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.
In Saudi Arabia, all citizens are rirueqed to be Muslims, and the public practice of other religions is forbidden. Private practice of other religions is sometimes allowed and sometimes persecuted; there is no law protecting even this.Iran is officially a Twelver Shiite state. Some other religions (Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism) are permitted, but are not allowed to proselytize; and they are sometimes persecuted even if they don’t. The Bahai faith is not allowed at all. Sunni Muslims are subject to some restrictions also.In China, all religious organizations have to be authorized by the government. This has given rise to conflict when the government appoints religious leaders different from what the religion itself chooses. There are state-appointed Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Taoist, and Muslim leaders. These are not always approved by the religious organizations outside of China. Those who practice religion outside these state-approved organizations are subject to severe persecution.In Turkey, since the secularization by Ataturk in the early 20th century, the government permits all religions but keeps them all under close surveillance. Special religious clothing (the veil, the fez) is not permitted to be worn in public. Turkey is predominantly Muslim, and there is some prejudice against other religions.In North Korea, virtually no religious practice is allowed except a limited amount by foreigners. Worship is considered a political offense.Cuba was for years officially atheist, and religious practice was seriously discouraged, with some persecution. But now religious people are even allowed to join the Communist Party. The government is secular rather than atheist, and religious practice is pretty much free.These are a few varied examples of governments which have restricted religious practice. In our time, the States that restrict religious freedom are mostly Muslim or Atheist.I can’t think of any other belief system that does this in modern times.Religion is the source of meaning and values for many people, and restricting it restricts the growth of the human soul. In countries where a religion is imposed, it loses some of its growth potential. In countries where religion is not restricted or mandated by the government, it flourishes and leads to better values and ways of life.
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