(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In Plato’s “Euthyphro,” Socrates poses a timeless question: “Is that which is holy loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods?” From this arises an equally thorny theological dilemma: Does morality derive exclusively from divinity, or can one be good without God?
Luckily, for the second question at least, we have data.
Around the world, 45% of people said that a belief in God was necessary to “be moral and have good values,” according to a Pew Research Center poll of 38,426 people in 34 countries, conducted from May to October 2019.
Of course, within this headline stat are a swath of regional, demographic and socioeconomic variations. In most countries surveyed, considering piety a prerequisite for morality was more common among the elderly, and it tended to be associated with the political right. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the U.S. had the widest ideological gap of any of the countries surveyed. Whereas, on average, 44% of Americans said that morality depends on religiosity, that number diverged significantly by political leaning: 24% on the left, 37% in the center and 63% on the right. This 39% right-left ideological imbalance compares to 24% in Canada, 15% in the U.K. and 9% in Sweden. (Slovakia was the only county polled where this political divide was reversed; 16% more left-leaning Slovakians said piety and morality are linked than those on the right.)
Some of the most interesting variations emerged when divinity and morality were juxtaposed with wealth. As the chart below illustrates, those living in advanced economies were less likely to link morality with divinity than those in emerging or developing economies. For instance, in Kenya — which had a gross domestic product per capita of $4,509 in 2019 — 95% said that belief in God was integral to being moral; in Sweden, where the GDP figure was $55,815, only 9% felt the same.
There are many reasons for such disparities, not least the links between wealth and education, as well as the rise of secular morality concerning causes such as climate change, gender fluidity and racial equality. Together they raise doubts about another Socratic pronouncement: “Wealth does not bring goodness, but goodness brings wealth.” We’re going to need another poll …
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ben Schott is a Bloomberg Opinion visual columnist. He created the Schott’s Original Miscellany and Schott’s Almanac series, and writes for newspapers and magazines around the world.
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