Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Dogma Bites Man” first appeared in the December 2005 issue of Touchstone.
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Dogma Bites Man
On the New & Biased Research Linking Faith & Social Ills
The message to those who claim in any sense to be pro-life is unequivocal,” declared one columnist in the influential English newspaper The Guardian. “If you want people to behave as Christians advocate, you should tell them that God does not exist.”
He was referring to a survey of data from eighteen nations recently published in the Journal of Religion and Society, in which a writer named Gregory S. Paul asserted (or at least strongly implied) that because the United States has a high level of religiosity and at the same time a high level of social dysfunction (murders, abortions, sexual promiscuity, suicide, and other social disorders), religious belief contributes to such problems, and can even cause them.
His assertion, made in a paper titled “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies,” should be challenged forthrightly, because the casual, non-research-minded reader might easily accept his conclusion that religion is a destructive force in American society. To this reader, the correlation of high religiosity with high levels of social problems can look like a convincing argument for the destructive effect of religion.
Certainly, secularist journalists and bloggers leapt upon the report as confirmation of their views. “When it comes to ‘values,’ if you look at facts rather than mere rhetoric, the substantially more secular blue states routinely leave the Bible Belt red states in the dust,” claimed one writer in the Los Angeles Times. Her conclusion: “We shouldn’t shy away from the possibility that too much religiosity may be socially dangerous.”
Religion in Depth
To draw accurate conclusions about the effects of religious belief on America, it is vital to look beneath the surface manifestations of religion—which can be defined as broad belief in a God or higher power, and loose attachment to religious traditions and institutions—and examine religious and spiritual belief and practice in depth.
But before doing so, it is necessary to challenge Paul’s analysis of the data collected from the international survey. My research associate, D. Michael Lindsay, an expert in the department of sociology at Princeton University, writes that Paul’s analysis does not pass scholarly muster. He makes two points:
I will discuss the second point in more detail, but let us look at the first point more closely. What is the problem with Paul’s failure to use the basic sociological tools? As the Canadian statistician Scott Gilbreath has written:
There are many socio-economic data series that vary widely across the eighteen countries and that plausibly have a significant impact on social conditions, e.g., income distribution, proportion of GDP spent through government, social and cultural cohesion, fertility and mortality rates, age structure of the population, etc., etc. Failure to look at these and other exogenous data would introduce bias into the results.
In other words, Paul has made strong claims about the effect of religion upon society without examining all the other factors that might explain the phenomena he wrote about.
What about the second point? In attempting to assess the impact of religion on the American populace, one must, of course, immediately acknowledge the fact that a great deal of evil in the world has been perpetrated in the name of religion by fanatics and persons with distorted agendas.
On the whole, however, survey findings based on carefully designed scales and penetrating questions show that spiritual commitment serves both as a brake on anti-social activities and a powerful impetus to pro-social, even sacrificial, behavior and attitudes. And the deeper the spiritual commitment, the more pronounced the effects.
Indeed, a mountain of survey data from the Gallup and other survey organizations shows that when educational background and other variables are held constant, persons who are “highly spiritually committed” are far less likely to engage in antisocial behavior than those less committed. They have lower rates of crime, excessive alcohol use, and drug addiction than other groups.
On the other hand, the “highly spiritually committed” are more hopeful about the future and experience greater joy in life. They contribute more time helping people who are burdened with physical and emotional needs. They are less likely to be racist, and are more giving and forgiving.
They have bucked the trend of many in society toward narcissism and hedonism. Teens with deep spiritual commitment are not only far less likely to get into trouble, but are more likely than their counterparts to be happy, be goal-oriented, be hopeful about the future, see a reason for their existence, succeed better academically, and serve others.
It has been well established by surveys for the non-profit group Independent Sector that religious convictions have spurred much of the volunteerism in our nation. Remarkably, one American in two gives two or three hours of each week to some volunteer cause. Often the cause is church-related or church-sponsored, with many believing that God has called them personally to it. One could say that if it were not for the church’s role in dealing with many of our social ills, the tax burden on the populace would be crushing.
A Troubling Gap
While religious beliefs have a decidedly positive impact on society in many ways, there nevertheless remains a gap between our overall level of professed faith and the way we live our lives. It has been rightly noted that religion in America is “3,000 miles wide and 3 inches deep.” It is this gap that allowed Paul to find the correlations he found and to draw the conclusions (false but plausible conclusions) he drew.
A large majority of Americans believe there is a moral decline in the nation, and survey statistics support their concern. A majority of teenagers, for example, admit to having cheated on a test or tests, and two-thirds indicate that they would lie to achieve a business objective.
How does one account for these troubling findings in the face of high levels of religiosity? There are many explanations. Large numbers of Americans (of the 80 percent who place themselves in the Christian tradition) could be considered “biblical illiterates,” and lack awareness and understanding of their own religious heritage and the central doctrines of their faith. We want the fruits of faith, but few of the obligations. Asked to rank nine social values, the public puts “following God’s will” far down the list, behind patience, hard work, and five others.
In sum, religious beliefs are important in the lives of most Americans, but they do not have primacy. As Paul noted, a huge majority of Americans attest to a belief in God or a higher power, but he did not ask the key question in understanding the effect of religion on American life: How deep is this belief?
The percentage of persons who currently could be described as deeply spiritually committed is small according to certain measurements, perhaps only one tenth of the populace. This group, however, has a transforming faith, manifested in measurable attitudinal and behavioral ways.
A national survey conducted in 2002 gives powerful evidence of how depth of belief in God relates closely to positive outcomes in terms of social well-being. The study was developed by Randy Frazee, Senior Pastor of Patego Bible Church in Fort Worth, Texas, in consultation with religious leaders and scholars, such as Bob Buford, Larry Crabbe, George Barna, Gerald McDermott, and Dallas Willard.
In the survey, self-identified Christians were asked to respond to fifteen questions relating to “love of God” and fifteen related to “love of neighbor.” (These questions were included in a broader study conducted for the Center for Research on Religion and Urban Society at the University of Pennsylvania by the Gallup Organization and the George H. Gallup International Institute.)
Although those who measure high on the “love of God” scale represent
only about one-tenth of the total of Christians interviewed, those in this
category are far more likely than those on the lower end of the scale:
These findings, and others from this survey, clearly reveal a close connection between a deeper love of God and a more active and practical love of others. The survey also points to the huge social impact that clergy, religious educators, and others can have if they are able to move people to deeper commitment to God. •
George H. Gallup, Jr. , has been in the polling field for fifty years, most recently as the chairman of the non-profit George H. Gallup International Institute. He and his wife Kinny have three children and attend St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Pennington, New Jersey.
“Dogma Bites Man” first appeared in the December 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!
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