Why the Claim that Progressive Secular Values and Policies Are Bad For Societies is a Great Big Lie

By Gregory Paul | 18 January 2008

It is a myth that societies that adopt progressive secular values are doomed to societal collapse and chaos.
It is a myth that societies that adopt progressive secular values are doomed to societal collapse and chaos. (Credit: Shawn Harquail / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0)

The propaganda industry that is the social and religious right never ceases in its campaign to perpetuate a myth. It is the all critical cutting edge of a long standing wedge strategy that cannot fail if anti-progressive traditionalism is to retain its legitimacy. The myth is that societies that adopt progressive secular values are doomed to societal collapse and chaos.

Among its prominent proponents is “Culture Warrior” Bill O’Reilly who has announced that social traditionalists must battle the forces of progressive humanism to save the nation as part of the Culture War proclaimed by Pat Buchanon. Still more virulent – even O’Reilly sometimes objects to her tactics – is Ann Coulter who blames just about everything that has gone wrong from murder to abortion to Nazism on secularism and its common consort, evolutionary science. Ken Ham’s new and very popular Answers in Genesis Creation Museum outside Cincinnati — after teaching its visitors that the Earth was formed a couple of thousand years before the Pyramids, and that The Flintstones were correct in showing humans riding dinosaurs — agrees with Coulter on the dire dangers of secularism and Darwinism. The more genteel Discovery Institute, which favors Intelligent Design creationism without the Biblical wackiness, also wishes to counter “materialism’s destructive cultural consequences.” Although the Catholic Church has no particular problem with evolutionary theory, Benedict contends that a secular society is a “dictatorship of relativism” that invariably leads to a “culture of death.”

The notion that traditional religious values are what makes America great is summarized in one of Reagan’s favorite dictums, that the nation is a “Shining City on the Hill” that stands as an outstanding example to the rest of the world. Religious forces have succeeded in whipping popular opinion those who do not agree with customary views of faith and creation into outright societal fear factors. The wing of the secular community that has taken the biggest hit are the atheists, which studies show most Americans don’t want to marry, or become president. If the claims being made by the religious right are not correct, then they are slanderous lies.

There is something funny about the premise that progressive secularism promotes societal dysfunction. North of the border is a nation that is much more secular and progressive than ours, Canada. Same across the pond in western Europe. Two thirds of the French do not believe in a supreme being, and even more do not in Scandinavia. In all western nations solid majorities, up to 80%, accept human descent from animals, except for America where only half do so. Of the 19 most prosperous democracies, 18 are markedly less religious and more socio-economically progressive than America. This divergence acts as an enormous social experiment of some 800 million persons that can be used to test and compare the success of different systems.

What is funny is that the news from the lands of secular progressivism is, on the main, pretty good. If failure to adhere to traditional religious values leads to murder and mayhem, then why has it not done so in Canada, France, Sweden et al? Why aren’t the right wing think tanks churning out study after study showing that the secularized democracies are suffering from plaques of social ills, problems that do not afflict the comparatively traditional and conservative USA? The reason is that they can’t.

From what I hear, progressive Danes are not having sex in the streets, and when lethal violence occurs there it is likely to involve religious-political passions. As time went by I got tired of how the socio-religious right was bashing secular societies while it was obvious that their charges were at best questionable. I also was frustrated that no one seemed to be doing the sociological science needed to determine the true situation. One thing led to another and I ended up conducting the first technical study on the subject and published it in The Journal of Religion and Society. Here is what I have found.

