Since the earliest humans walked the earth, individuals have wondered where they came from, why they’re here, and what it all means. Religion, by and large, represents society’s attempts to answer those questions. While it isn’t always able to achieve that goal, it often succeeds at providing followers with structure, a code of ethics, and a sense of purpose. The promise of an afterlife, a core tenet of most organized religions, is another key motivator for followers, as this belief serves an important psychological function.
Religious beliefs reflect our unique cognitive ability to detect agency and intention in others and, by extension, in the natural world. Early forms of religions were pantheistic, attributing to aspects of the natural world powers that we would now call supernatural. As social groups grew in complexity with the dawn of agriculture and permanent communities, religion kept pace, and it continues to do. Its rituals and beliefs foster social cohesion and group identity, if sometimes to the exclusion of others who do not share the same ideas.
According to evolutionary psychology, human belief in gods may have arisen when we mastered tools, gained a sense of agency, and applied that concept to the world around us, assuming that a higher power must have created it. Today, most people have an understanding of the science that powers nature, but many still maintain belief in God, a belief that, among other things, confers meaning on the world.
Is religion good for us? Psychologists have debated the question for decades. Some separate a commitment to organized religion from participation in personal spiritual practice, favoring the latter. But a persuasive body of research finds that religious belief and participation can help people cope with stress, and that many reap significant benefits from the social support of a religious community. There can be a downside, though, especially if strict beliefs foster shame and guilt.
A growing number of people report in surveys that they consider themselves spiritual, but not religious. Such individuals may believe in connecting to a higher power, but lack an interest in the structures of organized religion. And yet religious adherents maintain that such an outlook ignores the potential benefits to be derived from the discipline, accountability, and safety of religious communities, as well as their literature and music.
Mindfulness is an important part of many religious traditions, primarily eastern traditions, and does not contradict the practices or beliefs of most world religions. But even when mindfulness is practiced outside of a religious context, as a growing number of people do, research shows that it can still deliver significant physical and mental health benefits.
Spiritual beliefs can be beneficial for a person’s health, increasing their optimism and resilience while decreasing their risk of depression, substance abuse, suicide, and risky behaviors. Belief can bring together people who share the same values, giving them a sense of belonging and greater social support. In addition, many religious organizations support health-based initiatives, such as healthy eating, regular exercise, and stress reduction, that have a positive impact on their communities.
Belief can give people comfort during hard times, especially when they experience profound loss. It provides purpose and an anchor for morality, which acts as a deterrent to crime. Religious belief can be a boon to parents as well, as it can inspire children to be more giving: Compared to agnostic or atheist peers, religious youth are much more likely to be involved in community outreach such as volunteering, and overwhelmingly more likely to cite forgiveness as a value they endorse.
In studies of people at the highest risk for depression, because of having parents with depression or having had earlier episodes of depression themselves, religiosity was found to significantly limit the condition’s onset or recurrence. The question of how religion delivers such a benefit is still being explored, but fostering the development of resilience may be an important factor.
The social and spiritual aspects of religious participation may deliver real physical and psychological benefits. Regular attendance at religious services has been correlated with better physical and mental health, including better sleep, lower blood pressure, and a lower mortality rate. Those who attend services also appear less likely to succumb to “deaths from despair,” such as suicide or drug or alcohol poisoning.
Powerful religious or spiritual experiences are often described as transcendent, and brain-imaging studies suggest that may be true. When people described times they felt connection to a higher power, their scans showed less activity in the inferior parietal lobe, indicating a type of temporary loss of self in those moments. Imaging studies also show that intensive repetitive prayer activates the brain’s reward system, much like sex, drugs, or chocolate can.
Some therapists keep religion out of their sessions with patients, but a movement in the field argues that they shouldn’t, because religious beliefs are core elements of many people’s identities and may help shed light on the sources of their struggles as well. Using elements of a client’s belief system or practice in therapy may also enhance their understanding or acceptance of clinical advice.
Surveys find that far fewer people seek out a spiritual leader for advice or guidance today than in the past. In the absence of such a connection, they may be more likely to turn to therapists as “wisdom figures” in their lives who can fill an important role, especially if the clinician is able to incorporate the client’s belief system into their discussions.
No. Psychology is often suggested to be hostile to, or at least incompatible with, religious belief because the field defines a belief in God as delusional. But that’s not the case: Central to the clinical definition of a delusional belief is that others with the same social or cultural background cannot understand it. This is not at all true for religious beliefs, which are shared by large segment of the culture, including many therapists.