WHY RELIGION MATTERS: THE IMPACT OF RELIGIOUS PRACTICE ON SOCIAL STABILITYBy Patrick F. Fagan
William H.G. FitzGerald Senior Fellow in Family and Cultural Issues1
The Heritage Foundation
Backgrounder No. 1064
January 25, 1996
By extolling freedom of religion in the schools, President Bill Clinton has raised the level of debate on the importance of religion to American life.3 The time is ripe for a deeper dialogue on the contribution of religion to the welfare of the nation.
America has always been a religious country. "Its first Christian inhabitants were only too anxious to explain what they were doing and why," explains historian Paul Johnson. "In a way the first American settlers were like the ancient Israelites. They saw themselves as active agents of divine providence."4 Today, he adds, "it is generally accepted that more than half the American people still attend a place of worship over a weekend, an index of religious practice unequaled anywhere in the world, certainly in a great and populous nation."5
At the heart of religious practice is prayer: Americans pray even more than they go to church. According to a composite of surveys, 94 percent of blacks, 91 percent of women, 87 percent of whites, and 85 percent of men regard themselves as people who pray regularly. Some 78 percent pray at least once per week, and 57 percent pray daily. Even among the 13 percent of the population who call themselves agnostics or atheists, some 20 percent pray daily.6
When policymakers consider America's grave social problems, including violent crime and rising illegitimacy, substance abuse, and welfare dependency, they should heed the findings in the professional literature of the social sciences on the positive consequences that flow from the practice of religion.7
For example, there is ample evidence that:
The overall impact of religious practice is illustrated dramatically in the three most comprehensive systematic reviews of the field.9 Some 81 percent of the studies showed the positive benefit of religious practice, 15 percent showed neutral effects, and only 4 percent showed harm.10 Each of these systematic reviews indicated more than 80 percent benefit, and none indicated more than 10 percent harm. Even this 10 percent may be explained by more recent social science insights into "healthy religious practice" and "unhealthy religious practice."11 This latter notion will be discussed later -- it is seen generally by most Americans of religious faith as a mispractice of religion. Unfortunately, the effects of unhealthy religious practice are used to downplay the generally positive influence of religion.12 This both distorts the true nature of religious belief and practice and causes many policymakers to ignore its positive social consequences.
Religious practice appears to have enormous potential for addressing today's social problems. As summarized in 1991 by Allen Bergin, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, considerable evidence indicates that religious involvement reduces "such problems as sexual permissiveness, teen pregnancy, suicide, drug abuse, alcoholism, and to some extent deviant and delinquent acts, and increases self esteem, family cohesiveness and general well being.... Some religious influences have a modest impact whereas another portion seem like the mental equivalent of nuclear energy.... More generally, social scientists are discovering the continuing power of religion to protect the family from the forces that would tear it down."13
Professor Bergin's summary was echoed two years later by nationally syndicated columnist William Raspberry: "Almost every commentator on the current scene bemoans the increase of violence, lowered ethical standards and loss of civility that mark American society. Is the decline of religious influence part of what is happening to us? Is it not just possible that anti-religious bias masquerading as religious neutrality is costing more than we have been willing to acknowledge?"14 Other reviews15 also list the positive effects of religious belief and practice in reducing such problems as suicide, substance abuse, divorce, and marital dissatisfaction. Such evidence indicates clearly that religious practice contributes significantly to the quality of American life.
