Does Religious Belief Hinder Social Progress?

How can we improve the society in which we live? How can we make our lives measurably better? Such questions have been asked for hundreds of years, and unfortunately for those hundreds of years, people have been delivering the wrong answer.

As Michael Green says in his exquisite TED Talk, we have been obsessed with the “fetish” we call Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for far too long. Rather than measuring real developments which improve real peoples lives, we instead choose to focus our attention on wealth creation. Rather than measuring our society on how many children we have helped to educate, or how many nurses have saved lives, we instead look at how much money we have made.

If this money is not going to be invested in worthwhile causes, it is money for the sake of money. “Progress” for the sake of progress. A society going nowhere fast.

I have included the TED Talk below as I feel it is not only essential viewing, but also because the following post borrows heavily from the talk given by Michael Green, and uses the data he and his team over at Social Progress Imperative have collected.

What Green talks about are ideas and beliefs that I have been obsessing over for some time. Such ideas have become more and more ingrained in my own thinking now that I live in a society where food banks are a regular feature, where homelessness has soared, and where all the work done by Labour to remove children from poverty has been lost. Congratulations Mr Osborne, you may be saving some money, or balancing the books, or making economic progress, but at what cost?

As Green says in his presentation, GDP was not handed down to us on golden tablets. Its is not the be-all-and-end-all, worthy of our praise, worship, and fanatical following. It was useful for a time, but that time has passed. Instead we should now turn our attention towards other matters, and other measurements, which tell us more about people’s lives.

The Social Progress Index (SPI) is a creation by he and his team that measures quite simply, for want of a better word, the goodness level of society. The website states: “To truly advance social progress, we must learn to measure it, comprehensively and rigorously. The Social Progress Index offers a rich framework for measuring the multiple dimensions of social progress, benchmarking success, and catalyzing greater human wellbeing”. It is based on three founding figures, which are composed of reams of data and statistics. The three figures which then combine to create a SPI rating are Basic Human Needs, Foundations of Wellbeing, and Opportunity.

Basic Human Needs: consisting of 1) Nutrition and Basic Medical Care, 2) Water and Sanitation, 3) Shelter, and 4) Personal Safety.
Foundations of Wellbeing: consisting of  1) Access to Basic Knowledge, 2) Access to Information and Communication, 3) Health and Wellness, and 4) Ecosystem Sustainability.
Opportunity: consisting of 1) Personal Rights, 2) Personal Freedom and Choice, 3) Tolerance and Inclusion, and 4) Access to Advanced Education.

The top 5 nations, and the bottom 5 nations, according to SPI, can be seen below.

SPI Top 5
SPI Bottom 5
In his TED Talk, Green plots all the data points for the 132 nations that he has given an SPI rating to, against the GDP per capita of each nation. As by now, I assume you have watched the video I shant dwell too long, but as becomes apparent, a positive correlation is evident between a nations SPI, and its  GDP per capita. Which basically means that the higher a nations GDP, the more likely they are to have a high SPI score. This is not always the case, as Green proves with the country of Kuwait, but that is the trend that is clear from looking at the graph.

Now such a finding makes perfect sense if you think about it. The more money a nation has, the more it can spend on healthcare, and education, and water sanitation, and all the other factors that combine to create the SPI score in the first place. Those nations with lower GDPs will struggle to expend vast amounts of money on their populace, and so, unsurprisingly, their SPI score is lower.

Richer is not always better however, and we come back to the main point of Green’s presentation. It does not matter how much money you have, but how it is spent. A casual glance at the top 5 nations on the SPI rankings show that you do not need to be an economic powerhouse in order to have a good society. USA has far more money than Iceland, but finished below it, Kuwait has far more money than Costa Rica, but again it finishes below.

The entire project fascinated me, and I wondered whether there were correlations between SPI and other factors. After downloading the data – available here – I spent six hours collecting data of my own, before plotting it on a graph against SPI ratings. The data I collected was the percentage of a nations population who are religious or non-Atheist.
My graph looked a little something like this.

SPI vs Religious Belief
Again there appears to be a correlation, this time it is a negative one, and it suggests that the higher the percentage of the population that follow a religion or are non-Atheist, the lower their SPI score.

My figures may not be entirely accurate, but I do not think that they are too wide of the mark. I am limited to the resources I have available to me, so deeper and more comprehensive research may find that a number of my data points may be incorrect, but I doubt that the correlation will change too drastically if those points were to be amended.

This graph does not show causation, but it does show correlation, meaning that religious belief may not be the reason nations have lower SPI scores, but there is a relationship between the two.

More analysis is needed on the graph and the data involved, and these findings seem to create more questions than they do answers currently, but nonetheless it is fascinating to see how the two measurements interact, and I will look to explore the matter further in the coming days.

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