Lately I have pondered on the immense good that religion does. When we think of this, our first thoughts turn to the deeply personal effect that faith has in our own lives and in the lives of our families and friends. Religion defines and sustains us. For billions of believers, it is who we are and how we live.
But religion also benefits nations and communities. Government officials and policy makers who seek to establish lasting peace and prosperity for people of all faiths should understand why and how. Failing to appreciate the good religion does society or the nation as a whole and to accommodate religion whenever possible results in social conflict.
1. Religion Enriches the Entire Nation
First, religion enriches the entire nation. When I say “enriches,” I use the term in the literal sense of increasing wealth. Religion has a significant effect on national prosperity. Studies show that religion fosters trust—a necessary ingredient for social cohesion and economic growth.1 Trust affects a nation’s economic performance across the board, as a leading economist at the World Bank explained:
“At the micro level, social ties and interpersonal trust can reduce transaction costs, enforce contracts, and facilitate credit at the level of individual investors. At the macro level, social cohesion underlying trust may strengthen democratic governance, improve the efficiency and honesty of public administration, and improve the quality of economic policies.”2
In a similar vein, Italian social scientists have identified a direct link between religious belief and trust:
“We find that on average religion is associated positively with attitudes that are conducive to free markets and better institutions. Religious people trust others more, trust the government and the legal system more, are less willing to break the law, and are more likely to believe that the markets’ outcomes are fair.”3
Trust is an essential element of any well-functioning economy, and scholars have found that religion is especially effective at instilling trust and that religious people are far more trusting than people with purely secular viewpoints.4 Noted sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell offer this explanation:
“Perhaps because they spend time with trustworthy people, or perhaps because their faith encourages them to look on the brighter side of things, religious people themselves are more trusting of just about everybody than are secular people.”5
2. Religion Enriches Local Communities
Second, religion enriches local communities.
Religious people and institutions are a powerful source of humanitarian assistance. Where they are free to worship and to exercise their faith, religious people give volunteer community service at much higher rates than those without religion. By one estimate, people of faith are 40 percent more likely than nonreligious people to give money to charities and more than twice as likely to volunteer their service to community organizations.6 Highly religious people are more likely to volunteer not only for religious causes but also for secular ones.7 And religious people are three times more likely than the secular to contribute to charities and to volunteer each month.8
This willingness of religious believers to give and to serve arises from the sense of compassion that religion teaches us to have for our neighbors—especially those who are poor or otherwise in need. Research shows that religious people tend to be more likely than their secular counterparts to have feelings of concern and compassion for others in need. A prominent social scientist explained that “if two people are demographically identical in all important ways except that one is religious and the other is secular, the religious person is 13 percentage points more likely than the secular person to say he is concerned about the less fortunate.”9
Inspired by such compassion, religious volunteers provide vital services for the most vulnerable: food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, schools for the uneducated, and medical care for the sick. More than 90 percent of those who attend weekly worship services donate to charity, and nearly 70 percent of them volunteer for charitable causes.10 Such generosity happens at both the institutional and individual levels.
Religious volunteers provide substantial assistance in areas that would otherwise fall to governmental agencies. Life-changing aid includes refugee assistance, child and foster care services, job training and other employment-related services, counseling and mental health support, literacy and mentoring programs, crime and substance abuse prevention, legal representation, assistance to victims and families of criminal offenders, and services for the homeless.11
In addition to the coordinated service rendered by religious organizations, individual religious believers give service on their own. Religious people are nearly 20 percent more likely than secular individuals to give money or food to a homeless person and almost twice as likely to give blood. More often than their secular counterparts, religious people carry out small acts of civility and integrity, such as voluntarily returning extra change received from a cashier.12
Taken together, these acts of voluntary service by religious believers and religious institutions lift and strengthen communities.
3. Religion Enriches the Lives of Families and Individuals
Third, religion enriches the lives of families and individuals.
