Archive for June, 2011

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What benefits are there to being religious?

June 21, 2011

The Challenge

Atheist authors Christopher Hitchens[1] and Richard Dawkins[2] have condemned religious belief as harmful and useless. Both authors have been criticized for failing to note specific benefits of strong religious belief. [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]

The Facts

Strong religious belief provides a range of physical, emotional, social, financial, psychological, and health benefits;[8] [9] reducing health risks, increasing the likelihood of longevity[10] and mental health,[11] and having a positive effect on wellbeing in childhood,[12] [13] [14] as well as later economic outcomes.[15]

High religious involvement has a positive effect on social integration,[16] [17] [18] behavioural regulation,[19] and a range of positive societal outcomes.[20] However, lower levels of religious belief, involvement, and commitment produce negative outcomes.[21] [22]


[1] ‘God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything’ (2007).

[2] ‘The God Delusion’ (2006).

[3] ‘Unfortunately, however, both authors either fail to appreciate, or have chosen not to acknowledge, the extraordinary importance that a very “personal God” may play in the lives of many individuals forced to deal with these profoundly life-changing situations.’, Markman, ‘Benefits of Religious Beliefs for Cancer Patients: A Response to Dawkins and Hitchens’, Current Oncology Reports (10.185), 2008.

[4] ‘But there is increasingly strong evidence that when confronted with a life-changing challenge such as being diagnosed with a malignancy, a genuine human need exists, as noted by Professor Dawkins and Mr. Hitchins’s headmaster, for the presence of personal spiritual support.’, ibid., p. 185.

[5] ‘Empiric evidence exists that a cancer patient’s ability to successfully deal with spiritual issues at the end of life is associated with less overwhelming despair and intense feelings of hopelessness [15]. Effective coping with these concerns can favorably impact the quality of life [16]. Existing data also support the hypothesis that it is the impact of a general feeling of spiritual well-being—not specific religious beliefs or practices—that is correlated with the favorable effect [17].’, ibid., p. 186.

[6]the overwhelming existing evidence demonstrates that some patients with malignant disease may experience considerable benefit from a strong sense of spiritual well being and the presence of a “personal God.”’, ibid., p. 187.

[7] ‘It is unfortunate that Professor Dawkins and Mr. Hitchens were not willing to fully acknowledge the relevance of these points.’, ibid., p. 187.

[8]Many studies have documented the benefits of religious involvement. Indeed, highly religious people tend to be healthier, live longer, and have higher levels of subjective well-being.’, Mochon, Norton, & Ariely, ‘Who Benefits from Religion?’, Social Indicators Research (101.1), 2010.

[9] It is recognized that not all religious systems provide such benefits; for example, some groups result in negative outcomes due to prejudice against education, or to oppressive power structures and failure to reinforce positive behaviours.

[10] ‘Similarly, although there are exceptions and the matter remains controversial (Sloan et al. 1999), a growing body of research documents an association between religious involvement and better outcomes on a variety of physical health measures, including problems related to heart disease, stroke, hypertension, cancer, gastrointestinal disease, as well as overall health

status and life expectancy. This research also points to differences by religious affiliation, with members of stricter denominations displaying an advantage (Levin 1994). Many of the early studies in this literature suffer from methodological shortcomings, including small, unrepresentative samples, lack of adequate statistical controls, and a cross-sectional design that confounds the direction of causality. Yet the conclusion of a generally positive effect of religious involvement on physical health and longevity also emerges from a new generation of studies that have addressed many of these methodological problems (Ellison and Levin 1998). In one of the most rigorous analyses to date, Hummer et al. (1999) use longitudinal data from a nationwide survey, the 1987 Cancer Risk Factor Supplement–Epidemiology Study, linked to the Multiple Cause of Death file. Their results show that the gap in life expectancy at age 20 between those who attend religious services more than once a week and those who never attend is more than seven years—comparable to the male–female and white–black differentials in the United States. Additional multivariate analyses of these data reveal a strong association between religious participation and the risk of death, holding constant socioeconomic and demographic variables, as well as initial health status. Other recent longitudinal studies also report a protective effect of religious involvement against disability among the elderly (Idler and Kasl 1992), as well as a positive influence on self-rated health (Musick 1996) and longevity (Strawbridge et al. 1997).’, Waite & Lehrer, ‘The Benefits from Marriage and Religion in the United States: A Comparative Analysis’, p. 2 (author manuscript 2003).

