How Religion Affects Society

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Why Religion Matters: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability Published on January 25, 1996 by Patrick Fagan, Ph.D. Backgrounder #1064 • Print PDF
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By extolling freedom of religion in the schools, President Bill Clinton has raised the level of debate on the importance of religion to American life.3 The time is ripe for a deeper dialogue on the contribution of religion to the welfare of the nation. America has always been a religious country. "Its first Christian inhabitants were only too anxious to explain what they were doing and why," explains historian Paul Johnson. "In a way the first American settlers were like the ancient Israelites. They saw themselves as active agents of divine providence."4 Today, he adds, "it is generally accepted that more than half the American people still attend a place of worship over a weekend, an index of religious practice unequaled anywhere in the world, certainly in a great and populous nation."5 At the heart of religious practice is prayer: Americans pray even more than they go to church. According to a composite of surveys, 94 percent of blacks, 91 percent of women, 87 percent of whites, and 85 percent of men regard themselves as people who pray regularly. Some 78 percent pray at least once per week, and 57 percent pray daily. Even among the 13 percent of the population who call themselves agnostics or atheists, some 20 percent pray daily.6 When policymakers consider America's grave social problems, including violent crime and rising illegitimacy, substance abuse, and welfare dependency, they should heed the findings in the professional literature of the social sciences on the positive consequences that flow from the practice of religion.7 For example, there is ample evidence that:

• The strength of the family unit is intertwined with the practice of religion. Churchgoers8 are more likely to be married, less likely to be divorced or single, and more likely to manifest high levels of satisfaction in marriage. • Church attendance is the most important predictor of marital stability and happiness. • The regular practice of religion helps poor persons move out of poverty. Regular church attendance, for example, is particularly instrumental in helping young people to escape the poverty of inner-city life. • Religious belief and practice contribute substantially to the formation of personal moral criteria and sound moral judgment. • Regular religious practice generally inoculates individuals against a host of social problems, including suicide, drug abuse, out-of-wedlock births, crime, and divorce. • The regular practice of religion also encourages such beneficial effects on mental health as less depression (a modern epidemic), more self-esteem, and greater family and marital happiness. • In repairing damage caused by alcoholism, drug addiction, and marital breakdown, religious belief and practice are a major source of strength and recovery. • Regular practice of religion is good for personal physical health: It increases longevity, improves one's chances of recovery from illness, and lessens the incidence of many killer diseases. The overall impact of religious practice is illustrated dramatically in the three most comprehensive systematic reviews of the field.9 Some 81 percent of the studies showed the positive benefit of religious practice, 15 percent showed neutral effects, and only 4 percent showed harm.10 Each of these systematic reviews indicated more than 80 percent benefit, and none indicated more than 10 percent harm. Even this 10 percent may be explained by more recent social science insights into "healthy religious practice" and "unhealthy religious practice."11 This latter notion will be discussed later -- it is seen generally by most Americans of religious faith as a mispractice of religion. Unfortunately, the effects of...
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