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Would the United States be Better Off Without Religion?

OPINION – “Would America Be Better Off Without Religion?”

That provocative big-picture question is the title of an article by grad student Casey Chalk, which we’ll turn to after some ground-clearing. Atheism (or its cousin, agnosticism) isn’t what it used to be. Folks who didn’t believe in God used to mostly downplay it while polite public debate engaged certain thinkers like Bertrand Russell (“Why I Am Not a Christian,” 1927) or J. L. Mackie (“The Miracle of Theism,” 1982).

In recent times, faith has been thrown more on the defensive, not just by skepticism from those without but damaging developments from within—horrid scandals of sexual predators among Christian clergy. Angry Protestant splits over whether to shed traditional sexual morals. Terrorism by Muslim sects and certain Buddhists and Hindus.

Well-publicized “new atheists” have emerged more aggressively to attack believers as not merely mistaken but downright stupid—even evil. Take James Haught who wrote for the Freedom From Religion Foundation that said that because people are getting smarter they “perceive that magical dogmas are a bunch of hooey—just fairy tales with no factual reality…. Right before our eyes, supernatural faith is dying in America.” (Actually, there’s a slide, not death).  Notably, Haught was West Virginia’s most important journalist, as longtime editor of the Charleston Gazette.

Such bludgeoning can have limited persuasive power except among those already convinced. But Max Boot offered an interesting new anti-faith line this year in a Washington Post column (behind a paywall). This Soviet immigrant is a public intellectual to reckon with, as a senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and acclaimed author (also conservative Never-Trumper on cable newscasts).

“Too much religion is bad for a country,” Boot contended. He made that case by compiling nation-by-nation statistics on e.g. per capita gross domestic product, unemployment, poverty, homicide, life expectancy, infant mortality, education, and political liberties.

By those criteria “less religious nations are much better off,” he said, citing, in particular, Japan and de-Christianized Australia, Belgium, Britain, and Sweden. Meanwhile, he said, devout countries lack such advantages, listing India (mostly Hindu), Nigeria (Christian and Muslim), Pakistan (Muslim), the Philippines (Catholic), and Thailand (Buddhist).

The United States remains an exception, democratic, and prosperous yet much more religious than affluent western Europe, which has floated away from its Christian heritage. Thus the question: Would America be even better off if it followed the Europeans’ secular path?

Boot’s challenge is taken up at thepublicdiscourse.com by Chalk, a University of Virginia alumnus studying theology at Christendom College, a conservative Catholic school. He thinks Boot’s measurements for nations’ well-being are too narrow: “Being well-educated and living longer may not be so great if one lives depressed and suffering from compulsive addictions, then dies alone and forgotten.” Religious faith is a major reason people can escape such sad fates, he says.

Wealthy and secularized countries face “unprecedented levels of social isolation, depression and loneliness,” Chalk writes, noting Japan’s soaring suicide rate while religious nations are among the least suicidal—for instance, the Philippines (ranking 159th among the nations) or Pakistan (169th). The government in secular Britain was alarmed when a survey found 14 percent of people “often or always” feel lonely. Compounding that, he adds, is analysts’ growing awareness of “socially isolating” and “addicting” problems with social media, smartphones, video game culture, and pornography.

Chalk says many research reports substantiate the following Mayo Clinic overview: “Most studies have shown that religious involvement and spirituality are associated with better health outcomes, including greater longevity, coping skills, and health-related quality of life (even during terminal illness) and less anxiety, depression, and suicide.” Also, “several studies have shown that addressing the spiritual needs of the patient may enhance recovery from illness.”

Or this. University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, a specialist in American families, reports that those who regularly attend worship services are on average “less likely to cheat on their partners, less likely to abuse them, more likely to enjoy happier marriages, and less likely to have been divorced.” Similarly, the standard General Social Survey found that regular religious attendees are more likely to report they’re “very happy” in their marriages compared with those who rarely worship.

Other studies indicate that religious parents spend more quality time with their children, and more frequently express praise and affection toward them. A representative sample of 16,000 American youths concluded that those raised in religious families have “better self-control, social skills, and approaches to learning” than those from non-religious homes. And so forth.

Years ago, fears about a “population explosion” were abroad, but now there’s concern over the unsustainable “population collapse” in Japan and western Europe. Chalk echoes those who think “catastrophically low birth rates” endanger such nations’ “economic viability and socio-cultural stability.” Against that,  religious couples tend to have more children than others, presumably due to their optimistic outlook. For more, see the new book “Fertility and Faith” by historian Philip Jenkins.

The Religion Guy figures Chalk’s most powerful argument is that writers like Boot sidestep Christianity’s centuries of cultural contributions in the development of human rights, law, democracy, science, medicine, education, technology, economic development,  the creative arts, public virtue, idealism, and altruism. Chalk contends that the secularizing western nations still “enjoy the many benefits of their religious inheritance” from the past.

Conservative Protestant Mark Tooley agrees that Boot ignores the West’s Jewish and Christian cultural background. With wealthy democracies, belief in “human dignity did not drop out of the sky. It is the legacy of Christendom” in which each person bears God’s image. The secular Europeans “are still operating on social premises based on centuries of accumulated spiritual capital.”

Concluding note: This debate takes a practical, instrumental approach to religion’s value for a country and its people, rather than discussing whether it’s true. For detail on statistics and studies Chalk cites, see his article and Tooley’s analysis.

This piece first appeared at Get Religion and Religion Unplugged.

Richard Ostling

Richard Ostling is a former religion reporter for the Associated Press and former correspondent for TIME Magazine.