BENEFITS OF RELIGION IN THE SOCIETY
News Articles,Public Affairs
An article written by Don Horrocks in response to the Charity Commission’s consultation on ‘Public Benefit and the Advancement of Religion’
08 July 2008
The Charity Commission’s consultation on ‘Public Benefit and the Advancement of Religion’ ended on 30th June. We can expect a period of serious reflection and critical questioning before the Commission finalises its guidance to the religious charitable sector in accordance with its monitoring of charities in the light of the Charities Act 2006.
Many religious groups, including the Evangelical Alliance, have generally welcomed the new Act and have broadly supported the new concept of charities in future having to demonstrate their contribution to public benefit rather than it being presumed as in the past. However, some serious concerns remain. The Church of England, for example, warned that Christian charities in particular are in danger of political interference from the new public benefit rules. It is worried that a charity existing exclusively to promote traditional Christian views in a particular area – such as marriage and sexual ethics – could have its charitable status threatened, and that the Commission’s intention to assess membership criteria, evangelism methods, doctrinal interpretation, and public opinion represents a serious exceeding of powers and competence. It also points out that religious groups who provide pastoral care are already under pressure in other areas to suppress their religious character and distinctives.
Whilst the benefits of religion and belief do have to be assessed and articulated in satisfactory ways to be comprehensible to a largely secular legal world, because spiritual benefit, for example, may be less easy to quantify, it is important that its distinctive language should not become marginalized in favour of purely secular categories. Spiritual benefit is not a notional concept but its relevance and significance is often only appreciated by experience. The challenge of understanding and recognising the validity, nature and language of religion and belief in terms of its own particular character relating to public benefits needs to be respected and taken on board, not least as religion and belief now forms a major human rights strand of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Attempts to reduce the language of religion and belief to purely secular/sociological terminology or the lowest common language denominator of ‘non-religious belief systems’ and so-called humanist ‘spiritualised principles’ should be resisted. Whilst it clearly needs to explain itself in understandable categories, in dealing with religion and belief its own terminology should not be discarded whilst attempting to force it into a ‘one size fits all’ secular mould that may be unsuited to its particular nature and characteristics. Requiring religion to speak only the language of the non-religious is a dangerous notion since secular organisations are frequently diametrically opposed to faith and share little in common, notwithstanding attempts by e.g., humanist groups to present themselves as a secular version of religion. It is therefore crucial that religious charitable organisations are asked the right and the most appropriate questions and are not merely required to check lowest common denominator tick boxes.
In other areas, the Charity Commission suggests that it is sufficient to demonstrate public benefit merely to ‘appreciate the arts’ or to ‘experience positive feelings when helping sick animals’. In which case self-evident spiritual benefits provided by religion and belief should be acknowledged for what they are on their own terms, traditionally expressed in the ‘edification and improvement’ of a religion’s followers. Measurement of public benefit should effectively depend on usage – i.e., the fact that people find religion helpful and evidence this by what they do – e.g., in attending church or by other forms of participation. If the felt benefit may be described, for example, in terms of the sense of forgiveness and assurance of salvation experienced through the cross of Jesus Christ, then that should represent a valid religion and belief public benefit descriptor. Though tangible social and community activities often accompany religious faith as inspiration for and manifestation of the outworking of that faith, religion and belief should not necessarily have to demonstrate such other tangible benefits but should be accepted as affording spiritual health and wellbeing in its own right – however indirect or intangible. The whole point is that faith generally equips individuals and groups with the mental and spiritual motivations necessary to be good citizens, a fact that is usually uncontested but that can relatively easily be demonstrated by reference to statistics relating to e.g., crime and social action. Religion does not claim exclusivity in positive contribution to society, but it does claim disproportionate contribution. Indeed, most major charitable institutions owe their origins to religious motivation.
The Evangelical Alliance, in its recent submission to the Charity Commission, took the opportunity to restate some of the features that make the Christian community a vital part of the charity sector:
The value contributed to society by the Christian community in particular and religion and belief in general has often been highlighted. Recent responses by Christian groups to the Charity Commission seek to highlight and articulate the case for charitable status to be retained for all forms of legitimate Christian religious activity, including proclamation of the Christian gospel. Government, Prime Minister,
Chancellor and Home Secretary have all expressed strong recent support for faith groups and the role they play in developing civic society and providing crucial social support community networks.
