‘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 down the centuries mean the Church’s record has hardly been unblemished. Since 9/11 and the rise of militant Islam, all religions now seem to be tarred with the same brush.
It was the rise of religious extremism that sparked the emergence of New Atheism - and its own brand of intolerance to anyone of faith. They claimed that religion poisons everything (to quote Christopher Hitchens). But, those claims have always been more about rhetoric that science. The reality is, much conflict labelled ‘religious’ has more to do with national identity and political ideology than what people believe.
Leaving the complicated history of religion aside, we are still left with the question as to whether people of faith overall enhance a society’s wellbeing or diminish it?
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 religiously minded people are proven to give both more money and more time to charities, (including secular charities) 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 paleontologist in 2005, which seems to show the opposite - that religion in society does more harm than good. But this single study by someone who studies fossils goes against the flow of evidence. 90 per cent 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 seem indisputable that having faith brings benefits to those with faith and to the communities in which they live.
While studies disagree on the extent of this statement, they do not disagree with the truth 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. However, 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?
Does 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 a community? There are benefits of being in a community and the community can also find satisfaction in helping others outside that community.
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 round - 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).
But, explained Glen, the core doctrines of Christianity do indeed lead to enhanced wellbeing for 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 ie natural selection and survival of the fittest.
The survival of the fittest and the sacrifice of the weakest takes place all around us, in nature, in corporate culture, and in class structures in society. We see the strongest driving out weaker competition as ‘the norm’. 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 2,000 years the story of the God who became weak has been the central story motivating people to change the world.
“Matt’s venture is very much a venture of faith, wanting to create more atheists and sceptics, when everything we know about the utility of religion, is that it’s a net gain to society. The consequences of getting rid of this story - especially this story of the God who became weak - will play out in negative ways about how we treat the least and the last and the lost.”
Watch Glen Scrivener and Matt Dillahunty’s Big Conversation on ‘Atheism and morality’
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