Leaving aside any spiritual or afterlife benefits, does christianity offer social or personal benefits to its followers and to society? Some critics argue that religion causes harm, while believers naturally think that God helps them in life. Who is right?
Sociologists of religion, psychologists and neuroscientists have been examining this question in recent years, and it turns out that christianity generally has several benefits. It tends to enhance personal health and wellbeing, longevity, brain health, altruism and generosity, although some forms of religion can have negative effects.
It seems that the critics have focused on minority effects and not the majority.
What the experts conclude
In 2004, two sociologists reviewed the literature and concluded that, overall, religious belief and practice had a “consistent, moderate, positive influence on life expectancy, health, psychological well-being, and recovery from illnesses and surgery”. They further reported that “church attendance has the greatest positive impact”, but other factors, both personal (e.g. private prayer and the importance of religion to that person) and social factors (social support, better family relations and healthier behaviour) played their part.
I have investigated this matter and have found 40 studies on religion and wellbeing and outlined the conclusions of these studies in Faith and wellbeing. The results are not black and white, but the overall conclusions are very clear. Religious belief and religious practice are associated with higher than average levels of physical and mental health and wellbeing, and higher levels of prosociality. Often religion is found to be a significant cause.
Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg has researched how the brain reacts to religious beliefs and practices. He has found that faith is a key concept for brain health (but he defines faith as an optimistic view of the future, which is not the usual definition!). Religious belief, especially practices like prayer and meditation, generally helps people focus on positive things like “love, forgiveness, optimism, and inclusiveness” which help the brain combat “the deleterious effects of ageing and stress”. As a result, he says that “even minimal religious participation is correlated with enhancing longevity and personal health….. People who engage in religious activities tend to cope better with emotional problems, have fewer addictions and better overall health.”
Newberg’s conclusions apply to most religious belief, and he has developed equivalent secular practices for non-believers to use and gain similar benefits. However he says: “when meditation is religious and strengthens your spiritual beliefs, then there is a synergistic effect that can be even better.”
Benefits to society
‘Prosociality’ is “voluntary behavior intended to benefit another”. Researchers at Emory University reviewed the literature and found that religion enhances prosociality. They concluded: “belief in God bears a statistically significant, albeit relatively weak, association with lower levels of criminal and antisocial behavior, including physical aggression toward others”.
Andrew Newberg come to similar conclusions: “religion serves an essential role by directing people into their deepest values concerning life …. helping people to be compassionate, forgiving and loving.”
And just this year, psychologist Jonathan Haidt summed up the relationship between religion and prosociality: “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, in all sorts of ways that even secular people would grant. It’s not belief, it’s participation in a religious community [that] has an effect that reigns in selfishness and draws them out into community.”
The fine print
There are all sorts of variations on these broad conclusions.
Most of these studies were done in the USA, on christian believers (hence the title of this page), but many of the conclusions probably apply to other religions too (and some have specifically found that to be the case). In some cases non-believers could get the same benefits for themselves, or give the same benefits to society, if they followed similar practices, but generally this doesn’t happen.
Different types of belief
Some forms of religious belief and some social situations give different results, for example:
- An intrinsic belief (one based on a personal commitment to God) is more likely to lead to positive outcomes than an extrinsic belief (where religiosity is maintained for social reasons).
- Beliefs which involve an angry or punitive God are likely to be less beneficial than a belief in a loving and forgiving God.
- Religious belief and practice is more likely to make a difference in secular societies than in religious societies.
- Religiosity may be more likely to promote conservative or traditional ethics rather than progressive ethics.
- Some forms of religious belief (generally, intrinsic belief) promote tolerance and altruism towards non-believers, but other forms (often extrinsic belief) tend to favour insiders and so promote prejudice towards other groups.
- There are a few dissenting voices in this broad consensus, based on a smaller number of studies coming to negative or neutral conclusions about the role of religion. But the positive findings presented here represent the large consensus.
Religion can do great harm, especially if used to coerce or support other agendas. But the harm is much less than many critics first think – e.g. religion is not a causative factor in most wars and most terrorism, though it can lend support.
But overall, religious belief and practice have many benefits for the individual and society. Some forms can be less benign, but most are positive. The critics are basing most of their criticisms on minority evidence or what seems right to them, and not on the preponderance of evidence.
This doesn’t prove that christianity (or any other religion) is right in all it claims and teaches. But it does show that extreme atheist claims are poorly based, and does show that christianity seems to “work”, surely one factor that one would expect from a true belief.
Appendix: additional references
Religion and prosociality:
- An analysis of claims that religion has adverse effects on prosociality (Does religious belief make you more moral: a case study in misusing data?), including some references to individual studies.
- Polish, Iranian and US studies reported in Does religion turn people into haters?, found that, if provoked, people were more likely to support violence against their perceived enemies – except the intrinsically religious (and this included Muslims as well as Christians), who were more likely to be less hostile and suspicious towards outsiders.
Wellbeing benefits of religion:
- People who attend religious services, or who feel they are spiritual, experience lower levels of depression and anxiety; display signs of better health, such as lower blood pressure and fewer strokes; and say they generally feel healthier (though the reason for this isn’t clear). (WebMD)
- Religious beliefs can protect psychological well-being during stressful experiences (American Psychological Association).
- Praying brings people peace and happiness that is worth about $50,000 per year in monetary terms. (TT Brown)
- “People who attended religious services at least once a week were 46 percent less likely to die during the six-year study” (Harold G. Koenig, MD, Duke University Medical Center)
- “empirical evidence supports a generally protective effect of religious involvement for mental illness and psychological distress” Religion and Mental Health: Theory and Research
- “Religious affiliation is associated with less suicidal behavior in depressed inpatients.” (American Journal of Psychiatry)
- “There’s no shortage of research on religion and health. Most of it suggests that the religious not only live longer, but are also likely to live better.” (Jonathan Morgan)
The generosity of believers:
- Arthur C. Brooks, a professor at Syracuse University: “The religious Americans are more likely to give to every kind of cause and charity, including explicitly non-religious charities.”
- This university study: “People who regularly attend religious services give more to religious and secular charities ….. religious people give as much to secular charities as practically conscious secular people plus they give to religious charities. In terms of amount, religious people wind up giving more.” This study found much the same.
- Surveys by the Barna Group found religious people gave 7.5 times more than those who self-identified as atheist or agnostic, and twice as much when church based giving was removed.
- This report on a study by The Chronicle of Philanthropy shows that religious states give more to charity than less religious states, but take away church giving and the non-religious states give more.
- A book by Robert Putnam of Harvard University said that religious people give more, volunteer more and are better citizens than non-religious.
- This UK study shows the same – religious people donated more than double what non-religious donated, and only 30% of religious people donated to religious causes.