Given this evidence,
The U.S. Supreme Court should:
America's religious leaders should:
RELIGION AND HAPPINESS
Ever since Aristotle outlined the goal of a sound civil order in his Politics,16 social and political scientists and social psychologists have been particularly interested in what makes human beings happy. Happy people tend to be productive and law-abiding. They learn well, make good citizens, and are invariably pleasant company. It turns out that the practice of religion has a significant effect on happiness and an overall sense of personal well-being. Religious affiliation and regular church attendance are near the top of the list for most people in explaining their own happiness17 and serve as good predictors of who is most likely to have this sense of well-being.18 Happiness is greater and psychological stress is lower for those who attend religious services regularly.19 Those pursuing a personal relationship with God tend to have improved relationships with themselves and with others.20
A large epidemiological study conducted by the University of California at Berkeley in 1971 found that the religiously committed had much less psychological distress than the uncommitted.21 Rodney Stark, now of the University of Washington, found the same in a 1970 study: The higher the level of religious attendance, the less stress suffered when adversity had to be endured.22 Similarly, in a longitudinal study of 720 adults conducted by David Williams of the University of Michigan, regular religious attendance led to much less psychological distress.23
In 1991, David Larson, adjunct professor at the Northwestern and Duke University Schools of Medicine and president of the National Institute of Healthcare Research, completed a systematic review of studies on religious commitment and personal well-being. He found that the relationship is powerful and positive; overall, psychological functioning improved following a resumption of participation in religious worship for those who had stopped.24
RELIGION AND FAMILY STABILITY
There is a growing consensus that America needs to pursue policies aimed at re-strengthening the family. The beneficial effects of religious worship on family stability clearly indicate one way to help accomplish this. Professors Darwin L. Thomas and Gwendolyn C. Henry of Brigham Young University's Department of Sociology sum up earlier research25 on the quest by young people for meaning and love: "Research on love clearly indicates that for many, love in the social realm cannot clearly be separated from love that contains a vertical or a divine element.... Young people see love as the central aspect of the meaning of life; they believe that religion is still important in helping form judgments and attitudes."26 Their conclusion: "Family and religious institutions need to be studied simultaneously in our efforts to understand the human condition better."27
"Middletown," one of the century's classic sociological research projects, studied the lives of inhabitants of a typical American town, first in the 1920s and for the third time in the 1980s. Based on the latest round of follow-up research, Howard Bahr and Bruce Chadwick, professors of sociology at Brigham Young University, concluded in 1985 that "There is a relationship between family solidarity -- family health if you will -- and church affiliation and activity. Middletown [churchgoing] members were more likely to be married, remain married and to be highly satisfied with their marriages and to have more children.... The great divide between marriage status, marriage satisfaction and family size is... between those who identify with a church or denomination and those who do not."28
Four years later, Professor Arland Thornton of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan likewise concluded from a Detroit study of the same relationship that "These data indicate strong intergenerational transmission of religious involvement. Attendance at religious services is also very stable within generations across time."29
"With striking consistency, the most religious among us [as Americans] place a greater importance on the full range of family and friendship activities," concluded a Connecticut Mutual Life report in 1982.30 A group of Kansas State University professors reached the same conclusion: "Family commitment is indeed a high priority in many American families and it is frequently accompanied by a concomitant factor of religious commitment."31 In yet another study conducted during the 1970s and 1980s, professors Nick Stinnet of the University of Alabama and John DeFrain of the University of Nebraska sought to identify family strengths. From their nationwide surveys of strong families, they found that 84 percent identified religion as an important contributor to the strength of their families.32 It should be noted that the same pattern appears to hold for African-American families: Parents who attended church frequently cited the significance of religion in rearing their children and in providing moral guidelines.33
Marital Satisfaction. Couples with long-lasting marriages indicate that the practice of religion is an important factor in marital happiness. Indeed, David Larson's systematic reviews indicate that church attendance is the most important predictor of marital stability.34 Others have found the same result.35 Twenty years ago it was first noted that very religious women achieve greater satisfaction in sexual intercourse with their husbands than do moderately religious or non-religious women.36 The Sex in America study published in 1995, and conducted by sociologists from the University of Chicago and the State University of New York at Stonybrook, also showed very high sexual satisfaction among "conservative" religious women.37 From the standpoint of contemporary American media culture, this may appear strange or counter-intuitive, but the empirical evidence is consistent.
Divorce and Cohabitation. Regular church attendance is the critical factor in marital stability across denominations and overrides effects of doctrinal teaching on divorce. For instance, black Protestants and white Catholics, who share similarly high church attendance rates, have been shown to have similarly low divorce rates.38 Furthermore, when marital separation occurs, reconciliation rates are higher among regular church attendees, and highest when both spouses have the same high level of church attendance.39 Findings on the other end of the marital spectrum reinforce the point: A 1993 national survey of 3,300 men aged 20-39 found that those who switch partners most are those with no religious convictions.40
Significantly, cohabitation before marriage poses a high risk to later marital stability,41 and premarital cohabitation is much less common among religious Americans. "The cohabitation rate is seven times higher among persons who seldom or never attend religious services compared to persons who frequently attend," writes David Larson of the National Institute of Healthcare Research. "Women who attended religious services once a week were only one-third as likely to cohabit as those who attended church services less than once a month." Furthermore, "If the mother frequently attended religious services, both sons and daughters were only 50 percent as likely to cohabit as adult children whose mothers were not actively religious."42 Rockford Institute President Allan Carlson summarizes the pattern: "Social scientists are discovering the continuing power of religion to protect the family from the forces that would tear it down."43
The fact is that too many social scientists have failed to appreciate the significance of research on the relationship between family and religion. As another researcher of the same period concludes, "We may have underestimated this 'silent majority' and it is only fair to give them equal time."44 The centrality of stable married family life in avoiding such problems as crime,45 illegitimacy,46 and welfare47 has become indisputable. If such a stable family life is linked closely to a lively religious life, as these studies indicate, then the peace and happiness of the nation depend significantly on a renewal of religious practice and belief.
