The Critique of Christian Faith
The critique of the Christian faith has become much louder and more persistent in recent years, particularly in northern European societies. The debate has been getting more intense and the voices more shrill. The criticism of religion is present not only in northern Europe and Australia but in many other countries, as shown by responses to questions in the International Society Survey Program which was conducted in 44 countries. On the other hand, a recent World Values Survey (2012) provides some valuable data for looking at the other side of the ledger and evaluating what contribution religion is making in societies around the world.

There were two items in the International Social Survey Program (2008-2009) which measured common criticisms of religion. These criticisms were that religious people are intolerant and that religion promotes violence more than peace. A third item measured the general levels of confidence in religious organisations.

  1. Intolerance
    Across the 44 countries surveyed, 61 per cent of those responding said that ‘people with very strong religious beliefs are often too intolerant of others’. While this statement does put the proposition in a fairly extreme way by referring to people ‘with very strong religious beliefs’, it is indicative of a link many people make between religion and intolerance. In every country, a substantial group of people agreed with that statement, from 32 per cent of people in the Dominican Republic to 84 per cent of people in Finland. In 28 of the 44 countries, more than 50 per cent of the population agreed that ‘people with strong religious beliefs were too intolerant’.

2. Promoting Violence more than Peace
Another item asked people to respond to the statement ‘Looking around the world, religions bring more conflict than peace’. Again, there was widespread agreement with the statement with 57 per cent of the world sample agreeing, and a range in particular countries from 26 per cent in the Dominican Republic to 83 per cent in Denmark agreeing. In 25 out the 44 countries, more than 50 per cent of the sample of the adult population agreed with the statement.

In discussing religion and conflict, many people would think of conflicts occurring in places such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, northern Nigeria and Sudan. However, interviews with young people in Australia have shown that there is a tendency to generalise. The major issue, some young people have said, is people taking religion too seriously and holding extreme views, whatever religion it is (Hughes, 2014). All religions have been tainted by terrorism and by the wars that are occurring in the name of religion.

3. Lack of Confidence in Religious Organisations
A third item in the International Society Survey (2008-9) asked people about their levels of confidence in churches and religious organisations. Across the 44 countries, 32 per cent of people said they had a great deal or complete confidence in religious organisations, 34 per cent had some confidence, and 34 per cent said they had little or no confidence. Again, the range of responses was very large from 6 per cent of Japanese to 77 per cent of Filippinos having much confidence. However, only in four countries did more than 50 per cent of the population have a great deal of confidence: Turkey, Venezuela, South Africa and the Philippines. While in many places the majority said they had some confidence in religious organisations, in four countries, more than 50 per cent of people had little or no confidence in religious organisations: Japan, the Czech Republic, Belgium and France.

There is no doubt that religious organisations have been involved in some monumental moral failures and have sometimes sought to protect themselves rather than care for those they serve. There is no doubt that some people have used the pretext of religious faith as the basis for violence and for terrorist activities. It is also true that some highly religious people are intolerant of people who hold different views to their own. However, there is another side to the consideration of the impact of religious faith on society.

The Moral Dimension of Religion
As discussed in the previous article in this edition of Pointers (Hughes 2015), most religions of the world developed moral codes to guide individuals and societies to act fairly and justly, protecting the basic institutions of family and property as well as individual life and security. Religious faith has been one of the major contributors to people acting compassionately and fairly with regard to the wellbeing of the wider community. Historically, one of the major contributions of the Christian faith has been to globalise such patterns of behaviour. Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan poignantly upheld the example of the person who showed compassion for the injured man who was of a different race and religion.

One would expect, then, that religions in general, and Christianity in particular, would have positive impacts on the ways in which people treat each other. Religious faith promotes compassion towards others and discipline in personal life. It should have a significant impact, then, on the quality of social life. If that impact could be shown and measured, that would assist in balancing the criticisms that had been made of religious faith. It would show that while there have been some moral failures in Christian organisations and among some Christian people, the Christian faith continues to have a significant role in contributing to a higher quality of social life for the community.

Domestic violence is a deep and widespread issue. In Australia, more than one woman per week is killed by her partner. Many thousands of women (and a few men) suffer psychological, verbal and physical abuse from their partners. Does religious faith play any role in inhibiting domestic violence?

There is no direct evidence about the relationship between domestic violence and religious faith. Statistical information about the extent of the religious background of those who are found guilty of domestic violence is not gathered. Indeed, there would be reasons to be suspicious of such data if it was gathered. Someone being interrogated by police about possible criminal activity might well be tempted to claim they are a ‘good person’ by saying they went to church or were religious!

