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The Christmas spirit It’s December, and thus when one is running a blog one cannot really get around the festive spirit. I mean,  Jesus  was born (just insert any deity of choice and religious event of choice; I am sure something  happened in December at some point); conveniently on the same day as the pagan winter solstice, and it’s  the month of being together with your family and friends and eating and drinking absurd amounts of food.   You may have the wrong idea here though. It’s forgivable, this is a blog on public health after all, and I  mentioned eating too much. I am sure you know (if not, you should) the link between eating too much,  obesity, diabetes, and so on. And well, it may be the fats, it may be sugar (it’s probably be both, and a  bunch of other things). And presto! One has a blog. It would be quite timely as well, given all the debate  about sugar in diet at the moment (for example 1 and 2)…  You’d be wrong though. I thought it would be a bad idea to write about causes of obesity - It seems to get people angry. And given  that it is December and we should all be happy (at least, that’s what the Coca Cola commercial wants us  to believe), I thought I’d give that contentious topic a miss this year. Instead, let’s talk about religion!  I am currently reading Professor Michael Marmot’s new book “The Health Gap”, and it is very good. If you  have not finished your Christmas shopping yet, here’s one for Santa’s list! Anyway, the bottom line:  inequities in society lead to inequities in health. Now, if we assuming that this is causal, then reducing  these societal inequalities should lead to better health of the population. And indeed, it pretty much  does. Now this made me think. I am not an expert on religious texts, but I believe that they pretty much all  come down to some form of: pray to the Big One of course, but also that all men are equal, and one  should be a bit nice to poor and unfortunate people (Initially I had “men/women”, but I don’t think that  bit made it in many religious books). So, I was thinking. If this is the case, then religious societies should  be more equal than others, and as a result their health inequities should be smaller, resulting in better  overall health of the population.   That’s an interesting hypothesis to look at further. Somehow it seems unlikely, given that for example in  one of the richest countries in the world, the US, those claiming to be most religious (the republicans)  keep fighting the basic rights of everyone to have access to healthcare (universal healthcare, or  “Obamacare”) [link] while they also seem quite keen on shooting others with guns…also, as far as I am  aware, not one of the ten commandments. But maybe this is just a single and odd example, and in general  the higher the percentage of religious people in a country, the smaller the inequality gap?   So let’s have a go…  A couple of footnotes though. It’s quite difficult to determine the percentage of religious people as such.  There are quite a number of religions, variations to a religion, marginalized religions and so on, making it  all horrendously complicated. And since we have no objective method to determine which of the Big  Guys/Girls in the sky is the real one, I decided to go with the exact opposite; the “1 minus religion”  option. Or in other words, let’s do the analyses based on the percentage of people in a country that claim  to have no religion and/or specify they are agnostic or atheist. This also creates problems, since in certain societies it’s not a great idea to claim loudly one is an atheist.  This will throw the numbers a bit; but arguably, these are religious societies and can be added to our  hypothesis (note that the opposite is true for communist societies such as China and Vietnam, for  example). Arguably, we should also get a stronger signal by doing it this way, since it has been claimed  that one needs religion to be moral [link to debate], so societies with a high proportion of non-believers  must therefore be horrendous places to live.   So we shall see…..  Data on percentages of religious people are available from the CIA World Factbook [link] and data on  inequality at a national level is available from the Worldbank – The GINI coefficient [link]. This will enable  us to look at broad trends. In addition, there are data available from the ‘World Value Survey’ on specific  questions related to religion (and much more, it really is an amazing resource!) [link]. I will use these as  well, but only for a subset of countries available from one wave of data collection. It would not be that  difficult to sort this for all waves, but this would just be time consuming….and you may know (well, or  not) that I do have an actual job.  * So, the main question first. Are societies with more non-believers (of any flavour) less equal than societies  with less non-believers (on account of them having no morals); or conversely, are more religious societies  more equal (on account of them taking care of the less fortunate in society because that’s an important  message in their scripture)? The data are quite convincing. First though, note that these data were not available for many countries  (or at least, not from the data source I used) resulting in only 73 countries included, and that I removed  Vietnam with 80% non-believers and similarly countries with less than 0.5% non-believers since that seems  more of an political artefact; resulting in 60 countries included (These exclusions does not change the  result too much).  