RELIGION AND PHYSICAL HEALTH
In public health circles, the level of educational attainment is held to be the key demographic predictor of physical health. For over two decades, however, the level of religious practice has been shown convincingly to be equally important.
As early as 1972, researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health found that cardiovascular diseases, the leading killers of older people, were reduced significantly in early old age by a lifetime of regular church attendance. By contrast, non-attendees had higher mortality rates for such other diseases as cirrhosis of the liver, emphysema, and arteriosclerosis, in addition to other cardiovascular diseases and even suicide.48 Research on mortality patterns among the poor confirmed a decade later that those who went to church regularly lived longer.49 Since then, other studies have reinforced this general finding.50
Blood pressure, a key factor in cardiovascular health, is reduced significantly by regular church attendance, on average by 5mm of pressure.51 Given that reducing blood pressure by 2 to 4 mm also reduces the mortality rate by 10 to 20 percent for any given population,52 a reduction of 5 mm is a very significant public health achievement by any standard. For those over 55 years of age, the average decrease was 6 mm. Among those who smoked -- a practice that increases blood pressure -- regular church attendance decreased the risk of early stroke by 700 percent.53
Nor are the health benefits of religious commitment confined to the cardiovascular system. In 1987, a major review of 250 epidemiological health research studies -- studies which examined the relationship between health and religion and measured such additional outcomes as colitis, cancers of many different types, and longevity measures -- concluded that, in general, religious commitment improves health.54 A 1991 study of two national samples55 also concluded that the degree to which people prayed and participated in religious services significantly affected their health status, regardless of age.56
In what must be one of the most unusual experiments in medical history, Dr. Robert B. Byrd, a cardiologist then at the University of California at San Francisco Medical School, conducted a random-sample, double-blind study of the effects of prayer -- not by the patients but for the patients -- on the outcome of cardiac surgery. The study was published in 1982. None of the patients knew they were being prayed for, none of the attending doctors and nurses knew who was being prayed for and who was not, and those praying had no personal contact with the patients before or during the experiment. Outcomes for the two sets of patients differed significantly: Those prayed for ha d noticeably fewer post-operative congestive heart failures, fewer cardiopulmonary arrests, less pneumonia, and less need for antibiotics.57 To date, this study has not been replicated, though the intriguing results challenge the academic and medical community to verify or disprove them.
RELIGION AND SOCIAL BREAKDOWN
The practice of religion has beneficial effects on behavior and social relations: on illegitimacy, crime and delinquency, welfare dependency, alcohol and drug abuse, suicide, depression, and general self-esteem.
Illegitimacy. One of the most powerful of all factors in preventing out-of-wedlock births is the regular practice of religious belief. Given the growing crisis in out-of-wedlock births, their effects,58 and the huge social and economic costs to national and state budgets, this should be of major interest to policymakers.
