Having a Religion Doesn't Help You, But Practicing One Does

New research shows important benefits for those who practice a religion.

Posted Apr 03, 2017

DepositPhotos/VIA Institute
Source: DepositPhotos/VIA Institute

Higher gratitude. More forgiveness and kindness. Higher love. These are some of the benefits of those who practice their religion compared to those who don't practice.

Research by Willibald Ruch and Anne Berthold examined the following three groups of people across three countries – totaling over 20,500 people:

1.) Those who have a religious affiliation and practice it.

2.) Those who have a religious affiliation (members of a community) and do NOT practice it.

3.) Those who do NOT have a religious affiliation.

They discovered that ONLY the first group (those who practice their religion) were the ones who experienced various benefits. They were higher in:

This is consistent with research by Chris Peterson and colleagues found that the character strengths most connected with a meaningful life were religiousness, zest, hope, and gratitude.

Caveats to the Study

This study is a start to bringing character into the discussion of spirituality and religion. Note that the study was not nuanced enough to examine the different types of religions; or to tease out agnostic versus atheist; or to examine the infamous category of “spiritual but not religious” (the latter of which has been one of the fastest growing spirituality groups in the United States for over a decade). A next-level study would more closely examine each participant’s perception of what it means to be religious, to be spiritual, and to practice or not practice. This study assessed religion in an oversimplified way that did not explore these important distinctions.

This study also does not tackle the “why” question: Why are there benefits to the practice of religion? Many argue (and some find this in research too) that the benefit of practicing religion mainly falls upon the social and community benefits. People connect with people in religious institutions. They feel a strong sense of belonging. They sense they are part of something important, something greater than themselves. In addition, there are often the benefits that come from helping others less fortunate, from being kind and generous, from going the extra mile in volunteering, advocating for social justice, and taking on a leadership role.

There is much to explore with the connection between character strengths and religiousness and/or spirituality. No doubt, our identity – our character strengths – play an important role in whatever our affiliation or lack thereof may be.

Make It Practical

Here’s my takeaway for each of the 3 groups that were examined in this study.

You have a religion and you practice it.

  • This research shows that you’re more likely to experience benefits by practicing your religion than not. What is it about the practice of your religion that you find most beneficial? How might you ensure you maintain your practice? How do you connect with “the sacred” or “the holy” in your spiritual engagement? How might you use your character strengths in the process?

You have a religion but do not practice it.

  • Ask yourself about your barriers to practicing? How might your signature strengths - those highest within you - help you to overcome your barriers? What might you want to explore in terms of your religion, other religions, or spiritual practices? What do you sense would be your best action to align who you are with where you are currently at in your spiritual journey?

You don’t have a religion.

  • What are your pathways to finding and expressing meaning in your life? What experiences have you had that you would describe as awe-inducing, sacred, holy, or left you filled with wonder? How might you tap into those experiences more frequently in your life?
  • If you view yourself as “spiritual but not religious,” how do you most fully express your spirituality? What character strengths are central to your own spiritual journey?


Berthold, A., & Ruch, W. (2014). Satisfaction with life and character strengths of nonreligious and religious people: It’s practicing one’s religion that makes the difference. Frontiers in Psychology, 5. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00876

Peterson, C., Park, N., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2005). Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: The full life versus the empty life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6, 25-41. DOI: 10.1007/s10902-004-1278-z

VIA Institute on Character: www.viacharacter.org