Sociologist Rodney Stark discusses whether religion is good for society

Let's take a look at the data
Let’s take a look at the data

Mysterious Chris S. posted this interview with Baylor University sociologist / historian Rodney Stark.

About Rodney Stark:

Rodney Stark grew up in Jamestown, North Dakota, and began his career as a newspaper reporter. Following a tour of duty in the U.S. Army, he received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, where he held appointments as a research sociologist at the Survey Research Center and at the Center for the Study of Law and Society. He left Berkeley to become Professor of Sociology and of Comparative Religion at the University of Washington. In 2004 he joined the faculty of Baylor University. He has published 30 books and more than 140 scholarly articles on subjects as diverse as prejudice, crime, suicide, and city life in ancient Rome. However, the greater part of his work has been on religion. He is past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. He also has won a number of national and international awards for distinguished scholarship. Many of his books and articles have been translated and published in foreign languages, including Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, and Turkish.


  • B.A. University of Denver, 1959, Journalism.
  • M.A. University of California, Berkeley, 1965, Sociology.
  • Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley, 1971, Sociology.

I don’t count sociologists as non-STEM, since they have to know statistics, which is math. Anyway, onto the interview.


Q: After examining hundreds of relevant studies, what’s the biggest misconception you’ve found about the typical religious believer?

Rodney Stark: Even some leading evangelical scholars take it for granted that religious Americans are lacking in appreciation for “high culture,” for music, art, literature, and the like. Nothing could be further from the truth. The more often Americans attend religious services, the more likely they are to read newspapers, poetry, novels, and to admire writers. The same applies to liking classical music, to attending symphony concerts, operas, and stage plays, and to dislike rock ‘n roll.

Q: Some recent books, like Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great, suggest that “religion poisons everything.” But your book indicates that religious belief offers society many tangible benefits. What are some of these benefits?

Rodney Stark: Religious Americans are more law abiding, have superior mental and physical health, are far more generous vis-à-vis charities, have much better family life, are more successful, and religious couples even have more satisfactory sex lives!

Q: In the book’s Conclusion you look at religion’s effect on many areas of society—crime, schooling, health, employment, welfare—and you determine that, by a conservative estimate, religion saves America over $2.6 trillion each year. What are some of the biggest contributors to this savings?

Rodney Stark: The biggest by far has to do with the criminal justice system. If all Americans committed crimes at the same level as those who do not attend religious services, the costs of the criminal justice system would about double to, perhaps, $2 trillion annually. Second is health costs. The more often people attend religious services, the healthier they are. However, the net savings involved is reduced somewhat by the fact that religious Americans live, on average, seven years longer than those who never attend religious services.

Previously, I noted how people who attend church or synagogue have much better marriage stability than atheists.

Let’s just review that with some research done by W. Bradford Wilcox:

Married couples who attend church together tend to be happier than couples who rarely or never attend services, according to sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia.

Using three nationally representative surveys – the General Social Survey (GSS), the National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH), and the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) – Wilcox found that married church-going Americans across denominational and racial classifications were more likely to describe themselves as “very happy” than their non-religious counterparts.

Couples who attended church regularly were also less likely to divorce than couples who seldom attended church services, Wilcox found.

“Attending church only seems to help couples when they attend together,” Wilcox told Cybercast News Service. “But when they do, they are significantly happier in their marriages, and they are much less likely to divorce, compared to couples who do not attend church. I would say that church attendance is a beneficial component of marriage when it is done together.”

Wilcox explained that regular church attendance offers certain positive benefits to a married couple: “Churches supply moral norms like sexual fidelity and forgiveness, family-friendly social networks that lend support to couples facing the ordinary joys and challenges of married life, and a faith that helps couples make sense of the difficulties in their lives-from unemployment to illness-that can harm their marriages.”

“So, in a word, the couple that prays together stays together,” said Wilcox.

[…]”Men and women who hold a religious faith and put that faith into practice by attending church on a regular basis do look different in the marital realm,” Wilcox said.

“At least in the marriage arena, faith alone doesn’t work. You’ve got to combine faith and works to enjoy a happy and stable marriage. You need the consistent message, the accountability, and the support a church community can provide to really benefit from religious faith,” he added.

This Wall Street Journal article from a while back, entitled “Look Who’s Irrational Now” argues that atheists are less skeptical than believers.


The reality is that the New Atheist campaign, by discouraging religion, won’t create a new group of intelligent, skeptical, enlightened beings. Far from it: It might actually encourage new levels of mass superstition. And that’s not a conclusion to take on faith — it’s what the empirical data tell us.

“What Americans Really Believe,” a comprehensive new study released by Baylor University yesterday, shows that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases belief in everything from the efficacy of palm readers to the usefulness of astrology. It also shows that the irreligious and the members of more liberal Protestant denominations, far from being resistant to superstition, tend to be much more likely to believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience than evangelical Christians.

The Gallup Organization, under contract to Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, asked American adults a series of questions to gauge credulity. Do dreams foretell the future? Did ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis exist? Can places be haunted? Is it possible to communicate with the dead? Will creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster someday be discovered by science?

The answers were added up to create an index of belief in occult and the paranormal. While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.

Even among Christians, there were disparities. While 36% of those belonging to the United Church of Christ, Sen. Barack Obama’s former denomination, expressed strong beliefs in the paranormal, only 14% of those belonging to the Assemblies of God, Sarah Palin’s former denomination, did. In fact, the more traditional and evangelical the respondent, the less likely he was to believe in, for instance, the possibility of communicating with people who are dead.

[…]Surprisingly, while increased church attendance and membership in a conservative denomination has a powerful negative effect on paranormal beliefs, higher education doesn’t. Two years ago two professors published another study in Skeptical Inquirer showing that, while less than one-quarter of college freshmen surveyed expressed a general belief in such superstitions as ghosts, psychic healing, haunted houses, demonic possession, clairvoyance and witches, the figure jumped to 31% of college seniors and 34% of graduate students.

And naturally, studies show that religious people are both more generous than their secular counterparts.

3 thoughts on “Sociologist Rodney Stark discusses whether religion is good for society”

  1. Well paranormal science and pseudoscience does have some bases in reality. For example the story of the beauty and the beast was inspired by a real person during the time of henry viii. He had a disease that caused him to grow hair all over his body and of course people doing that time had no explanation for it so they did a social experiment raised him as a gentlemen in the french court and married him off. All his children had the disease as well and they took the children away from their parents and gave them to other royals as gifts. Even the werewolf has bases in reality and same for vampires. Its just down the line along with religious beliefs being add and lack of knowledge people who had certain diseases become seen as creatures of evil or things that happens to humans normal like for men nocturnal emissions was blamed on a succubus and children being born still born, that was blamed on witches etc.

  2. “I don’t count sociologists as non-STEM, since they have to know statistics, which is math.”
    Heh, statistics is marginal math. “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
    Happy New Year WK!

  3. There’s nothing “marginal” about statistics. For example, quantum mechanics is statistical. But, speaking as a physical scientist, I certainly do not count sociologists among STEM professionals. Most sociologists know enough about statistics to plug some numbers into a canned software package and make incorrect, often mathematically risible, inferences.

    Having said that about sociologists, Rodney Stark is a horse of a different color. I have a lot of respect for his work. I find it thoughtful and insightful, meticulously researched, and well-argued.

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