An unforgettable scene in the kids movie Madagascar 2 has King Julian, “Lord of the Lemurs,” reclining with his friends at the luxury end of a rickety old plane watching newsreels of aircraft crashes while the penguins dubiously take the controls.
When Melman, the giraffe, walks to the front and pokes his head through the curtain dividing ‘cattle class’ from the elites, Julian exclaims in horror, “Do you mind going back. This is first class. Nothing personal, it’s just that we are better than you.”
If you were to read sociologist Rodney Stark’s America’s Blessings – How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists, without knowing the context into which it is written, and especially if you were not religious yourself, you might feel that Stark has adopted something like Julian’s posture of blatant, smug superiority.
But the context matters a great deal. Stark has written about the impact of religion, and especially Christianity, for decades, having been professor of sociology and professor of comparative religion for over 30 years at Washington University. For most of that time he would have described himself as agnostic, although his recent publications indicate a shift to at least theism.
Years of experience in an academic field that is typically hostile to Christianity may have taken their toll. Either way Stark comes out swinging, and perhaps overreaches at times, in putting a case that a “full accounting of the tangible human and social benefits of faith in American society” reveals huge benefits to the common good because of religion.
Stark bemoans the fact that intellectuals, especially in universities and the news media overlook a vital aspect of American life – that enormous benefits come to the whole country precisely because it is such a religious nation – and that these benefits are things that everyone can be glad of regardless of personal beliefs. He sees himself as correcting false perceptions, and challenging the ignorance and prejudice of influential but misinformed commentators and writers who he says are often contemptuous of faith and religious people. Stark is reacting to not only the outright hostility of a media unenlightened in spiritual matters, but also the neglect of well-attested studies that highlight the positive impacts of faith.
The US is a very religious place. Almost everyone believes in God and the vast majority respond to that belief with practice – high levels of involvement in faith communities along with prayer and the reading of scripture. Contrary to the accepted wisdom of certain circles, the impact of this religiosity is overwhelmingly positive. On every measurable standard, writes Stark, American life is bolstered by religious adherence which broadly leads to better physical and mental health, improved life-expectancy, better educational outcomes, higher levels of fertility and more harmonious families and communities.
When exhibiting high levels of religious commitment Americans are more likely to contribute both time and money to secular charities, gain access to better jobs, and be active in civic affairs. Contrary to the caricature of religious Americans being ignorant and uncultured, Stark finds in his research that religious Americans are most likely to consume and support “high” culture and to be less prone to belief in occult and paranormal activity like UFOs, haunted houses and astrology.
No doubt Stark’s work will draw howls of protest, but he can’t be too swiftly dismissed as a religious loony, partly because his personal beliefs are at best difficult to pinpoint, and secondly because he is so well regarded in his field. He relies on robust research and reliable data, excluding studies that don’t draw on well-selected samples and relevant populations. Where there are obvious limitations to the studies he cites, he says so, and provides a compelling case against some of what passes as research in this area.
Throughout this work Stark makes comparisons between America and the much more secular Western Europe. The contrast is striking in many places. His assessment of crime and pro-social behaviour for example, will raise some eyebrows. Despite the widely-held image of crime-ridden America, Stark finds that the average person in irreligious Sweden is 3.5 times more likely to be criminally assaulted than the average American and twice as likely to be a victim of theft. Assault rates are far higher in the UK, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Netherlands, Portugal and France than they are in the US. When it comes to burglary the stats are similar.
“Attempted murder” rates are high in European countries, but Stark attributes the much higher homicide rate in America to the proliferation of guns. When American citizens, armed to the teeth, initiate a homicidal act they usually succeed, whereas in Europe they mostly fail.
A key blessing of America’s religious commitment is that unlike Western Europe, the US is not faced with a shrinking population. Fertility rates are high and it’s all because of religion, Stark says. Further, research shows that the more religious a couple are, the more stable, satisfying, and beneficial to the community their family life is likely to be.
