Does religion do you harm or good?


Famous atheists have said that religion is harmful to the believer and to society. Religious belief is “poisonous”, making believers “delusional” and anti-social. And internet sceptics have followed them in repeating the allegations until they have some sort of authority.

These accusations may trouble some christians. But the thing is, the scientific evidence shows otherwise.

The science of religion and wellbeing

You may not be aware of it but the study of the neurophysiology, sociology and psychology of religion is a scientific discipline. There have also been many scientific studies of health and wellbeing, including many on the contribution religious belief or attendance makes. These studies make no assumptions about the truth or otherwise of religious belief, but look at how such belief is experienced and how it affects people and society.

I have listed almost 40 studies on religion and wellbeing in Studies of medicine and religion and outlined the conclusions of these studies in The health and wellbeing benefits of active and positive christian belief.

Religion, wellbeing and prosociality

The results are not black and white, sometimes different aspects of religion have different effects, but the overall conclusions are very clear. Religious belief and religious practice are associated with higher than average levels of physical and mental health and wellbeing, and higher levels of prosociality (prosociality is a term for “voluntary behavior intended to benefit another”). Sometimes religion is found to be a significant cause.

So religious belief and or practice has been found to help people under stress, assist recovery from physical and mental illnesses, and reduce the incidence of depression, suicide, substance abuse and anti-social behaviour. Believers are generally happier and more likely to donate to charity and volunteer in the community.

Some summary quotes

  • “our brain-scan research, which we document in our new book, How God Changes Your Brain, led us to the conclusion that faith is the most important thing a person needs to maintain a neurologically healthy brain. Indeed, we believe that faith is more essential than exercise, especially in light of the cumulative research showing how doubt and pessimism can shorten your life by years.” (Neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman.)
  • “the data that religion has social and individual benefits is so overwhelming that saying that religion has no benefits is active science denial.” (Connor Woods, PhD student in Science and Religion.)
  • “the data consistently point to a negative association between religiosity and criminal behavior and a positive association between religiosity and prosocial behavior. Both relations are modest in magnitude and ambiguous with respect to causation.” (Scott O. Lilienfeld and Rachel Ammirati, university researchers and atheists.)
  • “There’s no shortage of research on religion and health. Most of it suggests that the religious not only live longer, but are also likely to live better.” (Jonathan Morgan on the Science on Religion blog.)

Take-home messages

1. This question can be settled by properly designed medical studies carried out by competent medical and psychological researchers and reported in respected scientific journals.

2. The overwhelming evidence is that religious belief and practice, overall and with many exceptions, lead to better than average health and wellbeing and a higher than average degree of prosociality.

3. The causation and mechanisms are not always clear. Possible explanations have been proposed but in most cases the jury is still out.

4. None of this “proves” God exists, and I haven’t seen any researchers would claim that. But it is consistent with belief in God.

5. This evidence is broadly contrary to the claims of some atheists that religion causes great harm.

6. Christians should not be concerned about scientific studies of religion. Scientists may often treat them as an explanation of religion, but we can just as reasonably see them as how God is experienced by human beings.

Further reading

Photo Credit: realize_photo via Compfight cc

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  1. I wonder if a similar correlation with respect to prison population for atheists. Basically that atheism correlates with fewer prison inmates as well. It is at least my anecdotal impression that there are also few atheists in “the hole”.
    Do you know whether those studies are corrected for class, education and ethnic background? And whether there are differences between I-, E- and Q-religiosity?

  2. Personally , in overall . it has done harm . It made me live a delusional lifestyle that simply made me fantasize about an all powerful deity that takes care of me .

  3. Hi IN, yes I have read that there are less atheists in prison than in the overall US population. The problem here is that no causation has been assessed that I have seen. It could be that atheists are less likely to commit crimes, or that prisoner are likely to convert, or that poor people are more likely to be both religious and in prison (my guess), or some other causation. The internet is full of interesting correlations, but until other variables are dealt with, the correlations prove little.
    So yes, most studies correct for other variables, and different types of religiosity can give different results. Some studies better define religiosity, some don’t.

  4. Hi Noel, I’m sorry that you feel harm has been done to you. Can you tell us how “a delusional lifestyle” and fantasizing about God harmed you?

  5. It could be that atheists are less likely to commit crimes, or that prisoner are likely to convert, or that poor people are more likely to be both religious and in prison (my guess), or some other causation.

