10/23/2010 08:56 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Good Is God?

This question, which would have been considered scandalous a generation ago, is voiced openly today by such religious skeptics as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Various spokespersons have responded with philosophical arguments and have engaged in public debate with leaders of the "new atheism" movement.

As a working journalist, I take a different approach. In my latest book, I travel to six countries in search of an answer to the question of whether faith makes a positive difference. Looking back on my experiences, I conclude that it does, in significant ways. The failures of the Christian church (Crusades, Inquisition, Salem witch trials) have been widely reported, and rightly so. I highlight instead its positive contributions, many of which go overlooked.

First, the Christian faith has an enormous influence on the broader culture. I remember my first trip to Sweden, soon after I had read historical accounts of the Vikings. For 250 years prayers in Europe ended with the line, "Lord, save us from the Vikings. Amen." Yet in modern Sweden I found a people known for charity, cleanliness, honesty and hospitality. What happened to change a culture from raping and pillaging barbarians to this admirable society? Christianity happened. It took several centuries, but gradually the moral principles of the Christian gospel percolated up to affect all of society.

If you Google the indices that measure prosperity, corruption and freedom, you will find that with one or two exceptions (notably Japan and Singapore), the nations that are most prosperous, most free and most resistant to corruption all have a strong Christian heritage. Though some of these nations, such as in Western Europe, no longer have a high percentage of churchgoers, all of them have their moral roots in a Christian past. The atheist government in China is well aware of this truth, and partly for this reason has gradually loosened restrictions on Christianity there.

Secondly, the Christian faith affects community. Visit New Orleans today and ask residents about their experience. They will tell you of the substantial federal aid that flooded in but then receded like an ocean tide. Today, however, you will still find church groups from cities nearby, like Houston and Dallas, as well as from distant parts of the U.S. who travel to New Orleans to continue the less glamorous and essential task of long term renewal. After 9/11, the Salvation Army provided a center of organized compassion in lower Manhattan. After the earthquake in Haiti, relief agencies like World Vision and Catholic Relief Services moved in, as they do after every major disaster.

My book includes chapters on Virginia Tech and on Mumbai, India, where I inadvertently found myself the day of the terrorist attacks there. At times of crisis, people instinctively rely on their faith for comfort and hope. On 9/11, my church spontaneously filled with people, even though no service had been scheduled. Where else can we turn in a time of crisis?

Finally, faith transforms individuals. I visited a conference of organizations that work with victims of human trafficking. There, I interviewed several score former prostitutes or "sex workers," the term they prefer. Far from the glamorous portrayals of prostitutes on television, sex workers in poor countries face hardship, abuse and degradation. One by one they told me of the transformation that took place as they experienced forgiveness from guilt and a dawning realization that God loved them despite their feelings of shame and humiliation. In a conference of recovering alcoholics I heard similar stories of reliance on a "Higher Power" to help battle unrelenting temptation.

It is always dangerous, of course, to rely on personal experience to establish truth. On the other hand, if ideas don't manifest themselves in the lives of people who hold them, what good are they? Growing up in the Bible Belt South, I saw my share of church abuse, the negative consequences of misguided faith. In a 40-year career as a journalist, I've also seen the opposite. Faith matters, especially by offering hope and comfort in times of trauma.

In the book, I tell of my own up-close encounter with death. When my Ford Explorer hit a patch of ice and tumbled off a Colorado road down an embankment, I ended up with a broken neck. For seven hours that day I lay strapped to a body board as doctors tried to determine whether a bone fragment had pierced a major artery. If so, I would not survive to see another day. "Here's a cell phone. You should call those you love to tell them goodbye, just in case," the doctor told me.

As I lay there, I concluded that most of what I spend my time worrying about matters very little. I gave no thought to how much money I make, how many books I sell, what kind of car I drive (it was being towed to a junkyard at that moment). I decided only three things matter ultimately: Whom do I love? How have I lived my life? Am I ready for whatever is next? Like others, I have found meaningful answers to those questions in my Christian faith.