What Happens When a Country Gives Up Religion: as Spain Shows, Nothing Much

03/09/2007 06:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

During Franco´s dictatorship Spain was a very Catholic country. After three decades of democracy, as the Catholic Church likes to say, Spain is not a Catholic country anymore. Loss of religion first became apparent with the legalization of divorce, contraceptives, and the promotion of sex ed all opposed by the Church. This was followed by the decriminalization of abortion, the acceptance of drug possession for personal consumption (drug users are not criminals in Spain, but treated instead as medical patients) and a general acceptance of premarital sex in society. Later more controversial activities were legalized like gambling in public places, prostitution and recently gay marriage. Presently other than euthanasia there´s nothing left for the Catholic Church to oppose. All battles were lost including the one for the hearts and minds of the Spanish people. While 95% of the Spanish youth declared in the 60's that religion played some role in their life now only a third do. And that is only "some" role.

Religion in Spain is mostly becoming tradition. People marry in churches because they are beautiful and full of history, not because they actually practice. Sunday church attendance is in the single digits. In this country, they still teach religion in most schools, but to most it is as if they were teaching Spanish history, the history of a country that used to be religious but it is not anymore. Paradoxically, the only religious group in Spain now are Muslim immigrants, whose views on society are similar to those of the Franco. Nudity for example was a big no no at that time and it continues to be so for Spanish Muslims. For others nudity is accepted. Spain´s leading newspapers and magazines frequently show nudity in a way that would not be acceptable in US publications. Nudist beaches and regular beaches are mostly mixed, and most people don´t mind.

In the meantime, Spain´s abandonment of religion has been accompanied by decades of tremendous economic and social development. Spain is now 10 times richer per capita than it was 3 decades ago. Cultural production is thriving and science which was mostly non existence after centuries of a tough ban on scientific research by the Catholic Church is now beginning to develop with the number of papers written and patents filed growing every year. During the last decade Spain has been the growth engine of the large countries in Europe. Indeed the economy grew so fast that Spain accepted 6% of its population in the form of immigrants in the last 5 years in order to cope with the labor shortages.

If anything, Spain proves that societies do not fall apart when they give up religion and almost everything that was illegal for religious reasons, becomes legal. Moreover I believe that if Spain had not given up on religion it would not have been the success that it is now, as the Catholic Church in Spain was deeply involved in most state activities and acted as a deterrent for progress. For those, mostly in America, who believe that religion somehow makes countries more ethical Spain proves just the opposite. With a good secular and free Kindergarten to University education system Spain has less violent crime, less people in jail and less policemen per inhabitant than mostly religious USA. The key distinction between USA and Spain, or Europe in general, is that while most people in Europe dislike the same activities that people in America dislike but in Europe we don´t ask that what we don´t like be illegal. Moreover in Europe more people behave ethically than in America not because they fear God. Most people behave ethically because they personally believe in doing what is right.