OCTOBER 20, 2003
Does Religion Make a Difference?
Martin E. Marty
Social scientists and news people who report on religion often get asked whether they are "pro" or "con" religion, or pro or con this or that religion. If they are fair-minded, as we expect them to be, they report on the highs and lows, the ups and downs, and the positives and negatives of religion in its effects on public life.
I thought of that this week while comparing two sets of graphs: those that chart beliefs and practices of publics in Europe, as reported by Andrew Greeley in his recent Religion in Europe at the End of the Second Millennium, and Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) for this year. Religious beliefs and practices should counter corruption and immorality.
The CPI measures bribery, kickbacks, graft, and other corruption in the business world, including multi-national corporations in 102 nations (from least corrupt to most corrupt). Among the twelve "least corrupt" -- eight of them European nations -- are several "least religious" nations: the post-Lutheran five, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, and Norway, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.
Now consult Greeley's rankings on religious belief and practice: way down at 17, 18, 19, and 20 from the top are those northern "least corrupt" nations (Iceland was not measured) listed in the CPI. Do we correlate "least corrupt/least religious" and "more corrupt/more religious? "More corrupt" nations include Cyprus, once-Catholic Ireland, Poland, Northern Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Spain, and Austria. These were ranked in the top eight in belief and religious practices. Only "most religious" Austria and Ireland show up in the top 24 "least corrupt."
Of course, Transparency International's CPI only measures business elites. It may be that the ordinary folks in these various nations reveal a different story. Still, it would be nice to think that the language of pulpit and prayer would also shape morality and promote non-corruption among elites in the high-believing nations. By the way, the United States, which prides itself on its religious belief and identification ("God bless America"), morality, and monitoring of business, came in at 14.
A different evidence of religious emphasis in public life: Nicholas D. Kristof's column "When Prudery Kills; Bush Dithers as Africans Die" (New York Times October 8) claims that African nations suffer most from AIDS. There, as the President said, "We have the opportunity to save millions of lives abroad from a terrible disease," but we are lagging. "Doing almost nothing," "essentially accomplishing nothing," leaders in Africa report to Kristof.
Kristof argues with, I believe, demonstrable warrant that U.S. refusal to back programs involving birth control -- condoms most of all -- which could lower the disease rate, is the result of response to religious pressures. "Restricting funds to abstinence, and nothing more, looks as if the administration is more interested in showing that it shares the Christian Right's sexual squeamishness than in fighting AIDS." The Christian Right is not alone among the churches in their anti-condom, anti-birth control "squeamishness." If Kristof and others who report are correct in this case, religious belief and practice do have a bearing on policies that affect the lives and deaths of millions.
THE RELIGION & CULTURE WEB FORUM http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum
This month's Religion & Culture Web Forum commentary is by William Schweiker of the University of Chicago Divinity School. In “Humanity Before God: Theological Humanism from a Christian Perspective,” written in conjunction with the 2003 D. R. Sharpe Lectures on Social Ethics, Professor Schweiker explores the history, attributes, and desirability of Christian humanism. He argues that renewed Christian humanism and humanistic expressions of other faith traditions are uniquely suited to meet the most profound challenges of modern times. The fact is that we increasingly live in a world in which the complex interactions of cultures and traditions manifest a lack of shared presuppositions. In some traditions and cultures the idea of a “self” is hardly a defining idea. It is seen as an imposition of “Western” modes of thought. Within the spreading global market, it is not at all clear that anything can trump the drive of consumption and the satisfaction of personal preferences. Everything can be seen as a commodity for the satisfaction of individual needs and wants. Even the moral life, it is argued by some thinkers, is simply a means to the end of personal satisfaction. How ought one to respond to this new, changed situation? Ironically, it is precisely in this situation that a renewed Christian humanism is sorely needed within the global Christian community...In a world of widespread want and also gluttony, the profoundest message of the Christian witness is that while we live by bread we do not and cannot live by bread alone. A human life driven by unrestrained want is not really living; it is a mark of death within life...
Invited responses to Professor Schweiker's essay will be offered by Professors David E. Klemm, of the University of Iowa, and Lisa Cahill, of Boston College. We invite you to visit the public discussion board to view the invited responses and offer your own thoughts throughout the month of October. Past forums are also always available for review in our archive, including September's forum, “Religion and the Constitution Confounded: Treating the First Amendment as a Theological Statement,” by Thomas J. Curry.
Coming up in November, look for a web forum commentary from Dean Richard Rosengarten of the University of Chicago Divinity School entitled "The Catholic Sophocles: Violence and Visionary Religion in Flannery O'Connor."