Is Religious Faith Really Good for Us?

Or, would society be worse-off without religion?

Religious people live, on average, seven years longer than nonreligious people.

“Hold on, what?” you might be saying.

Fair enough. Let’s back up.

In his book Think Again organizational psychologist Adam Grant says that we can’t be afraid to be influenced by actual data in forming ideas versus what we thought was the case, or what we feel is the case or what we would rather be the case, in any given scenario.

For example, would we be open to changing our views on something we really believe in if data arose that said our prior conclusions had been wrong? Oftentimes we reject such data for a plethora of reasons, the most powerful of which is that we have become comfortable in our beliefs about things, and contrary data messes with that.

“When it comes to our knowledge and opinions,” Grant says, “we often favor feeling right over being right. … We favor the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt.”

This is a scary thought, but is proven over and over again in the realm of psychology, and as a pastor I have seen it over and over again in ministry— whether that be people who hold hard against a theological conclusion that the Bible is clearly laying out because they have prior ideas or behaviors that don’t line up, or people who have an interpretation of a passage and can’t stand the thought that maybe that isn’t saying what they thought it was.

We see this right now in our political debates online, whether they be about actual politics or the downstream discussions popular right now about vaccines, COVID orders, church and state debates, etc.

People have their views and they believe and promote data and “facts” that support those views and ignore contrary data. It’s true about all of us.

The lack of humility on one side or the other should be your first clue that maybe the person you are staring at isn’t open to think again or look at an issue from a different angle at all.

You know what they say: To a hammer everything is a nail.

To some people right now every idea, news story, piece of information they receive is only meant to fit into the narrative they have decided is true already, and that’s that. There is no convincing them otherwise. It’s a scary place to be, to be honest.

Jesus warned against people who aren’t so much deceived by others, though of course that is a part of this kind of person’s situation as well most times, but those who are self-deceived. And therein lies part of the problem: We don’t know what we don’t know.

Thus, I would say humility and open-mindedness to data and ideas is central to us as we find our way through this new world.

Which brings us to my point:

I want to turn this idea of “thinking again” and aim it at an idea so rooted in the post-Christian West that I am sure it will mess with our brain a little. It is the idea that religion is good, indeed, great for society as a whole.

Of course the popular narrative of the Western world over the last 100 years or so, and especially the last 30 or 40 has been that religion is “poison” as the famous atheist Christopher Hitchens used to argue. That religion creates war and atrocity, judgmentalism and racism, intolerance and ignorance, across the populace. Images of people denying science, hating others, doing violence against people, rule the day.

I grew up with this narrative. Not explicitly told me by people of course, but by osmosis. Through my education, reading, movies, television, the news, general conversations with friends.

This is the assumed truth of our Western story. Atheism, or at least agnosticism, produces a better, more progressive society. Religion, a stunted or even backward-trending society. So much so that in universities and in the public square today it is just part of the unspoken story, and because it is thus, it also in some ways goes unchallenged.

But what if the data said otherwise?

What if your anecdotal story of that one religious uncle you know, or that one group on Facebook that time, was all called into question by the facts? Would you be willing to change your mind?

I don’t imagine a short article like this will do that, but let’s at least start the conversation. I would like to think you are open to think again when it comes to this question, and I think you should, and here’s why.

The data tells us we’ve been wrong all along, and that story of the triumph of secularization is just plain false when we ask how religion impacts and affects the cities, neighborhoods, communities, nations and individuals it exists within.

More pointedly, when the question is Does it have a positive or a negative impact on culture? the overwhelming reality is that it has a positive, not a negative one. In fact, it isn’t even close. The atheists are wrong. And by a long shot.

Rodney Stark is one of the most celebrated and respected sociologists of religion in the world. He has written over 30 books and more than 140 articles on subjects as diverse as prejudice, crime, suicide and city life in ancient Rome, and has twice won the Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

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In one of his books which I read recently he sketched out some fascinating conclusions based on detailed sociological data that are so contrary to popular opinion and the assumed narrative of the post-Christian West that most will greet them with a filter of suspicion, or outright disbelief. But as we said above, that doesn’t mean they aren’t true—only that we may be victims of our own self-selected confirmation biases, fooled by our own carefully curated news, opinions and information, if not about a number of things in our lives, certainly in regard to the areas Stark explores using America as a microcosm example of the West at large.

So what areas does he explore and what are his conclusions? And what does it mean for us?

There are 101 things his data concludes which you can read for yourself in more detail, but here are some of the more interesting ones. And again, let’s remind ourselves, his conclusions are based on actual research done by an actual sociologist and his colleagues, not what passes today as research—e.g., a Google search, and a scroll of your Facebook feed, and that website that has those YouTube videos by that doctor.

