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How Religion Benefits Everyone: An Interview with Rodney Stark

Rodney Stark interview

Rodney Stark is one of the leading authorities on the sociology of religion. For many years, the Pulitzer Prize nominee was professor of sociology and professor of comparative religion at the University of Washington. In 2004 he became Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences and codirector of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He has authored more than 150 scholarly articles and 32 books, including several widely used sociology textbooks and best-selling titles like The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion, God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades, and The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.

America's BlessingsHis most recent book, America's Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists (Templeton Press), looks at the measurable effects of religious faith and practice on American society.

Starting with a historical overview, Stark traces America’s religious roots from the founding of the country up through the present day, showing that religiosity in America has never been consistent, static, or monolithic. Interestingly, he finds that religious practice is now more prevalent than ever in America, despite any claims to the contrary.

From here, Stark devotes whole chapters to unpacking the latest research on how religion affects different facets of modern American life, including crime, family life, sexuality, mental and physical health, sophistication, charity, and overall prosperity. The cumulative effect is that when translated into comparisons with western European nations, the United States comes out on top again and again. Thanks in no small part to America’s rich religious culture, the nation has far lower crime rates, much higher levels of charitable giving, better health, stronger marriages, and less suicide, to note only a few of the benefits.

Despite the increasing outcry against religion, the remarkable conclusion is clear: all Americans, from the most religious among us to our secular neighbors, really ought to count our blessings.

Rodney recently sat down with me to discuss the new book including the rise of the "nones", the state of American atheism, and how religion saves the country over $2.6 trillion each year.
 


 
Q: In America's Blessings, you note two seemingly contradictory facts. First, about 20% of Americans claim no religious affiliation. Second, these "nones" are also deeply religious. What are some characteristics of this rising group and how do they affect the religious landscape?

Rodney Stark: I am not sure their percentage of the population has actually been increasing. As the number of “nones” found by surveys has increased, so too the completion rate of surveys has decreased. The completion rate is the percentage of those drawn in the original sample who are interviewed.

Years ago, all good surveys had completion rates in excess of 85 percent. Several years ago many surveys had completion rates of only around a third. Most recently it has fallen to close to 10 percent. It is well-known that those who still participate in surveys are quite different from those who do not participate—they are less affluent and less educated. Contrary to the popular wisdom, more affluent and better educated people are more likely to belong to a local church. Hence, the bias in completion rates easily could account for the rise in the percent who say they have “no religion.”

Indeed, these people are not really saying they have no religion, but merely that they have no church membership. That is very different and is consistent with the fact that the majority of them are quite religious in terms of belief, prayer, and the like.
 

Q: What is the atheist demographic like in America. Has it risen in past decades and is it growing today?

Rodney Stark: In 1944, the Gallup Poll asked a national sample of Americans if they believed in God. Four percent said “no.” Since then the question has often been asked and the percent of atheists has held steady at about four percent and never exceeding six percent.
 

Q: After examining hundreds of relevant studies, what's the biggest misconception you've found about the typical religious believer?

Rodney Stark: Even some leading evangelical scholars take it for granted that religious Americans are lacking in appreciation for “high culture,” for music, art, literature, and the like. Nothing could be further from the truth. The more often Americans attend religious services, the more likely they are to read newspapers, poetry, novels, and to admire writers. The same applies to liking classical music, to attending symphony concerts, operas, and stage plays, and to dislike rock ‘n roll.
 

Q: Some recent books, like Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great, suggest that "religion poisons everything." But your book indicates that religious belief offers society many tangible benefits. What are some of these benefits?

Rodney Stark: Religious Americans are more law abiding, have superior mental and physical health, are far more generous vis-à-vis charities, have much better family life, are more successful, and religious couples even have more satisfactory sex lives!
 

Q: In the book's Conclusion you look at religion's effect on many areas of society—crime, schooling, health, employment, welfare—and you determine that, by a conservative estimate, religion saves America over $2.6 trillion each year. What are some of the biggest contributors to this savings?

Rodney Stark: The biggest by far has to do with the criminal justice system. If all Americans committed crimes at the same level as those who do not attend religious services, the costs of the criminal justice system would about double to, perhaps, $2 trillion annually. Second is health costs. The more often people attend religious services, the healthier they are. However, the net savings involved is reduced somewhat by the fact that religious Americans live, on average, seven years longer than those who never attend religious services.
 
Rodney Stark interview
 


 
America's BlessingA few years ago, a debate between atheists and religious believers spilled out from the halls of academia and the pews of America’s churches and into the public spotlight. As both sides exchanged spirited volleys, accusations were leveled; myths, stereotypes, and strawmen arguments were perpetuated; and bitter hostility filled the air. Today many of these misconceptions and myths linger on, along with the generally acrimonious spirit of the debate.

