Wednesday, December 28, 2005

A look at the positive benefits of religion

At the outset, I should say that I'm an atheist. However, I try to maintain a balanced and objective viewpoint on religion, recognising that there is both a positive and a negative side, historically and contemporaneously. I find militant atheists such as Michael Newdow to be highly irritating, exhibiting exactly the same faults that they accuse religionists of. At the same time, I demand the freedom to express my opinions, and reject utterly the accusations often made by the religiously fervent, that atheists lack a moral compass etc.

In this spirit (pun only slightly intended), I read the economics focus in The Economist entitled "Wealth From Worship" with quite some interest.

It discusses a study by Jonathan Gruber, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which claims that regular religious participation leads to better education, higher income and a lower chance of divorce.

So how might churchgoing make you richer? Mr Gruber offers several possibilities. One plausible idea is that going to church yields “social capital”, a web of relationships that fosters trust. Economists think such ties can be valuable, because they make business dealings smoother and transactions cheaper. Churchgoing may simply be an efficient way of creating them.

Another possibility is that a church's members enjoy mutual emotional and (maybe) financial insurance. That allows them to recover more quickly from setbacks, such as the loss of a job, than they would without the support of fellow parishioners. Or perhaps religion and wealth are linked through education. Mr Gruber's results suggest that higher church attendance leads to more years at school and less chance of dropping out of college. A vibrant church might also boost the number of religious schools, which in turn could raise academic achievement.

Finally, religious faith itself might be the channel through which churchgoers become richer. Perhaps, Mr Gruber muses, the faithful may be “less stressed out” about life's daily travails and thus better equipped for success.

The non-technical summary of the study is available here. According to the tagline

"Doubling the rate of religious attendance raises household income by 9.1 percent, decreases welfare participation by 16 percent from baseline rates, decreases the odds of being divorced by 4 percent , and increases the odds of being married by 4.4 percent."
The Economist article has further discussion on the methodology of the study, if you're interested.

Now, I'm not about to refind religion. Nor do I think that every individual will be worse off without religion, or better off with it. Further, the effect religion has on an individual's life will vary widely depending upon which specific religion is creating the effect.

But studies like this provide evidence that modern-day religiosity is not a completely bad thing, as many secularists would have it. For many people, religion still makes a net positive contribution to their lives, and those of us who are secular in our outlooks should remember this if we wish to hold an informed, balanced and objective perspective on religious subjects.

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