Entry from December 31, 2008

An interesting convergence of the journalistic social studies makes a fittingly inspirational meditation for this holiday season and conclusion to 2008. In Monday’s Washington Post we learned that a learned article in the January number of Pediatrics has found that “teenagers who pledge to remain virgins until marriage are just as likely to have premarital sex as those who do not promise abstinence and are significantly less likely to use condoms and other forms of birth control when they do.” You can imagine with what self-satisfaction this was reported by the militantly secularist Post — a catalogue of whose b tises and bigotries when it comes to religious believers is available in today’s American Spectator online from my friend Quin Hillyer. “The study is the latest in a series,” says the Post’s reporter, Rob Stein, “that have raised questions about programs that focus on encouraging abstinence until marriage, including those that specifically ask students to publicly declare their intention to remain virgins.”

Although Mr Stein notes in passing that “proponents” of abstinence education have “dismissed the study as flawed and argued that programs that focus on abstinence go much further than simply asking youths to make a one-time promise to remain virgins,” he obviously has little interest in exploring sympathetically — or at all — views contrary to what he sees as the now scientifically-approved one, let alone finding or elaborating on any of those putative “flaws” in the methodology or conclusions of the Pediatrics study. I wonder if, the day after his piece ran in the Post, his eye happened to fall on one by John Tierney in the Science section of The New York Times titled: “For Good Self-Control, Try Getting Religious About It.” Mr Tierney is not himself a practising religious believer, but he keeps an open mind and looks at believers and their beliefs with sympathy. In the interests of full disclosure, I should also mention that he has also taken a sympathetic look at my book Honor, A History. Now he cites a study in the journal Psychological Bulletin by Michael McCullough and Brian Willoughby of the University of Miami who “have reviewed eight decades of research and concluded that religious belief and piety promote self-control.”

Well, duh! Or so you might be tempted to think. But science rightly takes nothing for granted, so we believers might as well welcome one scientific paper — and that one a synthesis of several others — that seems to come down on our side. All the more so, too, in light of its larger finding that “researchers around the world have repeatedly found that devoutly religious people tend to do better in school, live longer, have more satisfying marriages and be generally happier.” This bit of news also suggests what should be the response of those who believe in abstinence education to the Pediatrics study trumpeted by The Washington Post. For it is hardly surprising if abstinence education alone — that is, abstinence out of context, abstinence without any spiritual foundation providing a rationale as to why it is good for you — doesn’t produce socially desirable results. Telling kids that such results are what abstinence is supposed to produce understandably produces little in the way of self-control. Telling them that it is all part of a loving God’s intention for the good of their own immortal souls may be supposed to work a bit better.

The second of these two studies might also be seen as a confirmation of an anecdotal observation by Matthew Parris, an atheist of almost Hitchensian vehemence, in The Times of London last Saturday. “As an atheist,” writes Mr Parris, “I truly believe Africa needs God.”

I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good. I used to avoid this truth by applauding — as you can — the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It’s a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith. But this doesn’t fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.

The point is not just that the faith of the missionaries changes lives for the better. It is that this faith is also necessary for the Africans themselves to “liberate” themselves from the darkness and corruption of tribal society.

Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted. And I’m afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.

It’s a remarkable admission, coming from an unrepentant atheist, and ought to be required reading for the spiritual illiterates at the Post.


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