The chart accompanying this column has been updated.

It has become conventional wisdom on the right that religion is under assault from secular liberals — and that the waning of faith is bad for America.

Attorney General William P. Barr, a conservative Catholic, summed up this alarmist outlook last fall during an incendiary speech at Notre Dame. He bemoaned “the steady erosion of our traditional Judeo-Christian moral system” and the “growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism. By any honest assessment,” he thundered, “the consequences of this moral upheaval have been grim.” He went on to cite statistics on rising out-of-wedlock births (“illegitimacy”), along with “record levels of depression and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing numbers of angry and alienated young males, an increase in senseless violence, and a deadly drug epidemic.”

This tendentious reading of U.S. history ignores reality. By most metrics, the country is far better off than when Barr was a boy. He was born in 1950, when segregation was legal and homosexuality was not.

Consider some of the improvements since 1960. Real per capita gross domestic product has increased 216 percent, from $18,268 in the first quarter of 1960 to $57,719 in the first quarter of 2019, driven in part by a 230 percent increase in output per hour for non-farm workers as of 2015. The share of 25- to 34-year-olds who have graduated from college has tripled as of 2016. Infant mortality has fallen nearly 80 percent as of 2018. The homicide rate was unchanged as of 2018 — five murders per 100,000 people — but that disguises a vast improvement since the homicide rate peaked at 10.4 per 100,000 in 1980. While the number of out-of-wedlock births was more than seven times higher in 2018, the share of single mothers has declined since 1997 because more unmarried parents live together. The abortion rate soared after Roe v. Wade in 1973 but has fallen more than 50 percent since 1980. How does Barr account for these improvements if the United States is on the road to ruin?

Barr’s simplistic idea that the country is better off if it is more religious is based on faith, not evidence. My research associate Sherry Cho compiled statistics on the 10 countries with the highest percentage of religious people and the 10 countries with the lowest percentage based on a 2017 WIN/Gallup International survey of 68 countries. The least religious countries are either Asian nations where monotheism never took hold (China, Japan) or Western nations such as Australia, Sweden and Belgium, where secularism is much more advanced than in the United States. The most religious countries represent various faiths: There are predominantly Christian countries (the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Armenia), Muslim Pakistan, Buddhist Thailand, Hindu India — and countries of mixed faiths (Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Fiji).

Indicators suggest that the less religious nations are much better off. Average GDP per capita in the least religious countries is more than five times higher, while the unemployment rate is more than twice as low and the poverty rate is one and a half times lower. The homicide rate is five times lower. Life expectancy is 22 percent higher, and infant mortality is 1,000 percent lower — in part because the least religious nations spend 50 percent more per capita on health care. The least religious countries are also better educated, with a mean 12 years of schooling per capita vs. 7½ years in the most religious countries. Income inequality is 24 percent lower in the least religious countries, and gender inequality (as measured by the World Bank) is more than 400 percent lower. Finally, the least religious countries are freer, with an average score of 87.6 from Freedom House, compared to 56.5 for the most religious countries.

Gallup notes that “levels of religiosity diminish as income and education levels of the interviewees increase.” Put another way: Declining religiosity is not the result of a leftist plot. Capitalism has done more than the Supreme Court to break down traditional beliefs.

The United States is unusual not because religious observance has declined over the years but because it remains much higher than expected. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 55 percent of American adults say they pray daily, compared with only 22 percent of Europeans. U.S. church attendance is down from its peak in 1960 but about the same level as in 1940. Pew concluded that “the U.S. is the only country out of 102 examined in the study that has higher-than-average levels of both prayer and wealth.” But, perversely, the United States does worse in critical areas — such as the rate of homicides by firearms and the rate of children living in single-parent households — than Western nations that are less religious. How does Barr explain this if he thinks religion is a social elixir?

Fundamentalists may be unhappy that religious observance has declined over the decades, but the data shows that, by most measurements, life has gotten much better for most people. There is little evidence that a decline in religiosity leads to a decline in society — or that high levels of religiosity strengthen society. (Remember, Rome fell after it converted to Christianity.) If anything, the evidence suggests that too much religion is bad for a country.

Several Democratic presidential candidates are giving stump sermons on the campaign trail, but it will take more than a prayer to win over religious voters. (The Washington Post)

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