Marriages are more stable and families more self-sufficient because of the influence of religion. Numerous international studies have shown that valuing and regularly practicing religion is “associated with greater marital stability, higher levels of marital satisfaction, and an increased likelihood that an individual will be inclined to marry.”13 In fact, sociological studies and literature reviews going back over half a century indicate that religious attendance is the single most important predictor of marital stability.14
Research has shown that couples who acknowledge a divine purpose in their marriage are more likely to collaborate, to have greater marital adjustment, and to perceive more benefits from marriage.15 They are also less likely to use aggression or to come to a stalemate in their disagreements,16 and the rates of domestic violence among religious couples are lower than those of secular couples.17
When husbands attend religious services more frequently, their wives report greater happiness with the level of affection and understanding in their relationship, and with the amount of time their husbands spend with them.18 Among couples whose marriages lasted 30 years or more, a significant number reported that their faith was a source of moral guidance in times of conflict, that their faith helped them to deal with relationship difficulties, and that their faith encouraged them to maintain their commitment to their marriages.19 By sharp contrast, married couples who stopped religious activity divorced 2.5 times more frequently than those who continued to attend religious services.20
Children are safer and thrive better in families led by a religious mother and father whose faith inspires them to make personal sacrifices for the strength and happiness of their marriage and children. Children raised in religious homes are less likely to experience anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, and sadness.21 Simply put, children are happier when mother and father are religious. Religious practice correlates with reduced rates of youth depression22 and suicide,23 while a lack of religious affiliation bears a tragic correlation with a higher risk of youth suicide.24 A strong family coupled with regular religious practice is the most effective defense against the pernicious evils of pornography,25 drug and alcohol abuse,26 and other addictive behaviors.27 And adolescents who regularly participate in religious services are significantly less likely to engage in delinquent or illegal behavior.28
Parents who attend religious services are more likely to enjoy strong, healthy relationships with their children,29 and the greater a child’s religious involvement, the greater their emotional closeness to their parents will be.30 Religious activity also increases the odds that a child will share similar values with his or her parents.31
Religious fathers tend to be more involved with their children, to monitor their children’s activities, to praise and hug them, and to spend time with them one on one.32 In fact, a father’s frequency of religious attendance was a stronger predictor of paternal involvement in one-on-one activities with children than employment and income!33
Given all of this, it should come as no surprise that studies across a wide diversity of ages, races, and denominations show that religious activity leads to greater individual and family happiness, life satisfaction, morale, positive affect, or some other measure of well-being.34 Religion enriches family life.
And, generally speaking, religion inspires individuals to become better people—to develop the traits of honesty, self-discipline, and caring for others that we associate with good character. Such moral discipline and the inculcation of moral values occur primarily in the home and within a religious community, but the benefits of such moral training ultimately reach all of society.
As religion inspires individuals to develop praiseworthy character traits, such people become more engaged and responsible citizens and more effective contributors to the welfare of their own communities and even the nation. Religiously involved individuals are less likely than others to carry or use weapons, fight, or commit violence.35 Communities with more religious populations tend to have fewer homicides and suicides,36 and religious attendance is associated with direct decreases in rates of both minor and major crimes that are unrivaled by the effect of any secular or government welfare program.37
Not only are the religious more likely to be law abiding; they are more likely to be active, engaged, contributing members of the community. Leading scholars have declared that “religiosity is, by far, the strongest and most consistent predictor of a wide range of measures of civic involvement.”38
Happy marriages. Healthy, successful children. Strong moral character. Safe communities. And active, engaged citizens. These are further proof of the good that religion does.
4. Religious Freedom
All these benefits bless the lives of individuals, families, communities, and the nation. But they can occur only in societies that recognize and honor religious freedom. Long experience teaches that repressing religious belief and practice diminishes the power of religion.
Wherever we look in the world, we see that religious freedom not only protects religious people and institutions; it also acts as a catalyst in protecting the whole range of human rights. Freedom of speech, for instance, embraces the right to speak about God. But it also embraces the freedom to speak about one’s opinions and beliefs in matters of politics, art, literature, history, morality, or virtually any other topic.
Research has shown that protecting religious freedom promotes societal harmony. This happens because religious freedom facilitates other types of freedom that have significant correlations with positive social and economic outcomes “ranging from better health care to higher incomes for women.”39 Hard experience powerfully establishes, by contrast, that abridging religious freedom leads to conflict. Studies have shown that societal restrictions on religion increase intrastate conflict,40 religiously motivated violence,41 political corruption,42 and overall levels of strife and national unrest.43 Indeed, studies show that government restrictions on religious freedom are the strongest predictor of religious violence and conflict, even when other factors are eliminated.44
Countries with strong traditions of religious freedom tend to be not only more stable and safe but more prosperous. A recent study reached the remarkable conclusion that the presence of religious freedom in a country is one of only three factors significantly associated with global economic growth.45 Consider what a difference that principle could make! Imagine what changes would happen if more officials and policy makers recognized that protecting religious freedom is one of the three most significant things they could do to promote the economic growth and well-being of their country.