[11] ‘The connection between religion and mental health has been the subject of much controversy over the years, and many psychologists and psychiatrists remain skeptical, in part because most of the research has been based on cross-sectional analyses of small samples. The studies to date are suggestive of an association between religious involvement and better mental health outcomes, including greater self-esteem, better adaptation to bereavement, a lower incidence of depression and anxiety, a lower likelihood of alcohol and drug abuse, and greater life satisfaction and happiness in general (Koenig et al. 2001). Recent longitudinal analyses of subgroups of the population provide additional evidence in support of this relationship (Zuckerman et al. 1984; Levin et al. 1996).’, ibid., p. 3.

[12] Religious participation has also been associated with better educational outcomes. Freeman (1986) finds a positive effect of churchgoing on school attendance in a sample of inner-city black youth. Regnerus (2000) reports that participation in religious activities is related to better test scores and heightened educational expectations among tenth-grade public school students. In the most comprehensive study to date, using data on adolescents from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, Muller and Ellison (2001) find positive effects of various measures of religious involvement on the students’ locus of control (a measure of self-concept), educational expectations, time spent on homework, advanced mathematics credits earned, and the probability of obtaining a high school diploma.’, ibid., p. 4.

[13] ‘Several studies have documented an association between religion and children’s well-being. Recent research on differences in parenting styles by religious affiliation reveals that conservative Protestants display distinctive patterns: they place a greater emphasis on obedience and tend to view corporal punishment as an acceptable form of child discipline; at the same time, they are more likely to avoid yelling at children and are more prone to frequent praising and warm displays of affection (Bartowski et al. 2000). As to other dimensions of religion, Pearce and Axinn (1998) find that family religious involvement promotes stronger ties among family members and has a positive impact on mothers’ and children’s reports of the quality of their relationship. A number of studies document the effects of children’s own religious participation, showing that young people who grow up having some religious involvement tend to display better outcomes in a range of areas. Such involvement has been linked to a lower probability of substance abuse and juvenile delinquency (Donahue and Benson 1995), a lower incidence of depression among some groups (Harker 2001), delayed sexual debut (Bearman and Bruckner 2001), more positive attitudes toward marriage and having children, and more negative attitudes toward unmarried sex and premarital childbearing (Marchena and Waite 2001).’, ibid., p. 4.

[14] ‘Overall, we find strong evidence that youth with religiously active parents are less affected later in life by childhood disadvantage than youth whose parents did not frequently attend religious services. These buffering effects of religious organizations are most pronounced when outcomes are measured by high school graduation or non-smoking and when disadvantage is measured by family resources or maternal education, but we also find buffering effects for a number of other outcome-disadvantage pairs. We generally find much weaker buffering effects for other social organizations.’, Dehejia et al., ‘The Role of Religious and Social Organizations in the Lives of Disadvantaged Youth’, NBER Working Paper No. 13369 (2007).

[15] ‘However, as we discuss below, an emerging literature shows a positive effect of religiosity on educational attainment, a key determinant of success in the labor market. These studies suggest a potentially important link between religious involvement during childhood and adolescence and subsequent economic well-being as an adult. Preliminary results from a new line of inquiry at the macro level are consistent with this hypothesis. Using a cross-country panel that includes information on religious and economic variables, Barro and McLeary (2002) find that enhanced religious beliefs affect economic growth positively, although growth responds negatively to increased church attendance. The authors interpret their findings as reflecting a positive association between “productivity” in the religion sector and macroeconomic performance.’, ibid., p. 3.

[16] ‘Ellison and George (1994) find that people who frequently attend religious services not only have larger social networks, but also hold more positive perceptions of the quality of their social relationships.’, Waite & Lehrer, ‘The Benefits from Marriage and Religion in the United States: A Comparative Analysis’, p. 7 (author manuscript 2003).

[17] ‘Recent research has emphasized that religion can play a pivotal role in the socialization of youth by contributing to the development of social capital. Religious congregations often sponsor family activities, stimulating the cultivation of closer parent–child relations; they also bring children together with grandparents and other supportive adults (parents of peers, Sunday-school teachers) in an environment of trust. This broad base of social ties can be a rich source of positive role models, confidants, useful information, and reinforcement of values that promote educational achievement.’, ibid., p. 7.

