Published August 8, 2013
A ream of recent scientific research has given the faithful reason to rejoice: Belief is good for you.
Consider a study of nearly two million Twitter messages sent by prominent Christians and atheists, published in June in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science. It found that Christians were more content, if not happier. The authors came to this conclusion by analyzing the language tweeters used: Christian tweeters used positive words more often than atheists, and negative words less often.
In 2012, researchers led by a group at Yeshiva University analyzed the health outcomes of more than 90,000 women over an eight-year period and found that those who frequently attended religious services were 56% more likely than non-attending women to report high rates of optimism, and 27% less likely to report depression. Other studies of the same group found a 20% lower mortality rate.
Researchers at University College London found similar results in analyzing dozens of studies that examined the impact of religiosity among men and women. Numerous other studies by researchers at Harvard, Duke and other universities have found that religious identification and church attendance are associated with less social isolation, lower risk of substance abuse, lower rates of suicide, greater happiness and life satisfaction.
Yet believers should be wary of celebrating these findings too much. The faithful may be winning at the game of life, but they’re playing by rules that social scientists have written in essentially post-religious terms. While churches define the highest aims of life as salvation or enlightenment, social science research replaces these with health and wealth, well-being and satisfaction.
Some social scientists say they have no stake in the truth of religion, but are simply interested in studying how to bring about universally valued outcomes. But others, like sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, see this work as part of a larger project to make religion obsolete, by shifting the study of human flourishing from “idioms of theology and philosophy” to “science-based material analysis.”
There is some measure of irony, then, when social science finds so much evidence that religion is good for us.
Of course, many nonreligious researchers don’t see a problem with these results. They may not be believers themselves, but they have no problem embracing belief as a useful therapeutic tool.
Sociologists Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, in their 1996 book “A Theory of Religion,” wrote, “While we remain personally incapable of religious faith, our theory tells us to prefer to live in a society where most people do believe.” They went on to argue that religion could be used as a means of “social control,” reducing criminality, suicide and a variety of other social ills.
From this viewpoint, social science provides a sort of modern update to Pascal’s Wager, the argument that it is more rational to live as if God exists so as to guarantee entry into heaven just in case he does. But in the social-scientific version, it’s not the afterlife that faith is good for, but well-being in this life.
This attitude parallels a trend that is rising among believers themselves. As Ross Douthat describes in his 2012 book “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” prominent spiritual figures from televangelist Joel Osteen to holistic guru Deepak Chopra have advanced a version of faith that promises to deliver wealth, health and inner peace. And many religious academics and scholars, at think tanks like the Family Research Council and the Marriage and Religion Research Institute, have tried to boost religion’s public and political standing by trumpeting those positive scientific findings.
Social science is a valuable technique for studying human nature. But religious leaders might pause before embracing it so fully. C.S. Lewis once mocked the notion of a “God on whom I have a claim for my distinguished services,” and wrote that “Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop.”
More troubling than the hollowness of treating faith as an instrument for personal and social benefit, Lewis seemed to suggest, is that when we eventually learn how to craft a better tool, we will no longer have any reason for the old one.