How religion benefits everyone: Good interview with Professor Rodney Stark

8 May

From the Research on Religion Podcast at the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion:

Religious folks would agree that religion is pretty good for them.  But is a more religious society good for the entire society as a whole, including non-believers?  We take a look at the “positive spillover effects” that spiritual belief and church attendance has on the population as a whole with Prof. Rodney Stark, frequent guest and co-director of Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion.  (Disclaimer: Baylor’s ISR is the sponsor of our podcast.)  Our conversation begins with a discussion about how religious America really is.  Recent students appear to indicate increasing non-participation, particularly among the young, and the newly-defined category of “nones” has become a regular talking point in the popular media.  Prof. Stark puts these studies into perspective noting some methodological issues with these studies, but also notes that the “nones” — when examined more closely — actually behave rather religiously, including engaging in regular prayer.  Rod mentions that the problem may not be so much as a loss of faith amongst the population, but rather a current weakness among churches to provide an adequate set of services.  We then talk about a variety of benefits that a religious, and churched, population brings to society as a whole, including atheists.  Our first stop on this journey deals with crime and its flipside, “pro-social behavior.”  Despite having an image of a society out of control, Rod points out that “secular” (or “unchurched”) Europe has much higher crime rates in almost all categories except murder.  We then discuss how and why religion may help to ameliorate crime by promoting pro-social behaviors, a seemingly obvious notion that has often been overlooked by criminologists.  Religion not only decreases crime, but it promotes pro-social behavior such as helping people on the side of the road and donating blood, which moves us into a discussion about voluntarism.  Contrary to the oft-cultivated notion that religious folks only provide charity or donate time to their own religious organizations, Rod points out that religious individuals are more engaged in secular organizations than secular folks.  This moves our conversation into the realm of civic (political) involvement, and again the data show that religiously-active individuals shine in this area as well, and this includes not only evangelical Protestants, but Catholics, Jews, and members of other faith traditions.  Tony then notes that being a “community volunteer” is not the only way to benefit a community, but rather being successful in one’s own chosen profession and not becoming a burden on society is also a way of benefitting the society at large.  Rod talks about how religious individuals are, on average, more successful in business than secular individuals and are less likely to become a burden on society.  This move us then to the issue of education and how homeschooling, promoted largely by religious individuals, has transformed the educational system to the point where many institutions of higher learning are taking note.  Again, this provides a great many “positive externalities” for the local and national community.  We then tackle intellectual life by playing off Mark Noll’s famous book about the lack of an “evangelical mind,” and Rod shows — to the contrary of Noll’s assertion — that religious individuals contribute greatly to intellectual life and high culture in the U.S.  We finish off the interview with a discussion of health-related issues, including both physical and mental health.  Both Tony and Rod share their various outrages at some of the very odd studies that have looked at the interconnection between religion and health.  And just to spice things up on RoR, we get into a bit of a discussion about s-e-x, as well as how that relates to a bigger issue facing the Western world — fertility.  Recorded: April 30, 2013.


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