Is Religion Good or Bad for Us? The Psychology of Belief

While some comment that religion and belief in God are waning, statistics continue to show strong interest in religion and low rates of atheism — even in a technologically and scientifically informed society like the United States. According to recent surveys, 83 percent of Americans report to belong to a religious denomination. A majority of Americans report that religion plays a “very important” role in their lives, and it was found that 92% of adult Americans believe in God (U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 2008). But, the number of people identifying as “spiritual, but not religious” has been growing in the United States in the last three decades. Worldwide surveys show religious participation elsewhere in the world represents a mixed picture (Smith, 2009). In Muslim countries, belief in God remains strong, while in the secular nations of Western Europe, there has been a decline (Smith, 2009). Regardless of current trends, one must acknowledge that religion and spirituality still play an important role in the human experience and the view of its psychological nature offers a unique and vital perspective.

IMPACT OF BELIEF ON HEALTH

Empirical studies highlight the roles religion and religious belief can serve in modifying anxiety (Friedman & Rholes, 2008), controlling one’s own impulses (Benson, 1992; Koenig, McCullough, & Larson, 2001), making meaning of suffering (Murphy, Johnson, & Lohan, 2003), and creating a sense of community and connectedness (Ellison & George, 1994; Krause, 2008). There are many that suggest a primary outcome of religious experience is a more fulfilling life. Maslow found “peak experiences” occur frequently among his “self-actualized” individuals, while Csikszentmihalyi found “flow experiences” to be related to individual happiness (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). While these experiences are not necessarily directly religious, they may represent some of the same experiential territory of mystical or religious induced states.

In a national survey sample, Greeley (1975) found religious “ecstasy” to be strongly and positively correlated with scores on a happiness scale, and Hardy (1979) found “a sense of purpose or new meaning to life” to be the most frequently named consequence of religious experience in the self-reports collected. Other positive outcomes of religious experience include being less materialistic, less status oriented, less authoritarian, and an increase in social concern (Greeley 1975, Wuthnow 1978).

Other research also demonstrates that religious and spiritual engagement and practice are associated with mental and physical health measures. Those who actively engage in contemplative practices, religious services, and faith sponsored charitable activities typically receive many psychological, medical, and social benefits (Plante, 2008). Meta-analytic research have found life extension of an average of seven years for those engaged in religious activities (14 years for African Americans) (Thoresen, 2007). Randomized clinical trials (Oman, et al., 2007; Oman, Shapiro, Thoresen, Plante, & Flinders, 2008) have found that spiritual practices result in increased relaxation, compassion, as well as less depression and anxiety. It is because of such research that many continue to acknowledge the importance of the experiential dimension of religion, even if not many actually research it. According to one authoritative review, “The mental health influence of religious beliefs and practices — particularly when imbedded within a long-standing, well-integrated faith tradition — is largely a positive one” (Koenig, 1998, p. 392).

However, Levin (2010) in a review of the literature on the overall positive impact of religion in psychology suggests that much of the positive effects of religion have been overstated:

“Most findings are results of analyses of one-off measures of public and private religious behavior, mostly in relation to single-item measures or unidimensional indices of self-reports of general or domain-specific to well-being. Moreover, these are mostly prevalence (cross-sectional) studies of religion as a correlate of distress/well-being in general populations; they do not examine religion as a therapeutic agent for existing pathology. These are thus not studies of healing but of prevention” (Levin 2010, p. 5).

Levin expresses an important qualifier in much of the research that examines the impact of religion on health. Thus, it may be important to examine all sides to the impact of religion.

NEGATIVE IMPACTS OF RELIGION?

There are those who indicate that there is evidence that religion can be harmful as well as helpful. Some of the negative impacts of religion have been identified in the psychological literature. Flannelly, Koenig, Ellison, Galek, and Krause (2006) found that while religious belief in life-after-death was significantly related to better mental health as measured by psychiatric symptomatology, unpleasant afterlife religious beliefs were directly related to symptomology (Flannelly, Ellison, Galek, & Koenig, 2008).

Major life events or disruptions (i.e. death of a loved one or man-made or natural disasters) can shatter one’s most fundamental values and belief systems about the nature and meaning of life itself. This disruption can include one’s religious and spiritual beliefs and include anger toward God, feelings of divine abandonment, and a general confusion of meaning. Religious and/or spiritual confusion is not a unique feeling. Nielson (1998) found that at least 65% of an adult sample expressed religious conflict in their lives. Additional research indicates that between 10 to 50 percent of surveyed samples express negative emotions about God (Exline & Rose, 2005; Paragment, Koenig, & Perez, 2000; Fitchett, Rybarczyk, DeMarco, & Nicholas, 1999).

Studies have linked religious struggles to numerous indicators of psychological distress and lower psychological functioning. For instance McConnell et. al. (2006) found higher levels of religious struggles were tied to reports of greater generalized anxiety, phobia, depression, obsessive-compulsiveness, somatization, and paranoid ideation. Caprini-Feagin and Paragment (2008) also found addictive behaviors among college students to be associated with religious struggles. Several additional studies showed that religious struggles and confusion to be linked with indicators of poorer health functioning and reduced health outcomes (Fitchetteal, 1999; Ironson, Stuuezle, Flecther, & Ironson, 2006) as well as greater risk of mortality (Paragment, Koenig, Tarakeshwar, & Hahn, 2001).

Some have concluded that the research of religious struggle and poor outcomes suggests that the nature of religion itself is thus the cause of poor psychological coping and functioning. This conclusion may be a possibility, but an equally valid view would be that the psychological disturbance is marked by religious uncertainly or a struggle of meaning as a symptom of emotional disturbance (an effect). Perhaps another way of establishing the role of religion in psychological functioning would be to compare religious belief versus non-belief on psychological outcomes. Wilkinson and Coleman (2009) did compare coping between matched older age groups of strong religious believers against strong atheistic believers. Their results found equal positive adjustment (physical and psychological) among both groups.

This suggests that a well-formed belief system (in either direction toward the belief in God) is likely linked with better psychological and physical outcomes. Taken with the prior research in religious struggles, this implies that conflicted or uncertain beliefs can lead to psychological and physical vulnerabilities.

Empirical studies also show that religious motivation (i.e. the why of religion) makes a difference for health and well-being. Researchers distinguished people who felt that their religious involvement was personally chosen from those whose religious practices were motivated by external pressures, including inducing anxiety, and guilt (Ryan, Rigby, & King, 1993). Research found that those with a more internalized religious motivation showed better mental health (including higher self-esteem) than those whose religious motivation was based on guilt and social pressure. Saroglou (2002) found extrinsic religion was related to high Neuroticism.

When examined through a wider and more objective vista — the true impact of religion may offer a more mixed picture. Future research needs to continue to seek this clarity of view.

Image source: Unsplash

Like what you read? Give Jonathan Appel, Ph.D. a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.