Religion and Psychology: Why We Believe (Or Don't)-And Why It Matters

A pleasantly unifying thought is that all of us, from the most devout to the most adamantly atheist, derive our choices from the same set of factors.

Belief has been declining with each new generation in America. A 2012 Pew Research study found that nearly 80 percent of Americans report that they practice a religion, but around 20 percent say that they do not. The number of unaffiliated people rose from eight percent in 1900 and from fifteen percent in 2008. Younger people and liberal people are statistically less religious than older, more conservative people; there exist negative correlations between liberal attitudes and church attendance, and the largest religious group among registered Democrats as of 2014 is “none” or “other.” Comparatively, the single largest group comprising the GOP is that of Evangelical Christians. Many people who do not choose to identify with a religion cite feelings of alienation or exclusivity within organized religions as the primary source for their distance. Yet the number of religious people in America still outweighs that of nonreligious people, and issues of adherence are ones that most, if not all, of us grapple with. Why is religious belief something that we consider at least once in our lives? Is it because we are conditioned to think one way or another by our social environment? Or is it due to a deeply-ingrained biological predisposition to seek security and solace in the hands of a god or cosmic justice? According to recent research, both are players in determining one’s belief or lack thereof. A pleasantly unifying thought is that all of us, from the most devout to the most adamantly atheist, derive our choices from the same set of factors.

While it was originally suggested that religious adherence is solely driven by psychology, new research now points to biology as the source. Religion is generally cultural, as was initially thought, but whether or not an individual actually practices seem to be influenced by genetics. Genes contribute to about 40 percent of the variability of a person’s religious affiliation; for example, a study between pairs of adult male twins indicated that fraternal twins — 50% genetically identical — were less likely to have the same religious beliefs as each other than were the identical twins (100% genetically identical) studied. It has long been noted by scientists that pattern-seeking is a human trait. A newer idea, though, is that we are predisposed to believe in cosmic justice, whether or not god(s) are involved, as we see and seek the patterns of our world. A “metaphysical outlook,” it appears, is one of these patterns shared by all humans. Why is this? Ironically enough, the answer lies in evolution.

As humans, we are bombarded daily with emotionally and mentally draining or taxing situations, interactions, thoughts, and fears. For many, religious belief helps with continuing to function when faced with the difficulties of everyday life. “Spiritual struggles,” feelings of futility, and existential crises have been linked to “higher levels of psychological distress, declines in physical health, and even greater risk of mortality.” The ability to cope has been selected for, as it promotes healthy lifestyles and necessary functions; for this reason, we may all have the biology of belief in common.

Psychology plays a large role in determining one’s religious belief as well, one that can trump our biological inclination. Steven Reiss, professor of psychology and psychiatry, proposed a new theory that identifies sixteen desires which drive individuals to accept religion: power, independence, curiosity, acceptance, order, saving, honor, idealism, social contact, family, status, vengeance, romance, eating, physical exercise, and tranquility. Many of these can be grouped into a few overarching themes, the most important being protection.

While not listed explicitly as one of the sixteen, protection represents the sum of many of these desires. It is one of the most basic human needs: we need protection not only from physical pain and threats, but from mental and emotional ones as well. Trauma, grief, guilt, and depression can influence individuals to seek solace in the comforting ideas of religion — ones found in the majority of organized religions; for instance, ideas that God is all-knowing (to protect against the innate human fear of the unknown), God is all-loving (to protect against insecurity, fear of worthlessness, and loneliness), that God has a plan (to protect against anxiety or feeling out of control), and that living life centered around the teachings of a church is the guarantee to living a good, right life (to protect against determining morality, to clarify right versus wrong, and to assuage a fear of not living one’s best life).

Even religions with gods who are not directly involved in human affairs, or even punisher gods, can provide a sense of another force having control, as well as motivate followers to live life according to a certain doctrine; those who do not believe in gods but do have spiritual ideas may find the same comfort in the idea of cosmic justice, karma, or souls. In other words, “the physical domain does not contain the source of coherence, order, morality, meaning, and guidance for life,” that we need to live a happy and successful life. Many people find that religion or a feeling of transcendence allows them to overcome the physical and biological realities of the human condition that make life so difficult. Perhaps this is why we have seen an increase in people who identify as “spiritual, but not religious,” taking issue with organized religion and some things it entails, but still seeing something greater than themselves.