Does Religious Faith Have an Impact Internationally on the Incidence of Domestic Violence?
If men were asked in a survey of men whether they beat their wives, it is very doubtful that they would give honest answers. Nevertheless, some indication of attitudes among people can be obtained by asking how justifiable it might be for a man to beat his wife. This question was asked in many countries around in the world in the World Values Survey (2012).

Responses were rated on a scale of 1 to 10. For the sake of simplicity, Table 1 presents the data only for males and has taken those who scored justifiability of ‘beating one’s wife’ of a score of 5 or over as indicating that they considered it was sometimes or always justifiable, and has compared those who never attended religious services with those who attended monthly or more often. The column headed ‘Significance’ indicates whether one can be 95 per cent or 99 per cent sure that the differences found in the survey reflect real differences in the wider population.

Source: World Values Survey (2012)

There are a number of observations one might make in relation to the results as presented in Table 1. The first is that countries varied greatly in regard to men’s acceptance of wife-beating. In most countries, many men considered it unacceptable. However, there were many countries in which substantial majorities of males consider it sometimes or always acceptable.

The second observation is that the differences in most countries between the religious attenders and the non-attenders were less than between one country and another. Indeed, only in 14 out of the 49 countries was there a significant difference between those who attended religious services and those who did not. It was also notable within those 14 countries, that in some, attenders were more likely to feel wife-beating was justified and in other countries, less likely to feel that way. Thus, in Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, Germany, Peru, and the Netherlands, religious attenders were more likely than non-attenders to feel wife-beating was justified. In Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, Tunisia, Malaysia, Belarus, United States, and Cyprus, religious attenders were less likely than non-attenders to say that wife-beating was justified. Hence, even in those countries where religious and non-religious attenders had different attitudes, religion appeared to operate in different ways. Probably, in some, religious teachings were seen as justifying gender and role differences, while in others religion was seen as opposed to gender and role differences and as opposed to the use of violence.

The third observation is that the differences noted in Table 1 suggest that the acceptability of wife-beating was not primarily a matter of the particular religion. Countries with the highest levels of acceptance of wife-beating included a number of countries in which the majority of attenders identified themselves as Christian, including Rwanda, Philippines, Zimbabwe, Russia and Germany. Some of those with very low levels of acceptance of wife-beating were Muslim countries including Pakistan, Jordan, and Turkey. Nor can one argue from the basis of this data, that Christianity tends to discourage wife-beating while Islam encourages it. In Malaysia, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine and Tunisia, the observance of Islam was associated with lower levels of acceptance of wife-beating, while in Algeria, Lebanon, and
Libya it was associated with higher levels. The same applies to Christianity. In Germany, Peru and the Netherlands, the observance of the Christian faith was association with higher levels of acceptance of wife-beating, while in Belarus, United States and Cyprus, it was associated with lower levels.

The findings suggest that, in some places, religions, both Christian and others, are associated with traditions in which there is a hierarchical attitude to gender distinctions. In such places, religion may be used to justify attitudes among men that they have the right to use violence against their wives. In other places, the same religions may be associated with the rejection, even the abhorence, of such attitudes. Religion interacts with culture in complex ways.

Involvement in Humanitarian or Charitable Organisations
Having noted the complex ways in which religion and culture interact, is there any evidence that religions internationally contribute to pro-social and compassionate behaviour? As noted in the previous article in Pointers (Hughes 2015), there is some evidence in Australia that involvement in religious activities and even a religious upbringing are associated with higher levels of involvement in some kinds of voluntary involvement for the benefit of society (Hughes & Black, 2002). On the other hand, some have argued that most of the voluntary work done by church attenders is done within the context of their churches rather than for the benefit of the wider society (Lyons & Nivison-Smith, 2006).

The World Values Survey allows us once again to make some comparisons across the world. Unfortunately, the measures are somewhat weak and simplistic in that they do not seek to measure the extent of voluntary involvement. The survey asked people if they were active or inactive members in a range of different types of voluntary organisations including sport, recreational, artistic, educational, political and other types of organisations. We shall consider involvement in humanitarian and charitable organisations.

Table 2 demonstrates in a similar way to Table 1 that there was a diversity of patterns of voluntary involvement in different countries. While some countries have strong traditions of such involvement, others do not. However, in 28 of the 49 countries surveyed, religious involvement was associated with a significantly different level of involvement in such organisations. In every one of those 28 countries with one exception, religious involvement was associated with higher levels of involvement. The one exception was Cyprus where religious involvement was closely associated with family rather than social forms of care (Liederman and Fokas, 2004, pp.297-8).

