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Made your New-Year’s resolutions already? If not, you may want to work on procrastination first. But if you’re having trouble settling on what might help, a very interesting news item  just appeared entitled “For Good Self-Control, Try Getting Religious About It.” A metastudy of surveys done over the past eighty years seems to show that people who are more active religiously do better in school, marriage, and life in general. This metastudy confirms other more recent investigations and John Tierney, the journalist who has reported it, suggests only half tongue-in-cheek, that one of the very best New Year’s resolutions you can make is to go to church more.
It is always difficult for a layman to judge the reliability of statistical studies (Even if you got an A when you took statistics in college, do you still know what a standard deviation is, or how it’s used?) But from a commonsense standpoint, there’s little reason to be surprised that the more devout are more self-controlled. Doubtless, a sample population of people who say it’s very important to your well-being to exercise every day are more likely to do so than those who do not think exercise important, or don’t care, even if it’s true. Otherwise, we’d have to believe that our principles have no measurable effect on our practice.
That strikes me, and probably you too, as unbelievable. It also beggars belief that people who say that Biblical behavior is good for you won’t show greater frequency of such behavior. The curious thing is that readers of stories like this in science sections are quite prepared to accept that principles matter in the secular sphere – hence the analyses done to show the ill effects of certain behaviors and the social pressure to stop smoking, start exercising, practice “safe” sex. It’s only when it comes to faith and morals (okay, ethics if you’ve swallowed the cultural etiquette) that we are shocked. We’re democratized to the point that not only anything goes, but nothing that goes is supposed to go better than anything else.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this story, whether it’s strictly true or not, is the reaction in the blog . Let’s admit that b loggers (those who submit comments to The Catholic Thing excepted) may represent the fringes. But at least they tell us which fringes are exercised and about what. Here, it’s very clear. Since hardcore secular readers already know that religion is unreal, it can by definition have no real-world benefits.
A priest who saw this story said to me, “Well, there you go, devotion aids human flourishing.” But I predicted we would see a reaction that, after all, self-control is a very bourgeois virtue, and success in school, in life, and in marriage are very bourgeois standards. Sure enough, the bloggers flutter back and forth between skepticism (religious people are lying hypocrites) and ambivalence about self-control – which morphs on their keyboards very quickly into Puritanism, uptightness, and delusional states, though the scientists who did the metasurvey say nothing about rigidity and mental illness, only about impulse control. The only good thing a certain type of science-obsessed person allows himself to say about religion is that, though it’s a fantasy that often leads to violence, its widespread presence must have some Darwinian adaptive value.
So in the scientific spirit, let’s propose a thought experiment for the New Year. Let’s suppose that all the proper scientific protocols are followed: regression studies show that the new study is right even in the differing cultural environments of the past eighty years; that the religious people are not lying but actually are more stable and happier in their lives; that they earn more and are more reliable employees; that their children turn out with more effective self-command and less inclination to act on impulse; and follow-ups show that religious people live longer at peace with themselves and one another. What should happen then?
Probably very little. And unless what does follow comes from within the American people as independent believers and communities, that’s not entirely a bad thing. The nanny state is already busy enough seeking to impose the latest theories in good behavior on us (the media are not far behind). And anyway, no one should believe in God because belief gives him a bonanza of personal benefits or even a better social order. We believe – and should – because we think God has mercifully revealed Himself to us and because it is our own obligation to respond to the Person Who has created us and taken the initiative to redeem us out of boundless love. The rest may come in the bargain. But we had in the century just past several modern equivalents of the old Roman persecutors who made sure that the statistics and the reality told an opposite tale: believers lived short unhappy lives, had difficulty in finding work or keeping it, and were shut out of the social mainstream. However welcome the news that religion is not toxic, is in fact a tonic, we’re better off keeping the busybodies far from our business.
So by all means resolve to be more deeply faithful in 2009, dear reader, but for God’s sake, not yours, or America’s. Don’t worry. He’ll take care of you, and it. Oh, and happy new Year.