All of the secular progressive democracies, and only the secular progressive democracies, are enjoying remarkably low rates of homicide, incarceration and childhood mortality, long lifespans, moderate abortion levels, as well as low rates of STD infection, and teen pregnancy. In comparison, the more socially, religiously, politically and economically conservative USA is over all #1 in terms of societal dysfunction, often suffering social ills at extreme levels compared to the rest of the west. Murder rates are many multiples higher in America than in any other 1st world nation. Crime-ridden cities like Detroit, Baltimore, DC, Atlanta, and New Orleans are not found in the other advanced nations. No other country in the world, even huge China, has so many people in prison as does the USA, an amazing 2 million. Most of them are Christians and Muslims, atheists and agnostics are rather scarce. This country has half a dozen times more inmates per capita than the western norm. In some other prosperous democracies mortality in infants and young children is half that seen here. Only the Irish and Danes do not live longer than Americans. Levels of teen gonorrhea infection are dozens to literally hundreds of times higher in the USA than in Europe and Canada. Gonorrhea and syphilis have been nearly exterminated in the Nordic countries. The Papacy claims that “the proabortion culture is especially strong precisely where the Church’s teaching on contraception is rejected.” Actually, abortion rates are very high in nations where it is illegal, and are about a third higher in America than in the other advanced democracies. Pregnancy rates among teens that are not married are two to dozens of times lower in secularized democracies than in the USA. The only nation that edges out ours in high levels of divorce is Sweden. One reason America has such high levels of divorce is because evangelical born agains are notoriously prone to splitting up. Likewise, levels of other social dysfunction from murder to STDs to unwed pregnancies tend to be higher in those parts of the states that are the most conservative Protestant.

As with all things the situation is not entirely one sided. The USA does not score worse than average in terms of suicide (although the tendency of Scandinavians to kill themselves is exaggerated). Levels of nonlethal crime appear to be substantial in many secular democracies, and in some places may match American rates. Americans have a high rate of marriage and fertility, although whether the latter is an advantage in an age of overpopulation is open to question. Interestingly the highly secular French reproduce nearly as fast as Americans, and the most Catholic democracies are the least fertile. But the USA is performing so dreadfully badly in so many ways that the positives cannot overcome the negatives.

In total the evidence is conclusive. Far being be a shining example, America is to a disturbing degree a societal basket case by western norms. Nor has any nation that adheres to the sort of religious, cultural, political and economic values that O’Reilly, Coulter, Buchanan, Ham and company prefer has ever enjoyed low levels of societal dysfunction. Even in the 1950s the even more religious USA exhibited rates of homicide far above Euro levels, and 500 years ago pious Europe was itself plagued by incredible levels of murder, other crimes, and social strife. Conversely, the more the progressive, secular and pro-evolution are the peoples of a country are, the better off they tend to be. Scandinavia, France, and Japan are not utopias and have serious problems, but such over all good conditions have never been seen before in history. They should be receiving praise rather than knee jerk condemnation for daring to reject the conservative Christian world-view. The right wing thesis that progressive secular values and policies are antagonistic to good societal conditions and create death cultures is a patent fabrication, and constitutes a form of social slander intended to mislead and confuse. Instead, it is the secular nations that best qualify as “Cultures of Life.”

As you can imagine, the conservative reaction to the research of myself and others demonstrating the success of secular societies has not been a happy one. Among other things I was denounced in a Wall Street Journal op-ed as long on illogical and empty polemics as it was on data. Some more legitimate critical points have been raised, but no critic has been able to produce a set of data that shows that the secularized democracies are less healthy than the more religious ones. So the science is in. It is no longer possible to claim that church going America is socially superior to the prosperous countries were folks spend Sunday doing something else, and the right cannot honestly claim that progressive secularism is bad for national societies — not that that will stop them. Liberals need to become informed as to the facts to counter the wedge propaganda of the conservatives. But deeper questions remain. Why are the secular democracies doing so much better than those that have not adopted progressive policies? Do conservative values and policies actually contribute to societal ills, or do healthy social conditions promote cultural secularism, or are both factors at play? That will be the subject of subsequent essays.

Gregory Paul is an independent researcher interested in informing the public about little known yet important aspects of the complex interactions between religion, secularism, culture, economics, politics and societal conditions. His scholarly work has appeared in Evolutionary Psychology, Journal of Religion and Society, The Journal of Medical Ethics, Philosophy and Theology. Popular essays are at Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post/On Faith, Edge and one of the most widely read Washington Post op-eds (5/29&30/11). Coverage of Paul’s research has appeared in Newsweek, USA Today, The Guardian, London Times, LA Times, MSNBC, FoxNews.

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