    True, poverty must increase the amount of believers in prison and so must racism, considering how high religiosity and religious affiliation is among black Americans. That makes it difficult to predict how the factors swing on my question.

  6. I thought that I was clicking a link to get unbiased, real scientific data about religion and the mind, but no, I got this crap

  7. HI, sorry to disappoint you. Which of Newberg, Scott Lilienfeld, Rachel Ammirati, Mark Waldman, Connor Wood and the studies listed under Studies of medicine and religion do you think is unscientific? Perhaps you thought you knew the answer, and you didn’t like it when the experts disagree?

  8. I am in a group for people who have left high demand religious groups/cults and another member works as a case manager in mental health. He quotes research that shows people are less damaged going through using drugs/alcohol etc for a period of time than those raised in these types of religions as the guilt and shame are so pervasive.

  9. I am very surprised that so many researchers hew to their data sets and don’t see the larger picture as far as aggregate results. Surely, if religion offered greater benefit to believers than non believers, we should see this direction in the aggregate… meaning very clear trends in larger populations that share this single attribute.
    We don’t.
    In fact, there are statistically significant data that demonstrate consistent negative correlation when this single factor is used as the metric. The prison population (where people are without legal constraint to be a believer or not) is one glaring example; prison populations are significantly over-represented by people who claim to be religious believers. But the examples are the same across the spectrum of negative social behaviours (everything from higher infant mortality to murder rates, from teen pregnancies to domestic abuse, from illiteracy to sexually transmitted diseases to rates of bigotry, hate crimes, and discrimination of out groups): a strong correlation with religiosity. The correlation is so strong, in fact, that it is interesting to lay maps of rates of negative social behaviours across geographical areas and be able to predict with a statistically higher degree of accuracy equivalent rates of religiosity (the higher the rate of the negative social behaviour found in an area, the higher the religiosity in that area). This does not establish causation but it very much addresses the over-reaching question and offers clear trends.
    The reason why this is such powerful evidence in favour of the ‘religion is harmful’ conclusion is that if the reverse were true, namely, ‘religion is beneficial’, then one should be able to find at the very least mixed trend results in the aggregate of larger populations. That result would indicate either conclusion has some merit. But we don’t find this at all, and this is the data that strongly favours the ‘harmful’ aspect of religious belief in that it most certainly does not produce its oft-claimed result: that religious belief somehow grants a higher understanding of what constitutes moral and ethical behaviour. The aggregate data indicates this assertion is not just wrong but contrary to reality… unless you break reality down into bite sized data sets.

  10. Hi Tildeb, before I comment, I wonder could you clarify. Are you saying the following?
    (1) You agree that the studies I have referenced suggest that religious belief and practice are more helpful than harmful?
    (2) But you say there are “bigger picture” studies that show the opposite?
    (3) You think the “bigger picture” studies are of more value in discerning the relation ship between wellbeing and religious belief?
    If that is more or less what you are saying, can you give me some references to expert studies that show this please? Thanks.

  11. 1) Yes, there are many studies that link religiosity to comparatively better outcomes.
    2) Yes, there are aggregate studies (like here and here and here) that demonstrate these better outcomes do not seem to translate into larger populations but the reverse, namely the lower the rate of religiosity in larger populations, the better the social outcomes. This should not be the case if the results for Q#1 were truly representative.
    3) Small sample sizes and/or selective groupings are common problems in research. The data set places boundaries from which statistics are then drawn that make reference to being representative of the larger world beyond these boundaries. This is the kind of research results often cited by those who claim they are representative… as you have done. So one way to test this assertion is to see if the pattern, the trend, holds true as the boundaries expand. Clearly, they do not.
    This is a significant problem for those who wish to use smaller sample sizes to be representative for larger samples, a problem that few people seem willing to even recognize.
    So you can see the scope of the problem when respected researchers like Ammirati and Lilienfeld use multiple studies to bring out correlational aspects, and then feel fully justified to write stuff like, “a positive association between religiosity and prosocial behavior,” and “extant correlational data are broadly consistent in demonstrating a statistical association between religious belief and (a) decreased levels of antisocial and criminal behavior and (b) heightened levels of prosocial behavior.” They do so presuming the correlation holds true in representing a wider framing. The correlation not only does not hold true when actual larger populations are researched, but reverses!
    So, yes, aggregate studies with large populations is the litmus test for smaller population studies. This is where the rubber from all the smaller studies meets the road of real life.

