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The following is the second installment of an address given at FAIRMormon by Daniel C. Peterson. It is republished here with permission. To see the previous installment, click here

Several years ago, I read some heartfelt online advice from an atheist.

“Life is a one-time roller coaster ride,” he said.

Revel in it. Feel the warm sun on your skin and the cool wind in your hair. Feel the climb up, and take in the rides to the bottom. Don’t spend the entire experience preparing and fretting for what others in the line told you about the exit and what they think comes after, otherwise you will miss the entire experience.

I have little doubt that his advice was sincere. But it’s also misdirected.

There’s no reason to suppose that typical religious believers feel the warm sun and the cool air less than unbelievers do. They’re not exempt from the climbs up and the sometimes terrifying rides down.

And, no matter how devout they may be, there’s no evidence that most believers devote so much time preparing for the next life, and so much energy fretting about it, that they miss “the entire experience” of this one.

In view of the evidence I’ve cited from Arthur Brooks, that online atheist would serve his readers better if he sought to build their faith rather than encouraging them to abandon it. Although mortal life is indeed a roller coaster ride, he shouldn’t be urging them to ignore the fact that when it ends, they’ll all need to pass through the exit.

Religious believers are convinced that there is an unfathomably vast world out there beyond the exit gate for this particular ride. To continue the poster’s metaphor, those who have come to the amusement park with tickets for other attractions, money to buy food when it’s lunchtime and jackets to wear in the evening will be able to enjoy much more than just the one feature.

They’re going to have a better time than those who were focused so intently on enjoying their “one time roller coaster ride” that, at its end, they lack the resources or ability to enjoy anything else.

There is no evidence that those who think of the future miss out altogether on the present. In fact, evidence suggests the contrary: Religious believers, if they’re correct, get a better future. In any case, they apparently get a better today.

“I’m an atheist,” the late actress Katherine Hepburn once told an interviewer, “and that’s it. I believe there’s nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for each other.”

Plainly, atheists can be, and often are, good people. It’s wonderful that Katherine Hepburn knew those things. I believe that she did know them; I hope that she acted accordingly. But how did she know them? It’s one thing to believe in moral principles; it’s quite another to be able to justify them, to give an account of their source. And this seems to me a particular problem for atheists.

“Morality,” writes the evolutionary atheist philosopher Michael Ruse,

or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends. Hence the basis of ethics does not lie in God’s will — or in the metaphysical roots of evolution or any other part of the framework of the Universe. In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. It is without external grounding. Ethics is produced by evolution but is not justified by it.

Once I’ve recognized that morality is an illusion, though, why should I feel bound by it — especially when I can safely ignore it?

“We are survival machines,” says the British biologist and vocal “New Atheist” Richard Dawkins, nothing more than “robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”

“What natural selection favors,” writes Dawkins,

is rules of thumb, which work in practice to promote the genes that built them. Rules of thumb, by their nature, sometimes misfire. In a bird’s brain, the rule ‘Look after small squawking things in your nest, and drop food into their red gapes,’ typically has the effect of preserving the genes that built the rule, because the squawking, gaping objects in an adult bird’s nest are normally its own offspring. The rule misfires if another baby bird somehow gets into the nest, a circumstance that is positively engineered by cuckoos. Could it be that our Good Samaritan urges are misfiring, analogous to the misfiring of a reed warbler’s parental instincts when it works itself to the bone for a young cuckoo? An even closer analogy is the human urge to adopt a child.

But does adoption—or contributing to relief for unrelated poor people in distant countries, or risking one’s life to save a stranger—really represent mere evolutionary error?

To his credit, Dawkins himself recoils from the idea. He calls such acts “precious mistakes.” But why are they “precious”? What does that mean beyond the mere fact that he likes them, as he might like broccoli or the Beach Boys?

“The universe that we observe,” he’s also written, “has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

On what objective grounds, if any, can someone holding this view say that failure to help a child or fight Third World hunger is “wrong”? On what basis, even, can such a person condemn murder, rape or child abuse? If somebody else endorses them, on what basis can a Dawkins disagree? The Nazis regarded killing Jews and Gypsies and enslaving Slavs as good things. Are these only matters of opinion?

Thirty years after first seeing it, I still vividly remember the chilling scene in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1986 film version of Verdi’s opera Otello in which Iago sings his very Darwinian creed:

I believe in a cruel God
who created me in his image
and who in fury I name.
From the very vileness of a germ
or an atom, vile was I born.
I am a wretch because I am a man,
and I feel within me the primeval slime.
Yes! This is my creed!
I believe with a heart as steadfast
as that of the widow in church,
that the evil I think
and that which I perform
I think and do by destiny’s decree.
I believe the just man to be a mocking actor
in face and heart;
that all his being is a lie,
tear, kiss, glance,
sacrifice and honour.
And I believe man the sport of evil fate
from the germ of the cradle
to the worm of the grave.
After all this mockery then comes Death.
And then?… And then?
Death is nothingness,
heaven an old wives’ tale.

