Is religion good?

A new report on the sociology of religion is generating interesting buzz among sociologists.

The report, by David Smilde and Matthew May, shows that sociologists nowadays study the effects of religion on people’s lives more than its causes. That is, they are less concerned with why people are religious – which is hard to know, since the arrival of religion in people’s lives usually precedes the arrival of the intrepid sociologist – and instead study whether people who feel they are guided by God, or who attend religious services, or socialize with and depend on fellow religious organization members, are richer, healthier, and happier.

Not surprisingly – to those who have seen even snippets of this research – the results often show “positive” effects of religion. Religion appears to have profound effects on crucial aspects of social life. So, is religion good?

Depends what you’re comparing it to. Religion is in the tool box. To answer the question, we need to know the tasks at hand, and the other tools available. (If the Bible is all a slave has to read, it’s hard to argue against.)

Consider an extreme scenario, in which religious organizations controlled employment and gave priority to their coreligious friends in hiring and promotion. A researcher would find religion had a positive effect on income, but would that make religion good? Given such a context, having religion would certainly be advantageous, but little about its inherent value could be learned. Similarly, in countries ruled by communist parties, such as Hungary in 1986 or China after 1950, belonging to the party was a proven ticket to a higher standard of living. Somehow the researchers doing these studies didn’t usually describe their results as “positive” about communist parties.

All things unequal

In unequal situations, things that bring benefits to some individuals may be sources of stratification — widening gaps between haves and havenots. On the other hand, some behaviors or qualities may be the only tools at hand for responding to inequality or overcoming adversity. In America (and other places), it may be helpful to be married if you want health insurance, to have a gun if you are attacked, to have a college degree if there is a recession, and to have money if you are poor (that’s why they call it money). But the solution to social problems is not necessarily to spread these goods more broadly. For one thing, if everyone had them, they might not work so well.

This is different from the actual benefits from God of being religious. I can’t speak to that, and most of the research out there doesn’t purport to either. The exception is the scientific study of the effects of prayer. These studies test whether the Lord works in mechanical and completely non-mysterious ways. The gold standard was this study funded by the Templeton Foundation. They very scientifically broke a sample of 1,800 heart surgery patients into three groups – one group received no prayers (from the study, anyway), one group received prayers but wasn’t told whether they did or not, and a third group was told they would receive prayers (and did). The prayer offered, by Christian volunteers (no slight intended to other religions – they just couldn’t get Jews or others to pitch in for the study), was for “successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications.” The part about complications is important, because that was the variable the researchers studied. Anyway, thank God the study didn’t work — otherwise our faith in a God who can see through a double-blind study would be sorely tested.

Athletics seems like an obvious place to test the real-loving-God theory, but I haven’t seen it done.


(We know that college athletes are more religious than non-athletes, but their sins must be very great, or else UNC wouldn’t have suffered such a catastrophic loss to Duke this year.)


Filed under Research reports

3 responses to “Is religion good?

  1. I don’t know the literature, but if you’re right, the benefits of being religious should be more attenuated in societies that are generally less religious. Like most places in Europe. Are religious Danes more happily married, less criminal, more prosperous, etc. than are their nonreligious counterparts?


  2. That’s a great question for someone who knows about this stuff. In all those published tests of religion’s benefits, hopefully someone did cross-national comparisons…


  3. Pingback: How can we save the church from divorce? | Family Inequality

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