Guest post: how do Christians see the social impact of their faith?

April 17, 2012 • 6:29 am

Alert reader Sigmund has worked his way through an interesting new survey summarizing how both religious and nonreligious people perceive the impact of Christianity on society.  He’s summarized the report, and its lessons for nonbelievers, below:

What difference does Christianity make?

by Sigmund

The United States stands apart from most Western nations by its high level of religiosity, with over 78% of Americans describing themselves as Christian of one denomination or another. As a belief system that seeks to teach people the correct or moral way to behave, Christianity should be expected to have an impact various areas of society, and exactly how it does so may be perceived differently depending on whether you’re a Christian or not.

A new survey has recently been published that examines this very question.

Produced by ‘Grey Matter Research and Consulting’, a private research organization that occasionally releases studies on US religiosity, the report is called “What Difference Does Christianity Make? How People Feel the Christian Faith Really Impacts (or Doesn’t Impact) America”

A demographically representative sample of 1000 US adults were asked how they feel the Christian faith impacts 16 different areas, including how it affects whether children are raised with good morals, the less fortunate are helped, and about areas like ethics in the business world, the environment, women and sexuality, and so on.

The sample population included Christians of varying denominations, atheist/agnostics, and well as those of non Christian faiths.

The survey is worth examining for several reasons.

First, because the overwhelming majority of Americans describe themselves as Christian, the overall results are a good approximation for how the US Christian community views the impact of its own teachings.

Probably the most surprising result is that Christianity is seen as having little or no impact on many areas.

“Over half of all Americans (54%) believe the Christian faith really does not impact how people treat the environment. Almost half believe the faith has no impact on ethics in the business world (44%), participation in politics and voting (44%), the amount of substance abuse in society (43%), or differences of opinion being discussed in a civil manner (42%). Christianity is considered to lack any real impact in eight other areas by around one out of three Americans”

Here’s a summary figure from the survey, combining the results from everyone surveyed, religious, Christian, and heathen:

Second, the results allow for a comparison of the different perceptions of Christians and non-Christians, showing that the issue is more complex than a simple black-and-white picture of Christians answering that religion is always positive and nonbelievers asserting the opposite.

For example, when asked about the impact on helping the less fortunate, Christians answer, as expected, assert overwhelmingly (79%) that Christianity has a positive impact. Atheist/agnostics, on the other hand give a similar answer – 67% stating that Christianity had a positive impact in this area.  Curiously atheists/agnostics gave Christianity a far more positive score on this question than did members of other religions (only 49% of the latter agreeing that Christianity had a positive impact on helping the less fortunate).

One other compelling point is the inter-denominational differences in opinion within Christian groups – in particular between Protestants (which in the US consists mainly of evangelical Christians and lower numbers of mainstream Protestant groups) and Roman Catholics.  Here the results suggest that while the Protestants in general see Christianity as having a positive impact on everything, Catholics hold more nuanced opinions. As illustrated in the final results table in the summary of the report, Catholics, unlike their bishops, see Christianity as having a far more negative impact on sexuality (41%) compared to Protestants (27%)

There are several more intriguing points that can be gleaned from the results, in particular the close agreement between ‘atheist/agnostic’ answers to those of members of ‘other religions’ in many of the questions – a possible sign of underlying shared interests.

The results overall demonstrate that Christianity is perceived to have positive effects on only select areas of society, and even those positives are a mixed bag – confounded by conflicting negative effects on areas such as sexuality. From an atheist perspective, the results are worth noting because they belie the simplistic claim that atheists unthinkingly reject every aspect of religion. In fact, the results demonstrate that atheists, in common with those of non Christian faiths, see some aspects of Christianity as having positive effects (in particular helping the poor, the structural reasons for which we have discussed previously), some aspects having negative effects, and, like the majority of Christians, see little or no effect in many areas.

23 thoughts on “Guest post: how do Christians see the social impact of their faith?

  1. The strangest outcome is on the question ‘keeping the US strong’.
    For one thing, no one outside the US would even think of putting such a question in a survey on attitude towards religion.
    Second, it is the third ranking question when the questions are ranked according to ‘positive’, with low dissent.

    1. If I were religiously inclined I would regard that question as offensive and immoral. I would say the point of my religion was to honour God (or whatever my belief system was), not to prostitute itself in the furtherance of national interests.

      I just find that question bizarrely off the point.