On what rational grounds can a follower of Richard Dawkins demonstrate Iago’s lethal amorality to be “wrong”?

Faith or non-faith. We cannot escape the decision. Not to decide is to decide. It will deeply mark how we live our lives. To live as an agnostic is, practically speaking, typically to live as an atheist.

Benefits to Society

By just about any measure, Western society has grown much more secular in recent decades. This is likely to have consequences. It makes a difference.

For as long as I can remember, nonreligious people have assured me that, while I’m supposedly focused on some sort of illusory “pie in the sky when I die” and on “saving” others from mythical sufferings in a fairy-tale afterlife, they’re devoted to making life in this world, on this planet, tangibly better for everybody.

In my particular case, of course, the critics may be right. They’re very likely far better people than I am—more charitable, kinder, more concerned for their fellow humans. However, unless they actually supply evidence to demonstrate it, Arthur Brooks’s 2006 volume, Who Really Cares, has made it much, much harder for secularists to preen themselves, as a class, on their superior compassion.

Brooks has studied patterns in charitable giving and service for many years and is widely recognized as perhaps the pre-eminent authority on the subject. Still, he even he reports that he’s been surprised by what he’s found.

Religious people, it turns out, give more to charity than do nonreligious people. They donate more money—and not merely to their churches, synagogues, temples and mosques.

They’re more likely to give money to family and friends, and, when they do, to give larger amounts. They’re far more likely to give food or money to the homeless and to donate blood, and even to return money from a cashier’s mistake or to express empathy for the less fortunate. It’s 15 percent more likely that churchgoing Europeans will volunteer for nonreligious charities than their secular compatriots. Even non-churchgoers, if they were raised in religious households, are more likely to donate to charity than those who were not.

Not surprisingly, private charity in ever-more-secular Europe has plummeted—to the point, in some areas, almost of extinction. Brooks, who also argues that charitable giving is essential to a strong economy, points to polling data suggesting that Europeans are, according to their own reports, less happy with their lives than Americans are, and suggests that their unhappiness may be connected with their low rates of charity and volunteerism. Humans feel better when they give.

91 percent of American religious conservatives give to charitable causes, compared to only 67 percent of those who identify themselves as secular liberals. Those who pray daily are 30 percent more likely to give to charity than people who never pray. In Europe, too, churchgoers volunteer 30 percent more often, overall, than non-churchgoers. Even controlling for other factors, 83 percent of religious Americans will volunteer in any given year, while, among secular French people, only 27 percent will.

As befits a premier social scientist, Brooks employs multiple streams of contemporary statistical data to form his judgments. However, the historical record also seems to support the general conclusions of his very important book:

The respected and prolific sociologist Rodney Stark, in an insightful study of The Rise of Christianity (Princeton, 1996), has shown that the superior charity of the ancient Christians was a vital factor in the rapid growth of the early Christian movement. And, as an examination of the surviving sources demonstrates, even the pagans recognized that. “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well,” lamented the fourth-century pagan Roman Emperor Julian. “Everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”

“Religion is the opiate of the people,” Karl Marx famously complained. Elsewhere, he remarked that, while “philosophers have said that the purpose of philosophy is to understand the world, the purpose is to change it.” Religion, in his view, was a distraction from the real business of making this world a better place. Unfortunately for Marx’s thesis, though (and, even more so, for those who had to live through the 20th century), the millennium that just closed was heavily influenced at its end by Marxism and by a related ideology that went under the names of fascism and “National Socialism” or Nazism. We now have quite graphic evidence of exactly how such theories tend to “change the world.”

“We must rid ourselves once and for all,” wrote the Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky in his 1930 book The Russian Revolution, “of the Quaker-Papist babble about the sanctity of human life.” And they did. Scholarly estimates of atheistic communism’s murders over the past century range from roughly 40.5 million to nearly 260 million.

But Marxism merely followed a path blazed for it by the French Revolution’s anti-Catholic and anti-Christian “Reign of Terror.” Citizen Robespierre and his associates, determined to establish a “Cult of Reason,” killed many thousands of innocent people — sometimes cleanly, via the guillotine, but often through disgusting and obscene torture.

