Saturday, August 30, 2008

Is Faith Good for Us?

By Phil Zuckerman is an associate professor of sociology at College in California

Whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Sikh, there is one common belief that all religious fundamentalists share: worship of God and obedience to his laws are essential for a peaceful, healthy society. From Orthodox rabbis in the occupied West Bank to Wahhabi sheiks in Saudi Arabia , from the pope in Vatican City to Mormons in Salt Lake City , the lament is the same: God and his will must be at the center of everyone's lives in order to ensure a moral, prosperous, safe, collective existence.

Furthermore, fundamentalists agree that, when large numbers of people in a society reject God or fail to make him the center of their lives, societal disintegration is sure to follow. Every societal ill-whether crime, poverty, poor public education, or AIDS-is thus blamed on a lack of piety. A most disconcerting example of this worldview was expressed in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001 , when Jerry Falwell blamed the terrorists attacks on America 's "throwing God out of the public square," further adding that "when a nation deserts God and expels God from the culture . . . the result is not good."

If this often-touted religious theory were correct-that a turning away from God is at the root of all societal ills-then we would expect to find the least religious nations on earth to be bastions of crime, poverty, and disease and the most religious nations to be models of societal health. A comparison of highly irreligious countries with highly religious countries, however, reveals a very different state of affairs. In reality, the most secular countries-those with the highest proportion of atheists and agnostics-are among the most stable, peaceful, free, wealthy, and healthy societies. And the most religious nations-wherein worship of God is in abundance-are among the most unstable, violent, oppressive, poor, and destitute.

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