I spent last weekend reading Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark’s most recent book, America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists (Templeton Press 2012). I’ve benefited greatly from Stark’s work in the past; the book he wrote in 2005 with Roger Finke, The Churching of America, is a must for anyone interested in the history of American religion. America’s Blessings is very helpful, too. It puts into context the results of some recent surveys on religion in America.
For example, Stark explains that, although the number of persons who tell pollsters they have no religion has increased since 1990–the much-discussed Rise of the Nones–the number of people who belong to religious congregations has gone up as well. In fact, about 70% of Americans now belong to religious congregations, the highest percentage in our history. (One possible explanation: some Evangelical Christians who are members of free-standing congregations, without denominational ties, do not think they belong to a “religion”). Many of the Nones are quite religious; they pray frequently. Only a small group of Americans, around four percent, say they are atheists–a percentage that hasn’t changed in several decades.
Stark also shows that the academic literature routinely ignores evidence of religion’s beneficial social effects. For example, he says, reliable statistical studies show that religious people are much less likely to commit crimes, much more likely to contribute to charities, including secular charities, and more likely to say they have satisfying marriages. Findings like these almost never appear in the scholarly literature–or in the media, for that matter.
Some of these claims do seem stronger than others. For example, the claim about the lower propensity of religious people to commit crimes seems robust, as it is based on objective data about crime rates. The claim about marital happiness, in contrast, doesn’t seem so compelling, at least to me, since it relies on what people tell surveyors about their marriages. It’s true that people who attend church regularly are more likely than non-churchgoers to say their marriages are “very happy,” but perhaps that’s because of social pressure. The churchgoers may feel they’re expected to say positive things about their family lives. In Stark’s defense, regular churchgoers also have a much lower divorce rate than people who never attend church, and that is an objective measure.
In any event, Stark’s new book is a valuable contribution to the burgeoning empirical literature on religion in America. Worth reading.