Secularism and Happiness

Only Sky

Secularity is a trait of happy, moral and just nations 

After the book : Society Without God

What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment

by Phil Zuckerman

What happens when millions of people in a given society stop going to church and lose their faith in God? Does that society descend into despondency and despair?

Not according to the latest  World Happiness Report

Based on an analysis of a host of sociological, economic, and psychological factors, the nation that is currently the happiest on earth – for the fifth year in a row – is Finland. Following Finland, in the top ten, are Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Sweden, Norway, Israel, and New Zealand (Australia is twelfth, after Austria ... see chart below). 

And as it happens all of them are among the most secular/least religious nations on Earth. Aside from outlier Israel – which is growing more religious as it grows more brutal and undemocratic – all of these top-10 happiest of nations have experienced dramatic degrees of secularization over the last century.

If by “happy” we don’t mean ecstatically joyful, but rather, experiencing a general sense of contentment, the strongly secular nations that are in the top-ten deserve to be there: with their extensive systems of welfare-capitalism, they experience the highest degrees of freedom in the world, while also the lowest levels of inequality. 

They enjoy free or highly subsidized health care, childcare, elder care, education, and so forth. Their societies are extremely safe and humane. No wonder their citizens are the most content and happy in the world.

But what, exactly, is the relationship between these nations’ happiness and their secularity?

To assert that they are happy because they are secular is not statistically warranted; it would be a bald case of apparent correlation but not proven causation. 

That said, for those who persistently claim that religion is a necessary component of a healthy, happy society – insisting that if religious faith and involvement fade, the results will be deleterious – well, that position is demonstrably untenable. 

The data presented in this latest World Happiness Report, with highly secular nations consistently holding the top positions, render the argument that society needs religion in order for its citizens to thrive, as simply not true.

The social health of the least religious nations in the world

Religious conservatives around the world often claim that a society without a strong foundation of faith would necessarily be an immoral one, bereft of ethics, values, and meaning. Indeed, the Christian Right in the United States has argued that a society without God would be hell on earth.

In Society without God, Second Edition sociologist Phil Zuckerman challenges these claims. Drawing on fieldwork and interviews with more than 150 citizens of Denmark and Sweden, among the least religious countries in the world, he shows that, far from being inhumane, crime-infested, and dysfunctional, highly secular societies are healthier, safer, greener, less violent, and more democratic and egalitarian than highly religious ones.

Let's look at the example of Israeli secularity and justice and human rights: 

As Israeli soldiers and settlers continue to brutalize, humiliate, and kill Palestinians with impunity, there is one major human rights organization in Israel documenting and protesting these crimes: B’Tselem. Given that B’Tselem is a humanitarian organization dedicated to fighting for justice, human rights, and the alleviation of suffering, you might think it is a religious organization, right? 


The most devoutly religious people in Israel either turn a blind eye to the suffering of Palestinians or actively promote and celebrate that suffering. B’Tselem, by contrast, is a decidedly secular organization, founded by Hiloni (secular) Jews, with members motivated by humanist values of empathy and compassion. 

This is not some aberration: In the broader Israeli society, secular people are typically much more willing to see the humanity of Palestinians and defend their rights than religious people.

Secular Israelis evincing more compassion than their religious peers is consistent with a much larger pattern: throughout the democratic world, on issue after issue related to well-being, equality, and morality, secular people are more likely to come down on the side of social justice than the religious.

Given the pervasive misunderstanding that the religious among us are the moral ones, while the secular are immoral, the truth needs to be trumpeted—if not tromboned and bassooned—that reality tends strongly in the opposite formation.