This page at a glance …..
Some critics of christianity accuse christians of being delusional, psychologically impaired, denying the facts and cowering on an ever-diminishing island of faith as the tide of science rises around us. Less extreme non-christians generally think our belief is little more than a harmless diversion, but most don’t think it offers anything worthwhile.
But it turns out that these are not the views of science at all. Scientific/medical studies show that, in the main, christians and other religious believers are mentally and physically healthier than average, and are generally happier and better citizens.
This doesn’t prove that we are right in our beliefs, but it shows that critics are sometimes ignoring the facts.
Does religion poison everything?
The late Christopher Hitchens said that religion poisons everything. Richard Dawkins wrote about “the God delusion”. And Wikipedia reports that critics “often consider religion to be outdated, harmful to the individual, harmful to society”.
In one sense it doesn’t matter what critics say from the outside – what matters more is our experience on the inside. But some christians may be disturbed by the claims.
So this page will summarise the findings of genuine scientific/medical studies on how religious belief (mostly christian belief, but not always) influences the believer’s mental and physical health and prosociality (= “voluntary behavior intended to benefit another”).
Most of the studies referred to here are listed in Medicine and religion studies.
Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg
Andrew Newberg has researched how certain behaviour patterns, which include prayer, meditation and participation in religious ritual, change the structure of the brain. Newberg and Mark Waldman say:
“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.”
Connor Woods is doing doctoral studies in the science of religion. He says:
“the data that religion has social and individual benefits is so overwhelming that saying that religion has no benefits is active science denial”
Scott O. Lilienfeld and Rachel Ammirati
Scott and Rachel are university researchers and atheists who researched all the studies they could find on this question, and concluded:
“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.”
Religious and spiritual people who participate in religious activities such as prayer, meditation and attendance at religious meetings tend to have better physical health than non-believers.
For example, studies have found that they have better cardiovascular health, they are less likely to suffer from heart disease, die from cirrhosis of the liver, or have high blood pressure, and they recover more quickly from surgery and cancer. Chronically ill believers have below average mortality rates and pain levels.
People who believe in a loving God have dramatically better response to HIV/AIDS than those who have a harsh view of God, and they spend less time in hospital recovering from heart disease. Prayer reduces the pain and the ability to cope with pain of those suffering chronic back pain.
“hundreds of medical, neurological, psychological and sociological studies on religion [show] ….even minimal religious participation is correlated with enhancing longevity and personal health.” Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman.
Believers tend to have better mental health than non-believers. They worry less and are more tolerant of life’s uncertainties and setbacks. Religious faith improves a person’s ability to cope with being widowed, raising developmentally challenged children, divorce, unemployment or disability. However those who focus on an authoritarian God can make themselves more fearful.
Religious people suffer less from anxiety and depression. This is particularly true of those coping with the uncertainties of major illnesses such as cancer, or recovery after major surgery. As a result non-religious people are 4 times more likely to commit suicide than are religious people. Spirituality is helpful in mental patients’ recovery.
People who have had religious or mystical experiences are more able to cope with adverse circumstances and overcome addictions and they score lower on psychopathology scales.
“empirical evidence supports a generally protective effect of religious involvement for mental illness and psychological distress” (Religion and Mental Health: Theory and Research)
Are religious people ‘delusional’?
This is a famous and often-repeated claim, but the experts say clearly it is wrong. As already noted, religious people generally have better than average mental health. Psychology Today says: “delusions commonly represent an underlying organic illness that warrants specific treatment.” If christianity was really a delusion, people couldn’t ‘deconvert’ without specific treatment.
“Religion can be delusional, but to think it inherently so is to misunderstand both religion and delusion. … Religion therefore contains a host of properties that actually militate against pathological delusion …. Indeed, most empirical studies confirm that religious people tend to be happier and healthier, as well as financially, socially, and interpersonally more successful than their non-religious counterparts — wholly inconsistent with the religion-as-delusion theory.” Matt J. Rossano, Professor of Psychology, Southeastern Louisiana University.
All over the world, religious people, especially “religiously active people”, tend to be happier. In stressful marital situations, those who pray for their spouses tend to behave in more positive ways. Religious people tend to have better emotional health, especially after trauma, than non-religious people.
“The empirical evidence demonstrates that overall religious people are happier.” Leslie Francis, Professor of Religions and Education at Warwick University.
In general, religious people are more altruistic and prosocial. They give more to secular charities, as well as giving to religious charities, and they are more likely to do voluntary community service.
However the research results are variable. Some studies show that heartfelt belief in God encourages compassionate behaviour and reduces prejudice towards outsiders, but external religious observance is less likely to. Other studies suggest that religious practice is more important than belief, and can have both good and bad effects.
Non-religious people are far more likely to suffer from substance abuse (alcohol or drugs) than religious people. Many studies show that religious people, and religious communities, have lower rates of crime, although a smaller number of studies show the opposite, or no effect.
The variation in some results seems likely to have been caused by other factors that are associated with religion.
“religion shows some positive effect on prosocial behavior, but these effects are not always straightforward.” Jesse Lee Preston, Erika Salomon, and Ryan S. Ritter.
There are some counter claims to this broad consensus. Some individual scientific studies show anomalous results, or measure some aspect of religion that doesn’t have such positive outcomes, or find other factors associated with religion may be the primary cause. But so far these studies haven’t changed the broad consensus much.
But there are also some spurious, non-scientific claims made based on data that hasn’t been properly handled. To illustrate this sort of problem, I have considered the claim that life expectancy in US states is lower for more religious states.
How not to do science
I plotted life expectancy vs church attendance using the data in Wikipedia, and obtained this graph.
We can immediately see two facts:
- There is a correlation between life expectancy and church attendance.
- The r2 = 0.39 (r is the correlation coefficient). This means that church attendance explains 39% of the variation in life expectancy (or vice versa), and other factors explain 61%.
Correlation is not causation
This truism applies here. There is a correlation (significant though not high) but what can we say about causation?
- It could be that church attendance indeed reduces life expectancy.
- It could equally be that people who are less healthy and have a lower life expectancy attend church more.
- Or it could be that some other factors explain both outcomes. For example, similar Wikipedia data shows that church attendance decreases with wealth, but life expectancy increases, so wealth could be the cause of both results.
This data doesn’t allow us to draw any of these conclusions. There are a multitude of factors that differentiate between the states – wealth, ethic mix, crime rates, types of work, unemployment rates, diet, exercise, political beliefs, etc. It is impossible to decide on this data which if any of these might be a contributor to life expectancy.
How to do science
For these reasons, science operates differently than those who build a case on such flimsy data analysis. This information would be enough to form a hypothesis that then requires testing. Testing requires keeping other factors constant and varying just church attendance and life expectancy, or else doing multiple correlations and determining which are the most significant.
Thus comparing between states brings in too many other factors. We need to compare between two groups that are as alike in every way as possible, except in the two factors we are measuring. This is how scientific studies are done. And the studies have been done, and the results are quite clear.
While there is much that has been done in the name of religion that is unhelpful, harmful or shameful, christians need not be concerned by the claims that it is inherently harmful. Overall, it is beneficial to individuals and to society.
This doesn’t mean that non-believers can’t behave just as well – it just means they don’t do so as often. And it doesn’t prove christianity is true, although if the figures were different, they would surely be used to argue against the truth of christian belief.