Does Religion Make People Dysfunctional? A Psychological Perspective

March 29, 2010

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Is that so? Then why am I grouchy today?

I recently came across an article titled “Population Secularity and Individual Religiosity Predict Human Flourishing.” The purpose of this survey of studies, written by Dr. David Meyers of Hope College and published in the Spring 2010 edition of the official newsletter of the Journal of the Psychology of Religion, American Psychological Association Division 36, was to explore the fundamental claim of New Atheists that religion is innately problematic and whether such claims were reflected in psychological findings and confirmed by survey data. His question:

“Is religion ‘dangerous’ and associated with dysfunctionality, misery, and bigotry (as the new atheists have argued) or is it associated with health, joy, and altruism? [Of course,] in various times and places it has been associated with both; religion comes in both healthy and toxic forms. But on balance, is religious engagement more strongly associated with human degradation or human flourishing?”

In his survey, Dr. Meyers encountered two “striking and paradoxical” findings: that “religiosity is negatively correlated with well-being across populations, and positively correlated across individuals.”

One survey he references is a recent Gallup poll from a first-ever-in-history survey that is supposed to be representative of the entire world’s population. This survey polled around 350,000 people in 152 countries and found that nations where the majority of individuals indicate that religion isn’t an important part of their day-to-day life and places where the majority haven’t attended a religious service in the last week report higher quality of life.

This is localized within the United States as well. Dr. Meyers highlights: “The Southern states all have higher religious-adherence rates than do the West Coast states. They also have slightly higher divorce rates, and much higher crime, teen birth, and smoking rates. So, by some measures, it again looks like the least religious places are the healthiest and most civil.”

So far, this data seems to bolster the New Atheists position, right? Well, not so fast. Before we secularists get all “I told you so” up in here, there are other nuances to consider.

Making the case that there is more to consider in this analysis – essentially, that correlation does not necessarily imply causation – Dr. Meyers continues:

“States and countries vary in many ways, including not only religiosity but also literacy and education, culture and ethnicity, and income and financial security. [Psychologist] Ed Diener, who has noticed the same negative religiosity-well-being correlation across populations, tells me it disappears when controlling for income. The Princeton economist Angus Deaton is also mining the Gallup data, and similarly finds that the cross-country correlation essentially vanishes when controlling for education. Moreover, the great irony is that the correlation reverses when computed across individuals. Religiously engaged individuals tend to be… healthier, more generous, less crime-prone, and less often involved with premature sexuality and pregnancy.”

This is in line with other studies that suggest a correlation between healthy behavior and religious belief. But what about attitudes and mental health?

To contextualize that question in less words: are you non-religious and unhappy? You’re not alone. Quoting the aforementioned Diener, Dr. Meyers highlights the common finding in studies on religiosity and happiness that “religious people have higher life satisfaction in most every nation.” Dr. Meyes cites the National Opinion Research Center’s surveys of 47,909 Americans to confirm this claim. He also adds that “the most religiously engaged Americans have been half as likely as never-attenders to be divorced and about one-fourth as likely to smoke or [have] been arrested (despite highly religious states [having] substantially higher divorce, smoking, and arrest rates).”

Ultimately he concludes, like many such reports do, that more research into the matter is required. While he says that these studies “do not validate religion” in and of themselves, he posits that they “challenge the anecdote-fueled new atheist argument that religion is an overriding force for evil,” and references Bruce Sheiman’s book, An Atheist Defends Religion (who I was lucky enough to interview for this blog a few months back).

For me this study, in spite of some obvious limitations, raises a lot of questions. I totally buy that religion makes a lot of people happier – but why? What is it about religious beliefs that bring people increased satisfaction? Is it the sense of security found in community and in establishing a systematic, structured set of ethics? Because, if so, those are activities that secular folks absolutely can engage in – if only we will.

