A best-selling author recently watched “Under the Banner of Heaven” and saw the FX series as not just an indictment of Latter-day Saints, but apparently of “most” religions.
The writer seemed unaware that the show had been widely criticized for inaccuracies and that the murders at the center of the series were committed by two excommunicated members riddled with family dysfunction and mental illness.
The Lafferty brothers, in the language of social scientists, are not exactly a representative sample.
But in our current polarized culture, where we are increasingly less likely to associate with people whose opinions and experiences differ from our own, media productions like this only further distort the lens through which we we see each other. This leads to some sweeping and disturbing accusations, like that of author and frequent New York Times contributor Roxane Gay, who tweeted after watching the show: “Mormonism is really terrible for women. Like most religions.
Gay is a sophisticated thinker and a proud feminist, which is why it’s so disappointing to meet the statement she made to hundreds of thousands of her Twitter followers. The most accomplished and intelligent women I have met in my life—strong women like Brenda Lafferty—have chosen to walk in the light of faith because they recognize its benefits. To suggest otherwise only serves to diminish women’s agency.
And more importantly, to say that my faith – and most other religions in general – are bad for women isn’t just insensitive. This is obviously false.
For decades, scholars have explored what impact, if any, religion has on the lives of adherents. As director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University, epidemiologist Tyler VanderWeele focuses on distinguishing these potential effects. Nowhere in her findings is there anything to suggest that religion is “really terrible” for women; but he finds the opposite to be true.
After a long research review, he concludes, “There are now a large number of rigorous empirical studies with longitudinal data and good confounding control that indicate that the religious community is a major contributor to human flourishing.” This includes happiness and life satisfaction, mental and physical health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, and close social relationships.
In other words, the effects were not simply the result of private religious practices; for those who were part of a religious community, the effects were much stronger. According to VanderWeele, it is the “confluence of religious values and practices, reinforced by social bonds and norms, that gives religious communities their powerful effects on so many aspects of human flourishing”.
This “human flourishing” manifests itself in specific pro-social benefits. Religious attendance, for example, is related to greater marital satisfaction and significantly lower risk of divorce. It is also constantly associated with less risk of depression, anxiety, hopelessness and loneliness. Regular church attendance is predictive of “a five-fold reduction in the likelihood of suicide and a 30% reduction in the incidence of depression.”
Regardless of gender, race, education, or medical history, religious practice and regular attendance are associated with seven years of greater longevity.
But what about the effects of religiosity on women in particular?
Three years ago, the New York Times reported on the results of the 2018 Global Faith and Families Survey involving 11 countries, including the United States. Nationally and internationally, the happiest married women were those who attended church regularly with their husbands. Not only did these women report the highest levels of satisfaction, commitment, closeness and stability in their marriage, but they were also twice as likely as their secular counterparts to report being satisfied with their sexual relationship.
Critics were quick to say that religious women must have been “brainwashed” to say they were happy. But these findings were consistent with other research. Religious activity seems particularly influence the behavior of men in a way that results in better marriages for women. Compared to non-religious fathers, those who attend church weekly tend to be the most emotionally engaged with their children and wives. And the brides in religious marriages were most likely say they felt appreciated and satisfied with the affection, love and understanding they felt from their husbands.
Raj Chetty at Stanford University found that the greater Salt Lake City metropolitan area had one of the highest upward mobility rates in the country, a measure of the ability to move from a lower socioeconomic class to a higher socioeconomic class, and a follow-up analysis by the Brookings Institution concluded, “Salt Lake City is an especially good place for girls to grow up.
Why? Because growing up in Salt Lake City increased their chances of forming a stable marriage and sharing household income. And that meant a significant improvement in economic outcomes, especially for women who grew up in a lower economic class.
As indicated According to researchers from the Global Faith and Families Survey, scholars and journalists have long feared that religion can engender and enforce patriarchal systems that devalue women and “undermine” the possibility of true happiness, equality and fulfilment. But what these studies indicate is that shared religious faith can also be a powerful force for better relationships by shaping beliefs and behaviors that foster commitment, trust, respect, and even empowerment. decision and shared responsibilities.
This is not to say that religion has never been a destructive force in the world. But the human experience captured by a host of studies provides significant insight into what religious practice “most” of the time really is and why it still has enormous influence for good, including in the lives of women. .
Roxane Gay herself seemed to get it when she wrote in 2015, “I was raised by wonderful Catholic parents who were deeply faithful and taught us that God is a loving God. Even if I disagree, I respect the fact that others look to God and religion for guidance, comfort, salvation.
Jenet Jacob Erickson is a Fellow of the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University.