What Is Christianity Good For?

What is Christianity good for?

I ask this question in all seriousness, not as an insult. I genuinely want to know. Eternal life in Heaven is usually held out as the greatest benefit of becoming a Christian, but that reward is said to be in the next life and is impossible for us to verify. Does Christianity have any benefits in this life, any evidence that can be offered now as partial substantiation of its grander promises later on?

I’m not looking for personal testimonies about how conversion to Christianity has changed the testifier’s life. Such stories may be deeply felt and sincerely believed, but they are also anecdotal, and like all anecdotal evidence, they have a substantial problem of confirmation bias. People who convert to Christianity and experience positive change will naturally credit this change to their conversion and want to tell everyone in sight. However, people who convert to Christianity and experience no change, or change for the worse, will be far less likely to speak up. There’s no guarantee that the people who do speak out are a representative sample. What I’m looking for is sound statistical evidence that Christian belief leads to positive results at a rate greater than chance and ideally at a rate greater than that of other religions.

So far, the evidence has come up negative in several categories:

  • Faith healing: Double-blind, peer-reviewed studies have routinely found that intercessory prayer has no beneficial effect on hospital patients’ length of recovery, mortality rate, frequency of complications, or other clinical variables. People who are being prayed for do no better than people who are not being prayed for, and in some cases (when they know prayers are being offered on their behalf), actually do worse.
  • Sex education: Abstinence-only public school sex education programs supported and taught by evangelical Christians have turned out to be a dismal failure. Surveys have repeatedly found that these programs have no effect whatsoever on the likelihood of teenagers to engage in premarital sex, to get STDs, or to become pregnant (see also). (This should be little surprise, since not teaching teenagers sex ed doesn’t mean they won’t hear about sex; it just means they won’t hear accurate information about sex.) Christian-backed “virginity pledges” fail more often than contraception; more than half of the teenagers who take them have sex within a year (more information).
  • Prisoner reform: Evangelist Charles Colson’s “InnerChange Freedom Initiative”, a fundamentalist Christian program aimed at reforming prisoners through religious education, claimed that its graduates had substantially lower recidivism rates than a matched control group. In fact, as statisticians like Mark Kleiman have found, InnerChange’s actual numbers show that their participants as a whole had slightly higher rates of rearrest and reimprisonment than inmates in the control group. Their claim to the contrary was derived by only counting those inmates who successfully completed the program and went on to get jobs after being released, while ignoring those who did less well – in other words, the basic statistical fallacy of counting the hits and forgetting the misses.

If Christianity is not good for these things, what is it good for? I’m open to evidence if any person has any to present. But in the meantime, I have a hypothesis of my own.

In 2005, the sociologist Gregory S. Paul published a much-cited study showing that quantifiable measures of societal health tend to correlate inversely with religiosity. In other words, the worse off a society’s people are, the more likely they are to be religious. The most striking example is the United States, long an aberration among industrialized countries for its unusually high levels of religious fundamentalism, and also a standout for its comparatively high levels of social ills such as homicide, juvenile mortality, teen pregnancy and STD infection.

Together with Phil Zuckerman, Paul has now published a new essay in Edge magazine, “Why the Gods Are Not Winning“, which documents the dwindling of Christianity throughout much of the First World (again, America being the exception), as compared to an explosive and historically unprecedented growth of atheism and agnosticism. I highly recommend the entire article – some of the quotes from it are real beauties:

Far from providing unambiguous evidence of the rise of faith, the devout compliers of the [World Christian Encyclopedia] document what they characterize as the spectacular ballooning of secularism by a few hundred-fold! It has no historical match. It dwarfs the widely heralded Mormon climb to 12 million during the same time, even the growth within Protestantism of Pentecostals from nearly nothing to half a billion does not equal it.

…What has changed is how people view the Bible. In the 1970s nearly four in ten took the testaments literally, just a little over one in ten thought it was a mixture of history, fables, and legends, a three to one ratio in favor of the Biblical view. Since then a persistent trend has seen literalism decline to between a quarter and a third of the population, and skeptics have doubled to nearly one in five. If the trend continues the fableists will equal and then surpass the literalists in a couple of decades.

(Note: Decades, not centuries!)

Even the megachurch phenomenon is illusory. A spiritual cross of sports stadiums with theme parks, hi-tech churches are a desperate effort to pull in and satisfy a mass-media jaded audience for whom the old sit in the pews and listen to the standard sermon and sing some old time hymns does not cut it anymore. Rather than boosting church membership, megachurches are merely consolidating it.

(Paul and Zuckerman’s comments here echo my post of last fall, “Receding Waters“. As intimidating as the megachurches seem, they cannot mask the clear trend that American religiosity, and especially American Christianity, is declining rather than gaining.)

…America’s disbelievers atheists now number 30 million, most well educated and higher income, and they far outnumber American Jews, Muslims and Mormons combined. There are many more disbelievers than Southern Baptists, and the god skeptics are getting more recruits than the evangelicals.

The thesis of Paul and Zuckerman’s article, which strikes me as entirely reasonable, is that people cling to faith for reassurance in environments of poverty, stress and uncertainty. (This does not exclude the possibility that faith can also perpetuate some of the ills its adherents seek to escape from.) Conversely, as nations become more prosperous and life becomes more comfortable and secure, the need for religion as a supernatural security blanket decreases. This, above all else, seems to be what religion and Christianity specifically are good for – as a source of reassurance in troubled times. But this does not mean they are the only or the best source, and happily, this suggests that two atheist goals are entirely aligned: as we work to improve people’s lives in real and measurable ways, the grasping after religion as a method of coping will inevitably decline.

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