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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

How Religion Benefits Everyone, Even Nonbelievers

Back in January, Susan Jacoby wrote an op-ed for the NY Times ("The Blessings of Atheism") in which she argued that since atheists don't believe in an afterlife, this should lead to them to place a greater emphasis on their actions in this world than do people of faith. While her argument is logical, that's not what's occurs in the real world: When it comes to charity and volunteering, people of faith contribute far more of their time and money than do their secular counterparts.

But wait, you're probably thinking, this is only true because they contribute their time and money to religious institutions with which they're affiliated. However, while it's true that they do contribute to religious institutions (e.g., churches, synagogues, Habitat for Humanity), they also contribute to secular institutions, and they do so at rates higher than their secular counterparts. That's right. People of faith, on average, contribute more of their time and money to secular institutions than do nonbelievers.This is not to say that nonbelievers don't contribute to secular (and nonsecular) institutions. They do. It's just that, on average, people of faith contribute more.

This well-documented fact (and others) are the subject of the sociologist Rodney Stark's recent book, "America's Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists." It explores, as its provocative subtitle suggests, how religion benefits all of American society, not just believers. For instance,
  • People of faith are much less likely to commit crimes
  • The higher a community's church membership rate, the lower its burglary, larceny, robbery, assault, and homicide rates
  • Western Europe's burglary, theft, and assault rates are higher than those in the US -- to be sure, the US homicide rate is higher than WE countries, but it is primarily because the rate among African Americans is extremely high -- the homicide rate based on white victims is about the same as those in Western Europe -- why this gap exists is a matter of debate among scholars
  • Religious husbands are substantially less likely to abuse their wives and children
  • People of faith, on average, enjoy better mental and physical health, which in turn lowers the "costs" of poor mental and physical health that the rest of society has to bear
  • Religious Americans are much less likely to drop out of school; this is especially true for African Americans and Hispanics
This is not to suggest that religion in America is an unmitigated good. It isn't, but in a world where it's fashionable in some quarters to view religion as a "poison" (Christopher Hitchens), an empirically-based reality check is in order.

While I recommend reading the book, an alternative is to listen to a recent Research on Religion (RoR) podcast that features Rodney Stark discussing his book with University of Washington political scientist Tony Gill ("Rodney Stark on How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists"). As always, you can download the podcast from iTunes or listen to it at the Research on Religion website (see the link above). Here's a short description from the RoR website:
Frequent guest and popular academic author Rodney Stark joins us to discuss his new book “America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists.” We discuss whether or not spiritual life in the United States is actually on the decline, and then review how the activities of religious Americans have positive spillover effects for society as a whole in a wide range of areas including health, voluntarism, pro-social behavior, the economy, and intellectual life. We even talk about “s-e-x.” 
The podcast begins with an interesting discussion of the religiously unaffiliated, who are sometimes referred to as the "religious nones." It is not uncommon for people to incorrectly assume that the 20% of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated are non-believers. However, as a recent study by the Pew Forum found ("No Religion on the Rise"), lack of religious affiliation should not be equated with non-belief (Susan Jacoby makes this mistake in her NY Times op-ed). For instance, of the religiously unaffiliated,
  • 18% consider themselves religious
  • 37% consider themselves spiritual but not religious
  • 33% believe that religion is somewhat or very important
  • 41% pray weekly or more
  • 68% believe in God
  • 30% have had a religious or mystical experience
  • 30% believe in spiritual energy in things like mountains, rocks, and crystals
  • 31% have been in touch with someone who has died
  • 25% believe in astrology
  • 19% have seen or been in the presence of a ghost
  • 15% have consulted a psychic
I'm not sure how you would categorize such folks, but "atheist," "irreligious," and "secular" aren't the first words that jump to mind. Unchurched is a possibility, but then again 5% of the religiously unaffiliated attend church weekly and 19% attend on a less regular basis. Go figure.


  1. You can't generalize about the Western European Countries. Some have among the lowest rates of assault, burglary and robbery in the OECD and some have higher than average. Japan is one of the least religious countries in the world and the are at the bottom of every measure of crime. I'll have to read the book. The percentage of non-believers in prison is miniscule.

    There is actually a slightly lower percentage of unaffiliated in prison that the general population:

    But one things that benefits us all is that religious people smoke less:

    I'll have to look at Rodney Stark's book.

  2. I think you should check out Stark's book. Rod is very careful in his use and analysis of data. He taught statistical methods at University of Washington. Also, he and his wife, Lynn Roberts (another sociologist), wrote a book on statistical analysis, as well as wrote statistical analysis software that they later sold to Thompson One. When Rod was a young buck, he had a big mad-on with religion. After studying it for 40 years, he concluded that people of faith weren't as bad as secularists like to paint them.