a christian perspective on the world today

Religion is good for you—really?

The “really?” in the title is in recognition that religion doesn’t get good press at times—sometimes deservedly so.

Think about the Crusades. Or Martin Luther—a Christian hero among Protestants—who called for the extermination of Jews. Think about Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple and the mass suicide of 900 in 1978. Think about planes being flown into buildings in New York. Think about David Koresh’s Branch Davidian cult. That’s merely a short, illustrative list—and, as a Christian myself, I focused, with one exception, on groups or individuals with Christian roots that I find embarrassingly contrary to Christian teaching. I’m sure you could come up with more illustrations. It’s no wonder the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell once described religion in general “as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race”.

Religion under the microscope
Research psychologist David DeSteno notes that “science and religion have often been at odds”.1 In his research into religion, though, he first separated the belief or theology from the practice of religion. Instead of looking at the beliefs of various religious groups, he and his team looked at the “rituals, customs and sentiments”. He explains that over time—sometimes over thousands of years—these rituals, customs and sentiments that were carried out in what he calls “the messy thick of life as opposed to sterile labs, have led to the design of what we might call spiritual technologies—tools and processes meant to soothe, move, convince, or otherwise tweak the mind”.

“Studying these so-called technologies has revealed that certain religious practices, even when removed from their spiritual context, are able to influence people’s minds in the measurable ways psychologists often seek.” This allowed him to compare the effectiveness of these customs.

He and his colleagues were surprised when they found evidence of the benefits of religion. They recognised that this was “a sign of our hubris, born of a common notion among scientists: All of religion is superstition and, therefore, could have little practical benefit.

“I’ll admit that we’re unlikely to learn much about the nature of the universe or the biology of disease from religion. But when it comes to finding ways to help people deal with issues surrounding birth and death, morality and meaning, grief and loss, it would be strange if thousands of years of religious thought didn’t have something to offer.” While noting that science and religion seem to have no compatibility, DeSteno admits, “When you look at the day-to-day practice of religious faith, the animosity in the debate evaporates.”

He now sees science and religion as “two approaches that frequently complement each other”. In case you’re wondering, “It’s not that I’ve suddenly found faith or have a new agenda to defend religion. I firmly believe that the scientific method is a wonder and offers one of the best ways to test ideas about how the world works. Like any good scientist, I’m simply following the data without prejudice. And it’s humbling.”

Other voices
Science writer David Robson says the “stress-reducing, life-extending benefits of religion can offer useful strategies even for non-believers”. Doug Oman, a professor in public health at the University of California Berkeley, says “religious and spiritual traditions give you access to different methods of coping that have distinctive benefits”.

Robson adds, “Studying the life-extending benefits of religious practice can therefore offer useful strategies for anyone—of any faith or none—to live a healthier and happier life . . . the evidence base linking faith to better health has been decades in the making and now encompasses thousands of studies.”

The research “found that measures of someone’s religious commitment, such as how often they attended church, were consistently associated with a range of outcomes, including a lower risk of depression, anxiety and suicide and reduced cardiovascular disease and death from cancer”.

A Pew Research study of the United States and “more than two dozen other countries” found that “regular participation in a religious community clearly is linked with higher levels of happiness and civic engagement (such as voting, joining community groups or other voluntary organisations)”. The researchers found that the religiously active individuals also “tend to smoke and drink less, but they are not healthier in terms of exercise frequency and rates of obesity”.

The report suggests that societies with declining levels of religious engagement could be risking declines in personal and societal wellbeing. It’s worth pointing out, religious affiliation, by itself, did not lead to more personal happiness or civic involvement. The religious package and involvement are both important.

Six benefits of religion
Psychology professor Andy Tix has found five unique benefits of religion. Individually they may not be unique, but together they cover what happens within mainstream religious—and particularly Christian—groups and gatherings. The sixth benefit is found from other research.

1. Community is inherent to religion.
“Religiousness includes engagement with a group of people that, to some extent, share similar values and behaviour.” Tix adds that in developed countries, membership and involvement in clubs and other social groups have been in decline since the 1960s. “With increasing individualism, isolation and loneliness are on the rise and often are identified as driving forces behind rising rates of psychological disorders. Humans demonstrate a strong need to belong. Religion helps meet this need.”

2. Religion exposes you to different perspectives.
“Religious communities can include individuals that can be surprisingly different from each other. In fact, religious gatherings may provide an increasingly rare venue in our society to bring people from various kinds of backgrounds together.” He uses the example of congregations where wealthy and poor mix and “individuals may be forced to stretch their perspectives or wrestle with insights they may not have identified on their own”.

3. Religious rituals create meaning.
Many of these rituals are passed down from generation to generation. Connecting with rituals that seem ancient may help those involved “experience a deep sense of meaning or reverence”. “Rituals can be especially welcome during times of transition, such as birth, death, marriage and other ‘rites of passage.’”

4. Religion often emphasises music.
“There aren’t many opportunities for local communities to sing, play or listen to live music together, but religious communities often provide one such venue.” Further, sacred music may have its own unique benefits, as can be seen by individuals who become moved to the point of tears, chills or goosebumps during such musical experiences. In this way, worshipful music may be a potent source of awe for many people.”

5. Religion encourages collective action.
There may be important benefits to being a part of an institution that prioritises action. That may make it easier to get involved in a cause to make a significant difference in society. After all, history shows that religion has played significant roles in creating hospitals, health centres, schools, and homes for the elderly and those with special needs. “Individuals who aid in such efforts may feel greater purpose in life. They may help make the world, in fact, better.”

6. Religion may help you live longer.
Laura Wallace from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business examined the obituaries of 1000 individuals and looked at whether there was any evidence of religious affiliation—signifying that their faith had been a major element of their identity.

She published her results in 2018 and noted that “those people marked out for their faith lived for 5.6 years more, on average, than those whose religion had not been recorded”. She followed this research by checking obituaries from Des Moines in Iowa and found “the difference was even greater—about 10 years in total”. This, she says, “is on par with the avoidance of major health risks—like smoking”.

Religion is good for you . . . if
There’s adequate evidence that religion is good for us, with involvement as a significant factor. DeSteno has another helpful contribution. After clarifying that he shouldn’t be seen as an apologist for religion, he says, “My goal isn’t to argue that religion is always good. I fully recognise that religious beliefs have been used to motivate and justify horrendous acts of violence and abuse, to perpetuate many types of discrimination and inequality, and to push people toward many kinds of irrational behaviour.

“Religion’s value depends on the intentions of those using it. Yes, some of the tools religions provide can be used for evil purposes. But that’s not a reason to indict the entire enterprise, especially when there’s ample evidence that other items in religion’s toolbox can help foster people’s noblest traits”.

So, good religion comes back to its practitioners. Those of us who are people of faith are the ones who can make it good when we use religion’s toolbox to “help foster people’s noblest traits.” That’s what makes religion good.

Bruce Manners is an author, retired pastor and former editor of the Australia/New Zealand edition of Signs of the Times. He is based in Lilydale, Victoria.

1. All quotes from David Desteno are from his book How God Works: The Science Behind the Benefits of Religion, Simon & Schuster, 2021.

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