of births and deaths. You get born, you die, they put you in the ground. In fact it would be stretching things a bit to say that countries like the DRC and Somalia have governments at all. Added to this are the incessant civil wars and conflicts that rage at any given time across the continent. When the Nigerian police kill Niger Delta activists, are they recorded as murders? Unlikely.

 The countries where you are least likely to be murdered are Palau and Monaco, where your chances are nil. But to be honest, Monaco is the size of a postage stamp, so there’s probably nowhere to hide, and Palau… well, I haven’t a clue where that is. Larger countries on the top ten list include Iceland, Japan, Norway and Austria. All northern European countries are high on the list of safe countries.

 Another list of interest is the Human Development Index, which looks at life expectancy, mean years of schooling and per capita income. Here, Norway is number one, followed by Australia, Holland, Denmark, USA, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Germany and Sweden. In fact, the USA and Ireland are the only two countries in the top twenty on this list that can be described as predominantly religious countries.

 Civil liberties are measured by Reporters Without Borders. This basically measures how free people are to gather together and protest, and to speak their minds without fear of persecution or death.

 Norway comes in at number two here, Finland being number one. Also in the top ten are Estonia, Holland, Austria, Iceland, Switzerland, and Canada. Ireland is the only predominantly religious country in the top 20. China is 6th last on the list. Nigeria is number 126, the USA number 47.

 In terms of good governance, the corruption index is a useful list. The ten least corrupt nations on earth are Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Sweden, Singapore, Switzerland, Australia, Norway, Canada, Holland and Iceland. There are no predominantly religious countries in the top 20. Nigeria comes in at number 139, nestled next to Pakistan. Close on 400 billion US dollars in oil money has ‘gone missing’ there since the drilling began, according to the IMF, enough to build half a million very large schools with computers, desks, books and all. Or about 1,2 million churches, if they’re into that, because all you need there is just a single book, a pulpit and some benches.  If it’s a mosque you don’t even need the benches, and the book’s a bit thinner too.

 I guess we don’t really need lists or research to tell us that quality of life for women and children (girls in particular) is not very good in say, Afghanistan, but very good in Norway, and so once again all the northern European countries occupy the highest positions on this list while Islamic nations are near the bottom, along with countries in Africa where they cut little girls’ clitorises out or make child soldiers of the boys. Muti murders being very high will also tend to affect where the country is on the safety-of-children list, and argue as you may, it is impossible to not ultimately admit that these killings fulfill a religious function. It might not be your religion but it is a religion, however fucked-up.

 And now it’s time to see which countries are the most religious: what percentage of the population attends a religious service weekly.

 Lo and behold, Nigeria is a very religious place, the most religious. 89% of its population attend church. Unfortunately, it has not succeeded in exporting its faith quite as successfully around the world as it has its money-laundering scams, criminal networks, and generally corrupt business practices. It did assist though, if I recall correctly, one of those American Evangelists with his blood-diamond and gun-running exploits, so maybe he can be of assistance to them in spreading The Word, or their peculiar version of it.

 Second on the list is Ireland, with 84% attending church, and somewhat of an anomaly on all the lists. A spanner in the works if you wish to prove that a safe, just, humane society is hampered by the presence of religion. But you could be forgiven for assuming that it is usually hampered by its presence.

 The top twenty on this list does not make for comforting reading if you are of the opinion that the presence of religion creates such a society. 56% of South Africans (number four on the list) take a break from the national past-time of rape to attend church weekly, although I have read other statistics that put the figure closer to 70%. More than 70% of Americans describe themselves as Christian, with 44% attending church weekly, no doubt to agonise over the fact that in terms of disparity of wealth they are at the bottom of developed nations, and are actually breathing down Ruanda and Cambodia’s necks. And us very religious South Africans will soon be giving Haiti a run for it’s money in that department if we don’t do something besides pray to the Invisible Man in the Sky.

 On the other hand, the godless Japanese attend religious services the least, and somehow manage to get through each year with less than a few hundred of them feeling the need to take a human life for whatever reason, and when the weather gets nasty and the sea gets rough, all queue up diligently to help one another, unlike in say, New Orleans. I suppose their move to a secular society was helped by the fact that The Emperor was God’s representative on Earth until that incident with The Enola Gay sowed some doubt in people’s minds.

 Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland are all in the top ten least-religious countries, with each having less than 6 % trotting off to church on Sundays.

 China is also very low, however (9%), and with 80% falling under the category atheist. Not the kind of place you want to get too vocal about anything other than ping-pong, but at the same not the kind of place where you live in fear of ever being shot for your cell-phone or hi-jacked in your car.

 So to conclude:

 On the basis of countries like Portugal and Ireland, we cannot say that countries are hampered by the presence of religion in terms of providing a safe, just, humane climate for their citizens. But at the same time, we can most certainly conclude that the specific presence of religion is not in the least bit necessary in this regard. It’s hard to argue with the maths.

 An afterthought:

One of the most common arguments put forward by Christians regarding these statistics is that the Northern European countries were all built on a Christian foundation. But they don’t follow this argument through. If they did they would conclude that the best thing to do would be to then abandon Christianity, as these countries have done. Nor do they acknowledge that the introduction of Christianity to Africa and South America did not do much for the inhabitants of these continents.  To the contrary in many if not most cases, for all evidence points to the fact that the Xhosa here in the Eastern Cape, for example, had a far more just and humane society before the arrival of armies and missionaries from Europe, when they simply communed with The Ancestors and employed the logic which so impressed the early European explorers and men of the Enlightenment. All Christianity did in the case of these tribal societies was introduce much more absurd hocus pocus than what they already had, along with a good dollop of guilt regarding stuff that was all perfectly natural and human.

 

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