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How religious faith benefits society

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By just about any measure, Western society has grown much more secular in recent decades. Some voices welcome and even celebrate this trend, while others lament what they fear is the decline and marginalization of religion.

Not all religions have been losing strength, of course. Muslim communities have been growing rapidly in Europe and North America through immigration, high birthrates and conversion. Moreover, the intensity of Muslim commitment has increased enormously since the 1960s, and, as Christian commitment has waned and nominal Christians have chosen to have fewer children, the relative strength of Islam in the area traditionally known as “Christendom” has soared dramatically.

But the overall trend, particularly in Europe, has been away from religion. And this should matter, not only to believers concerned about its eternal consequences, but to unbelievers who, while they may resist the thought, have long reaped the benefits of living among the faithful.

For one thing, as Arthur Brooks has conclusively demonstrated, believers give more to charity. To choose an American example, 91 percent of religious conservatives give to charitable causes, compared to only 67 percent of those who identify themselves as secular liberals. Those who pray daily are 30 percent more likely to give to charity than people who never pray. In Europe, too, churchgoers volunteer 30 percent more often, overall, than non-churchgoers. Even controlling for other factors, 83 percent of religious Americans will volunteer in any given year, while, among secular French people, only 27 percent will.

And religious people aren’t giving only to churches. They’re far more likely to give food or money to the homeless and to donate blood, and even to return money from a cashier’s mistake or to express empathy for the less fortunate. It’s 15 percent more likely that churchgoing Europeans will volunteer for nonreligious charities than their secular compatriots.

Moreover, scores of studies have demonstrated that believers live longer, healthier lives. People who never attend religious services are at the highest risk of early death, while those who attend more than once each week have the lowest such risk. At age 20, this translates into a seven-year difference in average life expectancy. Religious people heal more quickly from serious diseases and surgeries. Remarkably, too, in victims of HIV four years after diagnosis, those who’ve become religious show noticeably lower rates of disease progression than do their unbelieving fellow-sufferers.

In addition, as many studies have shown, religious people tend to be much happier and more satisfied than the irreligious. They cope better with crises. They recover faster from divorce, bereavement and being fired. They enjoy higher rates of marital stability and marital satisfaction. They’re less likely to be depressed, to become alcoholics or drug addicts, to commit suicide or to commit crimes. Elderly religious people are much less likely to be depressed, but if they are, they are less so, than their unbelieving counterparts.

As Harvard’s Robert Putnam expresses it in his notable book “Bowling Alone,” believing churchgoers are “much more likely than other persons to visit friends, to entertain at home, to attend club meetings, and to belong to sports groups; professional and academic societies; school service groups; youth groups; service clubs; hobby or garden clubs; literary, art, discussion, and study groups; school fraternities and sororities; farm organizations; political clubs; nationality groups; and other miscellaneous groups.”

“So,” asks Mary Eberstadt in her important new book “How the West Really Lost God” (which has heavily influenced this article), “is it in society’s interest to encourage Christian practice?” She then provides her own response. “The answer is: only so far as it is in society’s interest to encourage quality of life, enhanced health, happiness, coping, less crime, less depression, and other such benefits associated with religious involvement.”

To the extent that weakened religious belief no longer inspires charity, governments will need to assume that role. To the extent that religion no longer reduces crime and addiction, our societies and economies will suffer and governmental force will need to step into the breach. To the degree that religion no longer mitigates depression and illness in the elderly, governments will face that challenge. And if families continue to fragment and shrink — religious belief also provably encourages family formation and durability — they’ll do so with ever dwindling resources.

Secularists increasingly question whether churches should enjoy tax exemption. Perhaps they should ask, instead, how the state can more effectively support and nurture such useful private institutions.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, edits BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs http://www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.