Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

Religion can bring out the very best and worst in people

When it comes to religion, do you see the glass as half empty or half full?

Religion can bring out the very best and the very worst in people. Great acts of compassion, sacrifice, charity, loving kindness, forgiveness, reconciliation, and so forth often occur in the name of religion. However, horrific acts of violence, prejudice, terrorism, and hate also occur in the name of religion too.

To quote Charles Dickens from his classic, Tale of Two Cities:

 

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way."

This quote well illustrates my point. Religion can give us the best of times and the worst of times for sure. A day doesn't go by without some news story that supports the view that religion can be a plight on the planet. Whether it is publically burning the Qur'an leading to murderous mob behavior, religiously based protests at military funerals and health clinics for women, terrorist attacks, hatred towards the LGBT community (including blaming natural disasters on homosexuals), hatred towards anyone who doesn't share their same point of view, or clergy sexual abuse of children, news reports suggest that religion is a big problem for society and encourages people to act horrifically. No wonder the "new atheists" such as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins are so popular.

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But do you really think that the terrible behavior that those who make the news really represents the whole group?  Do you really think that all (or even many at all) who report that they are Muslims are terrorists and hate Jews? Or that Christians hate homosexuals? And so forth?  The fringe groups make the news while the mainstream does not. What is more likely to make news, someone publically burning the Qu'ran or someone operating a local soup kitchen through their church?

Research demonstrates that religious and spiritual engagement and practice are associated with excellent mental and physical health and enhanced relationships too. Those who actively engage in contemplative practices, religious services, and faith sponsored charitable activities typically receive many psychological, medical, relationship, and community benefits. In fact, epidemiological studies(1) have found all-cause mortality reductions of 40% among those who engage in regular volunteerism with further significant reductions among those who also attend regular religious services. Meta-analytic research(2,3) have found life extension of an average of 7 years for those engaged in religious activities (14 years for African Americans). Randomized clinical trials(4, 5) have found that contemplative and spiritual practices result in more compassion, relaxation as well as less depression and anxiety. Religion encourages people to act very good too.

So, when it comes to religion do you see the glass as half empty or half full? On balance, do you see religion as being generally a positive thing for the world or a negative thing?

Probably, if you are actively engaged in a religious tradition you probably see the upside of religion but if you are not involved with any religious traditions you probably see only the downside. If you engage in spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, and religious services or perhaps work in a church sponsored soup-kitchen or shelter you probably see the positive influence of religion pretty clearly. However, if you read the news about the violence and aggression by some religious subgroups you probably have a pretty dim view.

 

The bottom line is that religion can inspire us to be at our very best and at our very worst. It offers the best of times and the worst of times.

What do you think?


References

1 Harris, A. H. S., & Thoresen, C. E. (2005). Volunteering is associated with delayed mortality in older people: Analysis of the longitudinal study of aging. Journal of Health Psychology, 10, 739-752.

2 McCullough, M. E., Hoyt, W. T., Larson, D. B., Koenig, H. G., & Thoresen, C. E. (2000). Religious involvement and mortality: A meta-analytic review. Health Psychology, 19, 211-221.

3 Powell, L. H., Shahabi, L., & Thoresen, C. E. (2003). Religion and spirituality: Linkages to physical health. American Psychologist, 58, 36-42.

4 Oman, D., Shapiro, S., Thoresen, C. E., Flinders, T., Driskill, J. D., & Plante, T. G. (2007). A college course for learning from community-based and traditional spiritual models: A randomized evaluation. Pastoral Psychology, 55, 473-493.

5 Oman, D., Shapiro, S. L., Thoresen, C. E., Plante, T. G., & Flinders, T. (2008). Meditation
lowers stress and supports forgiveness among college students: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of American College Health, 56, 569-578.

 

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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