Close to 80% of Americans identify as Christians of some form or another, and most of them are pretty devout. Given that Christianity is touted for its moral and ethical teachings, it should be expected that a society that is this overwhelmingly religious – more so than any other developed country – should see a positive impact in overall societal wellbeing. Wouldn’t Christians themselves no doubt expect this?
The survey above examined this very question. Produced by Grey Matter Research and Consulting, a private research organization, the report is called “What Difference Does Christianity Make? How People Feel the Christian Faith Really Impacts (or Doesn’t Impact) America.” The data is drawn from a demographically representative sample of 1,000US adults* who were asked how they feel the Christian faith impacts 16 different areas. The sample included Christians of different denominations, people of other faiths, and the nonreligious. Again, since most Americans, and thus most respondents, describe themselves as Christian, the results more or less show how our Christian society views the impact of its own teachings.
Needless to say, the answers are very interesting, considering that many Christians viewed their own faith as having little or no impact in many areas. From the report:
“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”
Even more fascinating is the complex view that different believers – as well as nonbelievers – have towards one another. The popular perception is that most Christians find their teachings to be effective and superior, while secular folks would strongly beg to differ. But a break down of the data muddles this black-and-white concept of religious versus nonreligious.
Consider that when asked about their religion’s affect on helping the less fortunate, Christians answered overwhelmingly (79%) that Christianity has a positive impact, which isn’t too surprising – Christians generally pride themselves on the charitable nature of their belief system.
However, atheist and agnostics were pretty much in agreement with them: 67% stated Christianity had a positive impact in this area. In fact, secular respondents gave Christianity a far more positive score on this question than did members of other religions – by contrast, only 49% of non-Christian religious believers believed Christianity had a positive impact on helping the less fortunate.
But it’d interesting to note that for the most part, those identifying as “atheist/agnostic” had similar answers to people of “other (non-Christian) religions,” which may be because that both groups feel marginalized or ostracized by an overwhelmingly Christian society. Maybe there is some level for kinship too, since a lot of minorities tend to find common cause with each other. I’d be curious to know how this dynamic works out in other developed countries, in which non-Christians are a much larger force, while devout believers – especially conservative ones – are a relative minority.
Another interesting point to consider are the differences that exist within Christianity, namely between Protestants – consisting mostly of conservative Evangelicals and a smaller number of liberal Mainline groups – and Roman Catholics, who are also divided politically. According to the data, while Protestants generally see Christianity as having a positive impact on everything, Catholics are more nuanced: if you look at the breakdown of the report, 41% of Catholics view Christianity as having a negative impact on sexuality, compared to only 27% of Protestants. This also puts a lot of Catholics at odds with their own Church.
In conclusion, it is clear that Christianity’s influence in society is more complex than most people think. It’s perceived as something of a mixed bag even by its own believers, having a positive effect only in certain social areas, and an outright negative effect on others (namely sexuality, tolerance, and our global image). More importantly for secularists, these results give lie to the frequent and simplistic claim that nonreligious people (especially self-identified atheists) viscerally reject and despise religion at every turn. While that may certainly be true of some of us (and is no different than how some Christians treat nonbelievers), it’s apparent that many atheists, along with non-Christians, give credit to Christianity in certain areas, especially in poverty alleviation (which owes itself more to the fact that Christian churches have an organized and well-established structure, as well as a broader belief base, through which to give aid). Furthermore, religious and nonreligious people alike didn’t differ in their answers all that much, even agreeing that religion had no impact one way or the other in many areas.
So as with most social and ideological phenomenon, there is far more complexity and nuance than meets the eye.
*In every post I’ve made in which poll data is referenced, someone inevitably brings up the point that only a small number of people are questioned, and thus the results should not be seen as representative of the population as a whole. However, that is why the sample is designed to represent society’s demographics as closely as possible. Given that we cannot ask these questions on the census, which is the only poll of its kind to include everyone in the country, studies like these are the closest we have to figuring out what the country believes. I’m not saying it’s 100% definitive, but it shouldn’t be reflexively dismissed either, unless you’re willing to disbelieve any and all statistical data (which a lot of people do anyway, so in that case disregard this post).