The Social Usefulness of Religion: A Review of “America’s Blessings” by Rodney Stark


Rodney Stark, America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2012). $24.95, 208 pages.

Is religion good or bad for society?

Read prominent atheists, and the answer is clearly negative. Richard J. Dawkins describes religion as a “delusion.” Christopher Hitchens argues that “religion poisons everything.” And Victor J. Stenger quips, “Science flies us to the moon. Religion flies us into buildings.”

Read Rodney Stark’s new book, on the other hand, and you’re likely to draw an entirely different conclusion. “Americans benefit immensely from being an unusually religious people—blessings that not only fall upon believers but also on those Americans who most oppose religion.” Interacting with a wide-ranging bibliography of over 350 studies (listed at the back of the book), Stark argues that, compared to less religious and nonreligious people, religious people

  • engage in less criminal behavior and more prosocial behavior (chapter 2);
  • experience higher marital happiness and lower divorce rates, while producing more and better-behaved children (chapter 3);
  • report more and better sex with their spouse, and less cheating (chapter 4);
  • experience better mental health, and probably better physical health too (chapter 5);
  • give more generously in terms of money and time (chapter 6);
  • and are better educated, more successful, and less credulous (chapter 7).

Between the atheists and Stark, Stark has the better argument. Across a wide range of metrics, religion is socially useful. Why is this the case? Is religion’s social utility the result of religious belief, religious practice, or some combination of both?

Throughout the book, Stark correlates weekly attendance at a religious service with desirable social outcomes. The higher the attendance rate, the higher the desirable social outcome. In other words, he focuses on religious practice. Religious belief rarely factors into his argument, and when it does, in only the most general way. For example, religion gives people hope, and hopefulness correlates with better mental health. Beyond such a generality, however, Stark does not argue that some religious beliefs have better social outcomes than others. The data only show that religious practice correlates with desirable social outcomes.

This correlation generates difficulties for both believers and nonbelievers. On the one hand, the social utility of religion does not prove its truth. Stark’s evidence doesn’t control for theological differences between religions. And perhaps the desirable social outcomes are produced less by the religious element than by the social element. People who meet together weekly are, by definition, more prosocial than those who don’t, after all. This is the difficulty religious believers face as they look at Stark’s argument.

On the other hand, religion seems to have a unique power to bind people together in community. This is a problem for atheists, it seems to me, because it entails acknowledging that false beliefs may have beneficial social effects. (“False,” that is, from an atheist point of view.) Critiquing those false beliefs might have deleterious social consequences. Ironically, then, atheists who desire a healthy society might want to tone down their critiques of religion, lest declining religious practices lead to increasing antisocial behaviors.

In sum, religion is socially useful. Whether that’s proof of the truth of religion is another matter. But in the American context, religious practice has indeed been a blessing for both individuals and communities in many ways.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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No Creed but the Bible? A Review of The Creedal Imperative by Carl R. Trueman


 Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012). $16.99, 208 pages.

The Creedal Imperative by Carl R. Trueman presents a biblical, historical, theological, and practical case for creeds and confessions. Trueman is pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Ambler, Pennsylvania, and the Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at nearby Westminster Theological Seminary. Though Trueman writes from a Calvinist (and complementarian) perspective, his argument can be appreciated by orthodox Christians from a variety of theological and ecclesiological traditions.

Trueman makes his argument against the frequently heard claim that Christians have no creed but the Bible. He points out that all Christian churches have a functional creed, even if they have not articulated it explicitly. Moreover, the Bible itself has creed-like formulations that in the first centuries of the church organically developed into formal statements such as the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed. Indeed, in some ways, those creeds are nothing but extended reflections on the biblical statement, “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

If creeds express mere Christianity, which unites all orthodox Christians, confessions expound the Christian faith for specific ecclesiastical communions. Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Baptists—to take four Protestant examples—affirm the Nicene Creed, but the 39 Articles, Book of Concord, Westminster Confession, and 1689 Baptist Confession parse their respective understandings of doctrine, ecclesiology, spirituality, and ethics in detail.

In the book’s concluding chapter, Trueman makes nine arguments for the usefulness of creeds and confessions:

  1. All churches and all Christians have creeds and confessions.
  2. Confessions delimit the power of the church.
  3. Creeds and confessions offer succinct and thorough summaries of the faith.
  4. They allow for appropriate discrimination between members and office-bearers.
  5. They reflect the ministerial authority of the church.
  6. They represent the maximum doctrinal competence that can be expected from a congregation.
  7. They relativize the present.
  8. They help to define one church in relation to another.
  9. And they are necessary for maintaining corporate unity.

The Creedal Imperative is a profoundly countercultural tract. As Trueman notes in the first chapter, contemporary culture devalues the past, distrusts words, is antiauthoritarian, and fears exclusion. By contrast, creeds and confessions value the past, use words to communicate theological truth, embody the authority of ecclesiastical communions, and draw lines between belief and unbelief. It is difficult—if not impossible—to imagine Christianity without creeds and confessions, for they are always present, if only implicitly. Far better, it seems, to make them explicit so they can be explained, defended and subscribed to!

I am an ordained Assemblies of God minister. At the founding of my fellowship, many Pentecostals were anti-creedal. Within two years of its founding, however, the fellowship found it necessary to outline a Statement of Fundamental Truths in order to clarify what the Bible taught about God, distinguish orthodoxy from heresy, and express the doctrinal basics for inclusion in the Assemblies. The Statement follows the rough outline of the creeds (Father-Son-Spirit-eschatology), but it functions confessionally. The historical experience of my fellowship confirms much of Trueman’s argument, even though there are theological and ecclesiological differences between his Presbyterianism and my Pentecostalism.

