Finally, proof that belief in the biblical God poses a toxic danger!
An American sociological journal has posed a challenge to religious faith that is being heralded by secularists across the English-speaking world. The sociologist at the center of the controversy, Gregory Paul, writes in the Journal of Religion & Society that compared to other, more secular countries such as Sweden, Britain and Japan, the highly Christian United States “is almost always the most dysfunctional.” As the London Times put it a jubilant headline: “Societies Worse Off ‘When They Have God on Their Side.’”
Comparing statistics for a variety of Western nations, he finds that “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion.” Seemingly, this would create a problem for those, like me, who argue that posting the Ten Commandments in public places contributes to our national wellbeing. Shouldn’t we now cast the two tablets of the Decalogue to the ground, to shatter in pieces, as Moses did long ago?
Not so fast. A more distinguished sociologist than Paul, Baylor University’s Rodney Stark, shows in his own research that within individual nations religious belief is a strong predictor of moral rectitude. In almost every country on earth, the firmer your faith in God, the more likely you are to regard, for example, stealing as wrong.
Even so, Paul’s article will confound anyone who thinks that faith, like a vitamin super-supplement, wards off all ills. If it did so, we should find the United States dramatically outperforming Sweden, Japan, Canada and the rest of the secularized world in every way, with much healthier, happier citizens enjoying much healthier, happier relationships with one another. And that, of course, is not the case.
The problem for Bible-bashers who have hailed Paul’s research is that the Bible itself never promises a super-vitamin.
Scripture’s true promise holds that individuals and nations in effect create their own moral realities. Cultures that put God nearer the center of their national life can expect Him to take a more active role in their existence, rewarding our good choices and correcting us, even painfully, when we make bad choices. Conversely, secular cultures are left to the workings of chance and nature.
Implicit in many biblical passages, the choice between accepting and rejecting God’s influence is expressed symbolically as a choice between “life” and “death.” In Deuteronomy, God offers the famous admonition, “See, I have placed before you today life and good, and death and evil… and you shall choose life” (30:15, 19). Moses affirmed, “You who cling to the Lord, your God — you are all alive today” (Deuteronomy 4:4). The prophet Jeremiah called the Lord “the God of the living” (10:10).
The Talmud expresses this idea when it teaches that those who choose God’s way, even after they experience bodily “death,” remain alive — while those who reject Him, even while still “alive,” may be called dead (Berachot 18a).
In biblical terminology, this “life” of the religiously committed in no ways implies a shield from tragedy. On the contrary, the more involved God is with us, the more closely He examines our behavior. King David himself found this out when, for the seemingly trivial sin of conducting an improper census of the Jewish nation, the people were struck with a deadly plague that carried off David’s own newborn child.
In “death,” on the other hand, there is freedom from such scrutiny. “I was reckoned with those who descend to the grave,” the Psalmist recalls, “among the dead who are free” (88:6).
So then why not choose “death” and thus be “free”? For one thing, because there is a vitality to religious existence that secularism distinctly lacks.
Indeed, while the vitality of American culture is world famous, “British vitality” and “Canadian vitality” are phrases that come less naturally to the lips. This may explain why so many Canadians, among others, look longingly toward America. Canada, with a little more than one-tenth of America’s population, loses almost four times as many of its people as immigrants to the United States each year as we send, from our own citizens, to Canada.
The world, in short, is far from refuting the picture the Bible would lead us to expect. Scripture teaches that different peoples, depending on the choices they make regarding the belief in God, experience God’s world differently. This may result in religious cultures suffering and secular ones enjoying tranquility, or vice versa.
So is a religious country like ours really worse off? Ask the next immigrant you meet from Canada — or from Japan, Britain or Sweden, of whom there’s also no shortage. Every new American, whether he or she would put it this way or not, has chosen life.
David Klinghoffer is author of the forthcoming “Shattered Tablets: What the Ten Commandments Reveal about American Culture and its Discontents” (Doubleday).