If religion is, as Scott Atran defines it, “passionate communal displays of costly commitments to counterintuitive worlds governed by supernatural agents” and thus requires a suspension of belief and logic called faith then why is it so popular? I don’t mean to be condescending. Religious belief has nothing to do with intelligence, but it has to do with believing what is, under normal circumstances, unbelievable. We all know virgins don’t give birth, god men don’t exist, water can’t be turned to wine with the wave of a hand, a few fish can’t feed thousands, and people who are dead for 3 days don’t come back to life. Yet, such obvious truths are suspended in Christianity with the trump card of faith over reason. But why? What benefit does religion give a person? Are they happier? More content? Richer? Have a guiding principle in life? More moral?
At this point, while extremely interesting, I don’t want to start discussing the evolution of religion. It’s one thing to say there was an evolutionary advantage to believe in the supernatural (there probably was), but it’s another to wonder why modern man is still believing and dying for things that are on par with the myth of Santa Claus, fairies and leprechauns. In this part, I want to discuss my general impressions of the potential benefits and drawbacks to religious belief as it revolves around the Christianity and the church. But as we all know, impressions are not necessarily true. Therefore in the 2nd part I will explore if there is any evidence that links religion to a generally more happy and content life.
Some reasons people are religious:
  1. A Sense of Belonging. I don’t think there is much doubt that joining a church (or a religion) can give one a great sense of belonging. Maybe it’s belonging in the sense of being part of something beautiful and ancient. Maybe it’s that sense of belonging to a community of like minded individuals. Regardless, there is much to be said for a feeling of being part of something greater than you are and if that something extends into eternity, so much the better. But sometimes this sense of belonging carries a heavy price. There can be enormous pressure in some churches to conform in thought, word, deed and doctrine. A person may also feel pressured to act happy and joyful “in-Christ” no matter what the circumstances. Still for some people, a sense of belonging is well worth the price regardless of the drawbacks.
  2. Social Interaction. In many instances, especially in smaller and more conservative churches, almost all of a person’s meaningful interactions are with their own church group. Supposedly deep friendships are formed and even entire generations of family members may attend the same place of worship. Connecting with people socially and on deeper emotional and intellectual levels is also a comforting and compelling reason for religion. The thought of breaking these kinds of interactions is a major reason why some people will continue to be associated with a religious group long after they have stopped believing. In some churches and denominations it is pretty much known that if you leave the church or have doubts about your faith, your friendships, as long standing as they may be, will immediately cease. These friendships may appear real, but they are completely dependent on church standing and the potential of losing these friendships can cause a lot of anxiety. Still, for some, the social interaction and friendships trumps everything.
  3. A Black and White View of the World. There is also comfort in the thought that the world is black and white and not shades of gray. Most religions have specific rules and regulations that are absolutes, so thinking through issues such as gay marriage isn’t necessary. It’s wrong because my bible tells me so. Some people are very uncomfortable with gray, so a no nonsense right or wrong view of any issue resonates with them.
  4. An Authoritarian Structure. An authoritative structure gives a person a sense of accountability and comfort that someone is watching out for them, be it a god or a pastor, or both. The person (or god) in authority simply needs to be obeyed. There is a strong hierarchy in the Catholic church where doctrine is handed down from on high and the “Priest” is to be respected and believed. In other denominations, the structure may not be as complicated, but don’t underestimate the power of an individual elder/pastor in even an independent Protestant church. Such a figure can wield enormous power and control over the congregation and individuals. For some, this is a comforting thing but for others the flip side of this is “spiritual abuse”. Religious leaders can so rule their congregations that every aspect of a believers life is regulated, from who they can marry, who they can interact with, what jobs they can take, what books they can read, what movies (if any) they can watch all the way to what they must do on certain days of the week. Spiritual abuse is a very real problem in some churches and there is a growing body of research on the subject. (When I did a Google search on the subject I received over 100,000 hits.). Still some people like this type of structure especially if it can be shown that god requires it. (I once talked to a man that loved this type of structure but only if he was a elder/pastor controlling the others. He said that he couldn’t remain in such a congregation as a mere sheep!)
  5. A Sense of Knowing What is Unknowable. There is no doubt that man is a “spiritual” animal. Religions use this fact to suggest that god is real and these spiritual longings were placed there by him. However, there are good evolutionary reasons why there is this “spiritual” dimension to man. Regardless, there can be an enormous sense of well being that you “KNOW” the “spiritual secrets” of god. That you can know what will happen to you after death. That the mind of god, in a sense, is laid bear before you. For some, knowing through faith is so much better than knowing by facts, because it doesn’t require evidence or support.
  6. It Gives One Purpose in Life. There are some people that need an overall purpose in life. The thought that there is no ultimate purpose to life would be depressing to these people. While I believe there isn’t an ultimate purpose this doesn’t mean you can’t live a purposeful life, but, for some, this makes life ultimately meaningless. Religion gives them the “assurance” that there is an ultimate purpose for life, the Universe and everything. Even if that purpose is as ridiculous as a Creator making everything so he can have a relationship with his creation and send them to heaven so they can praise him forever. Personally, 42 makes the same amount of sense (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), but for some a ridiculous explanation is better than no explanation at all.
