29 January 2011

Correlating Godlessness and Democracy

It is interesting to see what connections people with time in their hands can find. I recently found this article claiming that countries that were less believing in God were more likely to be democratic. And I thought, hmm, that actually is an interesting result.

But let's dissect this finding for a little bit. One point to notice is the fact that they limited their sampling to countries that were more or less rich. This is actually a good point, because this potentially eliminates the possibly confounding factor of wealth. It may be the case that less wealthy nations are more democratic not because they are less God-believing but because they have more money. In cases like these, one might worry that there is a multicollinearity, in which case it was a good thing to minimize this confound as much as possible.

So what did they find? They found out that the less God-believing a country is, the more democratic it is. Now, that sounds like a reasonable link. Democracy, after all, is a form of government by the people themselves, which requires every citizen to theoretically, in principle, be skeptical, empirical, and exercise critical thought. When a population is God-believing, on the other hand, there is a higher tendency to just leave the burden of thinking to God, as they say, since, after all, one is just a puny little human being, and one is imperfect to do all this thinking. So what do people do? They let God do the thinking. They just consult the [insert your favorite holy book here] and hash out some interpretation of it and act accordingly. What happened to critical thought? Out the window.

One little caveat though. The report shows that the correlation between Godlessness and democracy is significant, with a p-value of 0.03. This means that this result could have been chance only 3 percent of the time. However, if one looks at the R-squared, it is only 0.16. R-squared is a measure of effect size. In other words, given the total variance, this negative correlation of Godlessness and democracy explains 16 percent of the total variation that was observed. That is good, but statistically, that effect size is rather small. What I am trying to say is that even though it might be a neat and cool yet not surprising result, atheists should caution against attributing every root and cause to the fact that people believe in God. Belief in God is just one part of a bigger equation, and as much as I don't believe in God, I agree that belief in God can be functional in other individuals. I just personally don't find it beneficial to do so.

Perhaps I'd end this post with an observation, a conjecture. A conjecture regarding what is happening in the Arab world right now, with a domino effect on mass protests and self-immolation. Tunisians started protesting in December 18, Algerians in December 28, Jordanians in January 14, Egyptians in January 25, and Yemenis in January 27. What do these countries have in common, aside from the fact that they are all Islamic countries?

Well, perhaps it is quite interesting to see that these countries all feature rulers that have been in their positions for quite a long time. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was president from 1987 until his ouster in 2011, for a total of 24 years. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been president since 1999, for 12 years. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been president since 1981, for 30 years. And Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been president for 32 years now, if one counts his rule of North Yemen when there was such a split.

So what might be a factor here? Perhaps, not only are these people believers in God (Islam), but they are also ruled by a Godlike human, who has been in the same position for ages without being checked by their citizens, and thus has resulted in a position of infallibility. When one sits on a chair of power for too long, it is a tendency to take the powers that come with it for granted, and forget that it is actually the people who elected him/her to that chair of power, and thus have the responsibility to perform one's duties well.

The thing is, humans get corrupt. There needs to be checks and balances. Thus, people should always think for themselves and be critical about every aspect of their lives. One should exercise their freedom of thought, otherwise it might be taken away from them. People should not just pass the burden of thought to a supernatural entity like God or a dictator, but instead people should grab the right to think for themselves and act accordingly. So, regarding these protests that are currently happening in the Arab world, I actually am glad that the Arab citizens of these countries have the courage to do so, because as much as I don't like the fact that there have been casualties, sometimes, it is the only way to make changes and shift the paradigm.

(Nocturnal Old Town, from my Cusco Series)


  1. The thing is . . . .
    power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
    In what you call a 'God-Believing' country the men (usually) who administer - I chose this word carefully - the technicalities that go with the God-Believing achieve power, and ... power corrupts . . . . .
    It is a circular argument.

  2. Friko,

    Hi! That is why I suggest that there should be mechanisms of checks and balances so that power does not always stay in a select group of people.

  3. This pattern needs more research for sure. For example, the soviets got rid of religion and vast number of their "subjects" simply stopped going to places of worship - initially out of fear but eventually as a way of life. I have no clue about the degree of religiousness of Chinese people under the communist rule. India is the biggest democracy albeit with large number of shortcomings, but people are quite religious.