  2. All I know is that I don’t get between Baptists and their opiate on Sunday mornings when I’m walking my dogs. When I see that crazed Jesus grin and those glazed doughnut eyes behind the wheel, I get the hell out of the way.

  3. Gah, once again I get tempted into reading and commenting on something you’ve linked to, but I suppose I can count it as statistical outreach.

    Interesting, but…..

    One main problem IMHO is that they divide up Xian respondents into various tribes (prods, evangelicals, papists) for summarising the difference in their results, but the questions just say “Xianity”, so we don’t know which “Xianity” people were thinking of when they answered. Just their own version? Or some mixture of all of them?

    The other related big problem is that it just says “how does Xianity affect society” but doesn’t say what this is in comparison to. If I was asked the question my answer would be dramatically different depending on if it was “in comparison to no religion” or “in comparison to islam”. I suspect that other religious folks interpreted it as “in comparison to my religion” whereas non-religious folks often thought “in comparison to other religions”, hence the latter were less negative than might be expected.

    Plus it needs error bars, and some proper regression analysis would be nice, to see which of the predictors really make a difference.

    Sorry, didn’t intend to write that much.

    1. Whenever I read anything about a ‘survey’ I know I can immediately check for error bars, find none, and then celebrate the free 15 minutes I just gave myself by ignoring drivel.

      1. In this case the error bars for the percentages will mostly be of the order of plus or minus 3%, so we can at least allow for them when reading.

  4. All institutions created by man deliver a mixed bag of results. Religion is no different in this respect though fundamentalist Christians would be reluctant to admit that religion like politics is man’s invention. Outside of first world countries I suppose one could argue that democracy and capitalism have failed in many respects and have even had a very negative impact on areas like the environment. I maintain that the “fix” for religion is not to eliminate it but to bring it screaming into the 21st century. I sense that Liberal believers get that and tone down the fundamentalist rhetoric largely focusing their efforts on ethics,values, helping the less fortunate and community building.

    1. It is interesting that the liberalization of religion has mostly failed in the US (there, the conservative evangelicals are the ones that hold onto their congregants) while it is only partially successful in Europe. Here in Sweden the main Christian church is very liberal by US standards (women bishops, gay marriage in church, etc) yet it is steadily losing members – albeit not to local fundies. Those who drop out of church here tend to lose religion entirely.

      1. In the US mega church preachers like Joel Osteen(whose appeal I don’t really get) sound less like preachers and more like motivational speakers with their message of hope – maintaining a positive mental attitude in the face of adversity because something good is just around the corner – the glass is half full, not half empty yada, yada. Those churches appear to be doing very well especially in southern states. It is like going to a Tony Robbins conference if you’re into that without the $5000 cover charge.

        1. Oh, there’s a ‘cover charge’ in the mega churches, though it may be more like being financially pecked to death by ducks. And they have a difficult time maintaining stable congregations (or flocks, perhaps). Even sheep will wander after a while.

      2. I don’t see any puzzle in the “failure” of liberalization of religion in Europe. Liberal religions are so watered-down one might as well believe nothing at all. I prefer the watered-down versions, of course, but the fundamentalists are more consistent in their beliefs and actions.

      1. I never said failed. I said it has delivered a mixed bag in the sense that there is significant income disparity and a large underclass as well as little regard for environmental concerns due to insufficient regulations.

        1. Except you can’t prove it’s ever been tried in those countries. Even China is not a true capitalism.

  5. So, from the bar chart, it seems like folks think Christianity lets you raise more moral children, but when it comes to morality, ethics in business, sexual morals, they think religion has little influence. It seems like nobody *actually* expects the hoards of morally raised Christian Children to actually be more moral overall.

    1. Hallelujah! This is one of the more bothersome aspects of religions to me. The fundamental first rule is to “teach your children, to teach their children, to teach their children…” and has less to do with any prescribed moral action.

      Shorter every-religion-ever: “forward this email to 10 friends…”

  6. What, no categories for “education and skills” or “critical thinking and rational thought” or “scientific progress”? Imagine that…

  7. Being against science and birth control has “no real impact” on the environment?


  8. I’d take this to mean that Christians believe they’re doing a great job at bringing up their own kids to be moral, giving to the poor, etc., but they believe they’re losing the battle for society’s sexual and ethical morals to Satan. In other words they think they’re OK, but society’s going to hell in a hand-cart because of those immoral unethical liberals.

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