In America’s Blessings, distinguished researcher Rodney Stark seeks to clear the air of this hostility and debunk many of the debate’s most widely perpetuated misconceptions by drawing from an expansive pool of sociological findings. Looking at the measurable effects of religious faith and practice on American society, Stark rises above the fray and focuses exclusively on facts. His findings may surprise many, atheists and believers alike.
 


 

Brandon Vogt

Written by

Brandon Vogt is an award-winning writer, blogger, speaker, and the founder of StrangeNotions.com. He's been featured by several media outlets including NPR, CBS, FoxNews, SiriusXM, and EWTN. Brandon converted to Catholicism in 2008, and in 2011 and since released several books, including The Church and New Media (Our Sunday Visitor, 2011) and Saints and Social Justice (Our Sunday Visitor, 2014). He works as the Content Director for Fr. Robert Barron's Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Brandon lives with his wife, Kathleen, and their four children in Central Florida. Follow his blog at BrandonVogt.com or connect through Twitter at @BrandonVogt.

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  • 42Oolon

    While I do not agree that this has been established by this interview, I would have no problem accepting that religion is pro-social and could be more beneficial that if it were absent, if it could be demonstrated.

    However, even if it were the case this, this fact is neutral on whether or not the claims of religion are actually true.

    Luke Galen has researched and written extensively on this issue, a copy of his 2012 paper is available on PubMed, as is at least one criticism. A piece in the recent Free Inquiry or Skeptical Enquirer has a lay version of his findings (but I can't find this online). Or listen to the July 19, 2013 podcast of Reasonable Doubts.

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

      "However, even if it were the case this, this fact is neutral on whether or not the claims of religion are actually true."

      I agree. But once again, as I've said numerous times in these comment boxes, we must avoid critiquing an argument or article for not answering a question it never asks. This interview was not titled, "Why Religion Is True: An Interview with Rodney Stark." It was titled, "How Religion Benefits Everyone: An Interview with Rodney Stark."

      The point was to explore whether religion is more beneficial to society than irreligion. It was meant to contradict the popular yet deeply misinformed notion that "religion poisons everything" (cf. Christopher Hitchens) and "religion must end" (cf. Sam Harris).

      • 42Oolon

        Okay. I also accept that religion doesn't poison everything.

        I do not accept from this article that religion has been shown to be on the whole beneficial.

        There wasn't enough in the article to distinguish the assertions attributed to this book from the kind of poorly controlled research criticized by Luke Galen.

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          42Oolon, this was an interview, not a scholarly research paper. It wasn't meant to be a stand-alone proof that religion benefits society-you'll have to read Stark's book if you're sincerely interested in his research.

          • 42Oolon

            Fair enough!

  • Linda

    My friend refused to buy raffle tickets from my children because the raffle was to augment the below-market salaries of the teachers at their Catholic school. He's an atheist and doesn't want to support any program that promotes God. This school teaches children of all faiths and no faith to be good citizens and to serve others, laudable attributes whether God is involved or not. Religion-based schools, hospitals, shelters, and other charities provide social services to millions of people without regard to their religious beliefs, benefitting all of society. I hope that most atheists recognize the positive contributions these institutions provide.

    • David Nickol

      He's an atheist and doesn't want to support any program that promotes God.

      Would you buy raffle tickets to augment the salaries of a specifically atheist (not merely secular) school? Catholics are not permitted to contribute money to churches, schools, and other organizations that will be used to promote religions other than Catholicism. Why should atheists be expected to contribute to Catholic schools any more than Jews or Muslims or Hindus or Evangelicals should be expected to contribute to Catholic schools?

      • http://www.mandm.org.nz Matt

        But Christians *are* expected to contribute to secular schools, its called taxation.

    • 42Oolon

      "Religion-based schools, hospitals, shelters, and other charities provide
      social services to millions of people without regard to their religious
      beliefs, benefitting all of society."
      If the religion of the recipient is irrelevant I think the religion of the giver is also irrelevant. Tying religion to education or charity is divisive and unnecessary.

      • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

        "If the religion of the recipient is irrelevant I think the religion of the giver is also irrelevant."

        How does this possibly follow?

        • 42Oolon

          I don't even remember. I think my point is that we shouldn't chastise someone from refraining to support something that is overtly religious on the grounds that it is overtly religious.

          For example, I happen to think the Catholic church is an immoral organization, someone else may be required by their religion to think that it is blasphemous to be Catholic. We may both be wrong but these views prevent us from supporting organizations who feel the need to maintain a religious affiliation.

