Why Religion (Still) Matters

Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset devoted a lifetime to studying what made America different.  Like Tocqueville a century earlier, Lipset discovered that America’s exceptionalism-what set Americans apart most distinctly from their European cousins-was founded on a set of values deeply rooted in religious practice.  This religiosity was not only
preeminent in shaping America’s national character, but also elemental to understanding its unparalleled prosperity.  

Lipset’s observation about the indispensability of religious practice to American life came to mind recently with the release of a study on the societal benefits of religion.  Released last December, "Why Religion Matters Even More:  The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability," has not gotten a lot of publicity in the media; but its findings are increasingly relevant, especially now as debates over religion’s proper role in society continue to rage, and as the impact of religion on our politics has emerged as a decisive national campaign issue. 

Authored by Pat Fagan, William H.G. Fitzgerald Research Fellow in Family and Cultural Issues at the Heritage Foundation, the report examines the last ten years of empirical research on the effects of religion on a host of social indicators.  

Fagan’s conclusion?  Religion has never mattered more: to individuals, families and society at large. 

Of course, a consensus about the beneficial effects of religion has been developing for decades in the research community; but Fagan’s investigation reveals just how profound and far reaching those effects can be. 

Consider these findings:

* Research shows marriages in which both spouses frequently attend religious services are 2.4 times less likely to e nd in divorce than marriages in which neither spouse worships.  In fact, researchers at Duke University Medical School found that religious attendance is the
most important predictor of marital stability.

* One study discovered that men who attend religious services at least weekly were more than 50% less likely to commit an act of violence against their wives than were peers who attended only once a year or less.  

* W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia found that a father’s religious attendance was positively associated with his involvement in activities with his children, such as one-on-one interaction, having dinner with his family, and volunteering for youth
activities.  In fact, fathers’ frequency of religious attendance was a stronger predictor of paternal involvement with their children than employment and income-the factors most frequently cited as pivotal. 

* Research b y Arthur Brooks of Syracuse University highlighted the robust relationship between religious practice and charitable giving. In a general survey population religious individuals were 40% more likely than their secular counterparts to give money to charity and more than twice as likely to volunteer.  

* Eighty-seven% of over 100 studies reviewed concluded that religious practice is significantly correlated with reduced incidence of suicide and depression.

Research further shows that, as Fagan explained in a recent interview, "the single biggest new finding was the effect of religious practice on the poor. There is an intriguing indication that they benefit more than those with more income, and benefit significantly."  Religion’s impact on the poor, studies reveal, is especially compelling on outcomes related to drug use, academic progress and juvenile delinquency. 
In one study of young males from impoverished inner-city Chicago and Philadelphia, for instance, researchers found that a high level of religious attendance was associated with a 46% reduction in the likelihood of using drugs, a 57% reduction in the probability of dealing drugs and a 39% decrease in the likelihood of committing
a non drug-related crime. 

Fagan’s research demonstrates that, on an entire range of outcomes-from domestic abuse, educational attainment and marital stability to substance abuse, violent crime and even immigrant assimilation-the practice of religion is a powerful predictor of personal wellbeing and societal stability.

Some may wonder how religion can have such a profound effect on so many seemingly unrelated social indicators.  It is because, as Fagan explained, religious practice transforms people at a fundamental level. "It changes the man or woman, not the outcome.   The changed man or woman then has many different manifestations of their changed self…in their relationships with others, with work, with material things, in family life, in citizenship.  They don’t set out to do things differently. They set out to be different persons, and then we see all these different changes." 

That’s a point worth repeating.  Religious practice extends beyond mere inputs and outputs, moving deeper to change hearts and minds, and foster values like charity, humility, patience, prudence and compassion, which in turn affect the decisions people make and, thus, the outcomes they experience. 

In the end, Fagan’s research reveals, in his words, "a steadily growing body of evidence from the social sciences [that] demonstrates that regular religious practice benefits individuals, families and communities, and thus the whole nation." 

It also highlights a paradox that even ca sual observers of American life can appreciate:  At a time when many politicians rail against the infusion of religion into public life, science is establishing religious practice to be a potent antidote to many of our most entrenched social problems.