By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
In the post 9/11 world, perhaps more so than ever, religion has been pinned under the lens of critical scrutiny.
Gone are the days when the naïve devotee of syncretism could say careless, well-intentioned things like, “All roads lead to the same place.”
Over the past decade, the New Atheists, following the lead of television personalities like Bill Maher, who brings Hollywood celebrities into the conversation, and credible intellectuals, like Christopher Hitchens, have established themselves as formidable opponents of all things religious.
Religion has taken a savage, decade-long public beating, and it hasn’t been pretty.
Despite the compelling nature of many of their criticisms, Maher, Hitchens and others often make the mistake of citing rather extraordinary examples in their scathing critiques.
Most religious people concede the irrationality of extreme fundamentalists, but mocking religious extremists is a cheap shot, and ridiculing the worst examples of anything, including atheism, or evolutionary science, can make it look about as serious as one of those monkey cowboys riding a dog in a Christmas parade.
There’s plenty of data from the social sciences that shows that religious faith isn’t as silly as Maher and others would have us believe
The Gallup Organization recently polled a quarter-million people across religious affiliations in 140 countries, and it found that religion makes a difference in the public arena as well as in people’s personal lives.
Gallup found that in Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia, religious people were 50 percent more likely than their non-religious counterparts to have donated money to charity, as well as to have volunteered time to a local organization or to have helped a stranger.
The organization also found that, in the Americas, one in four people who attended weekly worship services gave nearly half of all charitable contributions.
In a world of political and ideological acrimony, where recrimination drives cable news ratings, happiness is also a valuable commodity.
The National Opinion Research Center has surveyed more than 43,000 people over the past 30 years, and actively religious people reported extraordinarily high levels of happiness compared to the rest of the population. Forty-three percent of those attending weekly religious services said they were “very happy.”
I and 63 percent of my fellow Americans are either overweight or outright obese, and as a country we’re entering an age of ill health that is unprecedented among industrialized nations in the modern era.
Overwork, stress and general misery are part of that, but in several large epidemiological studies religiously active people were less likely to die in any given year, and they enjoyed longer life expectancy than did non-religious folks. Experts said that healthier lifestyles, including lower rates of smoking and drinking were part of the reason, as well as communal support systems and the inestimable value to be gained by good, old-fashioned positive emotions.
Decades of smart folks, from Marx to Freud to Hitchens have said that religion is an opiate, a way to bury your head in the sand and pretend that there’s a great reward after life’s uglier episodes.
On the other hand, looking at the data of religion from a different angle offers a much more positive view. It shows that the person of faith need neither bow uncritically before science and academia, nor acquiesce to the unreasonable demands of fundamentalism.
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.