Source: World Values Survey (2012)

In twelve countries out of the 49 surveyed, 10 per cent or more of the population were involved in charitable and welfare organisations. Of these twelve, ten had a strong Christian heritage. The other two countries were Lebanon and Libya. Among the countries with high levels of active members in such groups were countries with a strong mixed Protestant and Catholic populations such as the USA, Sweden, New Zealand and Australia. Some Catholic countries, such as Chile, Mexico, and the Philippines, also had high levels of voluntary involvement. However, most Orthodox countries have not had that tradition of voluntary organisations.

Hence, it does appear that in many parts of the world religious involvement in general, and Christian involvement in particular, is associated with high levels of involvement in charitable organisations. Here, more than in relation to wife-beating, the patterns trend in one direction. Nevertheless, the results demonstrate again that the inter-relationships between religion and people’s behaviour are complex and cultural patterns frequently intervene in significant ways.

At the same time, it must be acknowledged that the measures in these surveys are rather blunt and have not done full justice to the complex nature of religious expression and pro-social behaviour in the countries around the world.

In responding to the critique of religion, this quick review of some data has demonstrated the need to proceed carefully. It has been noted that it is often difficult to unravel the factors in the data and separate the various components. It is not always easy to control the various intervening variables which may be having a significant impact.

This review has also demonstrated the fact that religious faith operates in quite different ways in different contexts. Rodney Stark has argued in America’s Blessings that the Christian heritage in the United States has a huge positive impact in many areas of life including moral behaviour, reducing crime, and even bringing about higher levels of health and wellbeing. However, his observations about the USA cannot be simply generalised to all other places where the Christian faith is practised. Religious faith interacts with local cultures and customs, and is sometimes active in supporting and sometimes in challenging those cultures and customs. In some places, as has been noted, the
Christian faith is seen as supporting patriarchal views of gender which lead men to believe that wife-beating may be sometimes justified. In other places, it challenges such views.

There is substantial evidence in a number of countries that frequent attendance at Christian services is associated with higher levels of activity in humanitarian and charitable organisations. Yet, there are some countries with a strong Christian tradition which have not developed a tradition of such organisations at a community level, particularly those with an Orthodox heritage.

While this brief review has suggested that the impact of religion on people’s behaviour is complex, it also raises significant issues for those who oppose religion. Non-religious worldviews also operate differently in different contexts and certainly do not hold the solutions to creating more caring and compassionate societies. While there are religious people who are highly intolerant of others, there are many other religious people who are highly tolerant. Non-religious people also vary greatly in their levels of tolerance and goodwill towards others. While there are religious people who use their religion as a pretext for violence, there are also many non-religious people who commit acts of violence. There are certainly many religious people whose faith inspires them in seeking peace in the world.

There are Christian organisations that have failed morally at certain times and places. Those failures need to be recognised and restitution is required. On the other hand, in many parts of the world, many people involved in religious organisations in general, and Christians in particular, make a substantial and remarkable contribution to creating a better, more compassionate world in which people have found care and life-giving relationships. The balance of the stories must be carefully articulated.

Philip Hughes.

Hughes, P. (2014). ‘Christianity After Religion?’ Pointers: Bulletin of the Christian Research Association, 24(4), 5–9.

Hughes, P. (2015) ‘The Economic Impact of Religion in Australian Society: Possibilities and Challenges in
Its Measurement’, Pointers: Bulletin of the Christian Research Association, 25(2), 1–5.

Hughes, P., & Black, A. (2002). The impact of various personal and social characteristics on volunteerism.
Australian Journal on Volunteering, 7(2), pp59–69.

Hughes, P., & Fraser, L. (2014). Life, Ethics and Faith in Australian Society: Facts and Figures. Melbourne:
Christian Research Association.

Liederman, L. M. and Fokas, E. (2004) ‘Welfare, Church and Gender in Greece’ in N. E. Beckman (editor), Welfare, Church and Gender in Eight European Countries, Uppsala, Sweden: Uppsala Institute for Diaconal and Social Studies.

Lyons, M., & Nivison-Smith, I. (2006). The relationships between religion and volunteering in Australia. Australian Journal on Volunteering, 11(2), 25–37.

Stark, R. (2012). America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone Including Atheists. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press.

International Social Survey Program, ZA4950_F1.sav (computer file) World Values Study Survey, WV6_Data_spss_v_2014_06_04.sav (computer file).

This article was first published in Pointers: The Quarterly Bulletin of the Christian Research Association, Vol.25, no.2, June 2015. pp.6-11.