The Positive Role of Religion

Fallacies of Radical Secularism Revealed

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, SEPT. 19, 2010 ( In the days prior to the Pope’s arrival in Edinburgh, the shrill voices of the radical secularists who were protesting his visit extended their objections to a generalized attack on religion.

Christina Patterson, writing in the Independent newspaper on Sept. 15, argued that it is vital to keep the state as secular as possible. At the conclusion of a rather rambling and superficial diatribe against religion, she also called for the abolition of all schools run by churches so that «religion is, as far as possible, relegated to the private and not the public arena.»

The previous day, Polly Toynbee, president of the British Humanist Association, penned an article for the Guardian newspaper. Male religious leaders are poisoning society due to their warped ideas about sex and death, according to Toynbee.

She was prepared to admit that both good and bad are done by secularists and religious believers, but when it comes to religious institutions, «they prove a force for cruelty and hypocrisy,» she said.

Atheists are feeble haters compared to religious sects, she continued. Her article finished with a call to «the liberating belief that life on earth is precious because this here and now is all there is, and our destiny is in our own hands.»

Positive for children

It’s clear that neither Patterson nor Toynbee had read a study published Sept. 9 by Pat Fagan, senior fellow of the Family Research Council and director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute, on religion and children’s academic performance.

In «Religious Practice and Educational Attainment,» Fagan revealed that a higher level of religious practice can positively affect a student’s ability to perform in school.

Pupils involved in religious activities spend more time on their homework, the study reported. They also achieve better test results and are less likely to drop out of high school. Moreover, its positive impact is not confined to school, but continues at college level.

One study found that 19.5% of students who infrequently worshiped drop out of school, compared to only 9.1% of students who attended worship often.

The paper identified a number of ways through which religion help students:

— It internalizes values and norms that help achievement;

— It fosters high personal expectations, and helps students avoid socially deviant behavior. Those students attending weekly religious services were less likely to use drugs or alcohol, or to engage in delinquent behavior;

— Religious families tend to be cohesive and stable, to plan for students’ futures, and to expect much of them;

— Teens who are devoutly religious have higher educational expectations for themselves;

— Religious peers tend to be more academically oriented, and the resulting peer group encourages academic engagement;

— Religious attendance also appears to boost social skills;

— Churches offer students resources, community, and mentorship. The strong social bonds of religious groups can supplement the resources available to children, helping them to achieve higher levels of education.

Fagan noted that frequent religious attendance also tends to increase students’ total years of schooling. The benefit for students of weekly church attendance compared to peers who do not attend church at all was equivalent to the benefits that come from a mother that has three years of extra education and a father that has four years of extra education.

Importantly, religion is one of few readily accessible institutions for lower-income families.
The paper emphasized the importance of this for those in lower socio-economic groups. For those who are more advantaged, religion is just one possible resource among many.

«By contrast, for the poor, the effect of religious practice is significant because it is one of the few robust positive influences in their lives,» Fagan wrote.

Another finding was that religiosity has a greater impact on educational outcomes for urban youth than for non-urban youth. The paper surmised that one explanation for this is that religious organizations are more readily available in urban areas. In addition, religion can also acts as a check against the more negative elements common in urban neighborhoods that have a detrimental effect on educational achievement.


Children are far from being the only ones who find benefits in religion. The August issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family published an article on the subject of religion’s impact on family relationships.

Among the findings was the fact that there is a significant link between sharing religious beliefs and praying together and greater happiness in marriages and relationships, according to an Aug. 12 report in the Washington Post.

The benefits were more pronounced for African Americans and Hispanics than for whites. This may be due to greater relationship satisfaction in white couples due to advantages in income and education, the study explained.

It is true then that couples who pray together stay together, study co-author W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, told the Washington Post.

An Aug. 11 press release from the University of Virginia went into greater detail about how it is that religion plays a positive role in relationships. Wilcox explained that previous research on the subject has identified three factors.

Second, religious communities offer support to couples and families through a family-centered social network.

Third, religious belief provides people with a sense of purpose and meaning about life in general and their relationships, and this helps them deal with stress.

Civic impact

Further evidence of religion’s positive effects will be detailed in a lengthy book examining American religious life, due to be published in early October.

In «American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,» Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell point out how much more religious America compared to other countries and they conclude that this makes Americans better citizens and neighbors.

Putnam is a professor of public policy at the Harvard University, while Campbell is a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.

They previewed some of the book’s content at a conference hosted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life held last year.

A report by the Religion News Service, dated May 13, 2009, said that among the findings of the study was the fact that religious people are three to four times more likely to be involved in their community.

Compared to those who are non-religious they are more involved in voluntary associations, and in attending public meetings, and more likely to vote in local elections, and to donate time and money to causes.

Putnam and Campbell affirmed that the link between religion and civic activism is causal, since they observed non-religious who subsequently became religiously active also changed their social behavior and became more involved in the community.

An important element in this civic participation is being part of a religious community, and not just someone who practices private devotion.

«It’s not faith that accounts for this,» Putnam said. «It’s faith communities.»

These communities have, of course, their flaws, as the raucous choir of secularists spared no effort to detail prior to the visit to Scotland and England by Pope Benedict XVI.

What is also clear is that society would be a far poorer place without the contribution of organized religion to public life.

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