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3 Responses to “Does Religion Make People Dysfunctional? A Psychological Perspective”

  1. sa-weet said

    What makes an individual feel better about him/herself isn’t necessarily good for others.
    http://lesswrong.com/lw/1d9/doing_your_good_deed_for_the_day/

  2. Jeffy said

    Hi Chris,
    I’m a graduate psychology student at Fuller Seminary. The integration of faith and psychology is considered a top priority for us. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not a spiritual person. In fact, I’m quite the opposite. But the idea that religion is inherently good for psychological health is a pervasive idea in our program. As a non-religious person I disagree with that proposition, but not in terms of the significant effect strong religious affiliation has on individuals. I disagree that religion alone is the factor increasing wellbeing.
    I’m a follower of Existential Psychology. It’s a theory derived from the idea that struggle and purpose are the most important factors in strong mental health. Dr. Victor Frankl started the existentialist movement in psychology, called the “Third Viennese School” directly after the second world war. During the war, in which he was kept in a concentration camp and his entire family was killed, he survived by finding meaning in his experiences. He wrote a book entitled “Man’s Search for Meaning” detailing his and others’ coping with such issues. His theories inspired a whole slew of other psychologists who reworked Dr. Frankl’s original theories into what we know as Existential Therapy. Dr. Irvin Yalom, who wrote the book “Existential Therapy” talked extensively about strong sense of religiosity as a positive indicator of mental health. But religion itself was not the factor that made the difference. Religion was only what filled the basic human need that a modernist lifestyle tended to deny.
    Individuals need meaning in some form to properly function. It is a universal truth of human nature that we impose purpose on events and create paradigms that allow us to “make sense” of our world. Without some sort of organizing principle we are disoriented. Religion lends itself to an unquestioning abidance in a specific set of principles. This gives us comfort and stability and those factors increase scores on measures of mental health.
    I could go on about the benefits of religious affiliation for personal mental wellness, but I should point out that there isn’t much of a difference between what some would consider “good” mental affectations and what others would consider negative adaptations. But in general, if you are going on the assumption that positive self regard and personal satisfaction are “good” traits, religious affiliation increases both.
    I feel that an justification of the data on religion and it’s correlation with both positive and negative traits can be accounted for by including existentially based paradigms. However, existentialism in psychology accounts for other non-religious based views on meaning as well. It’s not an exclusively religious theory despite its origins. The same needs can be fulfilled in non-religious ways.
    If you want to know more specifics of the theory and it’s applications to religious research just let me know, or you can pick up Dr. Yalom’s book. Any recognized literature on existential psychology and religion is a really good objective source for information on integration principles that doesn’t necessarily affirm religious truth but acknowledges its psychological impact.
    I’m sorry if I seem intense in my comment but hey, you asked.

  3. I am very familiar with Dr. Meyer’s work. I will add the following to the above:

    You are actually speaking about two different factors: First, whether religion is correlated with happiness or well-being of some sort; and second, whether religion is correlated with adaptive (i.e., moral) behavior. Religion is associated with psychological well-being on many dimensions (forgiveness, purpose, meaning, improved coping, reduced depression, less stress, etc.) and this in turn is correlated with adaptive behavior. It is common sense that people who feel content are more likely to treat their fellow human beings with kindness and respect. So to the extent that religion is associated with improved feelings of contentment it is also associated with better social behavior.

    All atheists would say that nowadays we can derive contentment and meaning from secular sources as well. And we can also become ethical people in a secular context. But I argue in my book (“An Atheist Defends Religion”) that religion offers something exceptional, even unique, in engendering psychological contentment and moral behavior. And the question is, What might that be? Secularists can certainly live a happy and ethical life without religion, but we must be careful of falling into the trap of “social normative beliefs” — believing in something because it is socially desirable to believe this.

    What religion offers is a direct connection to Absolute Value — whether we call it the sacred or divine or holy, it is something that is defined as intrinsically good, transcendent, eternal, universal, unconditional, and limitless. It is what St. Anselm said is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” All religions — Western or Eastern, modern or ancient — have this one conception in common: a union between man and the Infinite, a Transcendent Spiritual Reality that is above the material world, that never decays or perishes, that is all-knowing and all-powerful.

    No secular belief system gets us close to Absolute Value. But that is the source of a religious person’s sense of the Good. You can argue, with much justification, that believing in Absolute Value can lead to Absolutism. But what religious people argue on the other side is that a moral system based on human caprice leads to relativism and all sorts of evil. I submit that we need both: the flexibility to change our moral system to be more congruent with human rights, but sufficiently justified by a “higher power” so that no one can create their own version of right and wrong.

    Someday we should meet in the middle.

    Bruce

    Which side is correct?

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