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From the January/February, 2008
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Staying Power by Logan Paul Gage

Staying Power

Does Religion Really Poison Everything?

by Logan Paul Gage

“Religion poisons everything,” Christopher Hitchens’s bestseller God Is Not Great declares in a constant, hymn-like refrain. “We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion. And we know for a fact that the corollary holds true—that religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.”

The faithful will not be shocked to learn that religious people do bad things. Oxford defender of Darwinism Richard Dawkins, however, has taken the argument one step further: “There’s not the slightest evidence that religious people in a given society are any more moral than non-religious people,” he said in a recent interview.

So not only do believers perpetrate evil, but they behave no better than anyone else. Is Dawkins correct? What does current social-science research say about religion’s effect on society?

A group of prominent social scientists from Princeton, Pennsylvania State, Baylor, and other institutions answered that question at a conference on “Religious Practice and Civic Life: What the Research Says.” The conference, held in Washington, D.C., in late October, was hosted by the Heritage Foundation and their research partners Child Trends and the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.

Dawkins Is Wrong

The scholars began by assessing trends in American religion. Religion, in America at least, is not going away, although, according to the University of Chicago’s Tom Smith, who directs the General Social Survey (GSS), there has been no clear net direction in religious trends over the last 35 years.

While belief in God has held steady, and prayer and belief in an afterlife have both increased, he says, the number of people who attend religious services and who are religiously affiliated has decreased. The number of people with no religious preference, for example, has risen from 6 percent to 16 percent. This trend holds for all age groups but is much more pronounced among the young: Among persons 18–27 years old, those professing no religion shot from 13 percent in the early 1970s to nearly 25 percent in our time.

Confidence in organized religion is also down—largely, Smith argues, due to the televangelist and priest abuse scandals. Because more individualistic forms of religion (e.g., prayer and belief in an afterlife) have increased, while institutional identifiers like specific religious preference have decreased, he concludes that private religion (or “spirituality”) has grown at the expense of corporate worship.

Civic engagement—reading the newspaper and voting, for example—and participation in voluntary associations also increase with frequent church attendance. For every one voluntary association—like a civic club or PTO—among the non-religious, there are 2.4 such associations among those who attend religious services more than once per week.

Thus, Smith concludes: “Religious involvement is associated with, and probably promotes, civic engagement. . . . Those participating in a faith community are more likely to vote, belong to voluntary associations, and carry out altruistic acts than the nonreligious.”

Religiously Altruistic

The latter claim may seem presumptuous, but according to the 2002–2004 GSS, for every 100 altruistic acts—like giving blood or letting someone ahead of you in the checkout line—performed by nonreligious people, the religious perform 144.

Volunteerism also benefits from religion, according to Baylor’s Christopher Bader and F. Carson Mencken (finally, a religion-friendly Mencken), who cited the Baylor Religion Survey. Weekly church attendees volunteer more often in their communities, both through the church and through secular organizations.

The correlation is most striking among men. The volunteer rate for weekly-attending men is nearly ten percent higher than for weekly-attending women, whereas on the whole women volunteer much more than men. And while income has very little connection with volunteering, among those with higher incomes (i.e., a family income of $100,000 or more), weekly attendance noticeably correlates with volunteerism.

This is not just an American phenomenon, according to Marc Musick of the University of Texas. Although he originally thought education would be the best indicator of volunteerism, his research convinced him otherwise. More than income and education, the strongest predictor of volunteering worldwide is religious service attendance.

This helps us understand why Utah and Nevada have the highest and lowest volunteer rates, respectively, despite their shared geography. Even when you exclude explicitly religious volunteering, heavily Mormon Utah still ranks tenth in the nation.

Dawkins Is Wrong Again

But what about unethical behavior? Is it true that religious folk are no better than anyone else, and perhaps are even worse for being hypocrites?

That is not what the data show. For nearly 40 years, psychologists and sociologists have studied the connection between religion and various negative outcomes in adolescents. According to one meta-study (a study of the studies), 97 percent of studies found a negative relationship between religion and sexual activity; 94 percent claimed a negative link between alcohol use and religion; and 87 percent alleged a negative correlation between suicide and religion.

One survey done by the University of Pittsburgh’s John Wallace, Jr., and his colleagues reports that when teenagers are asked whether they have smoked cigarettes, gone on a drinking binge, or smoked marijuana in the last 30 days, weekly-attending religious kids are twice as likely to report not having smoked or drunk heavily and are more than twice as likely to report not having used marijuana.

But religion affects behavior, Wallace maintains, not only at the individual level but also at the community level. The moral community in which students are immersed has an impact above and beyond that of personal religiosity. Wallace illustrates this with an analogy: Someone who is not a basketball fan but attends the University of North Carolina will find the UNC community raising his interest in basketball. Using data from surveys of eighth to twelfth graders, he maintains that a school’s moral climate affects teens for better or worse on top of their individual religiosity. Moral context matters.

It turns out further that religion has more than a short-term impact on drug use. Sung Joon Jang and Byron Johnson of Baylor University are showing that pre-teen religiosity increases the likelihood of early adulthood religiosity and this in turn increases anti-drug “protective factors” and decreases “risk factors.” This is especially important since juvenile drug use and anti-social activity are linked to increased criminality later in life.

Using a sophisticated methodology, Pennsylvania State’s Jeffery Ulmer, Purdue’s Scott Desmond, and Baylor’s Christopher Bader tried to answer why religion tends to inhibit delinquency. Following psychological research showing that self-control is like a muscle, which will grow or atrophy with use or disuse, they concluded that religious observance inhibits deviant behavior in two ways: It increases individuals’ self-control, and it provides moral norms. Religious youth display higher self-control against cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana than their nonreligious peers.

In addition, religion significantly correlates with fewer violent crimes, school suspensions, and a host of other negative behaviors.

Secularists’ Surprise

Cautioning those who think America is in the midst of either a major religious revival or a major decline, Princeton scholar of religion Robert Wuthnow commented in the keynote address that “there are signs of serious erosion in such standard measures of religious vitality as church attendance and religious affiliation,” but added that the reason had to do with Americans’ delaying marriage and children and having fewer children, and hence delaying serious interest in church.

He noted that intellectuals register constant surprise that religion has not yet disappeared altogether. Dawkins once lamented that “faith is . . . comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.” People who care about the good of their society will hope that he is right about the latter. •

Videos of the conference talks can be found at www.heritage.org/Research/Features/Religion/ConfVideo.cfm, and information on the sponsors of the conference at www.heritage.org, www.childtrends.org, and www.baylor.edu/isreligion. Robert Wuthnow’s keynote address, “Myths About American Religion,” can be found at www.heritage.org/Research/Religion/hl1049.cfm.


Logan Paul Gage is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Baylor University. He and his wife Elizabeth attend St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Waco, Texas. A version of this essay appears in the recently released book God and Evolution (Discovery Institute Press), edited by Jay W. Richards.

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