Looking at national prosperity alone, religion delivers such beneficial results because religious freedom generates peace and stability.46 Where society is stable there are opportunities to invest and conduct predictable business operations.47 Ten out of 12 of the World Economic Forum’s pillars of national competitiveness were stronger in countries with low government restrictions on religious freedom.48 These include better primary education and health, better technical training and higher education, greater technological readiness, greater innovation, stronger communications and transport infrastructure, greater market efficiency, higher business sophistication, greater financial market development, stronger institutional environments promoting wealth, and greater labor market efficiency.49
Demonstrable results like these should make religious freedom a public policy priority. Proposals to diminish religious freedom risk losing the great national, social, and individual benefits I have described, and generating destructive conflicts. Serious impediments to religious freedom will carry untold costs by denying religion the capacity to do good for everyone. That will only impoverish all of us. It was Mahatma Gandhi who wrote, “The golden rule of conduct, therefore, is mutual toleration, seeing that we will never all think alike and we shall see Truth in fragment and from different angles of vision.”50 Mutual toleration and respect for diverse religious beliefs are the best way forward.
Peace is our common aim. Peace between countries. Peace within communities. And peace, ultimately, for each of us. Recognizing and protecting faith is the path to peace. True religion offers a stable foundation for a just and healthy society. It strengthens and ennobles nations, communities, and individuals. It is my hope that we will all recognize and appreciate the great good religion does and work together—as people of diverse faiths or no faith at all—to build more peaceful nations and ultimately a more peaceful world.
1 See Luigi Guiso and others, “People's Opium? Religion and Economic Attitudes,” Journal of Monetary Economics, vol. 50, no. 1 (2003), 225; Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012), 460–61.
2 Stephen Knack, “Trust, Associational Life and Economic Performance,” HRDC-OECD International Symposium on the Contribution of Investment in Human and Social Capital to Sustained Economic Growth and Well-Being, http://www.oecd.org/innovation/research/1825662.pdf.
3 Guiso and others, “People’s Opium?,” 227.
4 Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, 460–61.
5 Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, 460–61.
6 Arthur C. Brooks, “Compassion, Religion, and Politics,” The Public Interest, Sept. 22, 2004, 57, 59.
7 See Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, chapter 13.
8 Brooks, “Compassion, Religion, and Politics,” 61.
9 Brooks, “Compassion, Religion, and Politics,” 59-60.
10 Arthur C. Brooks, “Religious Faith and Charitable Giving,” Policy Review, Hoover Institution, Oct. 1, 2003, http://www.hoover.org/research/religious-faith-and-charitable-giving; see also Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, 460–61.
11 81 Fed. Reg. 64 (April 4, 2016).
12 Brooks, “Compassion, Religion, and Politics,” 62.
13 Patrick F. Fagan, “Why Religion Matters Even More: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability,” Backgrounder, Dec. 18, 2006, 2.
14 David B. Larson and others, “Families, Relationships and Health,” in Danny Wedding and Margaret L. Stuber, eds., Behavior and Medicine (Boston: Hogrefe & Huber, 1990), 135.
15 Andrew J. Weaver and others, “A Systematic Review of Research on Religion in Six Primary Marriage and Family Journals: 1995–1999,” American Journal of Family Therapy, vol. 30, no. 4 (2002), 293.
16 Weaver and others, “A Systematic Review of Research on Religion,” 293.
17 Christopher G. Ellison and Kristin L. Anderson, “Religious Involvement and Domestic Violence Among U.S. Couples,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 40 (2001), 269.
18 W. Bradford Wilcox, Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 186.
19 Linda C. Robinson, “Marital Strengths in Enduring Marriages,” Family Relations, vol. 42 (1993), 38.
20 Timothy T. Clydesdale, “Family Behaviors Among Early U.S. Baby Boomers: Exploring the Effects of Religion and Income Change, 1965–1982,” Social Forces, vol. 76 (1997), 605.
