Defending the Faith: Sociologist explains how religion benefits even atheists

Published: Thursday, Sept. 26 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

A prominent sociologist argues that the social impact of religious faith in the United States is not only positive, but dramatically so.

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In “America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists,” the respected and prolific sociologist Rodney Stark draws a number of striking conclusions after surveying the relevant data. I summarize a few of them here, but I cannot do justice to professor Stark’s extraordinarily interesting book, nor to the details of his arguments, which I highly recommend.

Regardless of their age, he says, religious people are much less likely to commit crimes. Accordingly, the higher a city’s church membership rate, the lower its rates of burglary, larceny, robbery, assault, rape, sexually transmitted disease and homicide. In a cleverly designed test at Pepperdine University, a disappointing 45 percent of weekly church attenders turned out to be honest, but that was still more than three times the 13 percent rating of non-attenders.

Curiously, however, although nearly 250 studies conducted between 1944 and 2010 showed clear evidence that religion helps to reduce delinquency, deviation and crime, virtually no standard textbooks on criminology so much as mention “religion” in their indexes. But the fact remains, says Stark, that “All Americans are safer and their property more secure because this is such a religious nation. The average person in ‘irreligious’ Sweden is three-and-a-half times as likely as the average American to be criminally assaulted, and twice as likely to be the victim of theft.”

Religious people are the primary source of charitable funds not only for religious causes but for secular philanthropies that benefit all victims of distress and misfortune. They are far more likely to volunteer their time for programs that benefit society and to be active in civic matters.

Fashionable schools of psychology have long taught that religion either contributes to mental illness or is itself a dangerous species of psychopathology. But the evidence, says professor Stark, “shows overwhelmingly that religion protects against mental illness.” For example, persons with strong, conservative religious beliefs are less depressed than those with weak and loose religious beliefs. “They are happier, less neurotic, and far less likely to commit suicide.”

Religious people are more likely to marry and to stay married than their irreligious counterparts, and, on the whole, they express greater satisfaction with their marriages and their spouses. They are far less likely to have extramarital affairs. In addition, “Religious husbands are substantially less likely to abuse their wives or children.” Mother-child relationships are stronger for frequent church attenders than for those who rarely if ever go to church, and for mothers and children who regard religion as very important, they’re stronger than for those church-attenders who don’t value religion so highly. Precisely the same thing holds for the level of satisfaction of teenagers with their families. Greater religiosity means higher satisfaction.

Strongly religious persons seem, all other things being equal, to enjoy reduced risks of heart disease, strokes and high blood pressure or hypertension than those who are less religious, and seem to recover better from coronary artery bypass surgery. The average life expectancy of religious Americans is more than seven years longer than that of the irreligious. Moreover, “a very substantial difference remains” even when the effects of “clean living” have been factored out.

Religious students tend to get better grades than do their non-religious counterparts, as well as to score higher on all standardized achievement tests. They are less likely to be expelled or suspended or to drop out of school, and are more likely to do their homework.

Religious Americans are also, on average, more successful in their careers than are the irreligious. They obtain better jobs and are less likely to find themselves unemployed or on welfare.

Committed religious believers are less likely to patronize astrologers or to believe in the occult and the paranormal than are nonbelievers. On the other hand, though they’re often caricatured as ignorant, churchgoers are more likely to read, to patronize the arts and to enjoy classical music than are non-churchgoers.

“Translated into comparisons with Western European nations,” writes professor Stark, addressing an American audience, “we enjoy far lower crime rates, much higher levels of charitable giving, better health, stronger marriages, and less suicide, to note only a few of our benefits from being an unusually religious nation.”

None of these facts proves religious claims true, of course. But they certainly undermine the old accusation that religion is unhealthy and antisocial.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, edits BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs http://www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.

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