Is religion good for society? Science’s definitive answer: it depends
Is religion a necessary component of social health? The data are conflicting. On the one hand, in a 2005 study published in the Journal of Religion & Society — “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies” — independent scholar Gregory S. Paul found an inverse correlation between religiosity (measured by belief in God, biblical literalism, and frequency of prayer and service attendance) and societal health (measured by rates of homicide, suicide, childhood mortality, life expectancy, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion and teen pregnancy) in 18 developed democracies. “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD [sexually transmitted disease] infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies,” Paul found. Indeed, the U.S. scores the highest in religiosity and the highest (by far) in homicides, STDs, abortions and teen pregnancies.
On the other hand, Syracuse University professor Arthur C. Brooks argues in Who Really Cares (Basic Books, 2006) that when it comes to charitable giving and volunteering, numerous quantitative measures debunk the myth of “bleeding heart liberals” and “heartless conservatives.” Conservatives donate 30 percent more money than liberals (even when controlled for income), give more blood and log more volunteer hours. In general, religious people are four times more generous than secularists to all charities, 10 percent more munificent to nonreligious charities and 57 percent more likely than a secularist to help a homeless person. In terms of societal health, charitable givers are 43 percent more likely to say they are “very happy” than nongivers and 25 percent more likely than nongivers to say their health is excellent or very good.
Are the left and right so religiously cleaved? According to Harvard University professor Pippa Norris and University of Michigan at Ann Arbor professor Ronald Inglehart in their book Sacred and Secular (Cambridge University Press, 2004), data from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems analyzing 37 presidential and parliamentary elections in 32 nations over the past decade showed that 70 percent of the devout (attend religious services at least once a week) voted for parties of the right, compared with only 45 percent of the secular (never attend religious services). The effect is striking in America. In the 2000 U.S. presidential election, for example, “religion was by far the strongest predictor of who voted for Bush and who voted for Gore — dwarfing the explanatory power of social class, occupation, or region.”
The theory of “social capital” may help resolve these disparate findings. As defined by Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone (Simon and Schuster, 2000), social capital means “connections among individuals — social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” In their analysis of data from the World Values Survey, for example, Norris and Inglehart found a positive correlation between “religious participation” and membership in “nonreligious community associations,” including women’s, youth, peace, social welfare, human rights and environmental conservation groups (and, apparently, bowling leagues). “By providing community meeting places, linking neighbors together, and fostering altruism, in many (but not all) faiths, religious institutions seem to bolster the ties of belonging to civic life.”
Religious social capital leads to charitable generosity and group membership but does comparatively worse than secular social capital for such ills as homicides, STDs, abortions and teen pregnancies. Three reasons suggest themselves: first, these problems have other causes entirely; second, secular social capital works better for such problems; third, these problems are related to what I call moral capital, or the connections within an individual between morality and behavior that are best fostered within families, the fundamental social unit in our evolutionary history that arose long before religions and governments. Thus, moral restraints on aggressive and sexual behavior are best reinforced by the family, be it secular or sacred.