Does Religion “Poison Everything”?

Nope. Christopher Hitchens was way off.

I’ll begin with seven studies that highlight the benefits of religious belief. I can’t take credit for finding these. They were recently shared by the fantastic Facebook page “Libertarian Christian“.

(I’ll wait while you go like their page.)

1. People who believe in God are happier than agnostics or atheists. “Using data from Britain and Europe, the study found believers enjoyed higher levels of satisfaction and suffered less psychological damage from unemployment, divorce or the death of a partner.”

2. Faith and well-being. “[Actively] religious North Americans are much less likely than irreligious people to become delinquent, to abuse drugs and alcohol, to divorce, and to commit suicide…Among mothers of developmentally challenged children, those with a deep religious faith are less vulnerable to depression…For people later in life, according to one meta-analysis, the two best predictors of life satisfaction have been health and religiousness.”

3. Religion and mortality among the community-dwelling elderly.  “Persons who attended religious services had lower mortality than those who did not (age- and sex-adjusted relative hazard [RH] = 0.64; 95% confidence interval [CI] = 0.52, 0.78). Multivariate adjustment reduced this relationship only slightly (RH = 0.76; 95% CI = 0.62, 0.94), primarily by including physical functioning and social support…Lower mortality rates for those who attend religious services are only partly explained by the 6 possible confounders listed above.”

4. Research shows religion plays a major role in health, longevity. “The research showed that people who never attended services had an 87 percent higher risk of dying during the follow-up period than those who attended more than once a week. The research also revealed that women and blacks can enjoy especially longer lives if they are religiously active.”

5. Religion and spirituality among centenarians. “In his on going study Dr. Perls found a very large number of centenarians to be religious. Dr. Perls feels that centenarians do not “sweat the small stuff” when it comes to stress…[Almost] all centenarians [believe] it is “God’s will” that they have lived so long. In a lifetime of a century or more that often has a centenarian outliving relatives and close friends, a connection to God gives them something to hang on to, and a way to stay connected.”

6. The relationship between religious activities and blood pressure in older adults. “Among participants who both attended religious services and prayed or studied the Bible frequently, the likelihood of having a diastolic blood pressure of 90 mm Hg or higher was 40 percent lower than found in participants who attended religious services infrequently and prayed or studied the Bible infrequently (OR 0.60, 95% CI, 0.48-0.75, p < .0001).”

7. Spiritual well-being, depressive symptoms, and immune status among women living with HIV/AIDS. “Significant inverse associations were observed between depressive symptoms and spiritual well-being (r = -.55, p = .0001), and its components, existential well-being (r = -.62, p = .0001) and religious well-being (r = -.36, p = .0001). Significant positive associations were observed between existential well-being and CD4 cell count (r = .19, p < .05) and also between spiritual well-being (r = .24, p < .05), religious well-being (r = .21, p < .05), and existential well-being (r = .22, p < .05) and CD4 cell percentages.”

And beyond simple benefits to one’s own health and wellness:

Here’s an article describing the contributions of religious leaders in combating the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

“[The standard narrative] contains some important elements of truth: Pharmacological treatments in particular are transforming HIV from a death sentence into a manageable, chronic condition, at least for those with access to antiretrovirals. But most of the measured improvements in AIDS in Africa are actually the result of cumulative, widespread behavior change that has led to a reduction in new HIV infections. In other words, the standard narrative is wrong.

The narrative is wrong because it ignores local African responses to AIDS and characterizes religion and religious leaders as part of the problem. We have systematically studied the role of religious leaders in sub-Saharan Africa for about a decade. As a single class of people, local religious leaders sit at the very top of our list of who should receive credit for the behavior changes that have curbed the spread of HIV in Africa…

In congregations where AIDS and sexual mortality are discussed regularly, unmarried people are more likely to report being abstinent and married individuals faithful to their spouses.”

Matthew Parris, an atheist, writes on how “Africa needs God”.

“Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding – as you can – the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It’s a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

But this doesn’t fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.”

Tim O’Neill, also an atheist, dispels the popular misconception that religion has historically been detrimental to scientific progress.

“I love to totally stump these propagators by asking them to present me with the name of one – just one – scientist burned, persecuted, or oppressed for their science in the Middle Ages. They always fail to come up with any. They usually try to crowbar Galileo back into the Middle Ages, which is amusing considering he was a contemporary of Descartes. When asked why they have failed to produce any such scientists given the Church was apparently so busily oppressing them, they often resort to claiming that the Evil Old Church did such a good job of oppression that everyone was too scared to practice science. By the time I produce a laundry list of Medieval scientists – like Albertus Magnus, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Peckham, Duns Scotus, Thomas Bradwardine, Walter Burley, William Heytesbury, Richard Swineshead, John Dumbleton, Richard of Wallingford, Nicholas Oresme, Jean Buridan and Nicholas of Cusa – and ask why these men were happily pursuing science in the Middle Ages without molestation from the Church, my opponents usually scratch their heads in puzzlement at what just went wrong.”

Studies consistently show that religious people donate more to charity.

Couples who attend religious services together report higher levels of happiness and marital satisfaction.

Religious belief can provide a sufficient grounding for objective moral values.

It can offer rational justification for acts of heroism and self-sacrifice.

It can account for mankind’s appreciation of beauty and sense of longing.

It can coherently integrate the body and the soul, providing a higher ideal for romantic love than society’s “LGBTQIA” alphabet soup classification of genital urges.

And I could go on, but it’s time for me to go make dinner. If you want to drop additional links in the comments, I’ll add them to the list.

[Also, a tip of the hat to Wintery Knight and Neil Shenvi for pointing me toward a couple of the sources referenced above.]

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12 thoughts on “Does Religion “Poison Everything”?

  1. All good stuff I’m sure, but my favorite is the atheist’s examination of Christianity, because he’s presumably in a sense an objective observer:

    “In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

    “. . . I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

    “But this doesn’t fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.”

    Have you read Theodore Dalrymple’s atheist’s defense of Christianity? It’s great:
    http://www.city-journal.org/html/17_4_oh_to_be.html

  2. For the sake of argument, let’s accept that everything positive you’re saying about religion is true, but try to defend Hitchens’s statement. To be clear, I don’t go as far as Hitchens to argue that religion poisons *everything*, but I do feel that different religions have done a lot of good and bad at different times. I feel like you have to separate the wheat from the chaff, in a perhaps apt analogy.

    Your evidence that practicing *any* religion increases community, social support, and better health does little to counter the idea that religion can be poisonous, because a focus only on the positive aspects of religion is misleading. The logic of Hitchens implies that you can have the positive aspects of religion without all of the dogma or exclusion of any one faith and, furthermore, that you could get these benefits through pretty much any religion undermines the idea that one of them is better than any other.

    None of the benefits you’ve described in this post are out of reach for, say, a thoughtful humanist who meditates and pauses to be grateful for their existence, or to ponder the great wonderment of the Universe. Can you measure the difference between an atheist who goes to a UU congregation every week and an evangelical Christian who goes to church every Sunday?

    Additionally, I haven’t even touched the last half of your post yet, and there is a lot of evidence to justify that non-religious people are just as capable of charity (Foundation Beyond Belief), self-sacrifice and heroism (Pat Tillman/A. Philip Randolph), an appreciation of beauty and sense of longing (read anything at this link by Adam Frank: http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/), or high ideals of romantic love (check out this post from Adam Lee of “Daylight Atheism”: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism/essays/spiritual-fire/) or if you really want to challenge your ideas about the “alphabet soup” and its compatibility with the highest ideals of love, read some essays by Greta Christina on FTB – a queer sex writer and atheist…and a lovely person who wrote the following obituary about her father: http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2012/10/12/richard-hermann-muelder-1933-2012/ …). Lastly, if you can consider all of this in its totality, and claim that there is not a sufficient basis for happiness and morality, I’m not sure what else to say. I can argue why atheists have a basis for these things if you want – and you know I have – but, sometimes, examples are so much more powerful than abstract ideas.