It has long been known that intensity of religious practice is closely related to adolescent virginity and sexual restraint and control. This general finding, replicated again and again,59 also holds true specifically for black teenage girls,60 the group with the highest teen pregnancy rates among all demographic subgroups.61 Reviews of the literature demonstrate that, nearly without exception, religious practice sharply reduces the incidence of premarital intercourse.62 The reverse is also true: The absence of religious practice accompanies sexual permissiveness and premarital sex. This is confirmed in numerous studies,63 including a 1991 analysis of the federal government's National Longitudinal Survey of Youth.64
The impact of religious practice on teenage sexual behavior also can be seen at the state level: States with higher levels of aggregate religiousness have lower rates of teenage pregnancy.65
In an important study published in 1987, a group of professors from the Universities of Georgia, Utah, and Wyoming found that the main cause of problematic adolescent sexual behaviors and attitudes is not only family dynamics and processes, as previously thought, but the absence of religious behavior and affiliation. They further concluded that healthy family dynamics and practices are themselves caused to a powerful degree by the presence or absence of religious beliefs and practices.66 The same results also hold true in international comparisons.67
As with drugs, alcohol, and crime, the religious behavior of the mother is one of the strongest predictors of the daughter's sexual attitudes.68 It also has long been known in the social sciences that daughters of single mothers are more likely to engage in premarital sexual behavior during adolescence.69 These mothers are more frequently permissive in their sexual attitudes, and religion for them has less importance than it has for mothers in two-parent families.70 These findings also have been replicated.71
The religious practices of parents, particularly their unity on religious issues, powerfully influence the behavior of children. Thus, for policymakers interested in reducing teenage (and older) out-of-wedlock births, the lesson is clear: Religious belief and regular worship reduce the likelihood of this form of family breakdown. One faith-based sex education course that included both mothers and daughters, for example, was aimed specifically at reducing the teenage pregnancy rate. The results were notably successful: Out-of-wedlock births among the at-risk population were almost eliminated.72
Crime and Delinquency. A review of the small amount of research done on the relationship between crime and religion shows that states w ith more religious populations tend to have fewer homicides and fewer suicides.73
A four-year longitudinal, stratified, random-sample study of high school students in the Rocky Mountain region, published in 1975, demonstrated that religious involvement significantly decreased drug use, delinquency, and premarital sex, and also increased self-control.74 A 1989 study of midwestern high school students replicated these findings.75 Similarly, young religious adults in Canada were found in a 1979 study to be less likely to use or sell narcotics, to gamble, or to destroy property.76
What is true for youth is also true for adults.77 Religious behavior, as opposed to mere attitude or affiliation, is associated with reduced crime.78 This has been known in the social science literature for over 20 years.79
In research conducted in the late 1980s -- controlling for family, economic, and religious backgrounds -- a research team from the University of Nevada found that black men who eventually ended up in prison and those who did not came respectively from two different groups: those who did not go to church, or stopped going around ten years of age, and those who went regularly.80 This failure of faith at the onset of adolescence parallels the pattern found among those who become alcoholics or drug addicts. Clearly, the family's inability to inspire regular religious worship among emerging young adults is a sign of internal weakness.
Welfare Dependency. In his classic study The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber, the preeminent German sociologist of the first half of the 20th century, demonstrated the connection between religious practice and financial well-being among Protestants. Other work on the same theme shows that this is not confined to Protestants, but that it applies across a longer period of history and across denominational lines.
This link between religion and prosperity has important implications for the poor. In 1985, for instance, Richard B. Freeman of the National Bureau of Economic Research reported that:
[Church attendance] is associated with substantial differences in the behavior of [black male youths from poverty-stricken inner-city neighborhoods] and thus in their chances to "escape" from inner city poverty. It affects allocation of time, school-going, work activity and the frequency of socially deviant activity.... It is important to recognize that our analysis has identified an important set of variables that separate successful from unsuccessful young persons in the inner city. There is a significant number of inner city youth, readily identifiable, who succeed in escaping that pathology of inner-city slum life.81
Ongoing studies by Professor Ranald Jarrell of the Department of Education at Arizona State University West show the power of religious belief and practice in encouraging a spirit of optimism among socially at-risk but advancing children. The subjects are students at the De La Salle Academy, an independent school in the upper west side of Manhattan serving primarily poor inner-city black and Hispanic middle school children who show substantial academic promise. Within this group, the highest concentration of pessimists is found among students with the lowest attendance at church. Those who attend church weekly or more frequently, on the other hand, exhibit the following profiles:
Data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), the best national sample for tracking the development of America's youth from the late 1970s, clearly indicate the difference regular religious practice makes for those who grew up in poverty in the 1970s and 1980s. Among those who attended church weekly in both 1979 and 1982, average family income in 1993 was $37,021; among those who never attended church in 1979 or 1982, however, average family income in 1993 was $24,361 -- a difference of $12,660.83
Other studies also show that growing up in an intact family correlates significantly and positively with future earnings.84 However, the NLSY data show that regular religious practice benefits both those who grow up in intact families and those who grow up in broken families. The other differences remain, but the positive impact of religion on both groups is evident.85
Alcohol and Drug Abuse. The relationship between religious practice and the moderate use or avoidance of alcohol is well documented,86 regardless of whether denominational beliefs prohibit the use of alcohol.87 According to general studies, the higher the level of religious involvement, the less likely the use or abuse of alcohol.88
Persons who abuse alcohol rarely have a strong religious commitment.89 In their study of the development of alcohol abuse, David Larson and William P. Wilson, professors of psychiatry at Northwestern University School of Medicine, found that nine out of ten alcoholics had lost interest in religion in their teenage years, in sharp contrast to teenagers generally, among whom interest in religion increased by almost 50 percent and declined by only 14 percent.90 Robert Coombs and his colleagues at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine found that alcohol abuse is 300 percent higher among those who do not attend church.91
Drug and alcohol use is lowest in the most conservative religious denominations and highest in non-religious groups, while liberal church groups have use rates just slightly lower than those for non-religious groups. But for all groups, religious commitment correlates with absence of drug abuse.92
Significantly, involvement in any religious denomination or group generally decreases the level of drug use regardless of whether the denomination teaches against the use of alcohol, although denominations that teach against any use of drugs or alcohol exhibit the highest rates of drug avoidance. Among traditional American religions, Mormons have the highest denominational association between religious doctrine and drug avoidance; they also have the most restrictive proscriptions against drug use. On the other hand, Roman Catholics have the highest alcohol use rate; their religion condemns the abuse of alcohol but does not proscribe its use.93
Attendance at church and related religious activities has special significance for drug use among teenagers. In a 1985 study of young girls aged between 9 and 17, less than 10 percent of those who reported attending religious services weekl y or more often indicated any drug or alcohol use, compared with 38 percent of all those studied.94
The parental attitude to religion also is important in dealing with alcohol use. A 1985 study indicated that if the mother and father have deep, competing differences toward religious belief and practice, their children are more likely to use or abuse alcohol than are children whose parents do not differ on matters of religion. Conversely, if their parents' religious beliefs and practices are similar, children are far more likely to abstain from alcohol or to drink with moderation.95 Almost three decades before these findings, Orville Walters, then a research fellow at the Menninger School of Psychiatry in Topeka, Kansas, found that alcoholics who came from religious backgrounds tended to have mothers who were highly religious but fathers who were more non-religious.96
For over four decades it has been known,97 and replicated,98 that alcoholics with a religious background or strong religious beliefs are much more likely to seek help and treatment. Indeed, Alcoholics Anonymous, the major organization combating alcoholism in America, has known for over half a century that the most effective element in its program is its religious or spiritual component.99 David Larson of the National Institute for Healthcare Research notes: "Even after alcoholism has been established, religion is often a powerful force in achieving abstinence. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) uses religion, invoking a Higher Power to help alcoholics recover from addiction."100
Paralleling the research on alcohol addiction, an early review of studies of drug addiction found a lack of religious commitment to be a predictor of who abuses drugs.101 Many more recent studies replicate this finding.102 As in so many other research studies, the best measurement of religious commitment is frequency of church attendance: "Overall church attendance was more strongly related to [less] drug use than was intensity of religious feelings."103 This is true for both males and females. According to Jerald G. Bachman of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, "Factors we found to be most important in predicting use of marijuana and other drugs during the late 1970's remained most important during the early 1980's. Drug use is below average among those with strong religious commitments."104 The more powerfully addictive the drug being considered, the more powerful is the impact of church attendance in preventing its use.105