[18] ‘At the other end of the age spectrum, the social ties provided by religious institutions are of special value to the elderly, helping them deal with the many difficult challenges that tend to accompany old age: illness, dependency, loss, and loneliness (Levin 1994).’, ibid., p. 7.

[19]Most faiths have teachings that encourage healthy behaviors and discourage conduct that is self-destructive; they also provide moral guidance about sexuality. Some religions have specific regulations limiting or prohibiting the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and potentially harmful foods. Several studies show that religious involvement is generally associated with health-promoting behaviors (Koenig et al. 2001) and that such behaviors explain in part the connection between religion and longevity (Strawbridge et al. 1997; Hummer et al. 1999).’, ibid., p. 7.

[20] ‘At the societal level, higher religious involvement is related to increased levels of education (Gruber 2005), lower crime rates (Baier and Wright 2001; Johnson et al. 2000), increases in civic involvement (Putnam 2000; Ruiter and De Graaf 2006), higher levels of cooperation (Norenzayan and Shariff 2008; Shariff and Norenzayan 2007), lower divorce rates, higher marital satisfaction and better child adjustment (Mahoney et al. 2001; for a review, see Sherkat and Ellison 1999).’, Mochon, Norton, & Ariely, ‘Who Benefits from Religion?’, Social Indicators Research (101.2), 2010.

[21]While fervent believers benefit from their involvement, those with weaker beliefs are actually less happy than those who do not ascribe to any religion—atheists and agnostics..’, ibid., p. 1.

[22]Indeed, weakly affiliated adherents may actually be less happy than their unaffiliated counterparts—atheists, agnostics, and those who report no religion at all—and therefore would appear to benefit from abandoning their faith.’, ibid., p. 2.

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Was the Genesis flood narrative copied from Mesopotamian myths?

June 1, 2011

The Challenge

By the end of the 19th century archaeology had discovered many Mesopotamian texts containing creation and flood narratives remarkably similar to those in the Bible.

Critical scholars came to believe that the Biblical narratives had simply been copied from earlier Mesopotamian myths.[1] [2]The Biblical flood narrative in particular is still considered by some scholars to have been borrowed from the Mesopotamian story.[3] [4]

The Facts

Later scholarship noted significant differences between the Biblical and Mesopotamian narratives;[5] the Mesopotamian creation narratives were now viewed as parallels to the Genesis narrative.[6]  Still later it was the Genesis and Babylonian accounts shared an earlier Mesopotamian source, whether literary or oral.[7] [8] [9]

Scholarly Views

Kitchen (Assyriologist), note that Assyrologists have abandoned the idea of Genesis 1-11 being borrowed from Assyrian and Babylonian texts.[10] Millard (Professor Emeritus of Hebrew and Ancient Semitic Languages), observes there is no evidence for direct literary borrowing.[11] [12] This is the majority view of current scholarship. [13]  [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20]

At least early as 1872, it was suggested that the similarities between the Genesis and Mesopotamian flood narratives are due to the texts describing the same genuine historical event. [21]

In the early 20th century, critical scholar Hermann Gunkel observed that this was supported by the curious description (in both the Genesis account and the earlier Mesopotamian accounts), of the Ark being driven upstream, contrary to expectation.[22]  This explanation remains well represented in scholarship. [23] [24] [25] [26] [27]


[1] ‘Some argued that many Hebrew ideas actually originated in Mesopotamia and were borrowed by Israel.’, Chavalas, ‘Mesopotamia and the Bible’, p. 32 (2003).

[2] ‘The idea of Babylonian primacy was perfected by Delitzsch in 1902-1903. In his lectures, he argued that Israel could only be studied in light of Babylonia, and in fact Israelite civilization was derived from Babylonia.’, ibid., p. 32.

[3] ‘Since this portion of the biblical narrative postdates the Mesopotamian traditions (the final form of this portion of Genesis is usually dated to the fifth century B.C.E, although its oral or written sources may be dated as much as six hundred years earlier), it is conceivable, if not likely, that the biblical writer has borrowed and adapted Mesopotamian flood traditions.’, Fant & Reddish, ‘Lost Treasures of the Bible: Understanding the Bible through Archaeological Artifacts in World Museums’, p. 25 (2008).

