To hear militant secularists tell the story, religion is bad for society's health. To hear social scientist Patrick F. Fagan tell it, that's plain bunk. On the basis of the facts, Fagan wins this argument hands down.
The long and the short of it, says Fagan, is that religious practice "promotes the well-being of individuals, families, and the community." He's got the evidence for that.
The most notorious slur on religion's social role may be the famous Marxist claim that faith distracts people from their real needs here and now by promising "pie in the sky when you die." Lately it's been fashionable in secularist circles to say religion sows the seeds of social strife, with zealots battling it out — Sunnis and Shiites trading car bombings in the streets of Baghdad, say.
There's a kernel of truth here. Religion really has been known to attract fanatics and extremists. So has non-religion. Does anyone suppose the horrors perpetrated by Stalin, Hitler, and Mao were enacted in the name of faith? The genuinely bloody-minded appear to be at least as bloody-minded without theology as with it.
In any case, that's hardly the issue in a country like the United States. And here, Fagan points out, a substantial quantity of late-vintage research exists in illustration of the benign role of religion.
His survey of the literature, "Why Religion Matters Even More," has just been published by the Heritage Foundation, where he is a research fellow in family and cultural issues. "Even More" in the title is a reference to a similar study Fagan conducted back in 1996. The new report updates it with findings of the past decade.
Especially noteworthy, Fagan says, are studies showing the benefits of religion to the poor. In sum:
Regular attendance at religious services is linked to healthy, stable family life, strong marriages, and well-behaved children.
The practice of religion also leads to a reduction in the incidence of domestic abuse, crime, substance abuse, and addiction.
In addition, religious practice leads to an increase in physical and mental health, longevity, and education attainment.
The new report is a rich source of information and scholarly citations regarding many different issues and concerns — for example, out-of-wedlock childbearing (37% of US births now occur this way).
According to one study cited by Fagan, young women who viewed themselves as "not at all religious" were much more likely to have a child out of wedlock than those who considered themselves to be very religious — three times more likely among whites, 2.5 times among Hispanics, and twice as likely among blacks.
Fagan calls attention to several steps Congress could usefully and appropriately take in light of such findings without raising any church-state hackles.
These include a sense-of-Congress resolution declaring data on religious practice to be useful to policymakers and researchers involved in the ongoing policy debate, and making the religious factor a regular part of periodic national surveys such as those conducted by the Census Bureau.
In addition, he says, policymakers should familiarize themselves with research showing the benign social effects of religious practice and should give serious consideration to evidence indicating that faith-based social service programs are more effective than secular counterparts.
Not only are religious belief and practice relevant to addressing and solving some of the nation's most serious social problems — including out-of-wedlock births and family breakdown — the contrary also is true. As Fagan says, "To work to reduce the influence of religious belief or practice is to further the disintegration of society." We ignore that warning at our peril.