The “new atheist” attacks on religion agree on this much: Religion is toxic. Religion–all religion–is “dangerous,” assert Richard Dawkins in “The God Delusion” and Sam Harris in “Letter to a Christian Nation.” In “God is Not Great,” Christopher Hitchens views religion as “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”
The vitriol aside, there is, methinks, much common ground between religion’s critics and apologists. Mindful of the example of Jesus, a radical critic of the religion of his day, we Christians can respond, first, by affirming many of the indictments of religion, which has often been associated with idiocy and evil. And skeptics are surely right to surmise some connection, as in the example of Governor Sarah Palin, between religious fundamentalism and opposition to stem-cell research and a woman’s right to choose, even after being raped.
Moreover, if I, as a behavioral scientist and writer, am to discern and communicate truth–also, God’s truth I presume–then I must be open to changing my mind even about cherished religious ideas. At the heart of my religious belief is the working assumption that there is a God . . . and it’s not me (or you). Knowing that I have dignity but not deity, my surest conviction is that in some ways I err, as do you.
As ecological findings drove biblical scholars to reread the biblical mandates concerning our stewardship of the earth and its creatures, so today’s psychological science has, together with recent biblical scholarship, challenged me to rethink my childhood understandings of the soul, of intercessory prayer, and of sexual orientation. To fellow believers, even to those of us rooted in a “Reformed and ever-reforming” religious tradition, such openness to science may sound scary.
As I explain in “A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists,” believers can share with skeptics a commitment to reason, evidence, and critical thinking, while also embracing a faith that supports happiness, health, and helpfulness.
Happiness. Freud described religion as an “obsessional neurosis” that breeds sexually repressed, guilt-laden misery. Hitchens concurs: Religious belief does “not make its adherents happy.”
Actually, the accumulating evidence is much kinder to C. S. Lewis’s presumption that “Joy is the serious business of heaven.” National Opinion Research Center surveys of 43,000 Americans since 1972 confirm what many other researchers have found: Actively religious people report high levels of happiness, with 43 percent of those attending weekly or more saying they are “very happy” (as do 26 percent of those seldom or never attending religious services). Faith, and its accompanying social support, purpose, and hope, also correlates with effective coping with the loss of a spouse, marriage or job.
Health. Several large epidemiological studies (which follow lives through time to see what predicts ill-health and premature death) have identified a faith factor at work. Even after controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, and education, religiously active people are, much like nonsmokers, less likely to die in any given year and they enjoy longer life expectancy. This faith-health correlation is partly attributable to the healthier lifestyles (including the lower smoking rate) of religious people, and partly to the communal support of faith communities and to the health benefits of positive emotions.
Helpfulness. Christianity has, over time, been associated with the founding of hospitals, orphanages, hospitals, universities, and civil rights movements–and with crusades, inquisitions, and the justification of war, bigotry, and genocide. Religion, as the biblical prophets join Jesus in reminding us, can indeed be toxic. But on balance is religion more humane or heartless?
This much is clear: Volunteerism runs high among religiously active people. In one Gallup survey, 46 percent of “highly spiritually committed” Americans were volunteering with the infirm, poor or elderly, as were 22 percent of those “highly uncommitted.” Ditto charitable giving, where national surveys for Independent Sector have revealed a strong faith-philanthropy correlation. In one survey, the 1 in 4 people who attended worship weekly gave nearly half of all charitable contributions.
To be sure, affirming the positive functions of faith says nothing about its truth claims. But among psychological scientists, whether believers or not, there is a growing discounting of the wholesale claim that all religion is toxic/dangerous/evil/violent. An intelligent, open, humble faith contributes to human flourishing, even as it makes sense of the universe, gives meaning to life, connects us in supportive communities, mandates altruism, and offers hope in the face of adversity and death.
David G. Myers is professor of psychology at Hope College and author of seventeen books, including the just-released “A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists”.