[4] ‘It is commonly accepted that parts of Genesis 1–11 show literary dependence, either directly or indirectly, on Mesopotamian literary tradition.187 The best test case would be the flood story in Genesis 69.’, Smith, ‘God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World’, p. 182 (2010).

[5] ‘As scholars studied the significant differences and omissions between the accounts, they concluded that neither the Mesopotamian nor the biblical author borrowed from the other.’, Couch, ‘The Fundamentals for the Twenty-First Century: Examining the Crucial Issues of the Christian Faith’, p. 177 (2000).

[6] ‘Nevertheless, it adds much that is significant for the Near Eastern mythological horizon, and perhaps even provides a number of interesting parallels to the motifs of the biblical paradise story as told in the second and third chapters of Genesis.’, Kramer, ‘Sumerian Myths and Epic Tales’, in Pritchard (ed.), ‘Ancient Near Eastern texts relating to the Old Testament’, p. 37 (1950).

[7] ‘The similarities in broad outline and in certain points of detail between the Gilgamesh and the Genesis and the Gilgamesh versions are too striking to be accidental. Both probably derive from a common older Mesopotamian tradition, fragments of which are preserved in the Sumerian version.’, Davidson, ‘Genesis 1-11′, Cambridge Bible Commentaries p. 65 (1973).

[8] ‘It is undoubtedly borrowed from a common religious tradition of flood accounts.’, Brueggemnann, ‘Genesis’, p. 73 (1982).

[9] ‘Although the differences between the two stories may be too great to support a theory of direct literary dependence, most scholars are convinced that the biblical flood narrative is to some degree dependent upon ancient Mesopotamian flood narratives.’, Fant & Reddish, ‘Lost treasures of the Bible: understanding the Bible through archaeological’, p. 21 (2008).

[10]Thus most Assyriologists have long since rejected the idea of any direct link between Gen. 1-11 and Enuma Elish, and nothing else better can be found between Gen. 1-11 and any other Mesopotamian fragments.’, Kitchen, ‘On the Reliability of the Old Testament’, p. 424 (2003); his footnote reads ‘Assyriologists generally reject any genetic relationship between Gen. 1-2 and the Mesopotamian data because of the considerable differences; see (eg.) J.V. Kinnier-Wilson. In D. W. Thomas, ed., Documents from Old Testament Times (London: Nelson, 1958), 14; W. G. Lambert, JTS. n.s., 16 (1965): 287-300, esp. 289. 291, 293-99. and in ISF, 96-113, with addenda; A. R. Millard, TynB 18 (1967): 3-4.7. 16-18, and in ISIF 114-28; T. Jacobsen, in JBL 100 (198 1): 513-29, and translation, both now in ISIF 129-42, plus 160-66.’, ibid., p. 591.

[11]However, it has yet to be shown that there was borrowing, even indirectly. Differences between the Babylonian and the Hebrew traditions can be found in factual details of the Flood narrative (form of the Ark; duration of the Flood, the identity of the birds and their dispatch) and are most obvious in the ethical and religious concepts of the whole of each composition. All who suspect or suggest borrowing by the Hebrews are compelled to admit large-scale revision, alteration, and reinterpretation in a fashion that cannot be substantiated for any other composition from the ancient Near East or in any other Hebrew writing. If there was borrowing then it can have extended only as far as the “historical” framework, and not included intention or interpretation.’, Millard, ‘A New Babylonian “Genesis” Story’, in  Hess & Tsumura (eds.), ‘I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary Approaches to Genesis 1-11’, Sources for Biblical and Theological Study, volume 4, p. 127 (1994).

[12] ‘The two accounts undoubtedly describe the same Flood, the two schemes relate the same sequence of events. If judgment is to be passed as to the priority of one tradition over the other, Genesis inevitably wins for its probability in terms of meteorology, geophysics, and timing alone.’, ibid., pp. 127-128.

[13] ‘The similarities between the Genesis account and the ‘Atra-Hasis Epic’ do not support the idea that Genesis is a direct borrowing from the Mesopotamian but do indicate that Mesopotamian materials could have served as models for Genesis 1-11, as Jacobsen holds. P.D. Miller also admits that ‘there were Mesopotamian models that anticipate the structure of Genesis 1-11 as a whole.’, Tsumura, ‘Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern Stories of Creation and Flood’, in ibid., p. 47.

