Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

The Wages of Biblical Religion

A reader of yesterday’s entry on the first anti-Darwinists challenges me, in effect, to explain why if secularism is so deleterious to social health, why does a more religious culture like America’s seem beset by problems from which secular Europe apparently suffers less? The reader asserts: “Acceptance of the theory of evolution correlates with less crime, better health, better education, etc.” He cites as authoritative a 2005 article by an independent (i.e., unemployed) sociologist, published in an obscure journal. It rang a bell with me because the essay, which bashed the Discovery Institute as a special target for noting Darwinism’s social consequences, picked up some prominent attention when it came out, including from the Times of London. 

It seems like a good time to revisit the subject. What about the challenge? Shouldn’t Biblical religion act as a kind of super-vitamin against all social ills? What exactly are the wage of faith, as the Bible itself presents them? I wrote a piece in the Forward on this. Except below:

The Bible itself never promises a super-vitamin.


Scripture’s true promise holds that individuals and nations in effect create their own moral realities. Cultures that put God nearer the center of their national life can expect Him to take a more active role in their existence, rewarding our good choices and correcting us, even painfully, when we make bad choices. Conversely, secular cultures are left to the workings of chance and nature.

Implicit in many biblical passages, the choice between accepting and rejecting God’s influence is expressed symbolically as a choice between “life” and “death.” In Deuteronomy, God offers the famous admonition, “See, I have placed before you today life and good, and death and evil… and you shall choose life” (30:15, 19). Moses affirmed, “You who cling to the Lord, your God — you are all alive today” (Deuteronomy 4:4). The prophet Jeremiah called the Lord “the God of the living” (10:10).


The Talmud expresses this idea when it teaches that those who choose God’s way, even after they experience bodily “death,” remain alive — while those who reject Him, even while still “alive,” may be called dead (Berachot 18a).

In biblical terminology, this “life” of the religiously committed in no ways implies a shield from tragedy. On the contrary, the more involved God is with us, the more closely He examines our behavior. King David himself found this out when, for the seemingly trivial sin of conducting an improper census of the Jewish nation, the people were struck with a deadly plague that carried off David’s own newborn child.

In “death,” on the other hand, there is freedom from such scrutiny. “I was reckoned with those who descend to the grave,” the Psalmist recalls, “among the dead who are free” (88:6).


So then why not choose “death” and thus be “free”? For one thing, because there is a vitality to religious existence that secularism distinctly lacks.

Indeed, while the vitality of American culture is world famous, “British vitality” and “Canadian vitality” are phrases that come less naturally to the lips. This may explain why so many Canadians, among others, look longingly toward America. Canada, with a little more than one-tenth of America’s population, loses almost four times as many of its people as immigrants to the United States each year as we send, from our own citizens, to Canada.

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Glen Davidson

posted June 2, 2009 at 5:44 pm

It is unlikely that one gains vitality through denial of demonstrated truth and the refusal to study ideas such as evolution. Is this the picture of vital intellectualism?

What does qualify is the way this fog-generating machine of theistic evolution, its influence spread by the media, has given to countless otherwise thoughtful people intellectual permission to turn off part of their brains, lowering their defenses
from the “A Fog Over the Intelligent Design Debate:” post

Wow, turning off the defensive portion of a person’s brain is pretty serious–to anyone threatened by the truth.
The general refusal to challenge ideas is what is threatened by ID’s constant and evidence-free attacks upon causal evolutionary theory. No vitality is possible from minds closed against “threatening ideas.”
Glen Davidson

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posted June 2, 2009 at 6:43 pm

I really don’t even know where to start with this article. I suppose first off the comparison drawn between the US and then Britain and Canada. You claim that America has more vitality than both because it is a spiritual nation and cite the larger flow of Canadians to the US than vice versa. Did you ever just think that no matter where you go in Canada it’s cold for like 8 months and a lot of people just don’t like that?
In addition, you cite Britain and Canada as lacking America’s vitality, and just for the sake of argument I’ll grant that though I’m sure some would disagree, but what about other secular nations? France certainly has a vitality that can compete with the US, and it’s more secular than Britain and Canada. The Netherlands follows that model and despite it’s small size it boasts one of the most visited cities in the world. The Japanese too are a secular nation and yet they’re cultural vitality hasn’t faltered.
I think you’re just fishing for reasons as to why religion is good without actually finding any.

