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.)

Catholic advocacy on abortion, pro and con

For the first time since Gallup started asking the question in 1995, a majority of Americans describe themselves as “pro-life.”  That may include a majority of Congress. Enter the Catholic debate.

On the one hand:

On behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), we strongly urge you [House members] to vote for the Stupak-Ellsworth-Pitts-Kaptur-Dahlkemper-Lipinski-Smith Amendment … Despite some claims to the contrary, H.R. 3962 [the healthcare reform bill] … utterly fails to maintain current prohibitions on abortion mandates and abortion funding. Instead it creates elaborate measures requiring people to pay for other people’s abortions with their taxes, private premiums or federal subsidies. … Additionally, H.R. 3962 allows the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services to mandate that the “public option” will include unlimited abortions. Millions of purchasers will be forced to pay an “abortion surcharge,” which requires purchasers of many plans to pay directly and explicitly for abortion coverage. This is unprecedented in federal law. The [SEPKDLS] Amendment will not affect coverage of abortion in non-subsidized health plans, and will not bar anyone from purchasing a supplemental abortion policy with their own funds.

On the other hand:

They are demanding that the bill go far beyond the status quo restrictions on abortion that had been incorporated into the original bill. In an outrageous amendment … antichoice Democrats are demanding explicit and unequivocal exclusion of any coverage for abortion, even in private health plans in the proposed health insurance exchange. Women would lose coverage under this proposal. … Catholics support healthcare reform and support coverage for reproductive healthcare services in that reform. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has been on Capitol Hill claiming to speak for America’s Catholics. They do not do so with any legitimacy. Poll after poll has shown that the American public, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, does not want to see Congress play politics with women’s healthcare. American Catholics will not forget who held their healthcare hostage, and allowed it to be held hostage, when the elections come around in 2010.

The Catholic angle emerged as pivotal to the whole health care bill at the last minute, as anti-abortion Democrats enlisted the Catholic bishops to endorse the amendment, so the amendment would get Republican votes, end up in the bill, and provide cover for anti-abortion Democrats to support it. Whew.

I’m wondering, how often do we pay, through public or private resource pools, for practices we think are immoral? Naturally, the political arena is a reasonable place to hash out which of these we are willing to tolerate and which we are not. Under current law and policy we bend over a long way not to pay for abortion services, effectively denying healthcare to many poor women. This principle was enshrined in the 1989 Webster decision by the Supreme Court, which let stand a state ban on funding for abortions, even though legal, in part because:

The Due Process Clauses generally confer no affirmative right to governmental aid, even where such aid may be necessary to secure life, liberty, or property interests of which the government may not deprive the individual.

If you have the right, the state may not take it away. If you don’t have the right, the state need not provide it to you.

UPDATE: The House passed the amendment, 240-194, which might have made it possible for the full bill to pass 220-215.