By Charles L. Rulon
Emeritus, Life and Health Sciences
Long Beach City College ([email protected])
Christianity and Societal Dysfunction
What are we to make of the fact that the most religious democracy in the world, the U.S., exhibits substantially higher degrees of social dysfunction than do societies with larger percentages of atheists and agnostics? In particular, what are we to make of the following facts?
—Teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. are 4-10 times higher than those in the less religious Western European countries and are highest in our Bible belt states where only abstinence is taught.
—The United States leads the world in teen suicides and gun deaths.
—Six out of the seven states with the highest 2003 homicide rates are Bible belt states.
—The divorce rate in many parts of the Bible belt is roughly 50% above our national average.
—College-age students in religious schools were found to cheat on tests just as much as students in nonreligious schools.
—The divorce rate for Mormons—renowned for their emphasis on strong families—is about the same as the national average.
—In the past ten years the cohabitation rate for unmarried couples in two Bible belt states increased by 125% compared to the national average of 72%.
—Most of the violent criminals in our jails claim to believe in God and the 10 Commandments.
—There is a consistent, positive correlation between religious affiliation, church attendance and doctrinal orthodoxy and ethnocentrism, dogmatism, rigidity, intolerance of ambiguity and prejudice against Jews and blacks.
So, could it be that the Christian Right in America is actually part of the problem instead of essential for the solution? Some, of course, have attempted to discredit these findings with ad hominem attacks and by generating their own data. Others remind the skeptics that God likes to test the faithful. History tells us that no matter how damaging the evidence, it can always be twisted and neutralized by the true believers.
On the other hand, what are we to make of the following facts?
—Regardless of religion, most humans love their mates and children, take care of their families, pay their taxes and aren’t trying to cheat their neighbors or start wars.
—Gays and lesbians are just as moral as the next guy; so are the tens of millions of women who’ve had abortions, plus all those Americans for choice; so are all those instructors who teach evolution and human sexuality.
—Excellent contraception, emergency contraceptive pills and early safe abortions have been hailed as a huge scientific and public health success story, as well as a social triumph for women’s rights in a world where compulsive pregnancy is still all too common.
—Secular humanists and atheists are often blamed for all that’s currently wrong in America. Yet, they make up less than 15% of our population, whereas 85% of those elected to Congress (the halls of power) claim to be Christian.
Q. But on the other hand, what have atheists ever done for humanity?
C.L.R. Atheism is simply a lack of belief in all those gods worshipped by one recently evolved species on planet Earth. Non-theistic scientists such as Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Francis Crick, James Watson, and Carl Sagan all made enormous scientific contributions. So have many members of the prestigious National Academy of Scientists, over 90% of whom are non-theists. On the other hand, fundamentalist Christian and Islamic beliefs today are tragically undermining our scientific and democratic institutions and threatening us with apocalyptic wars.
Q. Wait! Weren’t atheists responsible for some of the greatest crimes in human history? Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and Mao come to mind.
C.L.R. Sure. But the problem with Nazism, fascism and the like was not the rejection of religious dogmas and earthly gods per se. It was the joining of absolute power with dogmatic and murderous ideologies. Besides, let’s not forget that the anti-Semitism that finally culminated in the Nazi Holocaust was a direct inheritance from Christianity.
Of course, tyranny can accompany leaders who are religious or not. But how many wars have been fought in the name of atheism? NONE! As Richard Dawkins puts it: “Why would anyone go to war for the sake of an absence of belief?” On the other hand, over the centuries innumerable wars and just about every cruelty and atrocity known to humans have been justified in the name of one religious belief or another.
In fact, in many ways the ideologies of Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, and Hitler resemble fundamentalist religions in that they were dogmatic and fanatical to the core and held beliefs that were irrational and scientifically disproved. As Sam Harris observed: “Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok…”
Q. Still, isn’t it true that Stalin and Hitler killed more people than did the Crusades and the Inquisitions?
C.L.R. Yes, but only because the Europe of the 20th century had far more people and far more lethal weaponry. If the Crusades were held today, possibly hundreds of millions would die. And with the rise of militant Islam in an age of nuclear weapons, hundreds of millions might die.
Q. But, with atheism doesn’t morality break down and every atrocity become possible?
C.L.R. Over the centuries just about every cruelty and atrocity known to humans already has been justified in the name of this god or that. The Bible, itself, is filled with laws and commands from the Hebrews’ tribal god that would be considered immoral and even barbaric in civilized society today. Religious beliefs have led many Christians over the centuries to commit a long litany of what today would be considered horrendous crimes — from the slaughter of all women and children in enemy villages, to the Crusades and the Inquisition, to the Thirty Years War, to the burning of witches, heretics and Jews.
On the other hand, millions of non-theists live moral lives. Sweden (where only 20% believe in a personal god) has one-sixth the teen pregnancy rate as we do. Its citizens also give ten times as much money per capita to help the world’s poor as do Americans.
Journal of Religion and Society, Sept. 2005 (a publication of Creighton University’s Center for the Study of Religion)
“Bible Belt Couples ‘Put Asunder’ More’, New York Times, May 21, 2001.
Reported in Michael Shermer’s book, The Science of Good and Evil, 2004.
There are many common moral precepts that humans of every religious or non-religious persuasion seem to share. They are recognized as essential to the survival of any human community. Christianity certainly has no monopoly on these values. Humanistic ethics and beliefs can be found at http://humaniststudies.org/index. html; www.secularhumanism.org; www.humanist.net. Examples include being honest, sincere, dependable, responsible, not harming others, making positive contributions, being fair, cooperating, helping your neighbor, visiting the sick, feeding the hungry and so on.
Wulff, D., 1991, Psychology of Religion: Classic and Contemporary Views; Ross, M., 1950, Religious Belief of Youth; Hirschi,T., and R. Stark, 1969, “Helfire and Delinquency,” Social Problems, 17: 202-213; Reiss, B.F. 1980. “Psychological Tests in Homosexuality” In J. Marmor (ed.), Homosexual Behavior, pp. 296-311. New York: Basic Books; Russell, D., 1986, The Secret Trama: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women, Basic Books.