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posted June 2, 2009 at 7:12 pm

Apart from a strong belief that both creationism and evolution needs to be given clear showing in all school systems (as the objective is to actually teach our youth that there are differing opinions etc), I am certainly a person who tries very hard to look at the values given to society from history and culture.
I am certain that tonnes of facts either way can be shown to if a secular society is more healthy, wealthy and wise. I can only respond with one thought that does not leave me…….. is not our morals based on our history and culture? Plus, does not those historically and culturally based morals all come from our religous faith?

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posted June 3, 2009 at 12:17 am

I don’t know about the survey you linked to, but here is a quality of life index which was developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit, publisher of The Economist, definitely not an “obscure journal”. Here is another quality-of-life list sourced to the BBC, and yet another different one is here. Note that though the exact position of the US varies, and is sometimes quite high, in none of these lists is it number one, and in the one from The Economist it isn’t even in the top ten. In all of these lists, the secularized European countries fill most of the top slots, including those above the US. Moreover, intensely religious nations such as Poland and much of Latin America are way down on all lists. Thus, any “unemployed sociologists” or “obscure journals” aside, the basic information seems pretty solid. You might not like the data, but that’s not cause to blow it off if it is supported by many other sources.
Having said that, “correlation doesn’t imply causation”. These lists don’t necessarily mean that skepticism makes you better, or that religion makes you worse; nor of course do they prove the converse.
I think essentially this is an impermissible yoking of disparate things: secularism vs. religiosity, social-democratic vs. capitalistic countries, and “vitality” vs. “morbidity”. David seems to be saying that each of these dichotomies is linked. I.e., you get secularized, you end up going socialist, and then you lose your vitality. On the other hand, capitalist/mercantilism just naturally goes with high piety and vitality. I think that this is not necessarily true. There are plenty of US-style free marketeers that are every bit as secularized as anyone in Europe ever thought about being (Libertarians spring to mind), and the Catholic Worker movement is only one example of Christian socialism and semi-socialism. I’m certainly not aware that those who are pious in Europe are agitating to end European style social democracy.
In any case, this kind of conflation of very different categories in order to imply that religious people “should” support some particular political agenda is the same illegitimate form of argument that David used in How Would God Vote? One might argue that one’s religion has certain political implications; but to say that a devout believer is compelled by his faith to be conservative, or liberal, or libertarian, or to randomly vote by coin tosses, for that matter, is to my way of thinking specious. Let’s render to Caesar what’s Caesar’s, to God what’s God’s, and let the vitality take care of itself.

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posted June 3, 2009 at 4:57 am

There are no “obscure journals” any more, unless it is one of the diehards that refuse to put their contents online All journals with an online presence have precisely the same visibility to Google. The old days of “there’s Nature and there’s everything else” are over. Oh, and Gregory S Paul, the writer of that article is not a freelance sociologist, he is a freelance paleontological illustrator – see his wikipedia page. But he may be an autodidact in the field of sociological analysis – let’s not fall into the trap of sneering at his qualifications without actually looking at his data.
That said, Paul’s conclusions have been criticized by experienced statisticians, for example in this article a year later in the same journal:

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posted June 3, 2009 at 9:05 am

I think a good gauge for how well a country is doing is to look at the Human Development Index from the UN. The US is doing pretty good, but the most ‘secularized’ countries are better than we are (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Japan). Their success doesn’t depend upon the degree to which they adhere to religious sentiments, nor does ours. Religious sentiment is strongest in poor and very poor countries. Compare religious devotion in Nigeria to Sweden and their standards of living.
The Hebrew Bible for the most part sticks to an orthodox position that obedience to God is key to prosperity with heavy negative reinforcement. Its simple, ‘stray and pay’, ‘turn or burn.’ Punishment was not some eschatological possibility to be faced after death. I don’t see any viable escape from this type of reading of the scripture, no metaphors or midrash can credibly explain this away.

