Modern Challenges to the Ancient Faith: Are We Better Off without Religion?

Modern Challenges to the Ancient Faith
“Aren’t We Better Off Without Religion?”

The “narrative” of Christianity in modern culture today is that Christian belief is simply no longer viable in a world-class university.
New Atheist Narratives
A new breed of atheists have made their voice heard in the last 20 years, called “New Atheists” who have spun a credibility-killing web around faith. In 2004, Sam Harris published The End of Faith: Religions Terror, and the Future of Reason, followed in 2006 by Letter to a Christian Nation. That same year, Richard Dawkins released The God Delusion, which remained on the New York Times best seller list for fifty-one weeks. In 2008, the late Christopher Hitchens launched his tour de force of new atheist persuasion, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. These rhetorically gifted men preached that Christianity was neither plausible nor desirable. Dawkins ridiculed a faith disproved by science. Hitchens sought to puncture the sagging balloon of public opinion that imagined Christianity was a force for good.

Invigorated by these triumphs, atheists have boldly claimed the moral and intellectual high ground. In a popular 2011 TED talk, “Atheism 2.0,” Alain de Botton advocated a new kind of atheism that could retain the goods of religion without the downside of belief. He salivated over the black American preaching tradition and the enthusiastic response of congregants: “Thank you Jesus, thank you Christ, thank you Savior!” Rather than abandoning rapture, de Botton suggested secular audiences respond to atheist preaching by lauding their heroes: “Thank you Plato, thank you Shakespeare, thank you Jane Austen!” One wonders how Shakespeare, whose world was fundamentally shaped by Christianity, would have felt about being cast as an atheist icon. But when it comes to Jane Austen, the answer is clear: a woman of deep, explicit, and abiding faith in Jesus, she would be utterly appalled.

Likewise, at the 2016 “Reason Rally,” designed to mobilize atheists, agnostics, and “nones,” multiple speakers invoked Martin Luther King’s March on Washington—as if a rally that despised Christianity would have pleased one of the most powerful Christian preachers in American history. In the same year, an Atlantic article that promised to explain “Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories.” The article argued that American children’s stories are less compelling because they are more Christian. The author cited The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia as examples of stories shaped by paganism, failing to note that Tolkien and Lewis were passionate Christians who grounded their stories in the death-and-resurrection truth claims of Jesus. J. K. Rowling, another author referenced on the side of good-old British paganism, chose not to disclose her fragile Christian faith until the last Harry Potter book was published, precisely because of its Christian influence: she feared it would give the story away.

Meanwhile, brilliant skeptical storytellers have captured our imaginations. Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian (definition: “life in a totalitarian state”) novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, has been revivified in a popular Hulu dramatization. It imagines New England ruled by a pseudo-Christian sect, the Sons of Jacob. Women’s bank accounts are suspended. Women are forbidden to read or work jobs. Those still fertile after a nuclear fallout are assigned to male “Commanders,” who seek to impregnate them in a monthly ceremony, supposedly modeled on Abraham’s impregnation of his wife Sarah’s handmaid. Partly inspired by the 1980 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Atwood envisages a similarly repressive, supposedly Christian regime.

To some extent, of course, we Christians have dug our own grave. The entrenchment of the culture wars has led many believers to lose touch with their heritage, while Christians and atheists alike assume that secular means normative. Christians invented the university and founded most of the world’s top schools to glorify God. And yet studying is seen as a threat to faith. Christians invented science, yet science is seen as antithetical to Christianity. Christians have told some of the best stories in history. But if the tales are too good, too entrancing, too magical, we assume that the authors cannot espouse this supposedly story-killing faith.

What fruit has this borne for today’s students?
The Rising Generation of “Nones”
In 2016, the largest survey of incoming freshmen to US universities found that 30.9 percent claimed no religious affiliation—a dramatic 10 percent rise since 2006. This group broke down into freshmen who selected “none” (16 percent), those who identified as agnostic (8.5 percent), and those who claimed atheism (6.4 percent). While the growth of the nonreligious population has been rapid, this is no license to cede the university to secularism. Sixty-nine percent of US college students still identify as religious, and 60.2 percent identify as Christian. To be sure, checking the box on a survey is not proof of active faith. But when more students identify as Baptist than atheist, we need to be careful about exaggerated claims of secularization. Nor is the decline in religious affiliation a by-product of diversity: atheism in America is overrepresented by white men, while women and students of color are more likely to be religious. Indeed, at historically black universities, 85.2 percent of students identify as Christian, and only 11.2 percent as agnostic, atheist, or none. Nevertheless, the proportion of religiously unaffiliated students in the US is growing—fast. So, are today’s students simply waking up to the fact that we do not need religion anymore?

At an empirical level, the answer seems to be no.
In 2016, Harvard School of Public Health professor Tyler VanderWeele and journalist John Siniff wrote a USA Today op-ed entitled “Religion May Be a Miracle Drug.” The piece begins, “If one could conceive of a single elixir to improve the physical and mental health of millions of Americans—at no personal cost—what value would our society place on it?” The authors go on to outline the mental and physical health benefits that are correlated with regular religious participation—for most Americans, going to church—even to the extent of reducing mortality rates by 20–30 percent over a fifteen-year period. Research suggests that those who regularly attend services are more optimistic, have lower rates of depression, are less likely to commit suicide, have a greater purpose in life, are less likely to divorce, and are more self-controlled.

