We often hear that religion “poisons everything“, and that it is a delusion that causes people to do evil things (Physicist Stephen Weinberg once said: “for good people to do evil — that takes religion”.) Some people claim that religion is responsible for many of the evils in history – the crusades, witch-burning, war, genocide, oppression, etc.
But surveys today suggest that some of this rhetoric is not supported by the facts.
A survey of religion in America
I am not a fan of US christianity, but it is enlightening to see the results of a recent survey by university researchers. Robert Putnam (Harvard) and David Campbell (Notre Dame) undertook extensive research of religious attitudes in the US, and late last year published the results of their research in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve seen an outline of their findings and an interview with David Campbell.
What they concluded
Among their findings were these:
- Americans are more religiously devout than any other industrialised country (and more religious than Iranians), and also highly religiously diverse. Yet there is greater interfaith tolerance and acceptance than many might think.
- Whereas there was a significant increase in evangelical christians in the period 1970 – 1990 and a small decrease in unbelief, these trends have reversed in the two decades since then, with evangelical christian numbers falling back to the former percentage while the number of the non-committed more than doubled.
- The present high correlation between christians and conservative politics (as expressed in Republican party identification) is only a recent thing – it didn’t really exist in 1970.
- A majority of American christians seem to have no problems in seeing some good in other religions, and a vast majority (82%) of the most devout agreed that non-believers could be good people.
All this indicates that religion in the US is not as divisive as some would say. Perhaps it is a relatively small minority who cause perceived problems?
A few surprises
Among the study’s findings are these conclusions:
- Religious Americans are better neighbors than secular Americans — more generous with their time and treasure, even for secular causes.
Religiously rooted social networks in America have a powerful effect in encouraging neighborliness and civic engagement.
- Religious Americans tend to be less tolerant of civil libereties for minorities such as gays and unbelievers, but they are growing more tolerant at a faster rate than their secular compatriots.
- As has been found in many other studies, religious people tend to be happier and more satisfied with life than non-religious.
- Making friends with people from other religious (or irreligious) sub-groups tends to increase tolerance and acceptance of that group as a whole.
Hope for the future
I draw two encouraging thoughts from all this:
- If religious (mostly christian) faith and commitment tends to lead to greater happiness, life satisfaction, neighbourliness and community involvement, it must also provide hope for the ills of western societies documented in Broken societies, greed & ethics.
- If making new friends increases tolerance, we need more christians, muslims, atheists and agnostics who are moving out of their comfortable social groups and mixing with different groups. In particular, the derision and anger which characterise many online meetings for theists and atheists is clearly unhelpful.