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posted June 3, 2009 at 10:40 pm

“What about the challenge? Shouldn’t Biblical religion act as a kind of super-vitamin against all social ills?”
Nice try at moving the goal-posts. Your original post talked about accepting the theory of evolution leading to tragic consequences. It doesn’t.
When we humans see ourselves more accurately – as humans, primates, mammals, animals, etc., in a wholly natural universe – we do better at creating societies. A better picture of the problem leads to better solutions. The empirical data bears this out, and keeps coming, whenever and wherever we look. Another example came out today:
“The 2009 Global Peace Index has just been released. It’s basically a ranking of how turbulent and warlike a country is…
What I’ve done in the figures here is to take data from the World Values Survey on the percentage of people in each country who say they are a committed atheist, and also on the percentage of people who say that they go to a religious service at least once a month…
Sure enough, peaceful countries have more atheists and fewer regular worshippers. The difference is highly statistically significant – in other words it’s real, not just a chance finding.
Now, there are several possible reasons for this. It could be that people living in turbulent countries turn to religion, or it could be that religion is not a good way to structure modern society.
Whatever, it’s another blow to the idea that secularization leads to social meltdown. Atheist countries are, in fact more peaceful.”

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posted June 4, 2009 at 10:21 am

I am most appalled by this very juvenile explanation of scripture and sociology. The one thing religion has NOT given Americans (and it should) is parity with each other. We do not see every human being as valuable, that is what the talmudists and rabbis before us saw as affirming LIFE, to care for the living. In countries like Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland they value the living, not the IDEA of life (as interpreted by the right wing side of the pro-life movement as only babies). In those countries the living are cared for, there is national health care, women and men get extensive parental leave to care for their children, regardless of their income level, and the social indicies that measure social distance between social and economic classes show them to be very small. In those places, people see each other as other people, not as problems, or enemies of their class. So we are forced to consider that while those nations may be secular nations, they may also be more in the spirit of true belief in honoring life. To me that is the measure of how “Godly” they are- how much do we or they participate in Tikkun Olam- America as a nation has not been very good at this.

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Sarah Bellem

posted June 4, 2009 at 11:36 am

How about these wages that add to the vitality David mentions
The horrific tragedymuncovered in Ireland where over 800 Catholic priests and nuns have sexually abused or tortured tens of thousands of young children entrusted to their care. This is fairly consistent to how things are here in the US.
Or divorce rates, consumption of pornography, teen pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases all significantly higher among Christian than secular Americans.
I would rather have a society without this type of vitality.

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posted June 4, 2009 at 11:50 am

I’m sorry to have to correct you on Canadians moving South- I’m a Canadian and I would never move South and neither would anyone else I know.
The only reason I am aware of that people move South are for jobs at your massive factory-like universities, or if they’re in the entertainment industry. Some people move south because it pays better and taxes are lower- in your right-wing capitalist society with no universal health care. Occasionally, our elderly will spend winters in Florida because of the mild weather- but stop full of actually moving there or declaring that they prefer it- and keeping Canada their primary residence by returning each year.
Until now, we’re looked south with disdain, especially at your ex-president (who claimed he was in direct contact with G-d —) and only now, with a new president who embraces all religions but is publicly on the secular side, are we regaining some respect.

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Your Name

posted June 4, 2009 at 4:11 pm

Please explain the “atheist” peaceful nations of Cummunist China, Nazi Germany, Communist Soviet Union. The 20th Century was called the “Bloody Century” so please let me know where and by whom was this blood-letting.
Regarding peaceful nations and religion: Please take Islam out of the equation and you’ll find that the world would indeed be a peaceful place. And that’s a fact that can’t be hidden by “words, mere words.”

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posted June 4, 2009 at 4:56 pm

Strange but true: those who have loved God most have loved men least.
— Robert Green Ingersoll, speech (1881), quoted from Jonathon Green, The Cassell Dictionary of Cynical Quotations

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Denise Thorbjornsen

posted June 4, 2009 at 8:20 pm

God tells us that if we don’t take care of those we can see how can we say we believe in God.I know my nation was founded on the Holy Bible,God,and worship of JesusChrist.It’s sad to see that our school systems embrace anything but God.Especially since the first school house in America was on Cape Cod and it was a church building started by christians.God will bring this country to nothing if we continue to lift up gay marriage,gay rights,abortion,and any vile evil thing God hates.Secularism is man’s denial of God’s knowledge and sovereignty.

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