  7. It is the Basis for Morality. There are a surprising number of believers that actually think that there is an objective morality and this morality only comes from god. Without god, they believe, there would be no morality just rape, pillaging, death and destruction everywhere. (Hummm.. sort of like their moral god commands his people to do in various parts of scripture!) Embracing religion gives them the assurance that “moral standards” will be upheld.
  8. Get out of Hell Free Card. Let’s not overlook the power that the thought of eternal punishment has on religious conversions or keeping someone in a faith system. The thought of spending all eternity in anguish and torment has caused more than one person to embrace faith and keep hold of it regardless of doubts. In fact this fear forms the basis of Pascal’s famous wager – It is better to be safe than sorry.
  9. Religion has the Keys to Living a Great Life. There is an entire branch of Christianity that says one can live a “victorious” Christian life – the best possible life – in Christ. This is a life full of zeal for god, the ability to go through trials without struggle (or to eliminate struggle and trials all together) and to enjoy the happy blessing of god, whatever that may be. This could be a worry free life, a life full of your completed desires or even heath and wealth, depending on the flavor presented. It’s sort of like looking at the high rung Amway distributors telling you how commitment to their product line has given them everything in life. It is no doubt very attractive to some since everyone around them seems so “together” (pretty much an act), but they – not so much. They want to obtain this victorious life, but they are constantly missing devotions or not praying enough or not reading their bible enough or not “on-fire” for the lord enough. And then tragedy strikes: an illness, a death, a loss of job, a divorce, etc. Then comes the wondering – Is it because of some sin in my life? Is god trying to tell me something? Was I not faithful enough? Such questions can wrack a believer with guilt. The fact that there are hundreds of Christian books telling believers how to live the christian life, how to love god more, how to get through the “dry” times, attest to the fact that this is a huge problem in many believers lives and these people desperately want this “victorious” life and the keys to it.. After all if one has to struggle in this life with the help of god, what chance is there without god?
  10. Cultural Influences. For some people religion isn’t a choice it’s a given. If you are born in a particular country, society or family your chances of having a particular religion is pretty much a given. In the U.S you are probably going to be a Christian, in Iran a Muslim and certain parts of India a Hindu, etc. Furthermore, in many cases a particular religion is a part of an ethnic group. For example, I am Italian and the identity of many Italians is wrapped up in Catholicism. You many not believe a word the Catholic church tells you but you are Catholic as much as you are Italian and breaking away from the church is as much as renouncing your ethnicity. To such people, religion is just part of their identity and has little to do with doctrine or belief.
  11. I have a Relationship with God. I have saved this for last since it is an appealing part of evangelical Christianity. Many Christians claim that they can have a PERSONAL relationship with god (a fairly recent concept in Christianity). Now if god was real, who wouldn’t want a friend in god? The all powerful ruler of the universe is a friend of mine. Not only that, but he wants and desires to have me as his friend! Can there be anything better than this? Unfortunately, this is an illusion and if most believers are honest, it’s an empty, one-sided relationship. It is hard enough to have an intimate relationship with a person, so a relationship with an invisible, non-communicating, imaginary god is extremely difficult. It means praising him for all the good things he does and then praising him for all the bad things and downright “evil” things he does. If he kills your child – praise god. If he heals him – praise god. It means putting your brain on hold, while you try to justify his seemly capricious actions. It means trying to convince yourself that you hear his small, still voice in your head or in a scripture passage. It means talking (praying) without the benefit of a two-way conversation. It means convincing yourself that your invisible friend is real. The huge Christian book market, once again, tends to indicate that many believers find this relationship unsatisfying. Still, some people appear to be good at this game and others would love for it to be true.
All of this can lead to a sense of fulfillment, happiness and contentment or perhaps frustration, confusion and guilt. At some point in a believers life there comes a time (or two, or three or more) when he or she struggles between what is known to be true and what can been seen with what “must” be believed – a struggle between faith and reason. For instance it is very clear in the bible that it is promised that whatever you ask you will receive (Jn 14:13; 15:16; 16:24, Matt 7:7-11; 17:20). There are no qualifications, yet everyone knows that this is not true, so one has to deal with this incongruity. A believer can do it by adding qualifications to the verses, emphasizing all the “answered” prayers while ignoring the unanswered, believe that all prayers are answered but some are answered with a “no”, attribute it to a lack of faith or even stop praying. Regardless, this and many other issues must be resolved or ignored. This cognitive dissonance can cause a believer a lot of distress and confusion and make them feel on the “outside” or they can attribute it to the “mystery” of faith and god’s ways and go on in ignorant bliss.
Obviously there are other pluses and minuses to religion and church membership in general. How these conflicting items play in a person’s life will determine whether they are generally content and happy with their religion, indifferent to it (just attend for social or business purposes), hostile to it or reject it all together. What I would like to do in the next post is to look at empirical data that tries to get at the question of happiness and contentment in religious and non-religious people. Are religious people generally more happy, content and satisfied with their life? Or do the cons of religious faith overwhelm many believers and cause more distress than happiness? Are the non-religious, freed from that shackles of religion, happier than believers or does the lack of an ultimate purpose eventually take its toll?

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