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Discipleship Hour Notes

A Reason For Hope | Session Two

Posted by Nick Locke on

ISN’T RELIGION BAD FOR PEOPLE?

Religion in our culture is often presented as a dangerous thing for individuals to cling to. Some see it as a cause of anxiety, relational strife, ignorance, and intolerance. As one blog post claims, “Religion is like a slow poison, and just as poison is killing your body, in the same way religion is killing your soul.”[1]

This sentiment was echoed in an atheist ad campaign in the UK in which the sides of busses carried the message “There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” This campaign was launched by a TV comedy writer named Ariane Sherine on behalf of commentisfree.co.uk. It hoped to raise £5,500 from supporters, but soon after its launch it ended up raising £96,000. The famous atheist writer, Richard Dawkins, pledged to match whatever was raised, although he made this pledge when the goals was £5,500.[2]

If these claims are valid, it would be reasonable to assume that there is empirical evidence to support them. So, what does the evidence demonstrate?

In 2016, Tyler J. VanderWeele, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard, along with journalist John Siniff published an article in USA Today entitled, “Religion May Be A Miracle Drug.” The article opens with this hypothetical: “If one could conceive of a single elixir to improve the physical and mental health of millions of Americans — at no personal cost — what value would our society place on it?” According to the authors, this miracle drug does exist: religion, and more specifically regular church attendance. They go on to demonstrate many positive mental and physical health benefits that are correlated with regular religious practice, even to the extent of reducing mortality rates by 20%-30% over a 15-year period. [3] Aditionally, Rebecca McLaughin writes: “Research suggests that those who regularly attend services are more optimistic, have lower rates of depression, are less likely to commit suicide, have a greater purpose in life, are less likely to divorce, and are more self-controlled.”[4]

There are an unfortunate number of stories of religious people behaving badly, including clergy members using their power to manipulate and cause real harm. “But,” McLaughin asserts, “to say that religion is bad for you is like saying, ‘Drugs are bad for you,’ without distinguishing cocacaine from life-saving medication.”[5] She goes on, “In general, religious participation appears to be good for your health and happiness. Turn this data on its head and the trend toward secularization in America is a public-health crisis.”[6]

ISN’T RELIGION BAD FOR SOCIETY?

But what about society as a whole? It is regularly claimed that organized religion in general, and Christianity in particular, has had a negative impact on society. It is believed that religion has been an oppressive force, stifling creativity, progress, and human rights. In his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens argues that religion by its nature aggravates racial and cultural differences. He compares it to racism, writing: “Religion has been an enormous multiplier of tribal suspicion and hatred.”[7]

There is no denying that terrible ills have been perpetrated in the name of religion. This is a terrible reality that needs to be address and remedied. There is absolutely no excusing it. But there are major problems with the view that religion is a primary cause of oppression and violence in the world. Tim Keller explains: “The Communist Russian, Chinese, and Cambodian regimes of the twentieth century rejected all organized religion and belief in God. A forerunner of all these was the French Revolution, which rejected traditional religion for human reason. These societies were all rational and secular, yet each produced massive violence against its own people without the influence of religion.”[8] According to Keller, all of this violence goes to show that there is a destructive impulse deeply rooted in the human heart that has a tendency to express itself regardless of the beliefs of a particular society.

Contrary to Hitchens’ argument above, several atheist writers have argued that Christianity has had a positive impact on the societies in which it has taken root. 

In a book review for the New Statesman, atheist writer John Gray points out that: “Secular liberals dismiss Christianity as a fairy tale, but their values and their view of history remain essentially Christian… Christianity brought with it a moral revolution. The powerless came to be seen as God’s children, and therefore deserving of respect as much as the highest in society.” Christianity came onto the scene in a Roman world which could only be described as brutal. “Caesar killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. Across the Roman world, wailing infants could be found on the roadside, on rubbish heaps or in drains, left there to perish. Female infants who were rescued would be raised as slaves or sold to brothels.” There was absolutely no sense the poor and the weak had any rights or inherent value. It was Christianity that changed that mindset. Gray writes:

“…the triumph of Christianity was a rupture in Western civilization. There is nothing at all self-evident about the equal intrinsic worth of all human beings or the inherent preciousness of individual persons. These values – which secular thinkers nowadays take for granted – were placed at the heart of the Western world by Christianity… In the final analysis, liberal humanism is a footnote to the Bible.”[9]

It was Christian activism, stemming from the belief that all humans are created in God’s image and therefore have inherent worth and dignity, that led to the abolition of slavery in the west. Rodney Stark, the social historian, writes:

“Although it has been fashionable to deny it, anti-slavery doctrines began to appear in Christian theology soon after the decline of Rome and were accompanied by the eventual disappearance of slavery in all but the fringes of Christian Europe. When Europeans subsequently instituted slavery in the New World, they did so over strenuous papal opposition, a fact that was conveniently ‘lost’ from history until recently. Finally, the abolition of New World slavery was initiated and achieved by Christian activists.”[10]

