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Scientific American

Bowling for God

published December 2006 | comments (12)
Is religion good for society? Science’s definitive answer: it depends
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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.

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12 Comments to “Bowling for God”

  1. D. Newman Says:

    Religions evolve over time, take Christianity for instance. In the UK the C of E (Church of England) flavour of Christianity is much more “popular” than the older Catholic variety. It came about in the first place to allow the rules to be more flexible (Henry VIII wanted a divorce). So many of the followers of this religion today do not attend church on a regular basis, do not pray regularly and religion rarely will have any part to play in any decisions they make. Essentially the majority of C of E followers work secularly. However they do have a framework of celebrations (weddings, funerals etc) and a comforting concept of an almighty and heaven when death looms near. This level of belief does not cause any real threat on its own. The problem is less evolved religions and beliefs that are much more diligently followed. Where religion dictates how one should live beyond “be a good person” decisions are then affected by an irrational process, a process with allows no tolerance for the conflicting ideas of others – after all god is on your side. All too many times we have seen the bitter conflict and social devastation religion-driven decisions have made.

  2. cuggy Says:

    “Conservatives donate 30 percent more money than liberals ”

    I wonder if that include money put in the collection basket at church? And if that actually should count as charity since half the time it seems to go to new drapes for the rectory or something.

  3. Garrett Says:

    I also wonder if the “programming” dictated among churches to GIVE spills over into other giving in one’s social culture?

    Whereas, in contrast, a “non-theist” may not be taught to give, give, give (or tithe, tithe, tithe) and therefore the conditioning isn’t there and thus is not carried out.

  4. P R Allen Says:

    Someone once said: “A little religion goes a long way”. Religion is a personal matter, especially in a secular, democratic society. My beliefs are no one’s business. Science and reason always dictate. Faith can be a comfort but it shouldn’t be irrational: Jesus does not appear in the natural folds of a tortilla. God does not tell you to fly an airplane into a building. He didn’t write any books. he doesn’t bend natural laws to create miracles.

    The voice you hear is no doubt your own unless you forgot to turn off your bluetooth.

    You want to donate money?…okay. Donate time?….even better.

  5. John Says:

    Correlation between being organized in local groups such as youth groups etc. and religiosity might not be causally related (as the statisticians say).

    For example in the US, being socially ostracized within these groups for not belonging to one of the religious groups could create a disincentive for them to join. A recent story about an unbelieving officer in the military and the pressure from his peers made me consider this possibility.

    Also, this talks only about local social capital. What about like-minded people on the Internet where donating your time might just not be counted or similar work?

    Finally, is there a counting of community organizations excluding religiously motivated organizations? I wouldn’t be surprised if that inverses the liberal vs conservative dichotomy, if my own experiences aren’t too biased…

  6. Ted Goas Says:

    “Is religion good for society?” Which part of religion are we talking about? (I believe Dr. Shermer has used this line in various debates)

  7. Tom Says:

    As a recovering fundamentalist, raised in a fundamental Baptist preacher’s home, I can say from personal experience that religious people are very generous even to those outside their own church groups. When tornadoes strike, or a widow needs a kidney, or a disabled baby needs a home, I have seen church members give money and time that they certainly could not afford with no question as to the beneficiary’s religious affiliation. Just because you don’t agree with their theology, don’t devalue their generosity. And, just because I admire their generosity, I won’t disregard their religion-based intolerance.

  8. Russell Says:

    In my opinion, you either make an honest effort at understanding the world around you, or you have a crutch. Religion of any kind is a crutch, and not a very good one at that. The problem is obvious, metaphysics. If everything is magic, how do you know what to expect. That is why godless liberals think so much straighter than religious people. We may not be as giving, but there are bound to be reasons for that, whereas the religious simply do what they are told, plus a lot of those charity figures are people who give to their church which is hardly a charity.
    I wonder how much of the giving done by conservative christians is to ease their troubled conscience for being told to shun those that are different from them.

  9. Dwayne Says:

    I personally don’t give to many charities because most of them are aimed at feeding children in Africa, or saving unwanted pets, etc. It may be a cold hearted view, but I believe in natural selection and that nature corrects itself (or attempts to do so). The planet is getting overpopulated at an exponential rate, and this is a huge problem. Why contribute to the problem by prolonging the lives of overcrowded, starving areas of the world?
    However, I do contribute to scientific foundations such as FFRF, Richard Dawkins Foundation, as well as to certain political parties from time to time.

  10. Michael Myggland Says:

    It seems to me that the effect of religiosity is to begin a cycle of which the perpetrators cause the problems, which they then feel obligated to solve. Teen pregnancy(when unwed…) – Not seen as acceptable, no effective sexual education is given, no clear and honest communication in the home. This problem begins with pre-conceived notions of what is, such as how a person will be treated if they transgress (usually something about brimstone). When they do, they are ones to be pitied, then doted upon with charity. The transgressor however did not know, did not understand or did not worry, about the consequences of their actions. Transgressor turns to religion, religion feeds and grows.
    Largely the same applies to Homicide, child rearing practices, and life shortening activities. We who chose not to help this cycle continue are looked at as being less then civically active. So be it. What we really seek is to keep our hands off of a very hot potato that just keeps getting passed around with nobody considering that maybe they themselves were fully responsible for throwing it. It takes logic, introspection and a willingness to ask that the Non-religious possess, and the religious largely lack, to stop these problems before they start. Screaming about the evils of abortion, hell, and what such else is simply the response of those who do not know better, and fear being kicked out if they do. We do not have the resources to waste on people who Know not what they do, and refuse to learn why. I have been disturbed far too early in the morning, and shrieked at or shunned a bit too many times to add to the problem.
    largely the same applies to Homicide, child rearing practces, and life shortening activities.

  11. qaiyum ashar Says:

    ‘Is religeon good for society’is a very important question to be answered in the context of present social background of world.Exercising of any religeon has been destructive ever in society.Professor of one particular religeon has been heartedly enemy for other and it is i think never in a social and human favour.Now a days islamic terror is how much fatal or american activities are only to hurt islam not for humanity.Tere are lacs of examples to prescribe this bitter fact.

  12. Atheists Vs. Morals: Death Match for the Ages links « Q Transmissions Says:

    [...] Michael Shermer piece [...]

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