Acton Institute Powerblog

Does Religion Do Us Any Good, Even If We’re Not Religious?

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Is there any societal reason to protect religion? That is, do we get anything out of religion, as a society, even if we’re not religious, and is that “anything” worth protecting? Mark Movsesian thinks so.

In First Things, Movsesian says religion does do good for a society – a good that is worthy of protection.

Religion, especially communal religion, provides important benefits for everyone in the liberal state—even the non-religious. Religion encourages people to associate with and feel responsible for others, to engage with them in common endeavors. Religion promotes altruism and neighborliness, and mitigates social isolation. Religion counteracts the tendencies to apathy and self-centeredness that liberalism seems inevitably to create.

Movsesian says that those that go to church tend to be civic-minded; they put energy into creating a just place to live. They’re charitable and helpful. All of this means a nicer society for everyone.

But what if you’re “spiritual, but not religious?” Or an atheist? Certainly you can be kind, civic-minded, helpful.  (These folks, often referred to as “nones”, make up about 20 percent of the American population.) What exactly does religion bring to the mix?

Mary Eberstadt, in her book How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (Templeton Press, 2013), assures us that religion is really important. Without active faith, our society starts to fall apart, beginning with the nucleus of society: the family. Traditional religion promotes marriage, promotes parents raising children together, promotes sound education of these children, and so on. Simplistically, the family is the glue of a sound society, and sound families are built on traditional religious foundations.

Owen Strachan, at Canon & Culture, says Millenials (who tend to be non-political and non-religious) do have a striking role to play in church and culture. Despite the fact that many people in this age range don’t see themselves as “hard-core” when it comes to faith, Strachan says they have a lot to offer:

Part of what has pushed some Millennials away from being the speaking church is that we have not always heard our leaders make the biblical connection between rightness and health, truth and flourishing. But what is true is always what is best. We need to make this elegant connection on moral matters.

Millennials have an opportunity today to speak on matters of sexuality and gender, for example, from the perspective of both rightness and health. It is wrong to change God’s super-intelligent design for the family, for example. But we also must make clear that altering the family will not lead to human flourishing.

Movsesian says that “religion counteracts the tendencies to apathy and self-centeredness that liberalism seems inevitably to create.” Indeed, this is true, but only if those who claim a faith actually live it.

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.


  • Mark Moore

    Science is beginning to study religion extensively and the findings are mostly contrary to the thrust of your article. Christians are more likely to be imprisoned by a whopping margin over non believers. Christians have higher divorce rates. Christians have higher rates of teen pregnancies. Fundamentalist Christianity is considered a risk factor for drugs. Christians have higher rates of STDs. Christianity has higher rates of poverty, higher rates of illiteracy. And the more Christian an area country or state, the more social problems. The more liberal the Christianity the less social problems are associated with it.

    You should have researched the material instead of making up opinions.

    • Michael

      Very interesting Mark. The statement, “[s]cience is beginning to study religion extensively . . .” is not really grammatically correct and attempts to mask the actual purport of the statement. Personifying the word science masks the agenda behind the statement, the agenda of clothing this so-called “study” with an objectivity which it may not warrant. It would be correct to say that, “some social scientists have begun to study religion.” You may not be aware of this Mark, but people have agendas and the social sciences are much more subject to bias than are the hard sciences, i.e. chemistry, biology, physics, etc. I will pay attention to such scientific studies when these studies are undertaken by partnerships between religious scientists and secular scientists. Otherwise, not so much.

      • Ron97213 .

        Excellent retort, well done ! ! !

      • Nikola Tasev

        ” I will pay attention to such scientific studies
        when these studies are undertaken by partnerships between religious scientists and secular scientists.”
        You mean you’ll trust studies that include not only people relying on facts and observation, but also people of faith. I’m sure people who consider personal revelation and 2000-year old book superior to facts will bring a lot to make the studies more subjective.
        “social sciences are much more subject to bias than are the hard sciences”
        True. Still less bias than religious people. They would have a conflict of interest, and are much more prone to presupposition.

        • Michael

          Your bias is showing Nikola. “Still less bias than religious people.” Upon what study do you rely for that statement?

          This observation informs my response to the first portion of your argument as well. You seem to see facts in a anecdotal way. I will trust the results of studies that include people who have knowledge of the internal realities of religious observance and how they can be measured in some sort of objective manner. Speaking of “personal revelation and 2000`year old book” as being somehow opposed to ‘facts’ is nearly a non sequitur. The comparison which I believe relevant is measuring the way that internally adopted religious morals affects behavior and outcomes in the real world over time. I reject including, to the extent possible, those who hypocritically express religious faith without having actually adopted it from being considered “religious” along with those of real faith. The scientist of faith who I desire to hear from (not that I don’t want to hear about the perspective of the secular one) will be more likely to take this into consideration in designing the study. Otherwise, a biased unbelieving scientist who designs a study will likely chose the easy course of taking all people at their expressed word of faith when quantifying his/her results and reaching his/her conclusions. This, of course, is an example of why social sciences cannot really be equated with hard sciences.

          • Nikola Tasev

            A scientists is a person who follows the scientific method. The scientific method is a way for biased people to reach objective conclusions – via peer review, meta analisys, double blind experiments, etc.
            Religious people believe claims without evidence – it is the essense of their belief.
            If you can’t see why scientists are more reliable than religious people you might wish to think about it some more.