In 1983, the great 1970 Nobel Literature laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (d. 2008), fearless chronicler of the crimes of Soviet communism, delivered a lecture sometimes titled “Godlessness: The First Step to the Gulag.”[2] The opening lines of that address deserve full quotation:

More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.

Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.

What is more, the events of the Russian Revolution can only be understood now, at the end of the century, against the background of what has since occurred in the rest of the world. What emerges here is a process of universal significance. And if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire 20th century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: Men have forgotten God.

Even when contrasted with the soft secularism that’s come to dominate Europe, perhaps Canada, and certain portions of the American elite, and even though religious people can undoubtedly do much more and much better than they’re doing now, believers fare pretty well.

In America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists, Rodney Stark draws a number of striking conclusions after surveying the relevant data. Some of this will repeat what I’ve already said. Which is fine. I want it to be remembered.

Regardless of their age, Stark says, religious people are much less likely to commit crimes. Accordingly, the higher a city’s church membership rate, the lower its rates of burglary, larceny, robbery, assault, rape, sexually transmitted disease and homicide. In a cleverly designed test at Pepperdine University, a disappointing 45 percent of weekly church attenders turned out to be honest, but that was still more than three times the 13 percent rating of non-attenders.

Curiously, however, although nearly 250 studies conducted between 1944 and 2010 showed clear evidence that religion helps to reduce delinquency, deviation and crime, virtually no standard textbooks on criminology so much as mention “religion” in their indexes. But the fact remains, says Stark, that “All Americans are safer and their property more secure because this is such a religious nation.”

Religious people are the primary source of charitable funds not only for religious causes but for secular philanthropies that benefit all victims of distress and misfortune. They are far more likely to volunteer their time for programs that benefit society and to be active in civic matters.

As I’ve already noted, fashionable schools of psychology have long taught that religion either contributes to mental illness or is itself a dangerous species of psychopathology. But the evidence, says Professor Stark, “shows overwhelmingly that religion protects against mental illness.” For example, persons with strong, conservative religious beliefs are less depressed than those with weak and loose religious beliefs. “They are happier, less neurotic, and far less likely to commit suicide.”

Religious people are more likely to marry and to stay married than their irreligious counterparts, and, on the whole, they express greater satisfaction with their marriages and their spouses. They are far less likely to have extramarital affairs. In addition, “Religious husbands are substantially less likely to abuse their wives or children.” Mother-child relationships are stronger for frequent church attenders than for those who rarely if ever go to church, and for mothers and children who regard religion as very important, they’re stronger than for those church-attenders who don’t value religion so highly. Precisely the same thing holds for the level of satisfaction of teenagers with their families. Greater religiosity means higher satisfaction.

Strongly religious persons seem, all other things being equal, to enjoy reduced risks of heart disease, strokes and high blood pressure or hypertension than those who are less religious, and seem to recover better from coronary artery bypass surgery. The average life expectancy of religious Americans is more than seven years longer than that of the irreligious. Moreover, “a very substantial difference remains” even when the effects of “clean living” have been factored out.

Religious students tend to get better grades than do their non-religious counterparts, as well as to score higher on all standardized achievement tests. They are less likely to be expelled or suspended or to drop out of school, and are more likely to do their homework.

Religious Americans are also, on average, more successful in their careers than are the irreligious. They obtain better jobs and are less likely to find themselves unemployed or on welfare.

Committed religious believers are less likely to patronize astrologers or to believe in the occult and the paranormal than are nonbelievers. On the other hand, though they’re often caricatured as ignorant, churchgoers are more likely to read, to patronize the arts and to enjoy classical music than are non-churchgoers.

“Translated into comparisons with Western European nations,” writes Professor Stark, addressing an American audience, “we enjoy far lower crime rates, much higher levels of charitable giving, better health, stronger marriages, and less suicide, to note only a few of our benefits from being an unusually religious nation.”

None of these facts proves religious claims true, of course. But they certainly undermine the old accusation that religion is unhealthy and antisocial.

As Harvard’s Robert Putnam expresses it in his famous book Bowling Alone, believing churchgoers are “much more likely than other persons to visit friends, to entertain at home, to attend club meetings, and to belong to sports groups; professional and academic societies; school service groups; youth groups; service clubs; hobby or garden clubs; literary, art, discussion, and study groups; school fraternities and sororities; farm organizations; political clubs; nationality groups; and other miscellaneous groups.”

“So,” asks Mary Eberstadt in her book How the West Really Lost God, “is it in society’s interest to encourage Christian practice?” She then provides her own response. “The answer is: only so far as it is in society’s interest to encourage quality of life, enhanced health, happiness, coping, less crime, less depression, and other such benefits associated with religious involvement.”