    In essence, religious dogma can be the Internet Explorer which you may not want to use, but comes as a default package, along with the Windows Suite of benefits that you have listed. But the rest of the package can still work great on its own. Sure, religion is good for you if you’re in a particular religious community, but then religion has also set communities of people against each other, often viciously and spitefully. Why not take the best of religion, and use that to create a better world for people of all beliefs and backgrounds?

    And yes, I’m aware that non-religious kinds of communities are capable of the same problems…but also, potentially, the same benefits. Everyone is equally human – and that is why I try not to bash religious people more than any other people – since we all make the same mistakes, and having a certain belief doesn’t always – or even usually – make you a better person.

    (Then why don’t we see more options, more communities, that are like religion but not as dogmatic? – is something you may very well ask me, and would be a good point. To continue this analogy, religion today is like Microsoft in that it corners the market so much, so pervasively, that people forget there are any other alternatives. Of course, Microsoft never told you that you’re going to burn for all of eternity or that you’re not a moral human being if you use Apple, so religion actually has a lot more advantages in cornering the market than Bill Gates ever had.)

    Tl;dr –> People of good conscience can change the world for the better without religion (and their examples are legion), people can retain the benefits of religion by forming close communities that use the best but not the worst of religion, and the main obstacle to having a thriving group of non-religious communities that rivals current religion is the prejudice and discrimination of society which stigmatizes the non-religious and treats religion as the default option to which everyone should adhere. The benefits of religion as it exists today do not necessarily outweigh the negative effects of religion.

    * I am well aware that “religion” is not a monolith, and that of course there is an endless array of different religious traditions and different perspectives within those traditions, and of course all of those paths have their positive and negative attributes. So, I mainly end up generalizing in this comment for the sake of convenience, but please be aware that I am comfortable with many different positive aspects of various religions. So, YMMV.

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  4. I know plenty of really nice religious people that I don’t consider to be especially poisoned by their belief.

    The ‘poisoning’, to stick with that metaphor, is the enabling. Where faith and commitment to a specific dogma have a tight hold of your rationality you are inclined to be more easily convinced by arguments that affirm your view. In fact affirmation is a specific attribute of religious belief. And if you don’t believe quite enough yet, then keep trying – praxis will get you there. This mode of thought is precisely the type of enabling that allows many Muslims to think that apostasy should be punished by death – not because of any empathetic reasoning about the human wellbeing your list claims; quite the opposite, as it’s the authority of the religion that is dictating what you should believe.

    There is no difference in the methods of belief, and it is only the lucky coincidence of infecting, the brains of reasonable people, that prevents many religious people doing the bad things that the religion sometimes requires. But they are carriers and spreaders of the infection. Look at the infection regarding gay marriage and how you justify its opposition on religious grounds, a proscription based on a belief in a metaphysics of a god you have no evidence for whatsoever.

    Matthew Parris might be right, on how effective religion has been in Africa. But I’m sure many of the religious helpers there would oppose the homosexuality of Matthew Parris. So it’s not all sweetness and light.

    And, you neglected to include what I think are significant points made by Parris:

    There’s long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: â??theirsâ? and therefore best for â??themâ?; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.

    I don’t follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the â??big manâ? and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.

    Anxiety – fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things – strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won’t take the initiative, won’t take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.

    So, Parris is really explaining how these religious and superstitious people can be liberated and improved by Christianity. Well, no doubt Christianity, at its best, is an improvement on some other superstitions, and even better than some atheist communist systems such as implemented in parts of the East.