21 Byron R. Johnson and others, Objective Hope—Assessing the Effectiveness of Faith-Based Organizations: A Systematic Review of the Literature, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society (2002) http://www.manhattaninstitute.org/pdf/crrucs_objective_hope.pdf.
22 Loyd S. Wright and others, “Church Attendance, Meaningfulness of Religion, and Depressive Symptomatology Among Adolescents,” Journal of Youth & Adolescence, vol. 22 (1993), 559.
23 Johnson and others, Objective Hope.
24 Frank Tovato, “Domestic/Religious Individualism and Youth Suicide in Canada,” Family Perspectives, vol. 24 (1990), 69.
25 Nicholas Zill, “Quality of Parent-Child Relationship, Religious Attendance, and Family Structure,” Mapping America, no. 48 (2009); see also Mapping America publications on U.S. patterns of viewing X-rated movies (Mapping America nos. 37-39) and adultery (Mapping America nos. 73-75).
26 Marvin D. Free Jr., “Religiosity, Religious Conservatism, Bonds to School, and Juvenile Delinquency Among Three Categories of Drug Users,” Deviant Behavior, vol. 15 (1994), 151.
27 William J. Strawbridge and others, “Religious Attendance Increases Survival by Improving and Maintaining Good Health Behaviors, Mental Health, and Social Relationships,” Annals of Behavioral Medicine, vol. 23 (2001), 68; Johnson and others, Objective Hope.
28 Byron R. Johnson and others, “Escaping from the Crime of Inner Cities: Church Attendance and Religious Salience Among Disadvantaged Youth,” Justice Quarterly, vol. 17 (June 2000), 377. Disadvantaged black youths in the inner city who attend religious services regularly are 57 percent less likely to deal drugs and 39 percent less likely to commit crime generally.
29 Lisa D. Pearce and William G. Axinn, “The Impact of Family Religious Life on the Quality of Mother–Child Relations,” American Sociological Review, vol. 63 (Dec. 1998), 810.
30 William S. Aquilino, “Two Views of One Relationship: Comparing Parents’ and Young Adult Children’s Reports of the Quality of Intergenerational Relations,” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 61 (Nov. 1999), 858.
31 William S. Aquilino, “Two Views of One Relationship,” 858.
32 Wilcox, Soft Patriarchs, 112–18.
33 Wilcox, Soft Patriarchs, 112–18.
34 Johnson and others, “Escaping from the Crime of Inner Cities,” 377.
35 David Lester, “Religiosity and Personal Violence: A Regional Analysis of Suicide and Homicide Rates,” Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 127 (Dec. 1987), 685–86.
36 David Lester, “Religiosity and Personal Violence,” 685–86.
37 Johnson and others, “Escaping from the Crime of Inner Cities,” 377.
38 Putnam and Campbell, American Grace, 454–55.
39 Guiso and others, “People’s Opium?,” 227.
40 See generally Roger Finke, “Origins and Consequences of Religious Restrictions: A Global Overview,” Sociology of Religion, vol. 74 (2013), 1.
41 See generally, Roger Finke and Jaime Dean Harris, “Wars and Rumors of Wars: Explaining Religiously Motivated Violence,” in Jonathan Fox, ed., Religion, Politics, Society and the State (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2011), 53.
42 See generally Seymour Martin Lipset and Gabriel Salman Lenz, “Corruption, Culture, and Markets,” in Lawrence E. Harrison and Samuel P. Huntington, eds., Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 112.
43 See generally Brian J. Grim and others, “Deregulation and Demographic Change: A Key to Understanding Whether Religious Plurality Leads to Strife,” Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, vol. 9, art. 13 (2013), 1.
44 Grim and others, “Deregulation and Demographic Change,” 1; see also notes 9 and 10.
45 Brian J. Grim and others, “Is Religious Freedom Good for Business? A Conceptual and Empirical Analysis,” Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, vol. 10, art. 4 (2014), 1.
46 Grim and others, “Is Religious Freedom Good for Business?,” 1; see also Finke and Harris, “Wars and Rumors of Wars,” 53.
47 Grim and others, “Is Religious Freedom Good for Business?,” 4.
48 Grim and others, “Is Religious Freedom Good for Business?,” 8.
49 Grim and others, “Is Religious Freedom Good for Business?,” 9.
50 Mohandas Gandhi, “Religion of Volunteers,” 36 The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, § 389, 344 (1998).