Is Religion Good or Bad for Us?

Three reasons religion may be good for us (and a few reasons it might not be).

Posted Sep 10, 2018

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This week marks the beginning of the holiest period of the year for roughly 14 million Jews across the globe. As they celebrate the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, they begin looking back on the past twelve months through the lens of their faith, counting their blessings and asking forgiveness for their mistakes. For believers, it is a time of psychological and spiritual introspection, renewal, and growth.

As we approached this momentous holiday, a rabbi recently shared with me his conviction that religion can be one of the most powerful forces for good in individuals’ lives. “It offers us the opportunity to be better, happier, healthier people,” he asserted. “We shouldn’t forget that.”

Indeed, few forces have historically been more powerful than religion in shaping people’s existences. According to the latest poll by the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of Americans say that religion is at least somewhat important in their lives and 83 percent say they’re fairly certain that God or a higher power exists. But not everyone agrees that religion is good for us. There has long been a debate among scholars about this issue, with some claiming that it facilitates well-being and others claiming that it leads to neurosis. In fact, there are few issues in the field of psychology as highly researched as this question.

It isn’t an easy question to answer, however. One stumbling block is that religion means vastly different things to different people. Even the meaning of the word “religion” has changed over the past few decades. You might be surprised to know, for instance, that the distinction between religion and spirituality is a relatively new one, emerging only in the latter half of the twentieth century. It has become increasingly common to hear people say they are “spiritual” but not “religious,” with approximately one in four adults in the United States now identifying as such. But some have cautioned against making too much of this distinction. Researcher Kenneth Pargament has pointed out that, for many people, religion and spirituality can’t easily be separated. Although someone participating in a religious service certainly is partaking in organized religion, he or she may simultaneously undergo a very personal spiritual experience inspired by the sermon, music, or beauty of the building. Because of this difficulty teasing things apart, most psychological research on religion includes spirituality in the mix.

Literally thousands of studies have now investigated the relationship between religion and well-being. Lucky for us, in 2015, Duke University professor of psychiatry Harold Koenig and his research team carefully reviewed more than 3,000 studies published prior to that time. A total of 79 percent of relevant studies showed a link between religion/spirituality and psychological well-being. A majority also demonstrated a relationship with physical well-being. In fact, one of the most widely celebrated findings is that religion and spiritualty are related to longer life. About 68 percent of published studies on that topic have found a link. In one study, researchers followed 8,450 people between the ages of 40 and 90+ for more than 8 years, noting those who passed away of any cause. The results revealed an 18 percent reduction in the risk of dying during this period for people who attended church services once per week, and a 30 percent reduction for those attending more than once per week—numbers approaching the power of regular moderate physical exercise.

We should be very careful how we interpret these findings, however.  Although it’s clear that relationships exist between religion and spirituality and both psychological and physical well-being, it isn’t clear exactly why they exist. That’s because religion is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon that can influence people in many ways. Here are three of the most important reasons that researchers believe religion and spirituality may be good for us:

Reason #1: Better Health Habits

Many religions encourage people to take care of their bodies and minds. The New Testament, for instance, calls the human body a “temple of the Holy Spirit,” encouraging followers to be good stewards of their physical selves. In the Hindu faith, the practice of Ayurveda specifies particular ways to care for one’s health, including eating certain foods and avoiding others. Perhaps because of such teachings, a number of studies have shown that religiousness is associated with better general health habits, including lower rates of smoking and alcohol consumption as well as a greater likelihood of undergoing regular medical screenings. 

Reason #2: Enhanced Coping

The ways that people cope with stress may also account for the relationship of religion and spirituality with well-being. When we encounter problems in our lives, researchers have observed that people can use religion to cope in both healthy and unhealthy ways. Positive religious coping consists of strategies that reflect a trusting relationship with God and a sense of spiritual connectedness to others, including reframing stressful events as reflecting the work of a benevolent God and seeing oneself as collaborating with God to solve problems, among others. It’s important to note, however, that not everyone who considers themselves to be religious or spiritual practices healthy coping. People also can experience spiritual discontentment, religious conflict, or come to believe that negative events are punishments from God—experiences that work against the ability to cope.

Reason #3: Social Support

A final important way that spirituality and religion may impact well-being is through social and emotional support. The word fellowship is often associated with Christian communities, while the words havurah (from the Hebrew for “friendship”) and sangha (Pali for “community”) are used in similar ways by Jews and Buddhists. Many religious institutions run support groups for people coping with emotional and physical difficulties, provide personnel to visit the sick and their families, or offer food and other resources to individuals with low incomes. Although religious groups are hardly the only sources of support in people’s lives, for believers, they can be important ones.

Despite the research connecting religion with well-being, it’s important to avoid concluding that people who consider themselves atheist and agnostic can’t be just as healthy and happy as those who are religious. All three of the factors just mentioned can be present in non-religious people's lives in plentiful quantities. Non-believers can and often do take excellent care of themselves, cope well with stress, and engage in loving and supportive relationships. 

It’s also important to realize that religion and spiritualty aren’t always associated with greater well-being. People who experience struggles with their religious and spiritual beliefs often experience greater anxiety, depression, and other forms of lowered psychological well-being. In addition, although people who believe in a forgiving God tend to forgive themselves when they make mistakes, those who believe in a less forgiving God deal with themselves more harshly. In one study, researchers even found that when HIV-positive men believed in a merciful and forgiving God, they experienced significantly slower disease-progression, but when they believed that God was harsh, judgmental, and punishing, their disease actually ended up progressing faster. The particular ideals of a religious or spiritual system really matter.

So as much as it’s tempting to buy into oversimplifications like, “religion is good,” real life isn’t so clear. Although the research shows that religion and spirituality are often helpful, we should be open to the idea that specific aspects of religion may be good or bad for our health under different circumstances.

Any complete understanding of human psychology can’t overlook the many ways that religion can impact its believers. As the rabbi expressed, research shows that religion certainly can be a powerful force for good in people’s lives. But, just like anything powerful, understanding it as fully as possible—both for better and for worse—is the real fundamental good.