In two unlikely articles published last week, two self-described atheists took time to consider the positive impact that a belief in God has upon the world.

The days immediately following Christmas are generally a contemplative time. As we leave the tinsel and lights behind and face the New Year, it is a time for both recovery and preparation.

Apparently, this is not only the case for the Christian, but for the unbeliever as well.

In two unlikely articles published last week, two self-described atheists took time to consider the positive impact that a belief in God has upon the world.

In one of the articles, John Tierney of the New York Times asks:

“If I’m serious about keeping my New Year’s resolutions in 2009, should I add another one? Should the to-do list include, ‘Start going to church?'”

He follows this up with:

“This is an awkward question for a heathen to contemplate, but I felt obliged to raise it with Michael McCullough after reading his report in the upcoming issue of the Psychological Bulletin. He and a fellow psychologist at the University of Miami, Brian Willoughby, have reviewed eight decades of research and concluded that religious belief and piety promote self-control.”

The article goes on to explain 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 are generally happier.

Dr. McCullough explained, “For a long time it wasn’t cool for social scientists to study religion, but some researchers were quietly chugging along for decades. When you add it all up, it turns out there are remarkably consistent findings that religiosity correlates with higher self-control.”

The article stated that “as early as the 1920s, researchers found that students who spent more time in Sunday school did better at laboratory tests measuring their self-discipline. Studies showed that devout children were rated relatively low in impulsiveness by both parents and teachers, and that religiosity repeatedly correlated with higher self-control among adults. Devout people were found to be more likely than others to wear seat belts, go to the dentist and take vitamins.”

The study took its question one step further and compared strongly religious people with people who subscribed to more general “spiritual notions,” like the idea that their lives were “directed by a spiritual force greater than any human being” or that they felt “a spiritual connection to other people.” The truly religious people scored relatively high in conscientiousness and self-control, whereas the “spiritual” people tended to score relatively low.

“Thinking about the oneness of humanity and the unity of nature doesn’t seem to be related to self-control,” Dr. McCullough said. “The self-control effect seems to come from being engaged in religious institutions and behaviors.”

* * * * *

But even more significant than the impact that religion has on self-control, a stunning new article by Matthew Parris of The Times (of London, the real Times) asserts that Christianity alone will save Africa.

His article, titled “As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God,” boldly points to the true impact Christ has in the world, even among non-believers.

Mr. Parris describes a recent trip to Malawi and his encounters with African missionary work.

“It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, 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.”

The writer explained that he used to avoid this truth by applauding the practical work of mission churches in Africa, but still believing it was “a pity that salvation is part of the package.”

But in this article, Mr. Parris comes to realize that Christian faith does more than support the missionaries, it also changes the people they are serving.

He noticed that the Africans who had converted to Christianity “were always different.”

“Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world – a directness in their dealings with others – that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.”

Mr. Parris noted: “Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away.”

He continued:

“Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through…and offers [believers] something to hold onto…That is why and how it liberates.”

Wow.

There is in Christian theology the idea of “common grace,” the belief that the Lord sometimes provides a glimpse of truth to a person unrelated to saving truth.  In that sense, Tierney and Parris haven’t stumbled upon truths as much as they have been shown the true of the effects of the gospel.

Our prayer for them is that they would take the path of C.S. Lewis and Malcolm Muggeridge, those well-known agnostics turned Christians, who opened their hearts to the Truth and saw their minds improved as well.

Dr. Oran Smith

Dr. Oran Smith

President & CEO

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