  12. Hi Tildeb, thanks for the links. I have read the latter two but couldn’t open the first one.
    So your hypothesis is that while “smaller population studies” show that religious belief and practice is beneficial for wellbeing and prosociality, the opposite is true in larger sample sizes and aggregate studies. This entails you believing that even the consensus of “respected researchers” is wrong for this is “a problem that few people seem willing to even recognize”. But you have recognised it and feel confident of it. I think and hope I have understood you correctly.
    I believe you are mistaken in this hypothesis:
    1. It requires that almost all the people with expertise currently working in this field are mistaken in their methodology and conclusions and you are correct, which I think is implausible.
    2. You have offered no expert support for your view, for neither of the references I could read support you, as we shall see.
    3. it is a standard scientific methodology to isolate the few factors to be examined and to hold other factors constant. The smaller studies do this and so are scientifically valid, but the larger aggregation analyses generally don’t do this, and so effects cannot be linked to particular causes. As we’ll see in a moment, this is the fault in your statements about the national and international studies – there are many, many factors affecting wellbeing, and you have done nothing to show that religious belief and practice is the one making the difference.
    So I offer an alternative hypothesis. Religious belief and practice has varying effects on wellbeing and prosociality. Mostly they are beneficial, but there are some types of religion that are “harmful”. But other factors have a bigger effect on prosociality and wellbeing, principally poverty and wealth inequality. These two factors increase crime and anti-social behaviour and reduce health and wellbeing. But at the same time, poorer people and people living in less equal cultures are more likely to be religious. Thus religion is associated with low wellbeing and prosociality, but it isn’t the cause – both are at least partially caused by poverty and wealth inequality. Within such cultures, religious belief will increase wellbeing and prosociality slightly, but does not have as large a positive effect as the negative effect of poverty and inequality. Thus national and international studies, which don’t and can’t separate out the different effects of factors like religion, poverty and crime, can easily be presented erroneously in the way that you have done, but the more detailed studies show the true picture.
    There is plenty of evidence in support of this this.
    4. Your third reference (Pew Forum) gives much support for this. There is too much to quote, but these headings illustrate: “Weekly worship attendance is most common where life is shortest”; “Greater income inequality is tied to greater importance of religion”.
    5. Your second reference (Progressive Cynic) points to a correlation between conservatism (and hence religiosity) and wellbeing and prosociality, but concludes: ”there is a legitimate argument about the direction of correlation in this pattern”, so it doesn’t address the issue we are discussing.
    6. Many, many other experts support this hypothesis. I can’t list them all here, but this link mentions dozens of studies or experts who have come to conclusions that support this hypothesis, or recognise that it is the majority position.
    So I conclude that the second hypothesis is true, religion really does mostly benefit people and society, but the effect is smaller than the effect of poverty and inequality, leading to the result that poorer and economically unequal countries and states often have lower levels of wellbeing and prosociality than richer and more economically equal ones.
    Thus this analysis illustrates why the experts are correct to examine the relationships in detail, and any analysis that lumps too many factors in together, as you have done, is liable to be quite erroneous.
    Thanks for the opportunity to clarify this.

  13. When looking at correlates, one cannot help but notice that your causation conclusion does not bear out when you say, “So I conclude that the second hypothesis is true, religion really does mostly benefit people and society, but the effect is smaller than the effect of poverty and inequality….” You are presuming the causation you want, that religion is a net benefit because this is true for the smaller sample sizes (oh, but it’s scientific research!) but simply reject that poverty and inequality and not religion are the causation of a negative correlation in larger sample sizes!
    The fact of the (aggregate data) correlate is that the two are linked – inequality/poverty are linked with greater rates of religiosity. This data is unambiguous. The causation direction is unknown, namely, we don’t know if greater religiosity causes greater rates of poverty/inequality or if greater inequality/poverty causes higher rates of religiosity. In either case, my point stands: aggregate studies demonstrate the hypothesis – religion causes more societal good than harm – does not bear out. The correlate links higher rates of societal poverty/inequality with higher rates of religiosity regardless of the direction of the causation. If religion really did cause more societal good than harm, this correlate should be reversed. It’s not. Therefore, it cannot be said that religion causes society more good than harm even if it can be shown to offer some benefit to some people. On a societal level, this claim is factually incorrect.

  14. Hi Tildeb, I think there is little point in discussing further. You prefer your own explanations to those of the experts who have studied this matter and who I have referenced (and you have not). I have said enough.

Comments are closed.