        • David Nickol

          I think the Salvation Army is a classic example. The Salvation Army is a religion—that is, it is a Christian denomination in the same sense that Catholicism, Lutheranism, Methodism, and so on are Christian denominations. According to Wikipedia, "The theology of the Salvation Army is mainstream Methodist although it is distinctive in government and practice." The charitable work of the Salvation, which is generally what most people think of when they think of the Salvation Army, is clearly motivated by the Christian beliefs of the organization, but it's charitable work does not include educating people in the Salvation Army religion and beliefs, but simply providing anyone in need with food, shelter and clothing. So there has come to be a consensus among Catholics—or at least I have found this to be the case in my reading—that Catholics may contribute money to the Salvation Army's charitable ventures. However, a Catholic may not contribute money toward the Salvation Army as a religion—for example, to help fund its worship services or Sunday schools. Catholics are obligated to support the Catholic religion, Catholic worship services, and Catholic education. They are prohibited from supporting other religions in their worship services and proselytizing.

          Organizations like Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army's charitable operations, and Lutheran World Relief simply do good works without attempting to proselytize, and if one approves of the good works they do and believes them to operate efficiently, then there is no reason that I can see for members of any religion (or no religion) not to support them. But although Catholic schools (I am talking about primary and secondary schools here, not universities) may provide excellent education, and even admit many non-Catholic students, they have a religious and specifically Catholic purpose, and it is unreasonable to expect those who don't believe in Catholicism to support them, just as it would be unreasonable for Catholics to support religious schools and other organizations with specifically non-Catholic religious purposes. (As I said, Catholics are forbidden to do so, although many Catholics may not know it.) It only makes sense to promote your own religion and decline to promote "competing" religions that you don't believe it. For a Catholic to support the teaching of a non-Catholic religion would be supporting the teaching of error or untruth.

          • Linda

            Thank you. This is a good explanation of things. In response to your earlier comment, if my friend's child was at an Atheist school that promoted good citizenship, social awareness, volunteerism and charity, the respect of other people and their dignity, I'm pretty sure I would support those philosophies and shell out for a raffle ticket. But thank you for flipping the tables on me. I gave me some good food for thought. And some smiles as I tried to figure out how exactly an Atheist school would be particularly "Atheist" in its approach to education. Instead of religion class you could study Atheist philosophers and have two minutes of meditation instead of morning prayer.

          • David Nickol

            In response to your earlier comment, if my friend's child was at an
            Atheist school that promoted good citizenship, social awareness,
            volunteerism and charity, the respect of other people and their dignity . . . .

            I think an atheist school, were there such a thing, would teach children that there is no God and that people who believe in religion are misguided. Why would you want to support a school that taught children not to believe in God? If you are a Catholic, why would you not use your money to support Catholic education?

          • Linda

            I am imagining Atheist Elementary to be teaching the same values as Catholic Elementary - tolerance, love, respect, kindness, inquisitiveness, forgiveness - just with the philosophical flip that people who believe in God are misguided, but that they will demonstrate the rightness of the Atheist way of life by the lives of love and service they lead. Which, while I disagree entirely about God, I would put aside out of love for my friend and his children. It's a raffle ticket, not an endowment. :)

            Does Atheist Elementary need to explain what God is to teach not believing in Him? Or would it just not ever mention gods at all? And what's the holiday/break schedule and how do you explain that?

          • David Nickol

            Which, while I disagree entirely about God, I would put aside out of love for my friend and his children. It's a raffle ticket, not an endowment. :)

            If you loved your friend's children, why in the world would you financially support—even in a small way—teaching them there is no God? It seems like you think belief in God is not very important.

          • Linda

            I am not teaching them there is no god; my friends are. I disagree with my friends, but that is something I can take up with them as we are capable of that kind of intellectual and philosophical discussion. If my friends asked me to buy the ticket I probably would say "no" for the very reasons you give. But I'm not going to do that to their child; it seems petty and confusing. And the fiscal viability of Atheist Elementary shouldn't be riding on raffle tickets. When that child is older and wants a different perspective I can be there to provide it.

          • David Nickol

            I am not teaching them there is no god; my friends are.

            You are helping to provide funding.

            I am answering the way I think Germain Grisez would answer based on May one support charities sponsored by non-Catholic religious bodies? which says, in part:

            . . . I believe it is clear that one should not support non-Catholic charitable activities commingled with partly false religious instruction—for example, a summer camp program for indigent children that will include evangelization and catechesis partly at odds with Catholic faith. Though one might intend only the genuine good the program will do, one’s contribution will support the inculcation of error as well as truth and inevitably will suggest that the doctrinal content of the religious instruction is a matter of indifference. This is likely to lead people astray.

            I recommend reading the whole thing.

            If my friends asked me to buy the ticket I probably would say "no" for the very reasons you give. But I'm not going to do that to their child; it seems petty and confusing.