In results almost identical to those for alcoholics, researchers at the National Institute of Drug Abuse, a section of the National Institutes of Health and the nation's premier drug abuse research facility, found in their interviews of narcotic addicts that "the addict had neither current religious preference nor a history of attending religious services.... In addition... the addicts' fathers were much less involved in regular or frequent religious practices, than were a parallel group of control fathers.... Religiously, the mother was far more involved than her husband, the difference in regular religious participation between the addict's parents being twice that for the control's parents.... Religiously, the addicts were significantly less involved in reading the Bible, and praying." They also had far more frequent loss of interest in religion during adolescence.106
Louis A. Cancellaro of the Department of Psychiatry at the Veterans Administration in Johnson City, Tennessee, writes that, "Like their fathers, addicts are less religiously involved than their normal peers, and during adolescence, less frequently make decisions either to become more interested in religion or to commit themselves to a re ligious philosophy to live by."107
In reviewing the religious treatment of addicts, research psychiatrists at the Duke University Department of Psychiatry concluded in 1992: "[The] role of religious commitment and religiously oriented treatment programs can be significant factors which ought to be considered and included when planning a mix of appropriate treatment alternatives.... Perhaps the greatest advantage of religious programs is their recourse to churches as a support system.... Religious treatment programs are not suitable for everyone. For those men and women who can accept the creeds, rituals, and commitments required of such programs there seem to be certain advantages."108
Suicide. The practice of religion reduces the rate of suicide, both in the United States and abroad.109 In fact, the rate of church attendance predicts the suicide rate better than any other factor (including unemployment, traditionally regarded as the most powerful variable). Those who attend church frequently are four times less likely to commit suicide than those who never attend. Conversely, the national decline in church attendance is associated with a heightened suicide rate; fluctuations in church attendance rates in the 1970s paralleled the suicide rates for different subgroups: whites, blacks, men, and women.110
Steven Stack, professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University, in a landmark 1985 study on the demography of suicide has found that "Families and religion change together over time.... As the importance of the domestic-religious institutional complex declines, the study finds a rise in the rate of suicide, both for the general population and for the age cohort at the center of the decline, the youth cohort."111 In another, earlier study, Stack broke new ground in finding that the effect of unemployment in causing suicide is greatl y diminished when religious behavior is factored into the equation.112
In inter-state comparisons, higher levels of church attendance are associated with lower rates of suicide.113 The same holds true in international comparisons.114
Depression. Religion appears to reduce the incidence of depression among those with medical problems. For instance, University of Michigan Professor of Sociology David Williams conducted a randomized survey of 720 adults suffering from leg and hip injuries in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1990. Those who attended religious services regularly were less depressed and less distressed by life events than those who did not. This finding held across age, race, socioeconomic status, educational attainment, and religious affiliation. Religious affiliation alone did not have these effects, but religious behavior did.115
Younger people also tend to experience fewer of the anxieties of growing up if they are religious. For instance, both male and female Texas high-schoolers found that religious beliefs gave meaning to their lives and reduced the incidence of depression among them.116
Self-esteem. The absence of self-esteem weakens the personality and puts the person at greater risk for crime, addictions, and other social maladies.117 In all religious denominations, psychological weaknesses decrease as religious orthodoxy increases.118 Among college students, for instance, the practice of religion was shown in 1969 to have a positive effect on mental health;119 students involved with campus ministries were much healthier and made much less use of mental health services.
Significantly, self-esteem is linked to a person's image of God. Those with high self-esteem think of God primarily as loving, while those with low self-esteem think of God primarily as punitive.120 This was observed by Carl Jung, one of the most influential pioneers of modern psychology and psychotherapy: "Among all my patients in the second half of my life... there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given their followers and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook."121 Other evidence exists that people with a religious commitment, whether young or old, who become emotionally or psychologically distressed are much more likely to seek help.122
UNDERSTANDING "INTRINSIC" AND "EXTRINSIC" RELIGIOUS BEHAVIOR
Recent advances in the investigation of religious behavior have led social scientists to distinguish between two distinct categories or orientations: "intrinsic" and "extrinsic." Intrinsic practice is God-oriented and based on beliefs which transcend the person's own existence. Research shows this form of religious practice to be beneficial. Extrinsic practice is self-oriented and characterized by outward observance, not internalized as a guide to behavior or attitudes. The evidence suggests this form of religious practice is actually more harmful than no religion: Religion directed toward some end other than God, or the transcendent, typically degenerates into a rationalization for the pursuit of other ends such as status, personal security, self justification, or sociability.
