A new wave of secular sociologists are arriving at the conclusion that religion actually "works", Australia's JOHN SMITH reports.

John Smith
John Smith

In any society plagued by social problems such as suicide, substance abuse and juvenile crime, every possible solution needs to be seriously considered. It is however a mark of societies that, over time, assumptions develop which simply rule out certain possibilities. Even the appropriate "what if questions are dismissed. Everybody "knows" it just can't work.

Some time ago I came across an article entitled the "Jesus factor". It postulated the simple theory that if human beings are, amongst other elements, also spiritual beings, a loss of spiritual fulfilment and nourishment would be a major element in personal and social disintegration. As a corollary to the theory it was pointed out that, in the USA at least, the success of such groups as Teen Challenge and Prison Fellowship in rehabilitating criminal and drug-dependent youth was clearly greater than purely clinical, secular attempts. Of course the response in less-religiously oriented a people may well be to simply dismiss such claims out of prejudice.

A new wave of secular sociologists however, represented by Rodney Stark (Washington University) and Sims Bainbridge (National Science Foundation) paralleled by some theorists in the field of Psychology (Seligman, University of Pennsylvania), are giving more scientific force to the argument. In their book Religion, Deviance And Social Control (Routledge, 1997), Stark and Bainbridge vigorously challenge the modern belief that the Church has become outmoded in its role of providing a basis for moral order, having supposedly been replaced by social psychology, sociology and other enlightenment "improvements" in human understanding.

They state, "As the social sciences emerged from philosophy at the end of the 18th century, their founders were unanimous in their assertion that religion reinforced the moral order. Despite this, many of these same founders eagerly awaited the collapse of religion, some because they were equally eager for an end to the prevailing moral order (down with 'false consciousness'), and many others because they despised religion, regarding it as a bundle of irrational superstitions incompatible with enlightenment thought. Indeed, in his The Positive Philosophy (1830-42), Auguste Comte proclaimed that a new science, to be called 'sociology', would replace religion as the basis for morality; this science would constitute a sort of ethical calculus. Of course, nothing of this sort took place, and for most of the 20th century social scientists have been content to teach that the primary social function of religion is to sustain the moral order". They further take issue with Emile Durkheim, the father of modern sociology, claiming his methods of inquiry were severely distorted by his own bias against religion and his view of it as an epiphenomenon rather than central to human consciousness.

Stark and Bainbridge give considerable attention to the social tragedy of suicide and take the religious issue far more seriously than any Australian inquiry has so far been willing to do. The most fascinating finding however, lies in their discovery that a powerful deterrent to socially and personally destructive behaviour is active membership in communities of faith, supported by the individual's personal religious belief. Perhaps, even beyond the huge contribution to welfare in many nations, the Church's greatest contribution (and unrecognised potential) lies in the redeeming, socially transforming and sustaining work in the lives of local congregations. Maybe it's time people saw Church as the most healthy place to be with our kids in these troubled times. CR

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