 Many decades after the abolition of slavery in the United States, African American civil rights leaders continued to fight for racial justice in our country. But the primary appeal was not to secular beliefs about the goodness of human nature and the efficacy of education. Instead, leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. “invoked God’s moral law and the Scripture.” Tim Keller writes, “He called white Christians to be more true to their own beliefs and to realize what the Bible really teaches… The greatest champion of justice in our era knew the antidote to racism was not less Christianity, but a deeper and truer Christianity.”[11]

Religious observance has been demonstrated to have other more ordinary but sill important positive outcomes for society. Philosopher Christian Miller in his 2018 book The Character Gap: How Good Are We?  points out that there are “literally hundreds of studies” that link positive moral outcomes with religious participation.[12] Rebecca McLaughlin summarizes some of his findings in an article she wrote for the Gospel Coalition: “In North America, regular service attenders donate 3.5 times the money given by their nonreligious counterparts per year and volunteer more than twice as much. Meanwhile, levels of domestic violence in a U.S. sample were almost twice as high for men who didn’t attend church versus those who attended once a week or more, and religious participation has also been linked to lower rates for 43 other crimes.” She comments, “Many of these effects aren’t exclusive to Christianity, but they give the lie to the idea that secularization is good for society.”[13]

Religion in general and Christianity in particular has been such a stabilizing and positive force, that even some atheist thinkers are expressing concern about the implications of its absence. For example, Douglas Murray in his recent book The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity writes, “We are going through a great crowd derangement. In public and in private, both online and off, people are behaving in ways that are increasingly irrational, feverish, herd-like and simply unpleasant. The daily news cycle is filled with the consequences.”[14] And what does he attribute our “herd-like” mentality to? He writes:

“One by one, the narratives we had were refuted, became unpopular to defend or impossible to sustain. The explanations for our existence that used to be provided by religion went first, falling away from the 19th century onwards. Then over the past century the secular hopes held out by all political ideologies began to follow in its wake. In the latter part of the 20th century we entered the postmodern era. An era that defined itself, and was defined, by its suspicion towards all grand narratives… Whatever else they lacked, the grand narratives of the past at least gave life meaning. The question of what exactly are we meant to do now, other than get rich where we can and have whatever fun is on offer, was going to have to be answered by something.”[15]

Murray’s assertion that something is going to have to fill the void in order to give life meaning is what makes another atheist thinker nervous. Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard and describes himself as a “hard-shelled materialist,” but a while back he wrote an article in The Telegraph entitled, “Heaven Knows How We'll Rekindle Our Religion, but I Believe We Must.” He opens the article with a G.K. Chesterton quote: "When men stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing. They believe in anything."[16] Ferguson goes on to describe the decline of Christianity in the UK, but this is not something that he celebrates. In fact, he laments “the moral vacuum our dechristianisation has created.” He continues, “I do not deny that sermons are sometimes dull and that British congregations often sing out of tune. But, if nothing else, a weekly dose of Christian doctrine will help to provide an ethical framework for your life. And I certainly do not know where else you are going to get one.” [17]

 

[1] Sofo Archon, “The Negative Effects of Religion on Society,” The Unbounded Spirit, July 17, 2019, https://theunboundedspirit.com/the-negative-effects-of-religion-on-society/. Just to be clear, the author only condemns the “dominant, especially Western, dogmatic, organized religions.” These, he asserts, have done great harm to individuals and societies alike. The “esoteric religious traditions,” however are in the clear because “they have a positive impact on the world.”

[2] Decca Aitkenhead, “Interview: Richard Dawkins - 'People Say I'm Strident',” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, October 24, 2008), https://www.theguardian.com/science/2008/oct/25/richard-dawkins-religion-science-books.

[3] Tyler J. VanderWeele and John Siniff, “Religion May Be a Miracle Drug: Column,” USA Today (Gannett Satellite Information Network, October 28, 2016), https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2016/10/28/religion-church-attendance-mortality-column/92676964/.

[4] Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World's Largest Religion (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 21.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Christopher Hitchens, God  Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Hachette, 2007) 36.

[8] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2008), 56-57.

[9] John Gray, “Why the Liberal West Is a Christian Creation,” Why the liberal West is a Christian creation, September 18, 2019, https://www.newstatesman.com/dominion-making-western-mind-tom-holland-review. The book that Gray is reviewing is Tom Holland’s newest work Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. On page 533 Holland writes that without Christianity, “no one would ever have got woke.”

[10] Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton University Press, 2004), 291.

[11] Keller, 67.

[12] Christian B. Miller, The Character Gap: How Good Are We (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018), 239.

[13] Rebecca McLaughlin, “Christians, It's Time to Go on the Offensive,” The Gospel Coalition (The Gospel Coalition, March 18, 2019), https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/christians-offensive/.

[14] Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019), Introduction, Kindle.

[15] Ibid.

[16] He acknowledges that Chesterton probably never said this. There are a surprising number of quotes wrongfully attributed to Chesterton: https://thefederalist.com/2014/05/06/the-seven-most-popular-g-k-chesterton-quotes-he-never-said/.

[17] Niall Ferguson, “Heaven Knows How We'll Rekindle Our Religion, but I Believe We Must,” The Telegraph (Telegraph Media Group, July 31, 2005), https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3618721/Heaven-knows-how-well-rekindle-our-religion-but-I-believe-we-must.html.

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