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  • Pastor Jen Wilson

Is Religion Toxic?

Religious people are generally happier, live longer and have better marriages.*

Facts, not popular opinions shared over and over again, are supposed to help us make decisions on matters of importance, but do they? Have facts lost their luster? What happens inside of you when you read statistics and data that contradicts commonly held beliefs that are shared in cultural settings, school hallways and during coffee conversations? What do you need in order to change your mind? Maybe it's not so much that we need to change our mind. Perhaps, C.S. Lewis was right, "Most people don’t need to be taught, they need only to be reminded.”

Rodney Stark is one of the most celebrated and respected sociologists of religion in the world. 30 books and more than 140 articles on subjects as diverse as prejudice, crime, suicide and city life in ancient Rome are credited to his name. Rodney has twice won the Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

His conclusions are based on detailed sociological data that are so contrary to popular opinion and the assumed narrative of the post-Christian west that most people will reject them and work to undermine them altogether. However, that doesn’t mean Stark's conclusions aren’t true. People believe what they believe until they are given a reason to not to. So, let's read what Rodney Stark discovered and interpret some of his conclusions.

His Conclusions*

Here is Rodney Stark's data you can read for yourself. And again, let’s remind ourselves, his conclusions are based on actual research done by an actual sociologist and his colleagues. Stark shows that the academic literature routinely ignores evidence of religion’s beneficial social effects. He demonstrates that religious people:

  • Are the primary source of secular charitable funds that benefit victims of misfortune whatever their beliefs

  • Dominate the ranks of blood donors and other prosocial behaviors

  • Are much less likely to commit crimes

  • Far more likely to donate their money and time to socially beneficial programs and to be active in civic affairs. (The impact of religious people on volunteering alone is an estimated $47 billion annually in the United States alone!)

  • Enjoy superior mental health – are deemed happier, less neurotic, and far less likely to commit suicide

  • Enjoy superior physical health – have an average life expectancy more than seven years longer than that of the irreligious

  • Read more than their irreligious friends and neighbors

  • Are less likely to believe in the occult, UFO’s, Bigfoot, etc.

  • More apt to marry, less likely to divorce, and report higher degrees of satisfaction with their spouse.

  • Religious husbands are far less likely to abuse their wives or children. This is of course contrary to the story that religions create systems of oppression in the home because of ‘male patriarchy’.

  • Religious fathers are more likely to be involved in child and youth-related activities such as coaching sports teams or leading Scout troops, etc.

  • Religious couples enjoy their sex lives more. They are less likely to have an affair.

  • Religious students perform better on standardized achievement tests, are far less likely to drop out of school, obtain better jobs upon graduation, and are far less likely to be on unemployment (the studies for all of these and especially this one and all surrounding crime stats, etc., factor in races/geographies across the U.S.)

  • In 247 studies done between 1944 and 2010: religion has a positive effect on society in regard to crime, deviance, and delinquency.

  • Crime rates in the US compared to the decidedly less religious countries of Western Europe are glaringly less in many categories, with the exception of homicide rates: Denmark has nearly two-and-a-half times as many burglaries per 100,000 people, and is exceeded by Austria, Switzerland, the U.K., Sweden, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The same is true for theft, and assault rates.

  • Urban stats going from present-day back to the 1920s shows that the higher a city’s church membership rate, the lower its burglary, larceny, robbery, assault, and homicide rates.*

Are you afraid of data?

In his book Think Again, organizational psychologist Adam Grant mentions that we can’t be afraid to be influenced by actual data in forming ideas. Consider whether or not you make decisions based on facts or what other people have told you.

Here is what Grant says, “When it comes to our knowledge and opinions, we often favor feeling right over being right… we favor the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt.” This is a scary thought, but is proven over and over again in the realm of psychology, and as a pastor, I have seen it over and over again in ministry – People have their views and they believe and promote data and ‘facts’ that support those views and ignore contrary data. It’s true about all of us.

I point all of this out to you because I believe it is time to challenge the most powerful, overarching narrative of our time – that God and religion have no place in society or our daily lives. Edging God out, EGO, cannot supplant the facts. Not only is that a simplistic, reductionist narrative to sell the public, it is blatantly wrong and has been wrong for centuries. Data draws the opposite picture that without religious people and groups, society as a whole, including the marginalized, would be far worse off.

A different conclusion

I am not a sociologist nor a scientist. I am a pastor. I have a lot of conversations with people who don't really know Christianity. A sordid history of Christianity is told over and over again with so much passion and conviction that it lives in our collective consciousness as fact. I am challenging you to be skeptical about the right things and to stop spreading distortions. The idea that religion is bad for society simply isn’t true and it isn’t true in a hundred different ways as Rodney Stark has revealed.

Would you be willing to change your own internal narrative and adjust your worldview even slightly when you are presented factual information? Truthfully, we all have to be willing to reexamine our beliefs and 'rethink' the question of God and how what we believe about God matters to society.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was preacher--a fact most people ignore. He cited the prophets of the Bible in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. He did not write an atheist manifesto. The dream Dr. King illuminated for us all originated from a previous vision. The vision of equality and character could only be accomplished when the dream was built on a foundation discovered outside ourselves. God gave humankind its equality. There is an audacious claim that humankind was made in the image of God. Equality and character cannot be regulated by the state or social class or because humanity evolved as a more enlightened primate. Dr. King's argument, like Wilberforce and so many others before him, was that social good and flourishing was rooted in God. As others have pointed out, it wasn’t that America needed less religion, but better religion.

Christianity is on the brink of a time of exciting discovery. Allow a healthy dose of skepticism to flavor your decision making process along with a clever foundation of humility when it comes to making decisions about your Christian belief. A rugged and fierce individualism won't help us to know God. It separates us from Him. Facts are our friends. Facts have already proven we cannot do things on our own. God's vision of a good and flourishing humanity built on equality and character brings peace even to people who don’t agree with it. Does that sound toxic to you?

Consider the words of Jesus: "Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know. Adam Grant. Viking. 2021

America's Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone Including Atheists. Rodney Stark. Templeton. 2013.

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