Ross Douthat wrote an excellent article yesterday about two, apparently contradictory social study findings.
Most studies show that religious faith is highly correlated with a number of social goods, including “health and happiness, upward mobility, social trust, charitable work and civic participation.”
However, the most religious parts of the US, the Bible Belt in the deep south, have high levels of poverty, poor health, political corruption and social disarray.
Douthat explains this contradiction by pointing out that the data on the Bible Belt doesn’t take into account levels of participation in religious activity, it only measures affiliation.
What Douthat is saying is that the benefits from religion only come from relatively high levels of participation.
Being lukewarm about religion may be even worse than not being religious at all!
He comments on a study that found conservative Protestants have higher rates of divorce than their secular counterparts:
Consider, as a case study, the data on divorce. Earlier this year, a pair of demographers released a study showing that regions with heavy populations of conservative Protestants had higher-than-average divorce rates, even when controlling for poverty and race.
Their finding was correct, but incomplete. As the sociologist Charles Stokes pointed out, practicing conservative Protestants have much lower divorce rates, and practicing believers generally divorce less frequently than the secular and unaffiliated.
But the lukewarmly religious are a different matter. What Stokes calls “nominal” conservative Protestants, who attend church less than twice a month, have higher divorce rates even than the nonreligious. And you can find similar patterns with other indicators — out-of-wedlock births, for instance, are rarer among religious-engaged evangelical Christians, but nominal evangelicals are a very different story.
In terms of marriage success as measured by divorce rates, here are the rankings:
- Practicing Christians
- Secular and Unaffiliated
- Nominal Christians
This is fascinating. This suggests that we might be better off as atheists rather than pseudo-observers. We should embrace religion fully or not at all. This would eliminate the buffet style approach to religion that appeals to many spiritually confused people.
I’m not sure I buy into the idea that you have to embrace religion fully. However, I do agree with Douthat’s point that the benefits of religion come to those who participate in it. It’s not enough to say, “I believe in Christian morality,” you must practice it.
During my Stoicism month, I increased my mental tranquility because I took ice baths; I didn’t just think about how ice baths would be a good idea. For my Catholic month, I attended Mass most days and participated in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises; I wasn’t satisfied to just think I should do it.
For my Judaism month, I’m not sure exactly what the benefits will be, but already I’ve made a few new friends simply from showing up to Minyan.
This is not a new idea, of course, but it seems like many people think being religious is a quality that you have or don’t have. It is an innate trait, not something to be cultivated through work.
This is odd because, as Americans, we think worldly success can be achieved through hard work. Success is not some mysterious trait that you have or don’t have; there is a clear cause and effect relationship. For some reason we don’t apply this same mindset to spirituality.
The idea that you can work your way to spiritual and moral success is liberating. Instead of passively waiting for the magic moment where you suddenly become a kind and loving person, you can take the initiative and train yourself to become a kind and loving person. It’s like moral exercise.
Perhaps we should put the same level of effort to our spiritual lives that we do to our careers.