The difference between these two forms of religious practice have implications for future research and for the interpretation of all research on religious practice. There is a radical difference between what religious people know to be conversion of the spirit or heart and simply conforming external behavior for its own sake, or for benefits derived from religious behavior.123
William James, professor of psychology at Harvard University in the early 1900s and a pioneer in the psychological study of religious behavior, was the first to make the social science distinction between the two forms of religious practice. Gordon Allport, his successor at Harvard in the late 1960s, concluded: "I feel equally sure that mental health is facilitated by an intrinsic, but not an extrinsic, religious orientation."124
The two orientations lead to two very different sets of psychological effects. For instance, "intrinsics" have a greater sense of responsibility and greater internal control, are more self-motivated, and do better in their studies. By contrast, "extrinsics" are more likely to be dogmatic, authoritarian, and less responsible, to have less internal control, to be less self-directed, and to do less well in their studies.125 Intrinsics are more concerned with moral standards, conscientiousness, discipline, responsibility, and consistency than are extrinsically religious people.126 They also are more sensitive to others and more open to their own emotions. By contrast, extrinsics are more self-indulgent, indolent, and likely to lack dependability. For example, the most racially prejudiced people turn out to be those who go to church occasionally127 and those who are extrinsic in their practice of religion.128 These findings have been replicated129 in a number of different forms.130
T he contrasting effects show up in college students. Intrinsically religious students tend to have internal locus of control, intrinsic motives, and a higher grade point average.131 By contrast, a 1980 study indicated that extrinsically religious students were more dogmatic and authoritarian, less responsible and less motivated, had less internal locus of control, and had a lower grade point average. Intrinsically religious students were found to have a greater concern for moral standards and to be more conscientious, disciplined, responsible, and consistent, while the extrinsic were more self-indulgent, more indolent, and less dependable.132
In general, intrinsics are less anxious about life's ups and downs, while extrinsics are more anxious. Further, the religious beliefs and practices of intrinsics are more integrated; for instance, they are more likely to worship publicly as well as pray privately. By contrast, those who pray privately but do not worship publicly tend to have a higher level of general anxiety -- a characteristic of extrinsics generally.133 In an ironic set of findings on anxiety about death, extrinsics fared worst of all: worse than intrinsics and worse than those without religious beliefs.134 From a purely social science standpoint, the intrinsic form of religion is thus good and desirable, and the extrinsic form is harmful. Religious teachers, without being utilitarian, would agree.135
RELIGION AND THE SOCIAL SCIENCES
There is a tension between practitioners of social science and religious belief.136 Darwin L. Thomas and Gwendolyn C. Henry, professors of sociology at Brigham Young University, write: "From the work of Freud and others, much of the early history of the social sciences is characterized by the expectation that involvement in and reliance upon the religious institution will be associated with people who have a low sense of personal well-being."137
There is repeated evidence that much the same hostility to religion -- a hostility at variance with the attitude of the vast majority of Americans -- persists among members of America's professional elites.138
Stephen L. Carter, professor of law at Yale University, points out that "One sees a trend in our political and legal cultures toward treating religious beliefs as arbitrary and unimportant, a trend supported by rhetoric that implies that there is something wrong with religious devotion. More and more, our culture seems to take the position that believing deeply in the tenets of one's faith represents a kind of mystical irrationality, something that thoughtful, public-spirited American citizens would do better to avoid."139 However, the available evidence renders such opposition unreasonable.
Professor David Larson of Duke University Medical School draws attention to similar biases in the mental health professions. Consider The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the standard reference manual for the classification of mental illnesses, which essentially defines the practice of psychiatrists, clinical psychology, and clinical social work and is central to the practice, research, and financing of these professions. In the third edition, religious examples were used only as illustrations in discussions of mental illness, such as delusions, incoherence, and illogical thinking. The latest edition has corrected this bias.
Consider also the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, one of the most widely used of all psychological tests. In the MMPI, all the positive religion-connected traits -- self-discipline, altruism, humility, obedience to authority, conventional morality -- are weighted negatively. Thus, to choose the self-description "I am orthodoxly religious" is to detract from one's mental health standing. Conversely, several traits that religious people would regard as diminishing themselves, at least in some situations -- self-assertion, self-expression, and a high opinion of oneself -- are weighted positively.140 The latest editions of the MMPI have removed the biased items.
Despite this general hostility among social science and mental health professionals, the empirical evidence shows religion to be a very powerful and positive part of everyday life. Patrick McNamara, professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico, explains the difference between social scientists and religiously affiliated people generally: "Sociologists tend to see concern for personal challenge -- e.g. to get one's own moral life in order -- as somehow secondary to social challenge or the effort to identify and criticize those socioeconomic structures that inhibit the individual's own group from attaining a fuller human existence."141 McNamara continues: "In [the] typical social science analysis, the demands of the inner life are neglected and personal agency and autonomy exercised in the choice to examine one's own life and put it in order according to an internalized ethic of repentance... is not acknowledged."142
Despite the attitude of many professionals, Gallup surveys continue to indicate that one-third of the American people regard religious commitment as the most important dimension in their lives. Another third regard religion as a very important, though not the single most dominant, factor in their lives.143
Totally secular approaches to many issues -- public policy, psychotherapy, and education -- use an alien framework for this two-thirds of the population. The plain fact is that religion plays a powerful role in the personal and social lives of most Americans. It is a role that should be understood clearly by the professions, by policymakers, and by the media.
From many other areas of social science research -- family dynamics, group dynamics, marital dynamics -- positive reciprocal relationships with others are known to be powerful across a host of areas similar to those reviewed in this paper: stress, ability to relate with others in general, productivity, and learning, to name just a few. The core of the religious commitment is an intention to have a positive relationship with another Being, a transcendent and therefore all-available Being. Viewed in this fashion, the documented effects of religious commitment are not mysterious, but an extension of the effects which we know arise from positive relations between human beings. Thus, the findings on religion fit with the general corpus of what is known about relationships from the existing body of social science research.
