In the 1990s, when I was a religion reporter, I took a seminary course on church growth to broaden my professional knowledge.
Sad to say, I no longer have my course materials or notes, but one idea I encountered stands out in my memory.
It was the concept of “social uplift.”
Religion scholars and social scientists had long studied what circumstances facilitated church growth and what social results, good or bad, followed dramatic growth.
As I recall, they’d found that instances of rapid church growth — major revivals of religious fervor — nearly always began among the underclass and bubbled up, rather than beginning among the upper classes and trickling down.
And in long-term studies, they’d discovered a related effect: a generation or two later, converts and their offspring were no longer members of the lower social classes, but had risen significantly. This was as true in Third World countries as in the United States.
For religious groups, this uplift had both positive and negative components.
On the plus side, the converted were leading more comfortable lives. On the negative side, as they became healthier, more prosperous and better educated, they lost their spiritual zeal and their concern for the downtrodden.
Still, good or bad, there was something about having made a commitment to religion that dramatically improved people’s physical, social and economic lot.
I thought of that a few weeks ago as I read a piece by New York Times columnist David Leonhardtcq called “The Power of Religion.”
Leonhardt, who describes himself as a secular liberal, acknowledged a pattern he said he’s long found inconvenient:
“Religion is correlated with a lot of healthy behaviors and positive outcomes. All else equal, religious people have higher educational attainment, earn more money, use drugs and alcohol less and commit fewer crimes, according to a long line of social-science studies (that have frequently been done by secular liberals).”
He cited a recent study by three economists — an atheist, an evangelical Christian, and an agnostic Jew — who partnered with an anti-poverty Christian group in the Philippines.
The group taught 15-week classes to 6,000 very poor Filipinos. Some of the students received instruction on health and employment without any religious component. Some received the same instruction combined with religious teachings.
As in previous studies, the results were noteworthy.
“Six months later, those who received the religious education indeed reported feeling more guided by religion,” Leonhardt wrote. “They were also earning more money, largely by shifting from agricultural work to higher-paying jobs, such as fishing or self-employment. And even small pay increases can be a big deal for people living in extreme poverty.”
The extensive body of evidence demonstrating religion’s salutary effects hasn’t made a convert of him, Leonhardt said, but “has made me more humble and open-minded about how the world can go about solving some of its problems.”
Indeed, the debate today isn’t so much over whether social uplift is real, but about why religion seems to make this difference. Is the religion itself responsible? Or is there some other, non-religious factor involved that’s not yet been identified?
My maternal grandmother’s fundamentalist Baptist faith, especially, helped set a pattern that lifted her descendants from hardcore poverty to the middle- or, in individual instances, upper-middle class.
Being a living, breathing beneficiary of such uplift, I have my own non-scholarly ideas about why religion often betters poor people’s lots.
First, I think, most religions — not just Granny’s fundamentalism but nearly all faiths — place a strong emphasis on what we might call clean living.
Whether under threats of hellfire or ostracism, or both, adherents are admonished to sober up, obey the law, work hard and reliably, get married and stay married, and put their children’s needs before their own.
They’re warned not to gamble excessively, not to engage in random sex with near-strangers. They’re expected to pay their debts and save for the future. Often they’re told God gave them good brains and expects them to educate those brains as a duty to him.
Critics might consider such rules paternalistic or prudish or just Ben-Franklin commonsensical. But for some of those wracked by poverty, desperation and chaos, these can be life-changing revelations. They can create new circumstances in which people prosper and grow.
Second, by its nature, religion offers hope to the hopeless and purpose to the purposeless.
It tells a convert her life has meaning, that she’s not just a cipher but a special child created in God’s image. When she’s discouraged, it assures her the Lord will help her. It says that if she fails, she’ll always find forgiveness. It says that what she does here truly matters.
It says he can accomplish far more than he ever thought possible. That he’s destined to overcome the insurmountable obstacles before him. That he’s never, ever alone. That somehow God will make a path for him.
I know, I know. Some of you think these all are false hopes, based on ancient fairy tales.
I believe you’re mistaken. But for the sake of argument let’s say you’re right.
I’d argue that if you’ve rarely known anything but disappointment, defeat and despair, even a false hope produces better results than no hope. And even a misguided purpose carries you farther than nihilistic aimlessness.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.