Today we are discussing whether religion is necessary. But what do we mean by “necessary?” Necessary for a person? Necessary for society? If religion is necessary in any aspect we should be able to see the effects of religion not only on people, but also on society.
If religion is necessary for society, we should see less religious societies having a lower quality of life in various areas like poverty, violent crime, infant mortality, and corruption. If religion is necessary for individual well-being, we should see people who are more religious having an overall better quality of life. Instead, what we see is that highly religious societies tend to be worse off in all aspects. Also, there is no clear answer on how religion affects a person’s individual well-being. While I’m not arguing that religion is the cause of these problems, I can demonstrate that religion is not necessary for peaceful and productive societies and individuals.

Religion’s Effects on Societies

First, let’s take a look at how religion affects societies around the world. It’s been empirically shown that countries with the highest rates of religiosity, like Nigeria, Mexico, Brazil, etc. also have the highest rates of poverty 1, violent crime, infant mortality, and corruption 2 4. Highly impoverished nations tend to have high rates of religiosity 1. Poorer nations often have less access to quality education and overall lower quality of life which is likely why people in these nations turn to religion 3…for hope that someone or something can help make their lives better 1 2. Even in the United States, which is financially much better off than these impoverished nations, you can see how the rates of these characteristics vary in different areas that are more or less religious, and they follow the same patterns as countries all over the world 1.

Poor Brazilian Favela
Followers of Christ is a highly religious sect of Christians in Idaho and practices faith healing. The area in which they live has an astronomically higher infant mortality rate than does the rest of the state. As far as we know, there is no other cause for the infant mortality rate in this area to be so much higher than the rest of the state, so we can conclude that it is most likely caused by their religious practices 11. This trend continues in a study conducted on counties in the U.S. that have higher numbers of fundamentalist Christians 10. It shows a much higher infant mortality rate in these areas, with seemingly no other cause than rejection of secular education and science. If religion really led to religious people having a higher quality of life than their lesser or non-religious counterparts, we would be able to see this in the data. But we don’t. Mississippi is reported as one of the most religious states in the U.S. Mississippi has a child abuse fatality rate twice that of highly secular New Hampshire 2. These examples are not uncommon across the United States and the world, we empirically see a trend of lower life quality as religiosity increases.
Sweden is one of the safest nations in the world.
Next let’s look at violent crime rates. Based on the perception that many people have of atheists, it would seem like more secular societies would have higher crime rates, right? This is actually far from the truth. Highly religious societies, like Colombia, Mexico, El Salvador, and Brazil, have the highest rates of homicide in the world 2. Furthermore, data shows that as societies become more secular, violent crime rates deteriorate significantly. If religion is necessary for society, why do highly religious countries tend to be more violent and deadly? The safest nations in the world, Canada, Sweden, Iceland, Norway, etc., are all highly secularized 2. This strong correlation suggests that the less religious a society is, the safer it is.

I’m not making the argument that secularized societies alleviate any of the issues mentioned, but the correlation between religion and society does not indicate that religion is necessary for a peaceful and flourishing society. In fact, it seems like religion is often used by its adherents to mask ills of society and create a shiny facade on the face of reality. They often ignore reality and instead look to the beautiful lie constructed by religion.

Religions Effect on Individual Well-being

Now, let’s look at if religion is a necessity for an individual person’s well-being. This particular dynamic is still undergoing research but if religion is necessary for personal well-being, we should see a unanimous trend away from a secular lifestyle towards a religious lifestyle in several areas, but we don’t. A study conducted in 2006 measured the effectiveness of prayer in post-op recovery in heart surgery patients. The results showed that patients receiving prayers had higher rates of post-op complications, but otherwise there was no difference. If religion was necessary for well-being, it would seem that the patients who didn’t receive any prayers should have fared worse than those who were prayed for, but they didn’t. The authors of the study concluded that more research is necessary and I agree.

If religion is necessary, then people who are religious should have better overall mental health than those without religion. There are scientific studies out there that show results favoring both sides, but nothing conclusive has been determined at this time 5 6. One study in Puerto Rico shows that irreligious individuals have the same quality of life and mental health as believers 7. Another study conducted in the U.S. shows that religious and irreligious didn’t differ much in health outcomes. Atheists and agnostics did fare better on some individual measures but overall both groups were similar. 

Irreligious individuals do tend to have more psychological issues than religious people, but this can be explained by the stigmatization of atheists in the U.S. When someone leaves their religion, they generally lose their support structures and are often ostracized by their friends and/or families. Another factor is the toxicity that religious teachings impose on individuals. This can have serious effects on those who practice religion while they are practicing and long after they leave it. These mental health hang ups instilled by religion are not easily overcome. 

Religious programming and the toxic codependency imposed by various theologies can sometimes take years to work through, if you’re lucky enough to work through them. Both Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses completely sever ties with apostates. I have personally been alienated by family members and friends simply because I’m an atheist. So if atheists have poor or worse mental health than the religious, it’s likely the result of the lasting impacts from religion and religious people. I’m aware this is anecdotal, but in my own, personal experience, I was able to find more meaning and purpose to life after leaving my faith. I found that this life has much more value once the promise of eternal life was removed from my worldview.

The idea that without religion, atheists are  inherently worse off includes the idea that religious people do not suffer the same ills as atheists do. It would mean that religious people do not suffer from depression or other psychological issues, but they do. If religion is necessary for an individual’s well-being, we should not see religion having mixed effects on those with depression. What we find is that religion or rather religious communities can sometimes help a person recover from depression or sometimes worsen their mental state 9. Similarly, if and irreligious person’s community is supportive or they have a support group to help them, you will likely see lower rates of depression and other mental maladies. The factor that matters here is community support, whether or not the community is religious doesn’t actually seem to matter.
Depression affects everyone regardless of religious affiliation.


Finally, I am NOT saying that we should eradicate religion or that everyone should choose to walk away from their beliefs. I’m also not trying to make the case that religion causes the many issues we experience in the world. What I AM saying is that religion is not necessary for societies or individuals to flourish and live happily. With or without religion there will be people who justify horrible actions. With or without religion there will be poverty. With or without religion there will be violent crime and infant death. It seems to me that societies and communities which are highly religious are so BECAUSE of the tragedy they experience in their lives, not the other way around. Societal and personal ills exist and people turn to religion to cope with them. In a lot of cases people turn to religion, prayer instead of taking action and it seems to me that is where religion can and does cause harm.

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