Every now and then I hear liberals complain about how frustrated they get with the prominence of religious organizations in society. Many of them even argue that they do more harm than good, as some individuals and groups use religion as the justification for violence or anger against others. Some progressives point to instances of corruption or discrimination within specific churches or denominations and associate them with all others. Many liberals dislike the idea of organized religion so much that they have called for an end to the tax exempt status of religious institutions. In light of this, I’d like to offer a brief defense of the good these institutions do. Even if liberals disagree with the beliefs of the majority of religions out there (or perhaps all of them), they still benefit from them.
Before getting too far, let me first provide a quick definition of organized religion, and particularly the difference between that and basic spirituality. Organized religion is a “faith system with an [overarching] structure in place to define doctrine, standardize worship practices, and administrate the organization.” It also involves the opportunity for members to meet together regularly. This does not include cults, where the organization is based around an individual, not faith. Spirituality simply involves a person’s individual relationship to deity or the nonmaterial world. An increasing percentage of Americans are identifying themselves as “spiritual but not religious." Many of which are progressives, which may partially explain their skepticism of organized religion.
As skeptical as the “spiritual but not religious” crowd and other progressives can be, studies show that weekly church attendance can improve your lifestyle significantly, leading to a better immune system, decreased blood pressure, and even adding up to seven years to your life. This comes from both the social support churches offer as well as the healthy behavior churchgoers tend to have. Not only do those involved with religion benefit from better health, as they don’t drink or use drugs as often as others, but they are also less depressed than those who do not attend church on a weekly basis.
A skeptic might read those results and think, “yeah, that’s great, but you can get that from any AA or other support groups with strict rules.” That is true, but Dr. T.M. Luhrmann of Stanford described another concept that is unique to religion. She states that religion “demands that you experience the world as more than just what is material and observable.” To those of us who are religious, we understand this as faith. It is our faith that reconciles the physical world that we can see with the spiritual world that we cannot see. This is significant because Dr. Luhrmann saw people who “were able to learn to experience God in this way, and that those who were able to experience a loving God vividly were healthier.” She goes even further by pointing out that “studies bear out this observation that the capacity to imagine a loving God vividly leads to better health.”
Dr. Luhrmann provides two studies as evidence that faith, or the ability to experience a loving God, can truly improve your life. In one, the more someone had prayed to a god he had considered to be “close and intimate,” the less sick he was. Another study showed that a positive relationship to God did more to “significantly decreased stress” than a positive relationship to people. The conclusion here is that it isn’t just the rules or support of a church that helps people, but the faith itself.
These personal benefits also extend to our children. Research shows that children in religious homes are “better behaved and adjusted than other children.” Those who more frequently attended church services and spoke with their parents about religion were reported as “having better self-control, social skills and approaches to learning than kids with non-religious parents.” What are the results of this? According to studies, children in these homes are more obedient, have better school attendance, and graduate at higher rates than ones in nonreligious homes.
Demonstrating that individuals benefit from religious faith and church attendance should be enough to placate antagonists. After all, when individuals and families succeed, society itself succeeds. Even liberals should be able to agree with that. However, the evidence doesn’t end there. Religious institutions contribute much more to society than just improving the lives of those who believe in them (which is enough in my mind, but apparently not for some). They actually inspire those who attend to help others around them. In fact, according to a recent study, those who are religious tend to give more money to charity than those who are not religious. The contrast is even larger when you look at those who frequently attend church versus those who do not. Among those who attend church weekly, 90% donate to charity, while almost 70% volunteer for charitable causes.
Along with the lifestyle improvements religion provides are the numerous ways they impact society as a whole. One study determined that religion in America, which includes “religion-related businesses and institutions, as well as houses of worship,” contributes about $1.2 trillion each year to America’s GDP. However, professor Rodney Stark believes the contribution is more like $2.6 trillion per year, which is about a sixth of America’s total economic output. Religions supply millions of jobs that are a significant boost to the economy. They also provide numerous social services to those in need in the US. That same study estimates that the monetary value of those social services is about $243.9 million. The economy also benefits from the fact that those involved in religion commit fewer crimes and use less welfare.
I would hope that those who seek to criticize religion in response to the actions of a few or simply because they disagree with their beliefs should pause for a moment. Please take a step back and look at all the good religious institutions in America and throughout the world do for all of humanity. The overwhelming evidence is that they are by far a net benefit to society, and only truth-denying cynics would say otherwise.
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