If there exists a popular portrait of religion in the West, it is not as bright as it once was. The spirituality that once illuminated the stage of history is now painted dimly, as if an obstacle in the path of progress and material prosperity.
This metaphorical portrait is given commentary by academic voices speaking the language of statistics. Sociologists juxtapose the low religiosity of countries in Northern Europe with their low rates of crime and poverty. Unbelievers in America remark that religious people are over-represented in US prisons—and under-represented among its scientists and thinkers. In the opinion of many researchers, the statistical landscape of religion is bleak.
As someone who is religious, I have sometimes looked away in disappointment from this scene, wishing there was some other pattern to be seen in it. While I have always found compelling spiritual and personal justifications for my religiosity, I have avoided debates about the social effects of faith, suspecting there was little statistical ground to stand on.
I have recently discovered this is not the case. The dramatic patterns of cause and effect, made obvious by a glance at the portrait that was brushed in broad strokes, give way to subtler narratives when the picture is crafted in finer lines by someone with keener eyes.
Two books I have read recently on religion and society have given nuance to my view. Both attempt to uncover the nature and role of religion in the United States. One is American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, both researchers at prominent American universities. The other is American Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists by Rodney Stark, who is one of the best known sociologists of religion.
Despite the ecclesiastical tone of each title, both books are mainly occupied by data and analysis. American Grace is particularly data-heavy, and it is appended by 123 pages of notes and appendices. With little theory or speculation, the authors share their analysis of the newest and best datasets on religion in America. American Blessings is also a statistical work, and it cites more than two hundred academic studies, all of which, according to Stark, use rigorous statistical methods.
Here are the claims of the authors. Campbell and Putnam find that religious Americans are more civically engaged, more generous, more neighborly, and more likely to be happy than irreligious Americans. Stark goes further, making and justifying claims that religion has the effect of lessening crime and delinquency, increasing educational success, improving mental health, lengthening human longevity, preventing suicide and promoting charitable giving and volunteering, even to secular causes. He proclaims (with satisfaction) that religious couples report more enjoyable sex lives than their unchurched peers, and that they are less likely to cheat, divorce, or mistreat their children.
Some of these findings are not surprising: most everyone has agreed for some time that religiosity is linked to generosity and civic engagement. The rest of the claims, however, seem to contradict popular (or at least academic) wisdom. I assumed, for example, before I began studying the question, that religiosity was linked to lower educational success and higher rates of crime and poverty.
What explains the gap between our assumptions and these statistics? According to Stark, most of the claims made about religion in the sociological literature are justified by simplistic analysis of poorly gathered data. Many papers use small samples of individuals, often drawn from non-random sources. More importantly, a great deal of the analysis performed does not control for relevant external variables.
This is a vital criticism. When searching for cause-and-effect relationships in social science data, it is irresponsible not to control for possible confounding effects to find independent relationships between variables. This is more difficult than correlating two sets of numbers: it involves regression analysis, a sophisticated technique with well-established statistical properties that can reveal hidden patterns in data.
It is true, for example, that the US states with the lowest incarceration rates have the lowest levels of religiosity. But when controlling for race, income and other social factors by way of regression methods, Stark finds that religion is actually negatively correlated with violent crime. This apparent discrepancy is resolved by the fact that black and Hispanic Americans represent a hugely disproportionate share of incarcerated Americans, but are also more religious than white Americans. While religious blacks and Hispanics are somewhat less violent than irreligious blacks and Hispanics (as can be confirmed by a closer look at the data), there are so many more minorities in prison than whites that it appears as if religious people commit more violent crime. Naive interpretation of data, even accurate data, can lead to conclusions opposite to reality.
Likewise, little can be inferred from the observation that the Western countries with the lowest religiosity are also those with the lowest crime rates. While there is very little statistical analysis of religion and crime in Europe, the existing literature finds a negative relationship between the two (the cited study is for crime in Sweden). Further, it is important not to be selective with statistics: while the US has a much higher murder rate than the Scandinavian countries, it also has far lower rates of assault and burglary, using 2008 data (according to Stark). It appears that crime has declined in the West over time despite growing irreligiosity, and probably not because of it.
It is also certainly possible that the heresy of our age underlies the slow decay of economic growth rates in the West, the rise of structural unemployment, or the stubbornness of child poverty rates (which are correlated with single parenthood).
The literature on the social effects of faithfulness is of course not settled. It may turn out that some of Stark’s conclusions are wrong, or lack adequate nuance. To that point, it seems to me after more study that the relationship between education and religion is more complicated than he let on: while church-attending students outperform the irreligious, it is also true that individual religiosity decreases as individuals gain higher education.
Nevertheless, a second look at the data is justified. To the extent that social scientists have neglected rigorous analysis in favor of more agreeable correlations, they must re-evaluate their assumptions, and paint their portrait of religious society in finer strokes, and from a wider palette. They will likely find that faith does not cast a shadow on modernity, but rather lights its way.