            Might your contribution, given through the child, indicate to the child that you have no problem with what he or she is being taught in the school? I understand what you are saying, but if Catholicism and teaching children about God is important to you, why would you rather "be nice" than stick with what you believe in? There are other ways to be nice. You could say, "I am afraid our Church disagrees with what your school teaches, so we can't participate in the raffle, but why don't you come in for some freshly home-baked chocolate chip cookies, some chocolate cake, some cream puffs, some canolis, some Haagen-Dazs ice cream, an Almond Snickers Bar, and a glass of chocolate milk?"

          • Linda

            Lol! I'm like the witch in "Hansel and Gretl" fattening up the little Atheist children in my gingerbread house! But wait! I die at the end of that one! Never mind. That's no good. I'll be a nice gooey old lady who likes baking and overindulging my favorite small children. :)

            Thanks for your persistence. I know I'm supposed to agree with all that. But I'm someone who sent my children to a summer camp run by Mennonites. I thought: "How much dogma could possibly come up in five days with kids this age?" I was totally wrong. My younger one asked his Dad if we believe in the "P" word because the counselors said it doesn't exist. It took awhile but we finally got to "Purgatory". :) I get that we are helping them financially with their camp (though for what they charge, they may want to augment the bottom line with a raffle or two), but almost one third of the campers were Catholic, so we're infiltrating! Jesus didn't hang out with Christians. If we limit ourselves to our own religions (or not religions) we'll never get anywhere.

      • Andres Rodriguez

        But what if it is exactly because of your religion you do offer these services?

  • Peter Piper

    The article mentions that there is a correlation between church attendance and affluence in the US. What steps were taken to reduce the bias due to this confounding variable in deriving the other claims in the article?

  • http://exconvert.blogspot.com/ Kacy

    I too would like further information on Starks methods for this study. First, how is "religion" defined? Is he defining religious people as those who regularly attend church? For example, he states that those who attend services regularly commit fewer crimes than those who do not, and yet from the majority of studies I've seen, atheists are underrepresented in the criminal justice system, where most inmates believe in God, and typically the Christian god.

    I'm wondering if this study is saying anything more than that there are benefits to being a part of the demographic majority. For example, the finding regarding health. Minority groups, not just atheists, have lower life expectancies than those in the majority group. What makes religion a special variable in this regard?

    I'm curious about this:

    "The more often Americans attend religious services, the more likely they
    are to read newspapers, poetry, novels, and to admire writers. The same
    applies to liking classical music, to attending symphony concerts,
    operas, and stage plays, and to dislike rock ‘n roll."

    when combined with this:

    "Contrary to the popular wisdom, more affluent and better educated people are more likely to belong to a local church."

    This simply seems to say that the wealthy fortunate who participate in WASP culture are more likely to like WASPy things. Once again how is this about religion specifically and not about the benefits of being in a dominant culture group?

    My critique on the whole regards theological beliefs as variables, as opposed to church membership and attendance when defining "religion." Are the so-called benefits of religion a result of belonging to a community (and a community with majority status at that) or are they really a result of the beliefs of the community? By looking at church membership as the primary variable, Stark excludes many Americans who strongly believe in the Bible and Christianity, but do not regularly attend services, for whatever reason. This would also not take into consideration the many pew-sitters who enjoy the social benefits of a religion, but don't take the beliefs seriously or don't even know the basic tenants of their faith. (Anecdotaliy, I would argue that most church attendees fall into this category when pressed on theological matters.) So how is this about religion and not about the benefits for those in a dominant culture group and the lack of benefits for those outside this group?

    • Steve Willy

      If you are truly interested in answering these questions, perhaps you should spend less time typing walls of text, and more time reading the book. But based on the pseduo-intellectual posturing displayed on your blog, I doubt that will happen. Its pretty obvious that your atheistic presuppositions prompted you to dive right into your 'critique' the second you heard that this work said something remotely positive about relgion. In short, we are all dumber for your comment. But again, based on your blog, that appears to be par for the course.

  • http://exconvert.blogspot.com/ Kacy

    Also as much as I like Stark (I happen to own 5 of his previous books), I'm concerned that there is bias in this research because it is published by TempletonPpress, which is connected to the Templeton foundation, a group with a particular bias.

    His older more academically dense works in my collection were published by the University of California Press and Rutgers University Press. And the popular books in my collection were published with Random House and Harper Collins. And while this doesn't discredit his research in this new book, I can't help but wonder why he went with a publisher with such a strong pro-religious bias, as opposed to the more neutral publishing groups he's used in the past.

    • Alden Smith

      Who knows maybe he could not get published through them

    • Steve Willy

      How do you know his previous works were more 'academically dense' than this one, which you have not read? You are assuming its not up to snuff academically because it says something positive about religion. This comment betrays the atheistic bias that appears to inform your entire worldview.