Monday, May 04, 2009

Belief and right action...

While we often stumble across reports of the power of faith in God to make us happier and even healthier, we are now discovering the opposite could also be true.

As sociologists, psychologists, and physicians turn their attention to measuring the effects of religion, often fueled by grant money from private foundations, the results have percolated swiftly through weekend sermons and the popular media. Being nonreligious, one might conclude, looks more and more like a danger to your health.
But as the academic interest in religion has mounted, some scholars have begun to call this picture into question. What's missing, they believe, is a comparable examination into the lives of nonreligious people and even the potential benefits of nonbelief. Galvanized by a desire to even the scales, these researchers have been organizing academic centers to study the irreligious, conducting major surveys, and comparing their findings. They've already found that convinced atheists appear just as well equipped to cope with hardship as convinced believers, and that some of the world's healthiest societies have the lowest levels of piety. [More]

There have been remarkably moral and happy societies that were not religious in the way we think today. Indeed, Americans would have a hard time making the argument that our religious fervor makes our country run better.  I'm thinking here about the acrimonious, scorched-earth debates over everything from abortion to torture.  Indeed, in the latter case, I am hard-pressed to account for the following study.*

According to a new study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, those who attend church at least weekly are more prone to say that torture is justifiable. Suffice it to say that, in the eyes of those who support the use of torture, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and Abu Zubaydah do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.

A combined 54 percent of at-least-weekly church-goers say torture is either often or sometimes justifiable; for those who attend monthly or a few times a year, that figure is 51 percent; for those who do not attend, it is 42 percent.

Evangelicals, according to the survey, are more prone to saying torture is justifiable than members of the nation's other two main Christian groups: so-called "mainline" Protestants and white, non-Hispanic Catholics. Unaffiliateds--a conglomerated group of atheists, agnostics, and those who say their religion is "nothing in particular--support torture the least: 40 percent say it's justifiable often or sometimes.

How could this be? What happened to forgiveness and the other cheek? The Lamb of God's teachings stop at the walls of Guantanamo?

Let us not forget that the main storyline of the New Testament is one of torture: Jesus comes into the world and dies an excruciating death to redeem the sins of man. Perhaps those closest to the story are most comfortable with suffering when there's a purpose behind it--here, that purpose would be to obtain information. The eschatological bent of some Evangelicals might account for some Revelation-style views on punishment, too. [More]

 My own views on faith have been the product of a long journey studded with doubt which is far from reaching a destination, I might add. But laying aside arguments about effectiveness and legality, these results offer a darker picture of the power of religious faith or more to the point, religious leaders, to allow otherwise compassionate people to permit, even encourage, actions that earlier generations would have been repulsed by.

As our nation arguably becomes more secular-leaning, or at least less orthodox in its religious categorization, it could be the cause lies partly with the practice and example of people of faith compared to the values espoused in the tradition of Western religion.  But it could also be living a moral and fulfilled life is not the exclusive province of organized religion.
[*Update: another possible explanation here]

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