This page in brief ….
In the previous eleven posts in this series, we have seen that many different aspects of life (the universe, human life, the history of Jesus and human experience) all seem to make more sense if there is a creator God, than if there is not.
In this final post, we look at the ultimate road test – how does belief in the christian God work out in life. Is it good for the believer, and the world, or is it bad?
While this may not prove that belief in God is true, we would certainly doubt belief was true if it led to bad outcomes.
The information on this page comes from research by secular psychologists and neuroscientists. Links to references are at the end.
Belief vs religion
In this discussion, we’ll distinguish between personal belief (what a person is committed to) and religion (the outward behaviours that a person follows). We’ll find that many aspects of these are helpful and a few are not.
Health and wellbeing
In general, numerous studies show that religious people tend to live longer and have better mental and physical health. They are able to better cope with stress and emotional problems, they recover better after surgery, they have fewer addictions and are far less likely to be depressed (neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky describes religion as “nature’s antidepressant”).
The benefits seem to come from a combination of a more positive approach to life, stronger family and community support, and specific religious practices such as church attendance, prayer, meditation and forgiveness.
Altruism and prosociality
‘Prosociality’ is “voluntary behaviour intended to benefit another”, and is often expressed in terms of generosity, charitable giving, voluntary public service and law-abiding behaviour.
And, again, studies show that religious people are more altruistic and prosocial. They tend to give more to charity, are more community-minded and tend to show “lower levels of criminal and antisocial behavior, including physical aggression toward others” (Ammirati &. Lilienfeld).
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt: “members of religious communities are simply better citizens. They give more, not just to their religious communities but to their society in a variety of ways”.
Exceptions and disagreements
There are exceptions. Some christians don’t live up to their calling. Close-knit religious groups can be prejudiced against outsiders. Religious activities conducted for social reasons or financial advantage, and belief in an angry, punitive God both tend to be less beneficial.
Worst of all, organised religion can pervert the motives of those in power, and can attract those who find it a convenient way to exercise power. When allied with powerful organisations, both religion (e.g. the Holy Roman Empire) and irreligion (e.g. Communism) have proven vehicles for much evil. But in neither case are the (ir)religious beliefs the main cause, but the way power is exercised and abused.
Some studies appear to show that countries and states with less religious belief have higher prosociality and personal wellbeing. However these studies generally haven’t separated out all the relevant factors, and it seems that the likely causation is poverty and inequality (which tend to lead to higher crime rates but also higher levels of religious belief).
In the end, virtually all the experts agree with the correlation of personal religious belief and practice with wellbeing and prosociality.
Let’s explore a little more why this is.
Meaning, wellbeing and happiness
We all want to be happy and live well. But beyond that, most of us want to feel that our lives have some meaning beyond just living one day to the next, amassing wealth and grabbing pleasure where we can. (Wealthy societies often have the highest suicide rates and the lowest sense of meaning.)
It turns out that happiness, wellbeing and meaning are all connected.
So what makes us happy, and what makes life meaningful?
A positive, happy life
Positive psychologists have identified a number of aspects of life that will help us be happy and contented:
- Material things don’t do it. We need to look beyond wealth, possessions and short term pleasure. Wanting more will likely make us dissatisfied.
- Good relationships. A circle of friends and a long term significant other are important.
- Generosity of spirit. Go easy on yourself, and others. Show gratitude. Learn to forgive and not harbour ill-feelings.
- Be a giver, not a taker. Offer support to others, do meaningful career and voluntary work. Most importantly, live your life in the service of a cause greater than yourself.
- Ethical & spiritual beliefs reinforce and support all of these, and provide hope and purpose.
These aspects of life can be summed up as looking beyond ourselves at things that make life meaningful.
Meaning in life
These factors seem to be important for our lives to be meaningful:
- Purpose: our lives are directed towards goals or intentions.
- Significance: our lives are intelligible beyond our own selves so we feel we have made a difference.
- Values: we have a basis for knowing what is good and bad.
- Efficacy: we have the ability to actually make a difference, based on our purpose and values.
- Self worth: we feel good about ourselves and what we have achieved.
Choosing what is meaningful
So how do we choose what to invest our lives in to give them meaning, and so be content?
There are good reasons to think that choosing something subjective will be less meaningful than finding objective meaning:
- Subjective meaning is arbitrary. Because it is simply our choice, it lacks a rational, objective basis.
- Subjective meaning isn’t altruistic. If we choose what we think will give our lives meaning, we are thinking of ourselves and our wellbeing, which isn’t altruistic.
- Subjective meaning is individual. If we are all free to choose our own meaning, then we are all in a sense in competition.
- Subjective meaning is less durable. Hardship, sickness, communal disagreement and eventually death all show us that our subjective meaning is less likely to last a lifetime, and beyond.
For these reasons, it seems we need to find meaning that is objective, not just our own personal choice.
Belief in God meets all these requirements (if it is true)
We can now begin to see why religious belief leads to generally good life outcomes.
It ticks most of the above boxes. If followed faithfully (which of course isn’t always the case!), christian religious belief:
- provides objective meaning that is durable and significant,
- encourages altruism and being givers rather than takers,
- provides a cause and purpose greater than ourselves to live by,
- encourages generosity of spirit, forgiveness and trusting relationships,
- provides spirituality, ethics and values,
- gives us self worth and the sense we have made a positive difference.
It is hard to see how any other belief or value system provides all this, though many provide some of them.
Rightly lived, religion works better as a way of life than any other belief or worldview.
This seems to me to be not only a good pragmatic reason to seriously investigate the existence of God, but it reinforces all the other reasons we have seen point to God really being there.
It also suggests we should be wary of “big” organised religion that makes demands on us contrary to ethics and communal values. We have seen too many excesses not to be suspicious.
In the final post in this series, I’ll sum up what I believe we can learn from these 12 reasons.
For more detail on these matters, including references to scientific research, check out:
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