Also note they include countries from all over the globe and not just western-Europe or  Latin America.   So, pretty convincing I said right? See the figure below (note that I have put the y-axis on the log-scale  because, as you can imagine, there is a large difference between countries). The y-axis is the logarithmic  transformed GINI coefficient and the x-axis the percentage of ‘non believers’ in the corresponding  country: Figure 1. black dots are countries, axes are in percentage, the line is the linear trend line and the grey area is the 95% confidence interval of the simple regression In summary, the higher the proportion of non-believers in a country, the lower inequality (for the purists,  this holds regardless of log-transformation of axes); or conversely, the more religious people in a country,  the higher the inequality in society. Oh dear, that’s not what the holy books say… …it is also not a new observation. This has been observed before (for example see: 1, 2). And yes, there  are of course differences in how rich countries are, how right wing their governments are, if they are  dictatorships etcetera. And of course, these are ecological data which are subject to the ecological fallacy  (in other words, despite the observed association above, there are of course nice religious people while  there are also atheists that are pretty unpleasant). And then there is reverse causality; it may be that in  very unequal societies, many people became religious in an attempt to change it? Mmmmm, given how  long these religions have been around and how they have spread I’d say that is very unlikely…  Ah, I know! It is because I am comparing rich countries with poor countries, western with Middle Eastern!  Yeah, it could have been that, but when we just look at Europe, we still see the same:    I don’t know about you, but I find this really fascinating. Clearly religious beliefs don’t really make it all  the way into actions. Maybe those religious books don’t get read cover to cover? * We can look at this a bit further though. Maybe they are all nice people, but unfortunately things just  went a bit wrong somewhere?  Oh no. Have a look at the figure below. As it turns out (and these added data are also from the World  Bank), religious countries are also more corrupt.   If not being corrupt is not one of the Ten Commandments, or whatever the equivalent is in the Torah or  the Koran, it definitely should   So yeah, again…it does not really seem as if the majority “practice what they preach” so to speak. If  religion itself is not the cause, then at the very least it does not really seems to be helping.  * So, in summary, it seems that it is very much better to live in a secularist society. Unless of course, that is,  when you are rich.   I mentioned the ‘World Value Survey’ above, and although here I can only do this for a limited number of  countries, linking these data to the above yields some fascinating results.  For example, if you argued in reply to the above that those numbers must be wrong because the  percentage of people in a country that say they have a certain religion does not mean that they really are  “enthusiastically religious”, then that’s a good point. One worth examining. Let’s look at how often people  pray instead, or to how often they attend religious services: Nope, still the same. Note that these figures are obviously amongst religious people only, and interestingly  some countries shifted around compared to the previous countries as a result that, but you still see the  same trend.  So ok, religious societies are more unequal (and remember, this in turn leads to quite substantial  inequities in health as well. And we all want to be healthy…at the very least), and if religion itself is not  the cause (although I am not excluding this) at the very least it is not helping making it better. It also  seems that when it comes to morals, it’s a bit unclear whether being religious helps at all. These figure  may indicate it may be ‘despite of’ rather than a ‘because of’…  * Interestingly, the WVS data also give a clue to a possible solution for religious people. I found this  astonishing… Look at the figures below. Do you see how the trend is completely absent in the figure on the right!?  The left figure relates to the question “Do you believe in God” – clearly this has no impact at all on  behaviour; we see the same trend as in all the figures above. If anything, and quite surprisingly I find, is  that believing one goes to heaven seems to have no impact on wanting to do good. It seems to make it  worse? The right figure on the other hand, relates to the question “Do you believe in Hell”. Although you still  observe this association, it is less pronounced and in fact only exists because people in the Netherlands – a  relatively equal society – do surprisingly all seem to believe in the existence of hell; in fact, there would  be no association if we removed the Netherlands from the plot. So mmm, maybe people who are afraid of  going to hell do change their behaviour a bit?    * So what to conclude from all this? Is God too much of a nice guy, and is it time for the Devil to up his game  again? The figures definitely show that religion has no monopoly on morals. If anything, it is more likely the other  way around. I leave you with these thoughts to ponder over during the Christmas days….
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