[14] ‘With Genesis 1-11 we seem to be working more with shared motifs and basic plotlines that originated in Mesopotamia rather than with actually known texts directed [sic] borrowed into Israel.’, Smith, ‘God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World’, p. 182 (2010).

[15] ‘The Bible’s accounts of the creation of the world, the creation of humankind, and the flood were not borrowed from these, but neither are they unique in every respect.’, Arnold & Beyer (eds.), ‘Readings from the ancient Near East: primary sources for Old Testament study’, p. 13 (2002).

[16] ‘The details are not exact and most scholars deny any direct literary dependence but it would seem that both stories emerge from a common tradition or milieu.’, Moyise, ‘Introduction to Biblical Studies’, p. 33 (2004).

[17] ‘The Biblical flood of Noah in the book of Genesis 6-9 shares continuity with the other Ancient Near Eastern flood stories, but is probably not directly dependent on any of them.’, Snell, ‘A Companion to the Ancient Near East’, p. 256 (2005).

[18] ‘But after a careful study of the two, Alexander Heidel has concluded that “no incontrovertible evidence can for the present be produced” in favor of biblical dependence on the Babylonian materials. His conclusion regarding the flood accounts is similar.’, Niehaus, ‘Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology’, p. 22 (2008).

[19] Text

[20] ‘Many who have done thorough linguistic and literary analysis (e.g., A. Heidel, A.R. Millard, D. Damrosch) conclude that literary dependence cannot be demonstrated. Here, as in most of the parallels in the primeval history, it is considered more likely that Mesopotamian and biblical traditions are based on a common source. Some understand this common source to be a piece of more ancient literature, while others consider it the actual event.’, Hill & Walton, ‘A Survey of the Old Testament’, p. (2010).

[21] ‘Among many theorists, George Smith in 1872 [33] famously linked the great Biblical Flood of the book Genesis to an historical event, probably of the 3rd millennium BC, which deposited a 50-cm- sediment-layer in the Mesopotamian lowland.’, Haigh & Křeček, ‘Environmental Reconstruction in Headwater Areas’, p. 14 (2000).

[22] ‘The most characteristic element of the Babylonian account seems to be that the Ark, driven from the South inland against the current of the rivers, was stranded in the northern mountains. This element is so remarkable that it could only have been stimulated by a corresponding natural phenomenon. E. Suss (25ff.) suspects that a violent earthquake in the Persian Gulf may have been the cause. A powerful cyclone from the South, associated with voluminous rain and horrible darkness, drove the destructive waters far into the inhabited land. This event must have taken place in a very ancient time. The news of the terrible catastrophe was preserved through all times. This theory is certainly very plausible.’, Gunkel ‘Genesis’ (1910), Biddle (trans.), p. 77 (1997 English ed.).

[23] ‘This suggests that we are not dealing with a literary dependence or even a tradition dependence as much as we are dealing with two literary perspectives on a single actual event.‘, Walton, ‘Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context: A Survey of Parallels’, p. 40 (1994).

[24] ‘The story may have arisen from a specific historical flood that took place in parts of southern Mesopotamia around 2900.’, Tigay, ‘The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic’, p. 214 (2002).

[25] ‘Could not stories be shared by the Bible and surrounding cultures because they are both based on a historical event? Both Scripture and Mesopotamian literature mention a flood because there indeed was a flood.’, Hamilton, ‘Handbook on the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy’, p. 66(2005).

[26] ‘However, there are more options than simply concluding that the Bible borrowed from Babylon. An equally plausible explanation is that both traditions go back to a real event.’, Longman, ‘How to read Genesis’, pp. 86-87 (2005).

[27] ‘On the basis of substantial historical evidence, coupled with many parallel words and phrases, what reasonable conclusions could we make? Here are just three: 1. There is a likelihood that a flood event actually happened. Why would the Akkadians, Sumerians, and Hebrews invent such a story unless there was some historical basis? 2. considering the parallel accounts are describing a historical event in the region of southern Mesopotamia about 2900 B.C., then Genesis also is describing the same historical, regional flood, and not a global deluge. 3. A regional flood would have brought judgment to those in the region. Judgment would have been specific to the sinful Adamite population, those answerable to God, rather than a universal pronouncement upon all mankind everywhere.’, Fischer, ‘Historical Genesis: from Adam to Abraham’, p. 140 (2008).

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