  4. I don't believe in this correlation between democracy and Godlessness.
    The best example is the Philippines...

  5. Priyank,

    Yes, unfortunately, I don't care about it enough to devote time and effort. Hopefully, someone else is, since the sociology of religion is definitely an interesting topic.

  6. Sidney,

    I may be mistaken, but I think you misunderstood. It's a negative correlation: the more God-believing you are, the less democratic. Or, the more democratic a country is, the less it is a believer in God. Regardless of the direction of causation, I believe that the Philippines perfectly fits the bill, in that its citizens are so entrenched in religion (just look at how difficult it is to advance the Reproductive Health Bill because of the control of the Roman Catholic Church), and democracy isn't the Philippines' most admirable quality.

  7. I am a Filipino and our democracy might not that vibrant according to western standards. But I myself owe my freedom of speech and religion and from want and fear from my forefather-heroes who fought and died to set our country free from the colonizers. I saw to it that I exercised my free critical thinking capability in accordance with law and my conscience and my belief in God, though not in the catholic way, is definitely not a hindrance to the exercise of my freedom under democratic reign. And i don't think that the citizens of the socialist regimes who, most often than not are atheists, are exercising the same freedom that I am savoring right now.

  8. edsan,

    There is a confound in your argument. You are assuming that if one is Godless and/or atheist, then one is socialist (or perhaps even communist). But no, I don't think that just because you are an atheist means you will be a socialist.

    In fact, I agree that socialism/communism is also not the right way to go, and this parallels belief in God. What is important is NOT the type of government, but it's the freedom to think critically (or lack of it). And here's what I mean.

    If one believes in God, there is an entity that is all-knowing and all-powerful. So what can humans do? Nothing. One cannot contest and do battle with an all-knowing and all-powerful entity. So this all-knowing and all-powerful entity is always right. One is just a little puny human. Therefore, the chance to think critically is lost, since after all, humans are imperfect and cannot think for themselves.

    In a socialist/communist regime, there is an all-powerful entity, the Party. There is no God, so yes, they may be atheists on paper, but they believe in the Party. They believe in the Dear Leader, they believe in whatever the official government group tells the citizens to believe. That's how censorship works. So again, the chance to think critically is lost. But in place of God, there is another supernatural entity, which is the Party.

    So, I disagree with your comment, in that it is not the case that if one is an atheist, one is socialist. That is actually not the most important thing here. What is important is whether citizens are able to think critically or not. Sometimes this is hindered by belief in God, sometimes this is hindered by an all powerful political party.

  9. I was not saying that atheists are socialists, its the other way around. In fact I put emphasis on the phrase "more often than not" because there are faithfuls in socialist regimes who exercise their religious right even at the expense of retribution from the Party leaders. I for one know the fact that there are many atheists who are not socialists. If I may comment on the study being referred to, it is better to correlate nation's wealth with God belief, that is, the more wealthy the nation is, the lesser their citizens believe in God. Take the case of Spain. The Spaniards brought Christianity to the Philippines. When I was a child, we were told in our history class that we owe our belief in God from "madre Espana." But I was shocked to learn during my visit to Spain last 2009 that most of the Spanish churches were becoming empty as their nation progressed economically.But correlating democracy with belief in God, am sorry to say, is a far-fetched idea for me.

  10. edsan,

    I agree that wealth also is a factor. If one is to conduct a real study on this matter, they should also consider the factor of wealth, because I agree that the more prosperous a country is, the less one's belief in God is. After all, if one is prosperous and rich, why do you need an entity to rely on and tell you that you may not be fine right now, but you'll be fine in the afterlife?

    But if you notice, the study particularly tried to pick wealthy nations, to rule out the effect of wealth. The study was interested in the simple effects that might hold between God-belief and democracy. And when they neutralized the effect of wealth, they found a negative correlation.

    But I am not saying that this is the only factor going on, we don't even know the direction of correlation. I am just saying that if we look at this pair of variables, there seem to be a negative correlation. If one wants a more comprehensive study, they need to put in wealth as a factor definitely.

  11. Got it. Thanks for the healthy discourse. We might have differences on the matter of belief or non-belief in God, at least we both share the necessity of exercising our critical thinking capability.