The Power of the Third Commandment

It’s little known to the public or to elite commentators in the national discourse. But an amazing phenomenon has been uncovered in the social sciences: the more frequently Americans worship the better they do on every observable outcome measured to date. This holds for rates of smoking, getting drunk, use of hard drugs, being charged by the police, theft, shoplifting, adulteryrunning away from home, watching x-rated movies, homosexual conduct, cohabitation, or the number of sexual partners that teenage girls have.

Most U.S. federal surveys track weaknesses more than strengths, but occasionally positive outcomes are measured. Grade point averages for U.S. high school children is one such factor, and there too religious attendance is beneficial. The federal government’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative, which has cost taxpayers billions of dollars, would be ecstatic to report such outcomes as these. Yet the beneficial effects of religious practice cost the taxpayer nothing. The documented relationship of religious practice to other goods include: children’s positive social development, the quality of parent-child relationships, levels of happiness – including marital happinessparticipation in charitable services, and pride in work.

Most of the Commandments are in the negative form: “Thou shalt not. . . .” And contrary to popular opinion, God’s negatives are a net plus for us. In addition,  the third commandment, “Keep holy the Sabbath day” is in the positive. And what benefits flow from it. It is foundational not only for the individual but for society as a whole. Our founders were well aware of that as George Washington made clear in his Farewell Address: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

Public commentators such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, enemies of God but friends of science, are here presented with a scientific dilemma: How can something they call anti-human be so good for human beings? If their theories were correct, the more people worship God, the worse off they should be. Instead, the more we worship God the better off we are, and society is too. Can the cultured despisers of religion explain why something so “dysfunctional” gives rise to such highly functional people?

Leaving Hitchens and Dawkins aside, there are a few lessons the social sciences drive home. For statesmen, that they should have the courage to defend religious practice, for it is good and necessary for all men and for the prosperity of our United States.

For the ordinary lay believer, the social sciences should give every one of us confidence to do what we already know we should before the studies appear: speak out and confront those aggressively trying to wipe religion from our way of life. Why can we not teach these benefits of religion in our public schools? Why can we not show this basic route to the thriving of man and woman? This in not teaching religion, this is teaching common sense (or common sense confirmed by carefully arrived at numbers). 

For Catholics, the social sciences can give a little additional pat on the back to one of our central and differentiating beliefs: infallibility in matters of faith and morals. There is nothing that the Church teaches should be held by all (the universal moral law) that is contradicted by the data assembled in the social sciences. Indeed, we can see that what the Church teaches about morality is strongly confirmed empirically. Social science is not infallible and has nothing to say about the tenets of faith. But anyone looking at the accepted data with an open mind today would have to marvel at how the old, unscientific Church got so much exactly right.

Philip Rieff, a major social theorist whose critique of modernity, especially its most admired proponents, Nietzsche, Freud and Joyce – all bent on upending the sacred order of society embodied in the honoring of the divine commands – dedicated his last years to elucidating the fundamental relationship of the Ten Commandments to the good of mankind, especially in their salutary clarity on what is forbidden.

John Paul II made the same arguments in briefer and clearer form in Veritatis Splendor: “[The commandments] are the first necessary step on the journey towards freedom, its starting-point.”  “The beginning of freedom,” Saint Augustine writes, “is to be free from crimes . . . such as murder, adultery, fornication, theft, fraud, sacrilege, and so forth. When once one is without these crimes (and every Christian should be without them), one begins to lift up one’s head towards freedom. But this is only the beginning of freedom, not perfect freedom.”

In our time, it helps to have the social sciences in the service of such a journey. Such is their chief splendor, though not too many practitioners see it this way – yet.

Patrick Fagan, Ph.D. is a Washington policy analyst and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Social Services Policy at the Department of Health and Human Services.