I’m a reasonably self critical person (some would say too much so), and I’m no fan of much of what goes in in churches and christian circles. So I’m not really interested in defending modern christianity as a social entity.
But at the same time, when sceptics criticise “religion” for poisoning lives and emotionally warping and enslaving people, and argue christianity is evil and must be eradicated, I think their charges need to be tested against the evidence.
And so I keep my eye on research into how religious belief and practice, especially christianity, affects people, either positively or negatively.
The answers are surprisingly positive
Scientific studies show that religious belief and practice generally has a number of positive outcomes for the believers and practitioners (when compared to the general population):
- A generally positive impact on physical health, including longer life expectancy, and quicker recovery after illness and surgery and lower blood pressure.
- Improved mental health – less depression and anxiety, fewer addictions, lower suicide rate, and better able to cope with ageing, stress and emotional problems.
Religiosity also has benefits for society as a whole:
- Religious people generally exhibit less anti-social, aggressive, destructive or criminal behaviour.
- Members of religious groups tend to more community minded, more altruistic and more generous.
Studies also show that religion, especially christianity, is not responsible for many wars throughout history (though for followers of Jesus, even one war is one too many!), not the primary cause for much modern day terrorism.
It’s not all positive
While these are the overall outcomes of religiosity, it isn’t all good news in favour of religion.
- The effects are consistent across many studies, but not all that large. There is a wide range of good and bad effects of both religion and disbelief, and while religion is overall more positive, there are many irreligious who behave better and are healthier than many religious.
- There are some cases where some aspects of religion are negative. For example, belief in an angry God or religious attendance without personal belief can promote prejudice and unloving or uncaring attitudes.
What beliefs and practices are most positive?
Positive outcomes can be the product of:
- regular attendance at religious meetings;
- active involvement in a supportive religious community;
- a strong personal commitment to belief (rather than more socially motivated behaviour);
- prayer and meditation on God;
- conforming to practices promoted by christian belief, such as better family relations and less destructive behaviours;
- positive attitudes such as love and forgiveness;
- a greater sense of meaning and purpose in life; or
- improvements to brain functioning as a result of some religious practices and attitudes.
Some of these could be achieved by non-religious people, if there were appropriate communities they could be part of, but it doesn’t seem to happen as much.
I have great sympathy for those who have had negative experiences at the hands of christians and churches – even though it is not the norm, it happens far too much. I think it is generally true that both christianity and non-belief can be especially harmful when presented coercively, especially in the hands of a powerful state or organisation. Some of the worst examples of powerful organisations allied with either belief or unbelief include:
- persecution of christians by the Roman Empire;
- the crusades;
- persecution of Jews, people believed to be witches and unbelievers in Europe;
- the colonisation of overseas land and sometimes genocide of their peoples by European powers;
- communist regimes under Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Enver Hoxha;
- child abuse by institutions such as the Catholic Church and church-based schools.
I don’t blame anyone who has reacted to any of these wrongs, or been hurt in more personal ways by religious enthusiasts. Christians and churches should be willing to:
- react with sympathy and sensitivity to those harmed,
- apologise and make reparations where this is necessary and possible,
- develop attitudes that conform more to the teachings of Jesus, and
- set up processes to ensure there are more barriers and checks to behaviours that harm others.
If an unbeliever makes strong statements on the negative effects of religion, we can probably conclude that either they are speaking from hurtful personal experience, or they haven’t followed the consensus of psychologists and social scientists, or both.
If a christian claims outrageous personal and social advantages for belief, it is likewise likely that they are speaking our of enthusiasm for their faith and/or they haven’t noted the careful way the scientific studies express their conclusions.
The consensus of the science is somewhat positive for religiosity, no more and no less.
Check it out
I have summarised the studies that lead to these conclusions in The social and personal benefits of christianity, which contains links to more detailed discussions.