And what about the sex lives of the faithful compared to those who have shunned religion? Given the portrayal of Christianity in the media and pop culture, one might imagine that committed faith is a sure road towards repression, guilt, shame and denial of pleasure in the bedroom. Not so, says Stark. Evidently the positive view of sex in the Bible carries over into marriages. Studies into the sex lives of Americans show that conservative Protestants (both men and women) are having sex more often than any other group and conservative protestant women are the most likely to report being “extremely satisfied” both physically and emotionally with their sex lives. Might it be that limits rather than an attitude of sexual license is the pathway to fulfilment? That is a radical idea in the current climate.
Stark makes some fascinating observations about the shape of Christianity today. The perception that religion is dying out in the West largely emerges from the undoubted decline of the theologically liberal “mainline” churches that once dominated the religious landscape but do so no longer. In the US these are (broadly speaking) the Episcopalians, the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and some others.
As they have moved further and further away from the essentials of Christianity their corresponding fade towards obscurity has been inexorable. Empty sandstone buildings sold as nightclubs, movie theatres and B&Bs provide an image that fits this picture.
But while that decline is undeniable, so too is the energy and growth of the more conservative, theologically orthodox churches. Americans are as likely to attend a church as they ever were and more belong to a local church than ever. “In the case of religion,” writes Stark, “people do not flock to faiths that ask the least of them, but those that credibly offer the most religious rewards for the sacrifices required to qualify.” Such is the lesson that Stark draws from the data on those churches that are prepared to challenge the prevailing culture rather than bow to it.
Stark makes an entertaining and compelling case for the place and role of religion for society. Yet even for someone positively inclined towards Stark’s very positive findings, there are moments where one feels that his analysis is unnecessarily one-sided and hence the likely impact of his case somewhat diminished. In a chapter extolling the impact of religious adherence in promoting good citizenship Stark turns his attention to social and political issues. On the question of whether the federal government should do more to protect the environment we learn that 93 per cent of those without religion say yes, along with 83 per cent of Roman Catholics, and 82 per cent of Liberal Protestants. The overwhelming majority of Americans want the government to protect the environment and so do 76 per cent of evangelicals, writes Stark. See, even the right wing Christians are greenies at heart!
But surely it’s worth commenting that 76 per cent, while possibly higher than some would have imagined, is still low for a group that ought to believe the earth is the Lord’s and that humans have the task of caring for it.
Stark finds strong correlations between attending church and the likelihood of upholding a more prestigious job. There are no doubt complex reasons for this and even a non-specialist could see that these results are influenced by the fact that in America being religious is “normal” and therefore in some communities not only is it beneficial in terms of getting ahead, but necessary. Stark should have made more of this reality, as on some findings it must play a role.
Readers of Stark’s work may be left wondering, if all these benefits accrue to such a nation because of its religion, why America isn’t more representative of the heart of the Christian faith – with an outward focus, an emphasis on compassion for the poor and a turn-the-other-cheek posture in the face of enemies. It’s a complicated story. As Don Watson described it, the US is at once a freak show and a brave human enterprise. Something similar applies to American religion, where you truly see the best and worst of Christianity.
America’s Blessings is another important contribution from Rodney Stark in the study of religion. Where influential voices continue to deride, marginalise and misunderstand the impact of religion, particularly Christianity, careful research may give them reason to pause.
Strikingly, Stark concludes his work with a rough but reasonable calculation of the savings to US society each year that are directly attributable to the religiousness of the nation. $2.67 trillion is a figure not to be sniffed at. Economists and pollies take note! Stark acknowledges that not only are these figures inadequate but also they are beside the point. Even if the numbers are close to right, the intangible benefits of American life provided by its religious culture are worth immeasurably more.
Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and the co-author with Jane Caro, Antony Loewenstein, and Rachel Woodlock of the upcoming book, “For God’s Sake – an Atheist, a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim debate religion”. This article first appeared on ABC, The Drum.