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Social Science says that, on balance, religion is good for us

November 8, 2018

A recent article in Huffington Post contained this innocuous-sounding phrase—“I was lucky enough to be raised unreligiously.” Clearly for the author of these words, “religion” is a purely negative concept, as it is for many others, including such well-known figures as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Certainly, negative stereotypes about religion abound in society today—stereotypes about religion in general, as well as about particular religions, including Christianity. Here, however, I will provide an alternative, more positive view of religion, from the perspective of the social sciences.

As Western society moves away from traditional religious practices, perceptions of religion become decreasingly based on a person’s own experience and increasingly based on second- or third-hand interpretations. Moreover, the narrative has become dominated by violence, institutional abuse, and intellectual myopia. Examples, both ancient and modern, are readily at hand—patriarchy, the Crusades, ISIS and jihadism, Canada’s residential schools, and various oppositions (such as to gun-control, evolution, immigration). Not to mention the contribution of certain strains of Christianity to the emergence of Trumpism.

So the trend in Western society has been away from traditional religious practices and affiliations towards two principle alternatives—“spiritual-but-not-religious” and “secularism” (in either agnostic or atheist flavors). Both these streams are quick to point to the harms done in the name of religion.

Without question, the harms done under the aegis of religion must be brought to the light of public awareness, those responsible held accountable (including by legal prosecution), and restorative justice implemented as far as possible. But the stereotype today is that all religion is inherently harmful—which misrepresents religion as much as it misrepresents American politics to say all Americans are Republicans. For just as American politics includes a very wide spectrum, from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders, so too “religion” includes a very wide spectrum of values and practices—which turn out, on balance, to be positive for our well-being.

Before getting into the social science behind this, we should note that many scholars consider the term “religion” to be misleading, a false category. For the diversity of views and practices that get incorporated under this single label are so wide that using a single term (“religion”) gives a misleading sense of commonality among them. I am very sympathetic to this concern; nonetheless, I will continue to use the terms “religion” and “religious” because social science research seeks to control for these diverse features and variables.

So, as we will see in a moment, social science finds that religion correlates significantly with psycho-social well-being—although you would never know this from much of the public discussion today. For the sake, then, of a fuller understanding of religion in general, and for the sake of humanity’s well-being in particular, there is need to bring back into public awareness the many positive elements of religion that are suppressed, ignored, or simply no longer recognized due to unfamiliarity. I see these positives through three particular prisms: social science; cultural and political history; and autobiography. The first of these I’ll consider here, the others in subsequent posts. This post will concern religion in general; my subsequent posts will consider Christianity in particular.

Social science research into the well-being effects of religion is a well-established field, with hundreds of studies published over the past several decades. So let’s look at some representative studies.

I’ll begin with some studies related to children and youth. A 2016 study from the University of Michigan examined the role of religious involvement in protecting youth against depression and suicidal ideation. The study screened 161 youth with interpersonal problems (ages 12-15) for “peer victimization, bullying perpetration, and low social connectedness, and assessed for depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, school connectedness, parent-family connectedness, and religious involvement.” Results indicated that private religious practices [PRP], religious support [RS], and participation in organized religion [OR] were all associated with lower levels of suicidal ideation. A notable exception is in the case of sexual-minority youth, for whom some religious contexts actually increase suicidal ideation. A 2015 meta-study, analyzing the results of 89 previous studies, indicates though that, overall, religion protects against suicide attempts. As the Michigan researchers conclude, “Results suggest the importance of considering religious involvement as a target of youth depression and suicide prevention interventions.”

In 2018 the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University released a longitudinal study of 5000 children and youth which found that “people who attended weekly religious services or practiced daily prayer or meditation in their youth reported greater life satisfaction and positivity in their 20s than people raised with less regular spiritual habits.” Those who “attended religious services at least weekly in childhood and adolescence were approximately 18% more likely to report higher happiness as young adults (ages 23-30) than those who never attended services. They were also 29% more likely to volunteer in their communities and 33% less likely to use illicit drugs.” In short, the report correlated “religious upbringing…to better health and well-being during early adulthood.”

In 2016 a study concerning student radicalization (desire to join ISIS or Al-Qaida) was released, based on a survey of 1900 students from eight colleges (CEGEPs) across Quebec. Behind the study was news in Quebec that a number of college students had gone overseas to join Al-Qaeda; consequently, there was much public concern that participation in religion (especially Islam) encourages extremism. The study found, however, that in contrast to such popular concern, “Having a religion and being religious is a strong protection factor [against] radicalization, and also moderates and decreases the impact of adverse life events.” Then who were the radicalized? Predominantly non-religious students, second-generation immigrants, and Quebecers who feel socially disconnected, thus seeking meaning for their lives through radicalization. Notice the two findings here that run contrary to populist intuition: it was predominantly non-religious persons who were radicalized; and participating in religious life was found to guard against radicalization.

Another interesting study from the Chan School at Harvard concerns longevity. The researchers studied 74,534 women over a 16 year period. When the researchers matched deaths with reported religious attendance, they found “that women who attended religious services more than once per week had a 33% lower risk of dying during the 16 years of follow-up compared with women who never attended religious services. Women who attended services weekly had a 26% lower risk, and those who attended services less than weekly had a 13% lower risk.” In addition to this correlation with longer life-spans, they also found that “women who went to services regularly had lower rates of smoking and depression and were more likely to have strong social support than those who didn’t.”

These are just a tiny sample of the many studies that exist. Numerous other findings in the field of  “religion and well-being” show correlations ranging from improved mental health to reduced male sexual aggression.

In 2014 Carol Graham (University of Maryland) and Sarah Crown (University of Nevada at Las Vegas) produced a study, “Religion and Well-Being Around the World,” based on the annual Gallup World Poll. The GWP asks more than a thousand questions on a wide range of topics ranging from well-being to civic engagement to religiosity to economic perceptions, among others. Their study, covering the years 2005-2011, used data from more than 11 million respondents. This is a massive data set, which enabled their study to include multiple demographic variables, multiple dimensions of well-being, and multiple dimensions of religiosity and religious participation. All this requires complex social science methodology, and their findings are appropriately complex. But their conclusion is quite straight-forward: “In sum, like many other [studies], we find a positive relation between religion and well-being.”

In 2016, the Theos think-tank in the UK conducted a meta-study of 139 academic studies over the last three decades. This meta-study found that “study after study demonstrates how participation in group religious worship services (and in some cases other forms of religious social participation…) is powerfully correlated with well-being.” The conclusion: “There are a few outlier studies, some inconclusive, some negative, but the weight of the evidence [regarding the correlation of religion to individual well-being] is overwhelmingly positive.”

All this will be news to many who are aware only of negative stereotypes about religion. But the social science is well-established, so both public discourse and public policy would do well to be much more aware and inclusive of such findings. Even more importantly, people who have rejected “religion” for themselves simply on account of negative stereotypes have strong reason to reconsider their understanding of religion, and so begin to explore religious life for themselves. Those who were religious but “gave it up,” for whatever reason, can find cause here to re-examine those earlier reasons for leaving in a new light, to seek healing and recovery, and so begin to re-engage with the positive elements of what they left behind, even if in new forms or locations.


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Vinoth Ramachandra

IFES Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement

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