If you buy the version of events from uber-atheist Christopher Hitchens, then you will believe that “religion poisons everything”. If you take his word – and that of his atheist buddies like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris – as your source of gospel truth, then a world without religion will be considered to be paradise.
And they also insist that a world with religion is hell on earth. Of course it all depends on what you mean by religion, and obviously not all religions are the same. For what it is worth, I happen to believe that the Judeo-Christian worldview has overwhelmingly been a force for good in the world.
Plenty of others believe such a case is eminently sensible, fully justifiable and historical provable. Indeed, entire volumes have been penned documenting the overwhelming good of the biblical worldview and its effects in this world.
For example, sociologist of religion Rodney Stark has penned a number of important academic volumes arguing this very case. His celebrated 2005 volume, The Victory of Reason nicely makes this case. His subtitle makes this clear: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success.
Or one can point to Alvin Schmidt’s important 2005 book, How Christianity Changed the World. My review of this incisive work can be found here: billmuehlenberg.com/2005/09/07/a-review-of-how-christianity-changed-the-world-by-alvin-schmidt/
In that review I said this: “The bottom line, as Schmidt notes, is that if Jesus Christ had never been born, to speak of Western civilisation would be incomprehensible. Indeed, there may never have been such a civilisation. The freedoms and benefits we enjoy in many modern cultures are directly due to the influence of this one man. And besides all the institutional, cultural, social, political and artistic benefits, there is one last benefit: the countless millions of changed lives due to a liberating encounter with the risen Christ. It is this benefit, first and foremost, which of course accounts for all the institutional benefits.”
And somewhat earlier (in 1994), D. James Kennedy wrote a brief volume entitled What if Jesus Had Never Been Born? These and other books document the overwhelmingly positive impact which Christianity (and its Hebrew heritage) has made on the world.
And anyone who has had a life-changing encounter with the risen Christ will know how a messed-up dead-end life can be gloriously transformed for the good. I and countless millions of others have experienced this first hand. So we already know the very real positive benefits of religion, or at least the Judeo-Christian variety.
But today this was further substantiated. Some of you would have seen the remarks made by a Harvard professor, indicating that religious people are more involved in helping others and so on than are non-religious people. Religious folks are simply nicer and more helpful than secular folks are.
This is how an opinion piece today covers all this: “I’m getting ready to duck, but don’t shoot the messenger. The results are in: religious people are nicer. Or so says Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard. Described by London’s Sunday Times as the most influential academic in the world today, Putnam is not a religious believer.
“Best known for Bowling Alone, the book that made ‘social capital’ a key indicator of a healthy society, Putnam, with his co-author David Campbell (a Mormon), has waded into the debate about religion in the public square with his latest offering, American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us. The book emerges out of two massive and comprehensive surveys into religion and public life in America.
“Their most conspicuously controversial finding is that religious people make better citizens and neighbours. Putnam and Campbell write that ‘for the most part, the evidence we review suggests that religiously observant Americans are more civic, and in some respects simply “nicer”.’
“On every measurable scale, religious Americans are more generous, more altruistic and more involved in civic life than their secular counterparts. They are more likely to give blood, money to a homeless person, financial aid to family or friends, a seat to a stranger and to spend time with someone who is ‘a bit down’’.”
He concludes this way: “What can’t be denied, according to Putnam and Campbell, is that there is something unique about a religious community, that has an impact on people for good. So next time a removalist truck delivers a bunch of God-botherers into your neighbourhood, don’t despair. It might be reason to celebrate.”
Of course all this is not to suggest that only believers are or can be good. Because we are all made in God’s image, and because of God’s common grace, levels of decency and civility can be found in most people. I write about this elsewhere:
But the worldview view which lies behind the Christian’s life makes a huge difference. The uniqueness of the biblical storyline is what really accounts for this empirical evidence which Putnam and others have noted and quantified.
The gospel story speaks of a God who loves us supremely and gives us everything so that we might live, and so that we in turn can be giving, loving and sharing to others. And it is not just nice ethical theory. In biblical Christianity, those who come to Christ in faith and repentance are empowered by the Holy Spirit.
The good that we were not able or were not willing to do in the past we can now do, thanks to the indwelling Spirit. We become new creations in Christ, and a life of sin and selfishness gets wonderfully transformed to a life of service, sacrifice and love for others.
But it is nice to have some further confirmation of all this. I have not yet picked up Putnam’s book, but it may be worth adding to my library. But in the meantime, we can underscore his claims by something the Apostle Paul said 2000 years ago: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).