Events in the Middle East may well raise concerns again about the role of religion in society. While extremism or violence in the name of religion is certainly deplorable, overall religion is a positive influence.
This was made clear in a book published by Rodney Stark, a former professor of sociology and author of numerous books on Christianity’s impact on society.
In his book, “America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists,” (Templeton Press), Stark insists that all the claims he makes for the positive impact of religion are backed up by reliable research.
There is a substantial body of evidence that social behavior is greatly influenced by religion, said Stark. He put at 247 the number of studies published between 1944 and 2010 that found a positive effect of religion on reducing crime, deviance and delinquency.
One survey found that young people who never attend a church are about four times as likely to have been picked up by the police compared to those do go to church. The positive impact of religion holds for both whites and African Americans and across the varying levels of education and income.
After reviewing a wide range of studies Stark found that the positive effect of church membership rate was linked to the incidence of burglary, robbery, assault and homicide. This is particularly true for teenagers, he noted.
Honesty, drug and alcohol use and regular attendance at school are other social behaviors positively affected by the level of religious participation.
One of the chapters of the book looked at the matter of fertility and family life. Stark compared the low level of fertility in most European countries with the significantly higher level in the United States. Religion, he argued, is what makes the difference.
“The fertility of churchgoing Europeans is well above replacement level, but churchgoing Europeans are too few to offset the infertility of the less religious and the irreligious,” he commented.
Surveys show that the expression of a desire to have larger families is strongly linked to the level of church attendance, Stark explained.
One study found that among those who attend church regularly European women have a higher fertility level than American women. The problem is, he continued, is that nearly 40% of American women go to church at least weekly while in Europe the rate is much lower.
“All the facts testify to the conclusion that the more religious the couple, the more stable, satisfying, and beneficial is their family life,” Stark concluded.
He also explained that those who are religious in America are far more likely to marry and to stay married than those who are irreligious. In fact, weekly church attenders are only half as likely to be divorced, compared to those who never attend. This also holds true in European countries with church attendance having a strong negative relation to divorce.
In general couples that are religiously active have a more marked tendency to monogamy, with lower promiscuity rates before marriage.
In relation to education Stark observed that atheists often claim that religious people are uneducated. He termed this a “fantasy,” and said that Americans who never attend church are significantly less likely to have finished high school.
The more religious a student is, he added, the better the performance at school and the higher the achievement scores obtained.
While some have argued that the correlation between religion and educational success is due to higher income levels, this is disproved, Stark argued, by the results showing that the religious effect on schools achievement holds even more strongly for African American and Hispanic students.
Religious parents, he concluded, “are better parents, who raise better-behaved and better-educated children.”
Turning to other themes Stark explained that contrary to modern thinkers, such as Sigmund Freud, who considered religion as a cause of mental illness, believers enjoy better mental and physical health.
Another aspect he focused on was suicide rates, which vary considerably from one place to another. Many studies, he said, have found that the higher the church membership in a specific geographical area, the lower the suicide rate. Religious people are also less prone to depression and neurosis.
A following chapter examined the social interaction of religious believers. Stark pointed out that those who are more religious tend to be more generous to others and also to participate more in voluntary activities.
All of the world’s major religions, he commented, stress the importance of generosity, and surveys show that all around the world people who are religiously active are more generous to others.
Overall, Stark’s book provides a welcome reminder that religion is not something noxious or limiting for our lives.
Stark’s view is somewhat flawed in that he tends on occasion to a superficial conclusion about the evidence of religion’s benefits to score points about the superiority of the United States over Europe, glossing over the many possible causes of differences between the continents. It is, nevertheless, well worth reading.