The evidence indicates strongly that it is a good social policy to foster the widespread practice of religion. It is bad social policy to block it. The widespread practice of religious beliefs is one of America's greatest national resources. It strengthens individuals, families, communities, and society as a whole. It significantly affects educational and job attainment and reduces the incidence of such major social problems as out-of-wedlock births, drug and alcohol addiction, crime, and delinquency. No other dimension of the nation's life, other than the health of the family (which the data show also is tied powerfully to religious practice) should be of more concern to those who guide the future course of the United States.
The original intent of the Founding Fathers was to bar the establishment by the federal government of a state-approved religion, not to bar religion from the operations of the state. Thomas Jefferson made this distinction very clear in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (January 16, 1786):
We, the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief: but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.144
George Washington summed up the importance of religion to the new nation with particular eloquence in his farewell address:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness -- these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
A policy can be friendly to the general practice of religion, and to the many different faiths in a pluralistic society, without in any way implying the establishment of a particular religion. Federal policies encourage many other institutions: the marketplace, education, medicine, science, and the arts. Even religion itself is explicitly encouraged by the tax treatment of contributions to religious institutions. It makes no sense, therefore, not to encourage the resource that most powerfully addresses the major social problems confronting the nation. Congress and the President can help to accomplish this by acting decisively in at least six specific areas:
Columnist William Raspberry has put his finger on the problem. In his historic majority opinion in the 1947 Everson v. Board of Education case (330 U.S. 1), notes Raspberry, Justice Hugo Black wrote that government is forbidden to "pass laws which aid any religion, aid all religion, or prefer one religion over another."
The first and third elements in the Black proscription seem to me to jibe with the "establishment" clause of the Constitution. The middle one suggests that the only proper position of government is hostility to religion -- which seems to be the prevailing view among civil libertarians and a majority of the Supreme Court.147
This calls to mind the words of the late William O. Douglas, one of the most liberal of Supreme Court Justices, who wrote in the 1950s:
We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. We guarantee the freedom to worship as one chooses. [When] the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, [it] respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs. To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe.148
The Senate should ask all future candidates for federal court appointments to clarify their opinions regarding both the role of religion in the life of the body politic and their understanding of the Founding Fathers' intent on this issue.
But this problem is far too important to be left to government. America's religious leaders and individual citizens also must act:
The available evidence clearly demonstrates that regular religious practice is both an individual and social good. It is a powerful answer to many of our most significant social problems, some of which, including out-of-wedlock births, have reached catastrophic proportions. Furthermore, it is available to all, and at no cost.
America is at a crossroads. Political leaders as diverse as President Clinton, Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich all have articulated popular concerns and fears about the level of the breakdown of American society.149 Almost simultaneously, Americans are becoming aware of the fundamental contribution that married family life and regular religious practice can make to preserving that society.
For the sake of the nation's future health, it is time to redirect public policy so that these two vast resources, instead of being weakened further, can be rejuvenated and encouraged. Many of the goals of social policy and social work can be attained, indirectly and powerfully, through the practice of religion. None of this invalidates education or social work, which operate at a different level of the human condition. However, as demands for social work outstrip (and give every indication of far outstripping) social work resources, it is good to know that the practice of religion is a powerful ally.
The practice of religion is good for individuals, families, states, and the nation. It improves health, learning, economic well-being, self-control, self-esteem, and empathy. It reduces the incidence of social pathologies, such as out-of-wedlock births, crime, delinquency, drug and alcohol addiction, health problems, anxieties, and prejudices.
The Founding Fathers, in their passionate love of freedom, promoted the freedom of all Americans to practice their religious beliefs, but Congress and the courts have crowded religion out of the public square. It is time to bring it back. Religious practice can and should be factored into the planning and debate on the nation's urgent social problems. Americans cannot build their future without drawing on the strengths that come to them from the practice of their religious beliefs.
The widespread practice of religious beliefs can only benefit the nation, and the task of reintegrating religious practice into American life while protecting and respecting the rights of non-practice -- rights that, despite persistent demagoguery on the subject, remain totally unthreatened -- is one of the nation's most important tasks. Academics of good will can do much in this area, and history will look kindly on those who help America achieve this wonderful balance.