    The thing is, we have never had a big Humanist system. Secular charities are project biased and have not, for example, been dedicated to spreading the ‘secular Humanist word’. Roman Catholicism and Christianity generally has dominated the West and has been the only system with the capacity to indulge in such missions. Christianity in Africa has had a head start. And let’s not get away from the rather mixed results, where retaining a superstition can lead to rather odd poisoning whereby Christians still believe in child witches.

    And unlike businesses the churches don’t have to make a profit as such, they only have to convince enough people to give. Now that might be giving to a large and opulent church in Rome, or it might be donating to ever more wealthy TV evangelists in the US, or even to Rick Warren’s home – Christian evangelism isn’t quite as innocent as your post makes out.

    Back to Parris:

    To the rural African mind, this is an explanation of why one would not climb the mountain. It’s… well, there. Just there. Why interfere? Nothing to be done about it, or with it. Hillary’s further explanation – that nobody else had climbed it – would stand as a second reason for passivity.

    Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosophical/spiritual framework I’ve just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

    Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted.

    They are already myth believers. They just believe a myth that isn’t as good as a modern peaceful Christian one. Incidentally, I wonder how these missions treat gays and any desire they have to marry – how is their wellbeing served?

    But let’s consider the more general case being made here. Occasionally there are comments that, yes, sure, belief was fine for back in the barbarous dark ages, but we don’t need it now. Well, is Parris saying, yes, these poor people are so backward in their beliefs that they are still in need of some good old Christian religion, and later, when they are better educated and have a better life, then we can tell them it’s a myth.

    I think Parris might prefer it if they dropped religion altogether and were able to come to a more rigorous understanding of the contingency of the human condition. Appreciating an atheist world view with reason does require some thought, so it would be difficult to get them through a few centuries of Western philosophy and science when really they need food, education, drugs, and yes a better way of seeing life.

    The problem is that the secular charities at work in Africa are not geared up for that type of complete education. What we have is a history of evangelism that really was religious, bringing god as well as food and education to the natives.

    One has to wonder why some of the Christian charities have become secular in their approach, as Parris describes. I’d be interested to find out.

    As to your wider thesis, yes, I can see that it must be easier, more comfortable for the troubled mind, to believe in a nice myth like Jesus. It must be great to have such a best buddy, real or not, when you have little else.

    Of course those that profess to believe and go to church need not actually believe all or even any of the myth. There are many believers that have lost their faith, have been distressed at losing it, but have come to terms with it and lived a hidden life among their communities. Many atheist Jews still get a lot of benefit from Jewish traditions, including the synagogue. The problem with discovering you don’t believe in many religious sects is that you lose all the benefits of the community, precisely because the remaining religious can be so judgemental and bigoted. Doesn’t it strike you as odd that all this wellbeing you are telling us about can come with such a price?

    So, I agree, religion does not poison everything; but it can poison enough to be of concern. Being a secular atheist I support freedom of belief, so I clearly don’t worry too much about belief in God, only the bad consequences of it when they occur, such as prejudice against gay marriage, or the more general persecution of those that don’t quite believe what the believer believes.

    But it is an interesting phenomenon that one can get comfort and general wellbeing from believing a falsehood – clearly that must happen because there are many different beliefs, even within Christianity, so some must be false. If the benefit comes from all the secular aspects of belief, the community, the tradition, the love that is actually present among parishioners in many cases, then God is a side show, a carnival clown always present but not always admired. It’s the humanity that is doing the good.

    • “…a proscription based on a belief in a metaphysics of a god you have no evidence for whatsoever.”

      Can you provide a definition for the word “evidence” as it’s being used in this context?

    • “…a proscription based on a belief in a metaphysics of a god you have no evidence for whatsoever.”

      Can you provide a definition for the word “evidence” as it’s being used in this context?

    • Sorry for the delay on this one. I’ve got a lot of work on, and I’m addressing some of your other posts. But it’s a fair question that deserves some detail. SO much so I want to construct a post for my blog. I will get back to you here on this.

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