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Religion Research: Un-Godly Nation

ASU's religious leaders react to new religiosity study

 by Sam Friedmen
 published on Thursday, October 27, 2005

/issues/arts/694620
Deanna Dent / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
 

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Benjamin Franklin once said, "Religion will give us peace and tranquility in our minds, and render us benevolent and beneficial to others."

But research published last month gives a different perspective. The study, conducted by social scientist Gregory Paul and published in the Journal of Religion and Society, shows belief in God unnecessary for a healthy society, and in the case of America, is actually correlated with social problems.

Paul says traditionally many Christians have held that religious belief is instrumental in providing society with the "spiritual capital" necessary for a healthy moral foundation.

"Many Americans agree that their church-going nation is an exceptional, God-blessed, 'shining city on the hill' that stands as an impressive example for an increasingly skeptical world," he says.

Paul used the International Social Survey Program and Gallup surveys to compare levels of religiosity (percentage of those who believe in a higher power) between different western nations. He found that higher rates of belief correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile mortality, sexually transmitted disease infection, teen pregnancy and abortion.

Paul says America is the most "theistic, prosperous democracy" and where he calculates religiosity to be as high as 90 percent.

"The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and the view of being the world's shining city on the hill is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health," he says.

But Matthew Bunney, a business finance major and coordinator for Campus Crusade for Christ, is skeptical about the findings. He says the statistics appear credible, but says a lot of corners were cut and conclusions drawn that don't match up.

"The undesirable rates mentioned are due to a variety of factors, such as class distinction and capitalism, many of which are unmeasurable," he says.

Bunney says he believes all Christian denominations encourage their members to harbor a strong moral foundation, but admits problems can occur when religion is pressed upon people.

"Crime amongst 'good' followers of religion is nearly nonexistent and is mainly found among those who are outwardly rebelling from beliefs forced upon them, which they don't accept," he says.

Ha Lam, a graduate student and member of Tempe's Grace Community Church, says she disagrees with Paul's assertion that the United States is a Christian nation.

"The U.S. may say it's Christian, but I'm not sure this is true. You can have many people who claim to be Christians, but are actually nominal believers and their actions aren't reflective of what the religion teaches," she says.

Lam says the study would've been more interesting if it had compared only the behavior of religious and nonreligious people in the United States.

"Religion can definitely be used as a force for both good and evil, but I've heard that the Mormon-dominated Salt Lake City has one of the lowest crime rates in the country," she says. "I wonder how Paul would explain that, if it's true."

But, Gerda De Klerk, founder of ASU's Secular and Free Thought Society, says the point of Paul's study is not to determine that religion causes problems, only to disprove the assumption that it's a necessary precondition for a healthy society.

"It's important because it negates this myth used by almost every religious person I know," she says.

De Klerk says one of the reasons why other Western nations less dysfunctional than the United States is their secular position allows them to see social problems as part of society's natural social fabric.

"The problem with religion is that it confines people ideologically and stops people from dealing with reality in a pragmatic way. For instance, it's obvious that teenagers all around the world are having sex. So instead of condemning it, why don't we think about what we can do about it," she says.

Despite publicity surrounding Paul's study, De Klerk says it's unlikely to have a serious impact on America's religious majority.

"It's probably not going to make a dent in popular opinion, but it's a good starting point and hopefully will inspire others to explore the topic in more detail," she says.

Reach the reporter at sam.friedman@asu.edu.



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