Religion — It’s Good for What Ails Us

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.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at

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  • Guest

    Unfortunately, I'm quite sure the secularists are aware of this data. It's just that they, and in particular -their media, are earnestly trying to break the nuclear family down for a whole host of different reasons. Some of it has to do with jealousy, some of it has to do with attaining power. Having dealt directly with the 'elect' of this godless philosophy on many occasions, I can say without apprehension their very biggest desire is one of hatred and revenge on white Christians. (Though they will stop at nothing in corrupting the values of say….blacks, with gangsta rap, or a crippling sense of entitlement in order to effect and degrade the larger society as a whole.) 

    Witnessing to others, and being a positive influence in people's lives is the best way to turn them toward the church. We all fail at times, but with the Lord we can be forgiven, and our spirit renewed. Even people who are revenge minded. 

  • Guest

    Over the past two thousand years, literally thousands of people have been killed in the name of Christianity.  Each one of those was done despite explicit commands by Christ to do otherwise.

    In contrast, Hitler, Mao, and Stalin were responsible for upwards of 100 MILLION dead in the last century alone.  The notion that religion is the cause of hatred and strife is simply absurd; facts tell us it is generally speaking quite the opposite.


    The founding fathers of the USA were quite well aware that for a democracy to work, they needed the people to be virtuous.  Virtuous people do not need a big government and can largely take care of themselves.  Virtuous people know how to handle freedom.  Thus, the founding fathers saw religion as a great partner in the experiment of freedom and democracy. 

    What we see now is people becoming less virtuous and needing more government to care for them and correct them.

  • Guest

    Dear Russel, I suppose you think that the American soldiers in Iraq are pulling their gun triggers out of love for their enemy. As Christ said, Love your enemy and pray for him. So what does that say about U.S. problem with religion faith? It says that the Americans have as much violence at heart as the Iraqis.