Most of us have experiences, both positive and negative, about religion and God. In each of our lives there have likely been religious people and institutions that have left a positive impression, and others that have hurt us.
And if we look at the world around us, now and through history, we can easily form a positive or negative impression, depending on whether we focus on the crusades, pedophilic priests, televangelists and bigotry, or on the social welfare, peace-making, justice and personal development work of christians.
Personal impressions are inevitable, but really, if we want to know the truth, we need a larger sample and a more rigorous way of assessing the impacts of religious belief.
I recently updated the Life section of this blog – more than 40 pages – which required reviewing the content of most of the pages.
And I was struck again by some of the findings of psychologists, doctors and neuroscientists about what actually makes people happy and healthy.
It’s worth another look.
The positive connection between religion and health is now supported by more than 600 scientific papers. Overall, religious and spiritual people have better overall physical and mental health, have greater longevity, and respond better to treatment when they are ill.
People with intrinsic religious belief (i.e. those whose belief is personal and heartfelt), or who are both religious and spiritual, tend to have better physical and emotional health than those whose belief is more extrinsic (i.e. belief is external, and pursued for other reasons such as social benefits), or those with no belief.
Intrinsic religious or spiritual belief and practices lead to lower overall rates of depression, anxiety, drug dependence and anti-social behaviour, better recovery from heart attack, surgery, cancer, HIV/AIDS, grief or divorce.
Sometimes the immediate cause seems to be other factors which are part of having deeply held beliefs (e.g. a sense of purpose, or the support of a caring community), but in other cases it seems to be the belief itself makes a positive difference. This is particularly true of neurological health, which can be improved through secular practices such as meditation or exercise, but tends to be better still if these practices are combined with spiritual or religious belief.
People who pray, or are prayed for, generally have better health and wellbeing than others – praying regularly is better than praying just when a particular need arises.
These benefits are so well-established that many researchers and health practitioners encourage faith, belief and spiritual exercises if their patients are religious or spiritual.
The down side
However if religious beliefs are negative (e.g. believing in an angry or punitive God) then many of the positive outcomes can be undone, and neurological harm (e.g. depression, shortened life expectancy) can result. Negativity can contribute to non-believers having the same problems.
Psychologists have studied what makes for happiness, or satisfaction in life. They have found that many of the pleasures or aspirations people think will make them happy and satisfied – like wealth, owning things, pleasure, or popularity – provide only short term satisfaction. The problem with these things is that they tend to leave us always wanting more, so they can’t really satisfy us for long.
It turns out that two things are the most important – purpose and relationships.
We tend to be satisfied with life when we accomplish things which have a purpose. Meaningful paid work is important because we spend a lot of time working, and meaningful voluntary work is apparently even better – we tend to feel fulfilled when we help others.
We are most likely to be altruistic if we have a “big” purpose in life – psychologists say that just about the most important factor in life satisfaction is living to serve a cause that we believe is bigger than ourselves, whether this be politics, the environment, social justice, caring for others, religion, or whatever.
People seem to be built for relationships, and our lives are most fulfilling when we have a close circle of friends and a loving relationship with a “significant other”.
Not everyone can achieve that ideal, but there are things we can all do. People in groups such as sporting teams, interest groups or churches tend to be happier than others, because of the network of friends such groups provide.
Where does God fit in?
Most of this research is done at secular universities by social scientists and doctors with a range of religious beliefs, or none. The results stand as scientific facts, and the researchers rarely discuss the obvious question of whether God is in any way “behind” these findings. But humans usually want to understand why?
Maybe he doesn’t fit in at all ….
Non-religious people often initially approach these results with scepticism. When it becomes clearer that there is too much evidence to dismiss, some simply refuse to accept the results, but most, in my experience, look for natural explanations.
Many of the results can be explained naturally. For example, religion can provide purpose, social relationships and peace of mind. And perhaps there are deeper natural explanations.
Perhaps our psychology has evolved so that people feel more comfortable when they can pray to a God and feel he is in control and helping them, and so they believe it. Perhaps tribal groups survive better if they cooperate around a transcendent purpose and suppress our more animal instincts in favour of altruism. Whether these deeper explanations are actually true may nevertheless be difficult to assess.
…. but maybe he is the explanation
But as a christian, I am intrigued by these conclusions that religious belief and practices assist our mental and physical health, and our happiness.
If we are created by God, through evolution, then this is pretty much what we might expect. We are made for relationship with him, and each other, which gives our lives purpose and meaning.
And it is encouraging to think that old-fashioned virtues like altruism, love and caring for others, are more important for human happiness than the things advertising tries to sell us.
While a natural explanation, or mechanism, can be found for many of these conclusions, it seems a surprising outcome if the world evolved by chance and natural selection alone. Why would a belief that is wrong, if there’s no God, lead to such helpful results?