Godliness and Goodliness

“George Washington warned us never to indulge the supposition that ‘morality can be maintained without religion,’” offered Joseph Lieberman in a campaign stop last August.

The skeptics responded: Can the irreligious not be moral? Is America more civil and moral than secular Scandinavia? “The Swedes may skip church, but they take better care of their poor and their elderly and provide a higher percentage of the national budget to humanitarian efforts than we do,” noted Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen.

Creation of the new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives has rejuiced the God and goodness debate. “The canard that godliness and goodliness are linked in any way but typographically must be taken on faith, for no evidence supports it,” contended Natalie Angier in the New York Times Magazine.

Indeed, examples of faith-linked greed, lust, and bigotry come readily to mind, from Bible-quoting Klansmen to Scripture-wielding gay bashers. As Madeleine L’Engle lamented, “Christians have given Christianity a bad name.”

Anecdotes aside—”I can counter the KKK with MLK,” responds the believer—what does the evidence show?

It shows, first, that faith-rooted values give many people a reason to behave morally when no one is looking. According to social psychologists Shalom Schwartz of Jerusalem and Sipke Huismans of Amsterdam, their studies of people in all major contemporary religions show that “Religions encourage people to seek meaning beyond everyday existence.” Religions “exhort people to pursue causes greater than their personal desires. The opposed orientation, self-indulgent materialism, seeks happiness in the pursuit and consumption of material goods.”

In one U.S. national survey, frequent worship attendance predicted lower scores on a dishonesty scale that assessed, for example, self-serving lies, tax cheating, and failing to report damaging a parked car. Moreover, in cities where churchgoing is high, crime rates are low. In Provo, Utah, where more than 9 in 10 people are church members, you can more readily leave your car unlocked than in Seattle, where fewer than a third are.

Even the eighteenth-century French writer Voltaire, to whom Christianity was an “infamy” that deserved crushing, found the influence of faith useful among the masses. “I want my attorney, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God,” he wrote, because “then I shall be robbed and cuckolded less often.” He once silenced a discussion about atheism until he had dismissed the servants, lest in losing their faith they might lose their morality.

University of Pennsylvania criminologist Byron Johnson examined forty religion-delinquency studies, including his own. His conclusion: “Most delinquent acts were committed by juveniles who had low levels of religious commitment. Those juveniles whose religiosity levels were in the middle to high levels committed very few delinquent acts.” Even when controlling for other factors, such as socioeconomic level, neighborhood, and peer influences, kids who went to church rarely were delinquent.

Other research asks who are the altruists? Who gives most generously of time and money? Fortune reports that most of America’s top philanthropists are “religious: Jewish, Mormon, Protestant, and Catholic. And most attribute their philanthropic urges at least in part to their religious backgrounds.”

It’s not just the super rich who demonstrate a connection between generosity and religious faith. In a 1987 Gallup survey, Americans who said they never attended church or synagogue reported giving away 1.1 percent of their incomes. Weekly attenders—who constitute 24 percent of the total population—were two and a half times as generous, accounting for 48 percent of all charitable contributions. The other three-quarters of Americans gave the remaining half. Follow-up surveys in 1990, 1992, and 1994 confirmed the faith-philanthropy correlation.

A half dozen national surveys also reveal that faith is linked to volunteerism. In one Gallup survey, charitable and social service volunteering was reported by 28 percent of those who rated religion “not very important” in their lives and by 50 percent of those who rated it “very important.”

People who think godliness unrelated to goodliness might also want to consider: Who most often adopts children? Who sponsors the nation’s food pantries and soup kitchens? Who first took medicine into the Third World and opened hospitals? Who sheltered orphans? Who spread literacy and established schools and universities? And who led movements to abolish the slave trade, end apartheid, and establish civil rights?

Let no one be smug. Cruelty and compassion, mischief and morality, are exhibited by people of all faiths and none. Many are good without God and many believers go to sleep each night behind bars. Yet the accumulating evidence indicates that faith often tethers self-interest and nurtures character. Godliness and goodliness are more than typographically linked.

Published in Sightings_, from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, 2001._