Regardless of those differences, I highly recommend The Creedal Imperative to Pentecostal readers, as well as to Christian readers who are tempted by anti-creedalism. It will challenge and inform you and, hopefully, convince you of the biblical basis and practical usefulness of creeds and confessions.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

“No Indicator of Traditional Religious Belief or Practice Is Going Up”: A Review of “American Religion” by Mark Chaves


Mark Chaves, American Religion: Contemporary Trends (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).

American Religion by Mark Chaves contains little good news for America’s religious leaders. Subtitled Contemporary Trends, the book examines continuity and discontinuity in American religious belief and practice over the last 40 years. While there are significant points of continuity in this time period—of belief in God and weekly attendance at religious services, for example—overall, the trend is toward discontinuity. “The religious trends I have documented point to a straightforward general conclusion,” Chaves writes: “no indicator of traditional religious belief or practice is going up” (emphasis in the original).

Chaves’ primary data sets are the General Social Survey (GSS) and the National Congregations Study (NCS), which he directed. Both surveys were conducted by the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago. GSS has been conducted annually since 1972 and NCS in 1998 and 2006–7. Chaves is professor of sociology, religion, and divinity at Duke University, and his book is published by Princeton University Press. The book is brief (160 pages), but its data, author, and publisher make it an authoritative text whose conclusions religious leaders must wrestle with.

Here are some of those conclusions:

  • America is increasingly a religious diverse nation, with a rising number of religiously unaffiliated persons—the so-called “nones” (chapter 2).
  • Americans’ religious beliefs show remarkable continuity, except in the area of biblical inerrancy, which is declining (chapter 3).
  • American religious involvement, measured by weekly attendance at a religious service is stable but softening (chapter 4).
  • American congregations are shaped by “the same cultural, social, and economic pressures affecting American life and institutions more generally” and can be seen in six trends: “looser connections between congregations and denominations, more computer technology, more informal worship, older congregants, more high-income and college-educated congregants, and…more people concentrated in very large churches” (chapter 5).
  • American religious leadership is a career choice for fewer and fewer people, and its ranks are older and less esteemed as pressionals than they used to be (chapter 6).
  • Liberal Protestant denominations are declining but liberal religious ideas are increasing in influence. The decline in liberal Protestant denominations is not explained by transfer growth to conservative Protestant denominations. Rather, liberal Protestants are becoming “nones,” largely because of the increasing identification of religion and conservative politics (chapter 7).
  • American religiosity is increasingly identified with social and political conservatism. On abortion, the most religiously active become increasingly conservative. But on gay marriage, the most religiously active liberalize at a pace slower than the religious population. Either way, the most religiously active Americans are more conservative than the less religiously active (chapter 8).

Chapter 9 summarizes the book’s findings this way: “If there is a trend, it is toward less religion.” Chaves’ is ambivalent about whether this trend is good or bad for America as a whole. On the one hand, he writes, “Increased tolerance of, even appreciation for, religions other than one’s own, described in chapter 2, is good news for our increasingly pluralistic society.” On the other hand, “Countering this positive trend…is the increasing attitudinal difference between the more religious and the less religious.” He goes on to write, “It would be ironic and unfortunate if Americans’ increasing appreciation for religions other than their own becomes overwhelmed by increasing hostility between the more and the less religious.”

There is another danger in the trend of religious non-affiliation. Chaves writes: “If half of all the social capital in America—meaning half of all the face-to-face associational activity, personal philanthropy, and volunteering—happens through religious institutions, the vitality of those institutions influences more than American religious life. Weaker religious institutions would mean a different kind of American civic life.”

As I noted at the outset, there is little good news for America’s religious leaders in Mark Chaves’ book. The trend is toward less religion. One could accentuate the positives and say that less religion means less nominal religion and more authentic religion, and perhaps there’s something to that. But in accentuating the positive, we shouldn’t overlook the very considerable negatives, mainly, less religion and more political antagonism to religion.

Of course, the New Testament church faced even greater odds and nonetheless grew in size and influence. But they were converting pagans to the faith of Jesus Christ. Can we experience a similar revival in a post-Christian society? In my opinion, that’s the fundamental question the American church needs to answer. And if yes, how? That’s the fundamental challenge facing American religious leaders today.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

“Nones” on the Rise: One in Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation


The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a report today titled “Nones” on the Rise: One in Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation. From the Executive Summary:

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.

In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).3

No religious affiliation in America has grown to 19.6%

This large and growing group of Americans is less religious than the public at large on many conventional measures, including frequency of attendance at religious services and the degree of importance they attach to religion in their lives.

However, a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, finds that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.

With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.

nones-exec-2

The growth of religiously unaffiliated Americans is largely generational:

The growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans – sometimes called the rise of the “nones” – is largely driven by generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones.4 A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation (32%), compared with just one-in-ten who are 65 and older (9%). And young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives.

nones-exec-3

A sidebar examines outlines “Some Theories About Root Causes of the Rise of the Unaffiliated”: (1) political backlash, (2) delays in marriage, (3) broad social disengagement, and (4) secularization.

Religious leaders need to read this report. It will help them understand the challenges and opportunities for evangelizing Americans today, especially younger Americans.

 

 

 

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