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?
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.