Of course, we need only open a newspaper to see that religious beliefs can cause harm. But to say that religion is bad for you is like saying, “Drugs are bad for you,” without distinguishing cocaine from life-saving medication. In general, religious participation appears to be good for your health and happiness. Turn this data on its head and the trend toward secularization in America is a public-health crisis.

What makes religious participation so powerful?
The Power of Relationships
Part of the answer is relationships. Religion fosters relationships, and relationships matter. The director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a seventy-five-year study of well-being, summarizes its findings like this: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” Throughout the study, the subjects expected their happiness would depend on fame, wealth, and high achievement. But, in reality, the happiest and healthiest people prioritized relationships with family, friends, and community.

Perhaps we do not need a seventy-five-year study to convince us that loneliness is lethal. Our single-portion society teaches us to prioritize choice over commitment. We resist being tied down because we fear missing out, and in doing so, we miss out on the things that matter most. But does the power of community account for the impact of religion? Would going to the local golf club once a week and enjoying a shared interest with a consistent group yield similar results? It seems not. Community support alone seems to account for less than 30 percent of the positive effect of religious participation. So, what else is in play?
The Benefits of Seven Biblical Principles
Let’s explore seven counterintuitive biblical commands and how they relate to the findings of modern psychology. This is not an exhaustive list, and I make no claim that Christianity holds a monopoly on these principles or that a positive effect on heath and happiness is the litmus test for truth. But as this study is on “Aren’t We Better Off without Religion?,” it seems logical to examine some of the principles of Christianity and see how they impact our ability to thrive.
It Really Is More Blessed to Give Than to Receive
In our acquisitive culture, the biblical demand that Christians serve and give to others feels out of joint. The claim that “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) cuts against the grain of our individualized, success-focused mind-set. But a growing body of research suggests that giving is good for us. Volunteering has a positive impact on our mental and physical health. Actively caring for others often yields greater physical and psychological benefits than being cared for. Helping others in the workplace seems to improve career satisfaction. And financial generosity has psychological payoffs.

Many nonreligious people are passionately engaged in serving and giving, while many Christians live self-centered lives. But as atheist social psychologist Jonathan Haidt observes:

Surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people. . . . Religious believers give more money than secular folk to secular charities, and to their neighbors. They give more of their time, too, and of their blood.

No Christian lives up to the radical example of Jesus, who gave his life to save his enemies. Too many churches enable a self-focused Christianity that ignores New Testament ethics. But even the faint echoes of Christ in the lives of Christians seem to pay dividends—both for society and for individuals.
Love of Money Disappoints
For those of us raised on a steady diet of capitalism, the Bible’s critique of wealth is tough to swallow. Jesus taught that it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle (Matt. 19:23–24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:24–25). The apostle Paul called the love of money “a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). But in the US at least, the love of money is still a prime motivator of life. In the 2016 survey The American Freshman, 82.3 percent of freshmen checked “becoming very well off financially” as an “essential” or “very important” life objective. This represents an increase of nearly 10 percent in the last decade and has overtaken “raising a family” as a top priority. Beyond our student years, many of us live as if money will buy us happiness, sacrificing family and friendship on the altar of career.

A little money can make a big difference to the truly poor—a reality reflected in the Bible’s unrelenting demand that those with extra share with those without. There is evidence to suggest that beyond a basic level of security, increased wealth is only slightly correlated with an increased sense of well-being. As economist Jeffrey Sachs notes in the World Happiness Report 2018, in the US, “income per capita has more than doubled since 1972 while happiness has remained roughly unchanged or has even declined.” The biblical warnings against the love of money turn out to be more true than we realized: invest your life in money over relationships, and the returns will not satisfy.
Work Works When It’s a Calling
While the Bible eviscerates the love of money, it does not call us to a leisurely life. Rather, it tells a story in which humans are made to be in relationship with God and with each other, and to pour themselves into meaningful work. In the first century, few people had our freedom to choose their profession. If your father was a carpenter, you had better be into woodworking! But regardless of their situation or status, people could choose how they worked. The apostle Paul encouraged Christian slaves (a significant proportion of the early church) that even their work could be a calling, and exhorted them to put their hearts into it, seeing themselves as working for the Lord, not any human master (Col. 3:23–24). So Christians are called to see work as part of their service to God—whether they are designing a building or sweeping its floors.

Again, this proves to be good advice. Psychological research suggests that we need meaningful work to thrive. If we work just for money, we tend to find it unsatisfying; but if we put our hearts into our work and see it as a calling that resonates with our values, connects us to people, and fits within a larger vision, we experience joy.

