By Fr John Flynn LC
IN an essay published in December Peter Hitchens, brother of the late Christopher Hitchens, a renowned atheist, reflected on the importance of religion.
In his essay, published on December 3 on the website of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Mr Hitchens acknowledged that atheists can arrive at some moral principles, such as the Golden Rule, or doing to others what you would like done to you, but he also maintained that Christianity went a lot further.
“Christianity requires much more, and above all does not expect to see charity returned. To love thy neighbour as thyself is a far greater and more complicated obligation, requiring a positive effort to seek the good of others, often in secret, sometimes at great cost and always without reward,” he said.
He rejected the affirmation made by his brother that the injunction to love thy neighbour was being too extreme, and pointed to the example given by mothers, doctors and nurses as showing that people are indeed prepared to make big sacrifices for others.
Christianity, he said, was difficult, “but we are far better for trying than for not trying, and we know that there is forgiveness available for honest failure”.
Eliminating God from society meant there was no ultimate authority or judgment. It did, Mr Hitchens said, mean people were free, but this freedom could be used for evil as well as good.
The positive influence of religion was clearly shown in a story on how much people gave to charity, published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on October 5.
Not only did it show the middle class gave a higher percentage of their income to charitable causes than the wealthy, but it also found that church attendance influenced how much people gave.
In Utah, with its high number of Mormons, people give an average of 6.6 per cent of their income to charity. New Hampshire, with a low rate of church participation came in at 1.7 per cent.
An interesting analysis of religion’s influence came in a story published late last year in the China Economic Review.
The story was titled: “Does religious belief affect economic growth? Evidence from provincial-level panel data in China”.
Among the conclusions of the report was that various results demonstrated how religious beliefs “can become a driving force in determining national economic results”.
The story also concluded: “Among the different religions, Christianity has the most significant and robust effect on economic growth.”
No similar conclusion about religion’s influence could be drawn for other non-Christian religions. The data examined was for the period 2001-11.
“It’s very meaningful to study the role of religion playing in economic development since religion has influence on political preference, human capital and work ethic, especially in current China which is faced with income disparity, environmental pollution and official corruption,” the summary of the story said.
Brian J. Grim, commenting on the results of the report in an online story posted on the First Things website, said that while it was clear many factors were behind the remarkable economic growth of China we should not overlook the fact China was home to the world’s second-largest religious population after India.
Grim noted that the China Economic Review story observed in addition to the economic benefits brought about by Christian institutions, Christian ethics also made a difference to the overall development of persons.
Thus, the obligation to be accountable to God and others may well make for more legal and rational behaviour.
In his 2005 encyclical on God’s love, Pope Benedict XVI observed in a world where religion was often associated with violence we needed to reflect on the love that God had for us and which we in turn should share with others.
In terms of how we treated others, which clearly had not only economic consequences, Pope Benedict XVI said love of neighbour “consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings.”
“The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible,” Pope Benedict said. “She cannot and must not replace the State.
“Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.”
How, and in what ways this fight for justice is implemented remains open for debate, but what is clear is that Christianity has made and will make a significant difference in what happens.