Are Atheist Nations Thriving?

From Tom Rees of Epiphenom:

Regular readers of this blog will know that nations with a lot of atheists tend to come out on top on a number of measures of “societal success”—wealth, education, life expectancy, and less corruption, for example. They also score higher on a general measure called the Peace Index.
So when I learned that Gallup had published a new international ranking, the Global Wellbeing index, I naturally wanted to see how national scores on this measure compare with atheism.
A core part of their measure is the number of people who report they are thriving, defined as follows:

Gallup measures life satisfaction by asking respondents to rate their present and future lives on a “ladder” scale with steps numbered from 0 to 10, where “0” indicates the worst possible life and “10” the best possible life. Individuals who rate their current lives a “7” or higher and their future an “8” or higher are considered thriving.

I compared the percentage of people in each nation who say that they are “thriving” with the percentage who say that religion is “not at all important” to them (data from the fifth wave of the World Values Survey). So this isn’t a comparison of individual piety with individual thriving; it’s a comparison of national averages. The graph below shows how it pans out.

Countries with more atheists also have more people who say that they are thriving. But the relationship is pretty weak (the R2 of 0.17 means that about 17 percent of the variation in “thriving” is explained statistically by the variation in atheism—although cause and effect could go either way, of course). That’s not too surprising. Given that countries with more atheists also tend to be wealthier, I was expecting the relationship to be even stronger.
The weak relationship is explained, in part, by the fact that there are two kinds of countries with lots of atheists. There are countries where atheism is organic, driven by high living standards. And there are countries where atheism has been imposed (the communist and ex-communist countries). The comparison between these two different kinds of atheist countries is revealing.
Among countries that have never been communist, there is a much stronger relationship between the percentage of atheists and the percentage of people thriving. The outlier, Japan, has many atheists, but is not thriving, no doubt due to the lackluster economical performance in recent decades.
However, communist and ex-communist countries, without exception, score very badly on the thriving index. What’s more, this has no relationship—or perhaps even a slightly negative one—with the number of atheists. I suspect this is because the dead hand of communism is still dragging people down in these nations.
There is an interesting symmetry between China and Japan. The first is undergoing wild economic growth, while the latter is in the doldrums. And yet, they have a similar number of atheists, and neither is thriving!

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4 Responses

  1. Name Required says:

    After reading this I wondered why it’s such a lousy article. Then at the bottom I saw who supports this site: John Templeton Foundation. I didn’t wonder any more.

  2. Martin Scherer says:

    Interesting. Somewhat predictable but its good to see some objective support for the hypothesis.

    Personally I like to ‘eye-ball’ data. Believe it or not, eyeballing is a more stringent test than Statistical inference. I did not see a pattern or correlation, so I’m not surprised by your conclusion its a weak effect. I’d veer on the cautious and conclude there is no link.

    Thanks for the effort.

    Martin Scherer
    ABACAN Consultants

  3. Silverfish says:

    Religion has no place in the world any more. How can a person be logical if they subscribe to any idea that is not backed by evidence? Shame to the Templeton Foundation.

  4. Tom Rees says:

    Martin, if you follow the link to my blog ( ) you’ll see two further graphs splitting out the data – there you can see the relationship more clearly.

    To the anonymous writer who didn’t like my article. Well, that’s a shame, of course, but for the record I am an atheist who gets no funding from Templeton (or anyone else, for that matter)!

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