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God’s power ‘can be outsourced to the government’: Study

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Psychologists and philosophers speculate that religion developed out of primitive man’s fear of the unknown. Being surrounded by a multitude of hostile predators and unknown forces, he dreamed of a cosmic protector to deliver him. Sigmund Freud theorized in this way; so, too, did Bertrand Russell, who wrote in “Why I Am Not a Christian”:

Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown, and partly … the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing – fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.

A new study purports to prove them right. Psychological researchers found that the more the government spends on social welfare programs, the less religious people become.

“If a secular entity such as government provides what people need, they will be less likely to seek help from supernatural entities,” according to the article, published last Thursday in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Researchers compared the percentage of GDP that nations, as well as each U.S. state, spent on health care and education. It found big government correlated with lower rates of religious observance, both overseas and in the U.S.

In fact, they found a predictive effect: “During 2008 to 2013, better government services in a specific year predicted lower religiosity one to two years later,” the study said. “A combination of better government services and quality of life was related to a particularly low level of religiosity.”

The study reached a chilling conclusion: “The power and order emanating from God can be outsourced to the government.”

A few observations are in order.

The researchers’ definition of more government services as “better” is dubious: Sierra Leone spends a higher percentage of its GDP on health care than Norway; can it be said to provide “better” health care?

Nor should the idea that material comfort erodes spiritual fervor surprise anyone conversant with the Hebrew scriptures. One might see it as confirmation of the apostolic dictum that “the flesh wars against the spirit.”

But the most important question is one the researchers overlook: Does more government spending create “lower religiosity,” or do people turn to the government once their religion is waning?

Do government programs convince people to stop stretching out their hands to beseech mythical deities for the temporal blessings that flow from Sugarcandy Mountain? Or is turning to the government the last stage of resignation before faith formally lapses?

People do not instantly transform from the barbarism and indifference of the pre-Christian West to caring for their neighbors overnight. Philanthropy comes near the end of a longer process of conversion – after the person has personally accepted Jesus Christ’s unconditional love and mercy, seen Christ in his neighbor, and reacted accordingly.

Seen in this light, religion is a kind of reverse Maslow’s Pyramid in which the faithful give up the more advanced aspects of living their faith – like helping others get back on their feet – before abandoning such fundamental bedrocks as church attendance, prayer, and intellectual assent to revealed truth.

Some will undoubtedly find the idea that religion can be legislated out of existence through government entitlements appealing. The study’s lead author, Miron Zuckerman, may be among their ranks. He published a previous study finding that intelligent people are less likely to be religious (and, presumably, implying its unspoken corollary). But they may wish to reconsider.

Byron Johnson, a professor of social sciences at Baylor University, found that 90 percent of studies linked greater religiosity to lower rates of crime and delinquency. Some researchers have found this particularly true in underprivileged minority communities.

This correlation held true across the transatlantic sphere. A study from Manchester University found that merely “visiting a place of worship”  significantly reduced drug use, shoplifting, and musical piracy – significantly, two of which deal with respecting private property rights.

When private individuals set their hand to philanthropic works, the results are more effective and longer lasting than government programs. A sense of entitlement and the bureaucratic one-size-fits-all mentality cannot replace personalized care, real relationships, and a sense of belonging created by religious outreaches. The larger government gets, the more corruption and fraud crowd out a program’s noble intentions. One may be justified in asking whether big government is a near occasion of sin.

Anyone who believes that “the power and order emanating from God can be outsourced to the government” may want to familiarize himself with the story of King Canute before surveying the brutal history of governments that tried to displace the Almighty from the public square. Truly, there are no scarier words than “omnipotent government.”

(Photo credit: Audrius Janecka. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 4.0.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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