Despite the look of things culturally and otherwise, Americans remain a religious people. That’s what Gallup president Frank Newhouse is noting this week, and it’s the subject of a new book by Rodney Stark, a Baylor University professor.
“America is an unusually religious nation,” the Stark explains in America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists. “Nearly all Americans say they believe in God, about 80 percent believe in heaven, about 70 percent believe in hell, and half pray at least once a day (32 percent pray more than once).” He talks here about his findings on faith.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: How does your contention about most Americans believing in God square with increased concerns about a “tsunami of secularism,” as one Catholic cardinal recently put it?
RODNEY STARK: I think some have been misled by press reports about the increase in the percentage of Americans claiming to have no religion. In fact, nearly all who give that answer are religious — they believe in God, heaven, and they pray. What no religion means to them (except for the 4 percent of Americans who say they are atheists, a percentage that has not increased since Gallup first asked the question in 1944) is that they have no denominational preference. As for the increase in the percentage giving the “no religion” response, I think it reflects nothing more than the huge decline in the response rate to surveys — respondents increasingly over-represent those who always have been least likely to belong to a local church.
LOPEZ: Shouldn’t we have a very different culture if half of Americans are praying?
STARK: What seems certain, and is the point of my analysis, is that we would have an exceedingly different culture if many fewer prayed.
LOPEZ: Why is it “past time for a full accounting of the tangible human and social benefits of faith in American society”?
STARK: Because these patent facts seem unknown (and even rejected) by the chattering classes.
LOPEZ: Can America be exceptional with a narrower view and protection of religious liberty than we’ve had in the past?
STARK: Anything that weakens religion probably would make us less exceptional.
LOPEZ: Religion can keep me from mental illness? My inbox suggests it is evidence of my mental illness.
STARK: Several hundred studies are unanimous that frequent church-attenders are far less likely than non-attenders to suffer from mental illness — I devote many pages to the matter.
LOPEZ: The “higher the church membership of a city, the lower its crime rates.” What evidence do you have for this contention?
STARK: I cite many published studies.
LOPEZ: How can you prove that “religious parents are better parents, who raise better-behaved and better-educated children”?
STARK: I cite a very large research literature.
LOPEZ: Why is Catholic and other religious schooling, including homeschooling, important to success in life and country?
STARK: Because the kids learn a lot more and the racial educational gap is reduced or eliminated!
LOPEZ: Are you judging people when you make such assessments?
LOPEZ: Why is marriage and family life important to the future of the United States? And does it matter what that family looks like?
STARK: Can anyone seriously imagine a society without stable families? Maybe we should raise all the kids in state orphanages.
LOPEZ: What does that mean for divorced people?
STARK: What most divorced parents recognize — that divorce not only is hard on kids, but on the adults too.
LOPEZ: Why is it important to know anything about the sex lives of religious Americans?
STARK: Because of the widespread libel that religious people are inhibited prudes, etc., it seems worth noting that they have more satisfactory sex lives than do those who do not attend church.
LOPEZ: Why is religious belief good for the economy?
STARK: How about: much less crime, far more charitable giving, far more volunteerism, better health — all these things have a huge economic value. In a sense, that’s what the whole book is about.
LOPEZ: Religious people are consumers of high culture? Surely you jest?
STARK: Your reaction demonstrates precisely why I felt the need to write an entire chapter on the subject. Regular church-goers are substantially more likely than non-attenders to read, to take newspapers and magazines, to listen to classical music, to attend symphony concerts, operas, and stage plays.
LOPEZ: “What would it cost if America suddenly were transformed into a fully secularized culture?” Could that ever happen?
STARK: See Scandinavia (and its very high crime and suicide rates).
LOPEZ: You say that religion can be a secret to success, but can someone who authentically follows the tenets of Baltimore-catechism-like old-school religion really prosper in this world?
STARK: Many have.
LOPEZ: Why is your book important?
STARK: I am not sure it is very important unless the message gets out, and I suspect the media will very carefully ignore it.
LOPEZ: What accounts for the denial of the benefits of religion?
STARK: For one, thing, the media are dominated by the irreligious. So are universities.
LOPEZ: How can people make use of your data in their lives, in communities, in policymaking, in culture?
STARK: For one thing, the religious majority could begin to stop taking all the infringements on their rights. Make religious freedom an issue!
LOPEZ: How do we communicate all this without sounding holier than thou, so to speak?
STARK: Since we are holier than the particular “thous” of concern, I suppose we must always take a good-natured tone.