Saturday, February 28, 2009

Corruption And Religion: Not Such Strange Bedfellows

Did you ever notice that the most corrupt countries in the world are the also the ones whose populations are the most "devout"? The Philippines and Latin America where the Catholic Church wields tremendous power are perfect examples of this phenomenon. I have a hypothesis that there is a positive correlation between religion and corruption in almost any given society. It seems that the greater the degree of religiosity in a country, the more dishonesty in its government.

In the U.S., during the Bush and Reagan Administrations which were controlled by Republican Conservatives and were marked by an emphasis on Christian religious values, the amount of corruption and dishonesty in the executive branch went through the roof.

In the matter of controlling crime, conservative Republicans are strong advocates of law and order. Yet according to The God Delusion (p229) by Richard Dawkins in which he quotes Sam Harris' "Letter to a Christian Nation", the crime rate in the American (Republican /Christian conservative) "red" states is greater than the Democrat /Liberal) "blue" states. George Bush's "red" home state of Texas where he served as governor is blessed with three of the five most dangerous cities in the U.S.

But such sleaze and hypocrisy aren't confined to Christian-majority nations. Israel, where the Orthodox Jewish establishment has disproportionate clout to its numbers, also has that problem. As I understand the Orthodox religious parties are among the most corrupt of all the political organizations there. Conservative rabbis have called for the dissolution or privatization of the government supported Chief Rabbinate of Israel due to corruption and favoritism in that office.

Muslim countries, which are controlled or influenced by Sharia (Islamic law), also have a high rate of corruption in government. And as for the excuse that poverty causes corruption, keep in mind that Saudi Arabia for example is a wealthy country. What's their excuse?

If anything, corruption causes poverty. In countries such as the Philippines where the wealth is concentrated in the oligarchic hands of a few wealthy and publicly pious families, so is ownership of the government and control of the treasury which has become their own piggy bank to do with as they wish. This financial abuse in turn diverts economic resources from the rest of the people. (Speaking of public piety, President Gloria Macapgal Arroyo of the Philippines has the distinct (dis)honor of having a higher perception of corruption than all her predecessors in that office. One of my favorite news photos is that of President Arroyo with her hands sanctimoniously clasped in prayer.)

On the other hand secularly oriented nations such as Finland and Denmark have a low rate of government corruption. True, there may be individual officials in these countries who are dishonest, but there is not the endemic systemic rot that is found in religion-based countries where dealings with government and law enforcement officials at almost all levels involve grease money to the point that corruption and concurrent human rights abuse have become a way of life and an integral part of the culture (or as referred to in the Philippines "guns, goons, and gold".)

One possible explanation for this phenomenon in Catholic countries is the popular belief that such sins can be absolved through the act of Confession, wherein the penitent in effect washes his / her hands through absolution, leaving him or her free to repeat the cycle of repentance and recidivism ad infinitum, ad nauseum. In Judaism, there is no such ecclesiastical escape hatch for immoral behavior. So I'm puzzled as to how an Orthodox Jewish official in Israel (or anywhere) can square indulging in corrupt practices on one hand with a belief in God and the tenets of the Torah on the other. Perhaps one answer is compartmentalization, but I don't find that to be a fully satisfactory explanation.

But don't take word about the tendency towards corruption in religion-centered societies vs. honest conduct in government in secular countries. Let's look at the numbers as furnished by Transparency International. This organization ranked 180 countries in their 2008 CPI (Corruption Perception Index) Three countries with the best scores were the secular nations Denmark, New Zealand, and Sweden (all tied for first place). The U.S. scored 18th; Israel: 33rd; Mexico: 72nd; Saudi Arabia: 80th; Philippines: 141st.

Interestingly, Russia and some of the former Soviet block countries scored poorly in the CPI. An apologist for traditional religion might say that during the decades of the Communist regime, these were atheist led countries. So doesn't that show that religion has no connection to corruption? Not really. These countries have a history of religious authoritarianism in their cultures. So, for example, in Russia, which was Eastern Orthodox dominated for hundreds of years, the Bolshevik Revolution simply replaced the Church with the State as a focus of worship. In other words, Communism became the new national religion. But even then, the power and influence of the Orthodox Church never completely disappeared, and this institution is making a comeback in that country. The same is true for Roman Catholicism in Poland. And Romania is a total basket case. According to the article "Secular Humanism Comes to Romania" in the Augst / September issue of the magazine "Free Inquiry", this country is dominated by the Romanian Orthodox Church; yet it has the highest corruption level of all the European Union countries.

So why are people in progressive states less inclined to believe in a supreme being or at least less inclined to have religion run their lives ? Perhaps the national character of these countries has matured to the point that they have outgrown the childish dependence on a sky daddy (plus a clergy) who dispenses favors through prayer and material wealth as a sign of grace. Consequently, these countries seems to exhibit a more rational and humanistic spirit and a concern for the welfare of the collective (nationalized health care for example) and for the world itself, inasmuch as a decrease in narcissism and greed result in a reduction in destructiveness against oneself and others, hence a better human rights record. It's interesting that in enlightened countries such as Denmark and Holland, Muslims have sought and received asylum from inter-tribal persecution in their native countries. Many of these refugees have shown their gratitude by verbally attacking and even murdering those in the host countries who dare to criticize or question the refugees' customs that are incompatible with religious and cultural diversity. This destructiveness is similar to a child's temper tantrum. Well, no surprise there. Such behavior in adults is the logical outcome of any fanatical religious indoctrination that preaches supremacy of its followers over other groups.

In countries where religion rules, there seems to be a tendency towards greed and narcissism and a total indifference to the common good. The perspective in the Philippines for example is (and these are the words of that a Filipino actually used to describe his feelings to me: "My family first and the hell with everybody else". Crime here is rampant not just among the poor. It seems to be even just as bad or worse among members of the middle and upper middle classes. Yet, since appearance is important, they flock to weekly Mass. In the U.S. especially during the Reagan/Bush era as previously noted the culture was permeated by a "greed is good" mentality. This theme is also the hallmark of many American televangelists.

With the international financial meltdown, the chickens have come home to roost for the free-market economic order that celebrated this avaricious approach to living. But in the current crisis there is a now an opportunity for enlightened thinkers, philanthropists, educators, writers, et al in America and the rest of the world to step up to the plate and insist on inclusion in rebuilding the system. This includes increased funding for education with an emphasis on rationality and critical thinking. The media needs to do its part in encouraging its readers to carefully analyze its coverage of current events, especially news about religion. Atheist and Humanist organizations need to become more agressive in advocating the cause of nonbelievers who are persecuted for their convictions. Above all, free thinkers everywhere must fight the anti-intellectual conditions and moral hypocrisy that foster the ignorance and denial that breed religious the twin evils of zealotry and corruption—and in turn, the ties that bind them.