Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

God Is Great: How Religion Benefits Society

September 10, 2007

Noted atheist Christopher Hitchens in his book, "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," spends most of his energy trying to prove through historic and current examples how religion brings great harm to the world. His prime example is international terrorism inspired in the name of religion.

It is a worrisome threat but the far greater challenge to our society is the breakdown of values and family life caused by the decline of religion and religious standards of conduct. What are the forces that contribute to that decline?

1. A lack of spiritual framework for living. What happens when religion stops being a vital force in people’s lives? Many of the poor choices people make in life have a direct consequence on the social fabric of the community and cause personal unhappiness in life.

Ask any emergency room physician about the diseases, injuries and accidents coming in the door. It is about human behavior and poor choices. It is about drunk driving, alcohol or gang related fights, sexual permissiveness, child abuse and domestic violence. It is about chronic alcoholism, drug abuse and gambling. It is about preventable problems such as obesity and high blood pressure from over indulgence and a lack of exercise, poor nutrition and sleep deprivation.

Ask any clergy, family practice physician or mental health professional about what they see. They will tell you about unhappy marriages, the heartbreak of divorce, children of divorce, rebellious teenagers, and binge drinking among college age and high school students. It is about breakups, suicidal thoughts, affairs, family conflict, and eating disorders.

2. Popular culture and family values. We are exposed to an inundation of filth, vulgarity, pornography, violence and evil unleashed by the entertainment industry upon our society and especially our young. It leads the unsuspecting to call evil, good and good, evil. The door of permissiveness in society was swung open and we, as a country, don’t have the moral strength to close it. It has happened within a generation from the late 60s to now.

Premarital sex is the norm. Abortion is common-place. Widespread cohabitation is destructive to marriage. Unwed parenthood deprives children of the heritage of a two-parent home. Infidelity destroys families. Divorce rates continue to take its toll of unhappiness on children’s lives. Teen violence rocks our communities.

We have to protect ourselves from within. Our youth have to be strong and make good choices. Only strong families, strong religion and such community outrage as we can muster can combat the tide of moral looseness that undermines marriage and family life.

3. The materialism trap. The abundance we enjoy confuses us and leads us to selfishness and greed instead of learning that happiness comes from service to our fellow beings. The choices of the world can be distracting and seductive. The push of our culture and advertisements encourages us to live beyond our means and to confuse our wants and needs. Entertainment, vanity, wealth and personal glory are personal priorities that displace family and communal values.

Too many young people are choosing not to marry. Or they may marry late and delay childbirth in favor of careers - or choose not to have children at all. The current generation doesn’t understand that joy is inherent in family bonds. The birthplace of love is in the family and it is nurtured there.

4. A lack of commitment to marriage and parenting. The time and energy to pursue careers and pleasure takes away from marriage and parenting. Not enough commitment is given to marriage, family activities, and loving interactions with affection between family members. Marriage takes work and sacrifice. Parenting takes work and self-discipline. As much as we would like to delude ourselves, children don’t raise themselves.

Children also need the association of other youth who share similar high standards of conduct and values. Parents need the reinforcement of fellow co-religionists and church leaders in helping in their efforts to bring up strong and morally upright children.

How does religion benefit society? Religion:

- gives people hope, strength and meaning to their struggles in life.

- teaches self-restraint in avoiding high risk, self-destructive behaviors.

- teaches the sanctity of marriage and the importance of family as the building blocks of society.

- helps us have healthier and happier lives.

- supports parents in teaching principles and values to children. This teaches children to accept responsibility and to grow into maturity as self-reliant and compassionate human beings.

- teaches tolerance and mutual respect toward others and promotes a code of public conduct that brings civility to community life and obedience to law.

- supports communal gatherings, celebrations, friendships and social networks of support.

- encourages volunteering and service to others as a part of personal spirituality and as a pathway to happiness.

- provides an antidote to selfishness, materialism, greed, pleasure-seeking, and other excesses of an affluent society.

- teaches us who we are - offspring of divinity with a noble purpose and destiny.

Hitchens makes self God. Hitchens argues that it is the distortion of religion by zealots that creates the poison. But by eliminating God and denigrating religion, it leaves the self as the judge of good and as the only guide to moral decision-making. This is a slippery slope that results in despair, rejection of authority, self-indulgence, greed, vanity and self-centered unhappiness - a potent poison.

Religion teaches us to see ourselves in true relation to God and that happiness comes when we give love, hope and service to the others and to regard others as ourselves.