Our chart of the day comes from the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes project, which asked people in 40 different countries whether it is necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person. There's a lot going on within that yes-or-no question, and one could see how it could carry different connotations in different cultures. The results aren't just a measure of people's own religious beliefs, but also of the character of the place they're in and the exposure they have to people who aren't like them. If you've always been taught that the nature of right and wrong and the enforcement of those rules comes from the church, and virtually everyone you've ever known believes in God, those who don't would seem like something of an alien species. So for instance, in Ghana, where 96 percent of people in another poll described themselves as religious, it isn't surprising that 99 percent in this poll—or basically everyone in both cases —says you have to believe in God to be moral.
At the other end, if you live in a place where most people don't believe in God, even if you do, you probably know many perfectly nice people who don't, so it would be harder to sustain the belief that they're all inherently amoral psychopaths. For example, in France, where about a third of people describe themselves as religious, only 15 percent say you need to believe in God to be moral. Unlike in Ghana where there are virtually no religious people willing to grant the morality of those who aren't religious, in France over half of religious people are willing to be so generous.
What about the U.S., you ask? Show us the chart already! Here it is:
The relationship is pretty clear: countries with higher levels of development are less religious and more accepting of those who don't believe in a deity, with two outliers. China is obviously where it is because of communism, and the United States? Well, we've always been the most religious of the wealthy countries, which is the product of multiple factors but can largely be explained by the fact that unlike in European countries, where a sclerotic state church lost more and more adherents over time, we've always had a dynamic, competitive religious marketplace. Like just about everything when it comes to religion, on this question we're the exception among similar countries.
But it's also true that Americans who aren't religious are a rapidly growing group gaining visibility. So I imagine that over time, even religious Americans will be more and more likely to grant that people who don't share their views about a supreme being can, in fact, be good people.