In his rigorous and pointed style, Stark shows that the academic literature routinely ignores evidence of religion’s beneficial social effects. He demonstrates that religious people:

• Are the primary source of secular charitable funds that benefit victims of misfortune whatever their beliefs
• Dominate the ranks of blood donors and other prosocial behaviors
• Are much less likely to commit crimes
• Far more likely to donate their money and time to socially beneficial programs and to be active in civic affairs. (The impact of religious people on volunteering alone is an estimated $47 billion annually in the United States alone.)
• Enjoy superior mental health—are deemed happier, less neurotic and far less likely to commit suicide
• Enjoy superior physical health—have an average life expectancy more than seven years longer than that of the irreligious
• Read more than their irreligious friends and neighbors
• Are less likely to believe in the occult, UFO’s, Bigfoot, etc.
• More apt to marry, less likely to divorce, and report higher degrees of satisfaction with their spouse.
• Religious husbands are far less likely to abuse their wives or children. This is of course contrary to the story that religions create systems of oppression in the home because of “male patriarchy.”
• Religious fathers are more likely to be involved in youth-related activities such as coaching sports teams or leading Scout troops, etc.
• Religious couples enjoy their sex lives more, women are more likely to have regular orgasms, and sex happens more often. They are also far less likely to have an affair.
• Religious students perform better on standardized achievement tests, are far less likely to drop out of school, obtain better jobs upon graduation, and are far less likely to be on unemployment (the studies for all of these and especially this one and all surrounding crime stats, etc., factor in races/geographies across the U.S.)
• In 247 studies done between 1944 and 2010, religion has a positive effect on society in regard to crime, deviance and delinquency.
• Crime rates in the U.S. compared to the decidedly less religious countries of Western Europe are glaringly less in many categories, with the exception of homicide rates: Denmark has nearly two-and-a-half times as many burglaries per 100,000 people, and is exceeded by Austria, Switzerland, the U.K., Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands. The same is true for theft and assault rates.
• Urban stats going from present day back to the 1920s shows that the higher a city’s church membership rate, the lower its burglary, larceny, robbery, assault and homicide rates.

I point all of this out not only because it plays a fascinating role in forcing us as individuals to constantly be open to rethinking what we thought was true and why we thought it was so (a much-needed posture of humility is needed in this regard on both sides of the political aisle), but also to challenge the powerful, overarching narrative of our time—that God and religion have no place in society and that the real hope for us is fill in the blank: education, technology, the arts, science—as if those are antithetical to religion.

Not only is that a simplistic, reductionist narrative to sell the public, it is blatantly wrong.

The data not only doesn’t back it up, it actually draws the opposite picture.

That without religious people and groups, society as a whole, including most importantly, the marginalized, would be far worse off.

We see this reality play out over and over again. Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times wrote an article years ago wherein he explored the work of an unknown evangelical Christian doctor who ran a hospital in Angola, where the child mortality rate was the highest in the world. He raised his family in one of the most dangerous places in the world.

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Kristof writes:

“Most evangelicals are not, of course, following such a harrowing path, and it’s also true that there are plenty of secular doctors doing heroic work. … But I must say that a disproportionate share of the aid workers I’ve met in the wildest places over the years, long after anyone sensible had evacuated, have been evangelicals, nuns or priests.”

That of course doesn’t mean that religion is true, that is for another day—but it is to say, importantly, that skeptics need to be careful in their argument against Christianity and religion based on a purely social argument.

They need to tread far more carefully when they want to argue that somehow religion is toxic to a culture. It is not. See even the latest arguments from thinkers like David Berlinski, in his The Devil’s Delusion, a secular philosopher /scientist who sees a connection between many of our social ills and atheism, especially in the realm of the question of meaning, and how people absorb suffering.

Sure, “this” or “that” version of religion could be toxic, admittedly, it could lead to racism, or oppressive attitudes toward women, or minorities, etc. That is still true, and something we need to always be fighting, especially given that the central story of Christianity in particular is its central figure, Jesus, dying and serving to raise others up, not being opposed to any, but loving all.

Bad versions and applications of religion are everywhere, and we need to be weary of them.

Stark’s point is not that we should ignore those proclivities, but that we do need to get a far clearer and fuller picture of the positives of religious impact on the west in a cultural moment when the narrative around it is almost exclusively negative.

I am not a sociologist, but I am a pastor which means I have a lot of conversations with people who are opposed to Christianity. A lot of them over the years point out how bad the idea of God is for the world.

That story is popular and well told over and over again so much so that it lives in our consciousness as a fact.

I share this data to simply ask the skeptic to be willing to stop doing what they ask religious people to stop doing on the daily: spreading falsehood.

The idea that religion is bad for society simply isn’t true and it isn’t true in a hundred different ways. Are you willing to adjust your framework of the world and the question of God and the church around data versus what you have heard, or want to be true?

We all have to be willing to doubt our doubts and at least take a second or third look at the question of God as it relates to the experience of individuals, societies, cities, nations, towns, which of course, include your own communities, and be open to the idea that in the end the God hypothesis may prove to be harder to leave behind than we once thought, or, in the spirit of today’s arguments, we may not want to leave it behind at all, because it may be our only way to accomplish socially what we all desire.

You ever wonder why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., cited the prophets of the Bible in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” versus an atheist manifesto?

Because his larger vision, his dream, could only be accomplished by it being built on a foundation of transcendence.

That is what gave humankind it’s equality. The fact that it was made in the image of God. Not the state, or reasons of the social class, or because it was a more enlightened primate, or whatever other reasons for equality and justice we construct.

His argument, like Wilberforce and so many others before him, was that social good and flourishing was rooted in God. As others have pointed out, it wasn’t that America needed less religion, but better religion.

If we are going to reach the post-Christian west, we need to hold tightly to idea not that individuals alone need to come to know God, but that in knowing him there will be a horizontal impact on the world around it.

A good and flourishing impact that brings shalom even to people who don’t agree with it. Life-giving, not toxic. Serving, not taking. Loving, not judging.

Facts don’t adjust because we feel they should.

We are better to adjust in light of them instead of burying them beneath bias. The truth will set us free, Jesus said. Seems like it is setting others free as well.

Whether they appreciate it or not.

Read more from Mark Clark »

This article originally appeared on CareyNieuwhof.com and is reposted here by permission.