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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C.S. Lewis’s Argument from Nostalgia

(or, “Why you sometimes feel like you can remember something, sometimes, from even before your childhood”)

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C.S. Lewis often wrote about (and alluded to) the sense of “nostalgia” that comes with beholding a beautiful landscape.

One of my recent backpacking trips

One of my recent backpacking trips. Observe the bursting sense of nostalgia.

I’ve always thought that the Christian argument from beauty/awe/nostalgia is one of the most difficult to convincingly express, yet one of the most powerful when properly understood. It shares some commonality with the Argument from Religious Experience, in that it relies on personal revelation rather than hard evidence (historical & scientific data) or soft evidence (formal philosophical arguments).

Rather than relying upon another person’s (oftentimes unreliable) testimony, however, the argument from nostalgia encourages self-reflection by identifying a peculiar sensation – almost like déjà vu, or a lost memory, or a half-forgotten dream – that seems to be shared by most people. C.S. Lewis described this sensation as follows:

“In speaking of this desire for our own faroff country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

When I first encountered that passage, I remember being stunned. I had to re-read it several times. It almost seemed as if Lewis had ripped something from my own mind and memories, and put it to paper half a century before I was born.

The association between nostalgia and childhood is particularly intriguing. While childhood clearly isn’t the source of this particular type of nostalgia, the sensation seems to be strongest in the context of one’s childhood. Something to do with innocence, maybe? Lewis goes on:

“Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.”

And here is where we make the leap from “peculiar shared sensation” to “argument for Christian theism”. Lewis again:

“Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.”

C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.”

Ravi Zacharias Quotes

“What we need is not a religion that is right where we are right, but one that is right where we are wrong.”

“The use or abuse of Christianity in contradiction to the very message of the gospel reveals not the gospel for what it is, but the heart of man. That is why atheism is so bankrupt as a view of life, for it miserably fails to deal with the human condition as it really is.”

“I think the reason we sometimes have the false sense that God is so far away is because that is where we have put him. We have kept him at a distance, and then when we are in need and call on him in prayer, we wonder where he is. He is exactly where we left him.”

“Implicit to the secularized world-view is not just the marginalization of any religious idea but its complete eviction from public credence in forming social policy. If an idea or belief is “religiously based”, be it in a matter of sexuality or marriage or education or whatever, then by that very virtue it is deemed unsuitable for public usage.”

Ravi Zacharias

Ravi Zacharias

“Unless I understand the Cross, I cannot understand why my commitment to what is right must take precedence over what I prefer.”

“One does not get far in a conversation with a Hindu sage or an unsophisticated follower of Hinduism before one of them offers the familiar illustration of four blind people feeling an elephant in the dark and each one coming out with a different description of what it is he or she is feeling – a rope, a tree or some other object, depending on the tail or leg or whatever is being clasped. This story seems to be the best escape hatch to do away with any interpretive burden that keeps with the facts. Yet the obvious seems to escape the one giving the illustration: that smuggled into the analogy is the idea that it is an elephant that is under discussion and not any of those errant pronouncements made by the ones devoid of light and sight.”

“A man rejects God neither because of intellectual demands nor because of the scarcity of evidence. A man rejects God because of a moral resistance that refuses to admit his need for God.”

“On every university campus I visit, somebody stands up and says that God is an evil God to allow all this evil into our world. This person typically says, ‘A plane crashes: Thirty people die, and twenty people live. What kind of a God would arbitrarily choose some to live and some to die?’ I continued, ‘but when we play God and determine whether a child within a mother’s womb should live, we argue for that as a moral right. So when human beings are given the privilege of playing God, it’s called a moral right. When God plays God, we call it an immoral act. Can you justify this for me?’ That was the end of the conversation.”

“Spirituality with an underpinning of pantheistic beliefs is portrayed as being serene, innocuous, all-embracing, mystical, and wonderful…The world is now being constructed on reclaimed land from the sea of faith in which we seek common values without finding common reasons from which those values stem. Yet the deeper one probes into the reasoning, the more one has to wonder whether this disjunction between values and reasons will sooner or later take away from us the water of life.”

Francis Chan Quotes

“Can you worship a God who isn’t obligated to explain His actions to you? Could it be your arrogance that makes you think God owes you an explanation?” 

“Our greatest fear should not be of failure but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.”

“It is not scientific doubt, not atheism, not pantheism, not agnosticism, that in our day and in this land is likely to quench the light of the gospel. It is a proud, sensuous, selfish, luxurious, church-going, hollow-hearted prosperity.”

“What if I told you to stop talking at God for a while, but instead to take a long, hard look at Him before you speak another word? Solomon warned us not to rush into God’s presence with words. That’s what fools do.”

Francis Chan

Francis Chan

“But God doesn’t call us to be comfortable. He calls us to trust Him so completely that we are unafraid to put ourselves in situations where we will be in trouble if He doesn’t come through.”

“Not being able to fully understand God is frustrating but it is ridiculous for us to think we have the right to limit God to something we are capable of comprehending. What a stunted, insignificant god that would be! If my mind is the size of a soda can and God is the size of all the oceans, it would be stupid for me to say He is only the small amount of water I can scoop into my little can. God is so much bigger, so far beyond our time-encased, air/food/sleep-dependent lives.”

“Lukewarm people don’t really want to be saved from their sin; they want only to be saved from the penalty of their sin.”

“Why is it that we believe God’s promises of blessing but not his promises of punishment?”

“If a guy were dating my daughter but didn’t want to spend the gas money to come pick her up or refused to buy her dinner because it cost too much, I would question whether he were really in love with her. In the same way, I question whether many American churchgoers are really in love with God because they are so hesitant to do anything for Him.”

Bonus: Check out THIS EXCELLENT SHORT VIDEO, where Francis Chan responds to the popular idea that we can somehow have “a private, personal kind of faith” – without needing the Church.