We can apply this to the least glamorous jobs. One study observed the attitudes of janitors emptying bedpans and cleaning up vomit in a hospital. Those who saw themselves as part of a team caring for the sick, and who went above and beyond to do their job with excellence, saw their work as a calling and enjoyed it far more than those who worked just for a paycheck. So, whether we are performing brain surgery or cleaning up vomit, we can put our hearts into our work, connect it with a larger purpose, and gain satisfaction.
We Really Can Be Happy in All Circumstances
This view of work ties into a yet more counterintuitive biblical claim. After multiple experiences of physical and psychological trauma, the apostle Paul wrote this from prison: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:12–13 NIV). This sounds like wishful thinking. But modern psychology suggests that we have a highly developed ability to synthesize happiness.

The ability to synthesize happiness is not limited to followers of Jesus. Buddhism devotes much attention to helping people maintain internal peace in the face of adversity. Jewish and Muslim practices also anchor to inner well-being. But there is a remarkable correspondence between the psychological immune system and the biblical call to contentment.
Gratitude Is Good for Us
The possibility of contentment in all circumstances relates to another counterintuitive biblical ethic. Paul commands Christians to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:16). This seems unrealistic, even insensitive. But Paul was writing not from an armchair but from profound experiences of suffering: beatings, shipwreck, rejection, sickness, and the prospect of execution. And psychologists today have discovered that conscious, daily gratitude is quite literally good for you. In experimental comparisons, those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week than those who recorded hassles or neutral life events. Psychology professor Robert Emmons calls gratitude “the forgotten factor in happiness research.”

Gratitude is part of the heart of Christianity. Christians believe not only that God created us and every good thing we have, but also that he offers us salvation as a gift, won for us by Jesus’s death in our place. For the Christian, therefore, thankfulness is not just a positivity technique: it is a deep disposition toward a life-giving and life-saving God.
Self-Control and Perseverance Help Us Thrive
Much contemporary culture revolves around instant gratification. But Christians are called to live lives characterized by long-term endurance and costly self-control. For example, the apostle Peter urged his readers, “Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love” (2 Pet. 1:5–7 NIV). Jesus called the Christian life a “hard” road (Matt. 7:14), and multiple biblical texts describe a race that we must run with endurance and passion. For example, the writer to the Hebrews urges, “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Heb. 12:1–2).

Once more, the Bible judges the human condition well. Unglamorous as they are, perseverance and self-control appear to be key predictors of flourishing across a range of indexes. Indeed, University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth suggests that the quality of grit, which she defines as “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals,” can be more predictive of a person’s success than social intelligence, good looks, health, or IQ.
Forgiveness Is Foundational
When Peter suggested an upper limit for forgiveness—“as many as seven times?”—Jesus replied, “Not . . . seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:21–22). He taught his followers to pray, “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Luke 11:4).

And as he was being nailed to the cross, Jesus prayed for the soldiers who were executing him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Jesus grounded human forgiveness in the radical forgiveness of God, arguing that forgiven people must forgive. Again, this turns out to be for our good. Forgiveness—particularly forgiveness not dependent on the actions of the offender—has been linked to multiple positive mental and physical health outcomes.

In the New Testament, the forgiveness ethic is coupled with the command not to take revenge as we talked about this morning. But this is not ultimately an abandonment of justice. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that final justice lies in the hands of God. Christians are commanded to protect the weak and vulnerable, but not to seek their own revenge or vindication. Instead, Christians must forgive as they have been forgiven.

How do these counterintuitive strands of biblical wisdom weave together in the fabric of a life?
We Need Something Larger Than Ourselves
Haidt summarizes our basic psychological needs like this: “Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger.” That “something larger” might take various forms, but a sense of connection to God is its most fundamental expression. And that kind of connectivity is hard to replicate. We can commit ourselves to a political ideology, or to an ethical cause, like pursuing racial justice or campaigning against human rights abuses. These are good in themselves and will certainly bring meaning to our lives. But, when we examine the historical and philosophical foundations of many of our deepest ethical commitments, we find ourselves stumbling upon Christianity again and again and again. The church and getting each other to heaven is God’s idea for the “idea larger than ourselves.”
So What?
We began this study wondering if we are simply better off without religion. Many Americans, especially our elite class, certainly think so. But while it is impossible to explore all the relevant data, there is compelling evidence that many individual and social goods arise from religious participation, and that Christianity in particular is well aligned with the findings of modern psychology.

This alignment does not prove that Christianity is true. But, it should raise a hundred questions in our minds—questions our new series on the 2nd Sunday night of the month this year, will explore. But the positive effects of religious participation on our mental and physical health should give us pause before we buy the claim that religion poisons everything. Tyler VanderWeele, Harvard professor and world expert on the mental and physical benefits of religious participation, believes that Christianity provides the best framework for understanding different aspects of reality. He suggests that “any educated person should, at some point, have critically examined the claims for Christianity and should be able to explain why he or she does, or does not, believe them.”

No matter what we currently believe, we must all confront Christianity: the most widespread belief system in the world, with the most far-reaching intellectual footprint, and a wealth of counterintuitive wisdom concerning how humans should thrive. Modern challenges confront the ancient faith.


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