"Religion poisons everything," Christopher Hitchens's bestseller God Is Not Great declares in a constant, hymn-like refrain. "We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion. And we know for a fact that the corollary holds true -- that religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow."
The faithful will not be shocked to learn that religious people do bad things. Oxford defender of Darwinism Richard Dawkins, however, has taken the argument one step further: "There's not the slightest evidence that religious people in a given society are any more moral than non-religious people," he said in a recent interview.
So not only do believers perpetrate evil, but they behave no better than anyone else. Is Dawkins correct? What does current social-science research say about religion's effect on society?
A group of prominent social scientists from Princeton, Pennsylvania State, Baylor, and other institutions answered that question at a conference on "Religious Practice and Civic Life: What the Research Says." The conference, held in Washington, D.C., in late October, was hosted by the Heritage Foundation and their research partners Child Trends and the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.
Dawkins Is Wrong
The scholars began by assessing trends in American religion. Religion, in America at least, is not going away, although, according to the University of Chicago's Tom Smith, who directs the General Social Survey (GSS), there has been no clear net direction in religious trends over the last 35 years.
While belief in God has held steady, and prayer and belief in an afterlife have both increased, he says, the number of people who attend religious services and who are religiously affiliated has decreased. The number of people with no religious preference, for example, has risen from 6 percent to 16 percent. This trend holds for all age groups but is much more pronounced among the young: Among persons 18 -- 27 years old, those professing no religion shot from 13 percent in the early 1970s to nearly 25 percent in our time.
Confidence in organized religion is also down -- largely, Smith argues, due to the televangelist and priest abuse scandals. Because more individualistic forms of religion (e.g., prayer and belief in an afterlife) have increased, while institutional identifiers like specific religious preference have decreased, he concludes that private religion (or "spirituality") has grown at the expense of corporate worship.
Civic engagement -- reading the newspaper and voting, for example -- and participation in voluntary associations also increase with frequent church attendance. For every one voluntary association -- like a civic club or PTO -- among the non-religious, there are 2.4 such associations among those who attend religious services more than once per week.
Thus, Smith concludes: "Religious involvement is associated with, and probably promotes, civic engagement. . . . Those participating in a faith community are more likely to vote, belong to voluntary associations, and carry out altruistic acts than the nonreligious."
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