With regard to missionary or evangelistic Christian charities, questions are still asked as to whether activity solely aimed at presenting and seeking responses to the Gospel should be regarded as meeting the public benefit test. This question was addressed in Government consultations and it was clearly accepted in the consequent parliamentary debates on the Charities Act 2006 that such organisations unquestionably qualified for charitable status. It was recognised that religious organisations need to be able to sustain themselves into the future, something that has always been done through the medium of evangelism (the non-coercive communication of the Christian faith to those not yet committed to the gospel of Christ).
Does Religion Benefit Society?
In my travels I’ve come across the claim that the United States would be much better if everyone was a Christian (or sometimes it’s just some kind of theist) many times. I haven’t seen any polls done on that belief, but based on my experience I bet a good number of people hold it.
Which I why I found this study to be so interesting. It’s titled Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies (say that ten times fast), from the Journal of Society and Religion. Gregory S. Paul analyzed a whole boatload of data on nearly every indicator for societal health, from violence to STDs, from nearly every first-world country, and compared that to the country’s religiosity. Lets see what he found.
For starters, almost everyone knows that the US is pretty religious. But just in case you didn’t: “[T]he United States is the only prosperous first world nation to retain rates of religiosity otherwise limited to the second and third worlds.” The polls I’ve read vary, but it’s usually between 80 and 90 percent of people believing in a god of some form, with over half taking the Bible literally (although this study says 30%), and a solid majority attending regular services (although this study says 40%). Like I said, polls vary, but the numbers are in that range.
One good indicator of societal health is murder rates. People in a healthy society don’t kill each other. Plus, the Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill”, so if people take the Bible seriously (as a large number of Americans do), we should have lower murder rates. This is not the case: “[T]he U.S. is the only prosperous democracy that retains high homicide rates, making it a strong outlier in this regard.” We’re not the only one, either: “Similarly, theistic Portugal also has rates of homicides well above the secular developed democracy norm.”
High religiosity doesn’t help our kids much either, we have far more school shootings and the same teen suicide rates as the other Western democracies. How about violent crime? The story is a little bit better here: “Other prosperous democracies do not significantly exceed the U.S. in rates of nonviolent and in non-lethal violent crime, and are often lower in this regard.” Well, that’s some good news. Kind of.
How do we fare with teenage pregnancy? After all, every religion I know of preaches abstinence until marriage, so shouldn’t religion decrease teenage pregnancy? Well, no: “Early adolescent pregnancy and birth have dropped in the developed democracies… but rates are two to dozens of times higher in the U.S. where the decline has been more modest.” As you would expect with this data, we also have poor STD rates: “[R]ates of adolescent gonorrhea infection remain six to three hundred times higher in the U.S. than in less theistic, pro-evolution secular developed democracies... The U.S. also suffers from uniquely high adolescent and adult syphilis infection rates.”
But surely we get less abortions. We have the largest percentage of people who believe in God, and quite a large number of (generally religious) pro-lifers, so we must kill less babies? Right? Again, no: “Increasing adolescent abortion rates show positive correlation with increasing belief and worship of a creator, and negative correlation with increasing non-theism and acceptance of evolution.”
It’s pretty clear that high religiosity doesn’t help out our society very much. But that’s not the end of it, we even tend to die sooner than other democracies: “Life spans tend to decrease as rates of religiosity rise, especially as a function of absolute belief.”
To sum up:
In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies... The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly. The view of the U.S. as a “shining city on the hill” to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health.
Although they are by no means utopias, the populations of secular democracies are clearly able to govern themselves and maintain societal cohesion. Indeed, the data examined in this study demonstrates that only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical “cultures of life” that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion. The least theistic secular developed democracies such as Japan, France, and Scandinavia have been most successful in these regards.
Because I’m pretty sure that some people will protest, I want to point out a few things. First, I don’t think religious people are bad, and this study does not make that claim. Second, I’m not saying that religion makes society bad. As I’ve said before, correlation does not mean causation. It could very well be that there is something else underlying this trend; the US is different enough from Europe where that’s entirely possible. However, it would be very, very difficult for the claim that religion makes societies better to be true. As Mr. Paul says:
The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted. Contradicting these conclusions requires demonstrating a positive link between theism and societal conditions in the first world with a similarly large body of data - a doubtful possibility in view of the observable trends.
Also, don’t write this off as only one study, especially without looking through his references (which I deleted from the quotes, there were quite a few). Even dismissing this one, I’ve read others (such as one here, although it’s a bit buried), and I’ve seen a good portion of the data. It would be almost impossible for religion to make society as a whole better given the fact that secular Europe beats us in every measure of societal health. However, I doubt that anyone who has made this claim will be influenced by studies like this one. Which is unfortunate, because the sooner we move past the ridiculous claim that more religion is what we need, we might actually be able to work on improving our society. I’m not holding my breath.