‘Can atheism deliver a better world?’ That was the title of a recent Big Conversation between Matt Dillahunty who hosts The Atheist Experience in Austin Texas, and Christian speaker Glen Scrivener who runs Speak Life here in the UK.
One of the topics discussed in a vigorous and wide-ranging debate was wellbeing in society and whether religion or atheism provides the best environment for a society’s good. Great question! Does religion enhance the wellbeing of society, or can atheism deliver a better world?
On the face of it, the harm in the world caused by religion is considerable. Corruption and failures in the church down the centuries have been numerous. And, since 9/11 and the rise of militant Islam, all religions now seem to be tarred with the same brush. “Religion” in general gets blamed for terrorism, wars and suffering, from Northern Ireland to the Middle East.
Indeed, it was the rise of religious extremism post 9/11 that sparked the emergence of New Atheism — and its own brand of intolerance to anyone of faith. New Atheists claimed that “religion poisons everything” (to quote Christopher Hitchens). But, those claims have always been as much about rhetoric as anything else. The reality is, much conflict labelled ‘religious’ has more to do with national identity and political ideology than what people believe about God.
But, leaving the complicated history of religion aside, we are still left with the question: do people of faith enhance a society’s wellbeing or diminish it?
How are faith and wellbeing connected?
Early in the discussion Glen pointed out the good in the world done by religiously-minded people. And the scientific evidence for this seems overwhelming.
Drawing on numerous studies, Glen explained that statistically, religiously minded people give more money to charities, (including secular charities) than secular minded people. Religiously minded people also give more time to charities (including secular ones) than secular minded people. In fact, it seems that religiously minded people even donate more blood, have happier marriages, and so on (his list was long).
He went on to state that when religion flourishes it brings tremendous benefits: people of faith, as well as bringing about good, are themselves happier, healthier, more resistant to depression and live longer lives. Religion provides a framework for people and enables communities to thrive.
Matt pushed back on this, quoting a single study by a palaeontologist in 2005, which shows the opposite – ie religion in society does more harm than good. But this single study by someone who studies fossils goes against the tide of evidence. Ninety percent of all studies point to the public benefits of religion in society, stated Glen.
My own previous reading of reports linking wellbeing and faith seems to confirm this. It seems indisputable that having faith brings benefits to those with faith and to the communities in which they live.
While most studies disagree on the extent of this statement, they do not disagree with the fact of this statement. Some studies such as the annual World Happiness Report commissioned by the UN only partially support this view. The UN report states that religion enhances life satisfaction, but only in poorer countries in helping people to extract meaning from hardship and to look forward to better times.
But, even the UN report acknowledges that most research points to the positive effect of people’s faith, as a “stress buffer” for life’s most painful events such as bereavement. Other studies are much more positive. Eg: “Research mostly into Christianity has found a correlation between life-satisfaction-measures and religious certainty” – stated the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, in the UK.
But, contended Matt, is this wellbeing down to what people believe (their faith) or simply the fact that they get together to form communities? Or to put it another way ….
Does the truth matter?
Matt questioned whether any benefits of religion are due to the claimed truths of religion or, more likely in his view, the fact that religions draw people together into communities? There are benefits of being in a community and the community can also find satisfaction in helping others outside that community.
And it’s certainly the case that people of faith are good at forming tightly knit, caring groups. Belonging to a group undoubtedly has a positive impact on wellbeing. So, Matt makes a good point: the wellbeing benefits of a faith community apply whether their beliefs are true or mistaken. (And when we think of world religions, they can’t ALL be true).
Glen took the topic of truth further by asking a related but more specific question:
“Does it work because it’s true? Or is it true because it works?”
Glen of course is a Christian. So, the question becomes: Is it the truth of Christianity that makes Christianity ‘work’ in enhancing our wellbeing? Or, is it the other way around — being in a faith community enhances our wellbeing, and so we believe Christianity to be true?
I would answer “yes and yes”!
The fittest sacrificed for the weakest
The specific truth claims of Christianity, and the evidence for them, was not discussed in this debate, (and neither were the truth claims of atheism — atheists often make truth claims of their own but don’t always like to admit that).
But, explained Glen, the core doctrines of Christianity do indeed lead to enhanced wellbeing for the whole of society whether individuals choose to accept them or not. For example, the Christian doctrine of the incarnation of Christ and his sacrificial death, reverses what many consider to be the natural order of our world i.e. natural selection and survival of the fittest.
The survival of the fittest and the sacrifice of the weakest takes place all around us, every day, in nature, in corporate culture, and in class structures in society. We see the strongest driving out weaker competition as ‘normal’. However, the Christian worldview reverses this idea. As Glen puts it: “You have in Christ the fittest who is sacrificed for the survival of the weakest. And what you get birthed out of the Christian movement is a unique preference for the poor, the marginalised, the weak, the outsider, to draw them in.”
Christianity takes the idea of ‘survival of the fittest’ and turns it completely on its head.
That concept brings intrinsic dignity to all life, all people, no matter the extent of their disability, and wherever they are on the planet. It’s an idea that drives thousands of Christians who volunteer to help others every day.
That the almighty God chose to become weak — a single cell in Mary’s womb — both shocks us and upends our natural view of the world. The adult Jesus was just a shocking in his own teaching. He commanded us to love our enemies, turning another common worldview on its head. His teaching continues to inspire millions to upend the values and systems of our world today. You can choose to believe these Christian ideas or not but the fact that they promote human flourishing seems beyond doubt.
Matt says that atheism simply hasn’t been given the chance to prove itself yet… Maybe in the future secular humanistic communities can provide just as much as wellbeing as religious ones? Maybe. But as Glen pointed out at the very end of the debate, for the last 2000 years the story of the God who became weak has been a central story already motivating people to change the world.