Oftentimes, though, the way one is raised can greatly influence whether or not they are religious, and if they are, what kind of religion they choose. Being raised in a strict religious household can be damaging, especially to young children, prompting them to either reject religion entirely or convert to a different one as adults. Religious indoctrination of children has been linked to a negative emotional response if the child is told to fear God or eternal punishment, or if parents communicate that kids’ natural thoughts and actions, especially sexual ones, are punishable. These ideas can cause them to associate religion with “experiences of disappointment, anger, hurt, alienation, mistrust,” and others. “Dictatorship type rules and threats of eternal punishment” can be harmful to children and influence a later decision to choose a different religious path. One example is the so-called “Catholic guilt” that many people who leave the Catholic church continue to feel throughout their lives, even when removed from that religion or all religions. As one former Catholic writes, “It’s no surprise that a child who is repeatedly reminded of their inadequacy, dirtiness, and worthlessness will most likely become an adult who struggles with feelings of guilt and shame, one who never feels clean, worthy, valuable, adequate, or forgiven. One who is never at peace.”

Of course, that is not to assert that raising children in a religious home is always damaging. While it is not clear whether these traits are genetic (acquired) or environmental (learned), it has been noted that the majority of affiliated adult men share conscientiousness, work ethic, punctuality, control of impulsiveness, and the ability to get along well with others. Studies have also shown “religious involvement to be positively correlated with well-being, happiness, life satisfaction, hope, optimism, purpose and meaning in life, higher self-esteem, greater social support and less loneliness, lower rates of suicide and fewer positive attitudes towards suicide, less anxiety, less psychosis and fewer psychotic tendencies, lower rates of alcohol and drug use/abuse, less delinquency and criminal activity,” and other qualities and outlooks that prove entirely beneficial to achieving the happy, successful life all humans strive for. Kids raised without religion, conversely, often grow up to be more intelligent, self-reliant, scientifically-minded, self-reliant, and empathetic, and they exhibit a strengthened affinity for problem-solving. They also display higher levels of “altruism,” “generosity,” and “sensitivity to justice.”

Just as childhood experiences can drive someone to separate from their religion, they can also influence an unaffiliated child to convert once they reach adulthood. Similarly, someone who has never been religious may switch during a time of intense grief or difficulty as a coping mechanism. It is easier to cope with the death of a loved one, for example, if one believes that they are going to a better place where they will one day reunite in eternal bliss. Belief in a peaceful afterlife can also alleviate existential crises considering one’s own inevitable death. For some, it is easier to get through life feeling as though an omnipotent being has a plan for them, or that everything happens for a reason due to cosmic justice, or that there is a reward of an afterlife or an incomprehensible transcendence, because it makes it easier to accept one’s worldly suffering with the promise of something to make it all worth it. In other words, “it gives a sense of meaning and purpose that’s difficult to measure but it’s an important component of feeling wholeness in life — people feeling like they have something to live for.

Alternatively, however, sometimes “depression and loneliness can lead to feelings of abandonment and loss of faith in God” for the previously religious. It all depends on the person, to put it simply; each individual has their own belief system, history, baggage, and thought process that can determine the influence religion may have on them personally.

Religious beliefs or ideas can also help the mentally ill. For example, a study of 406 patients at a Los Angeles County mental facility revealed that over 80 percent of them used religion as a coping mechanism. Similarly, “some individuals experience increased appreciation of life, greater perceived closeness to God, increased sense of purpose in life, and enhanced spiritual well-being even following devastating events such as disasters and rape.” Atheists or agnostics, on the other hand, are associated with higher rates of depression. These outcomes show that religion can trigger different emotional responses in different people, depending on their individual backgrounds and experiences that shape the way they think. There are many factors — psychological, social, biological, or otherwise — that influence a person’s thinking and the way they see the world.

To some, this world was created for us. Maybe it is a learning experience, where we live over and over until our souls are ready to transcend. Or maybe we are here to serve a creator through good works. Still others believe we must appease gods to avoid their wrath. A growing number of us believe we are not here for any of that, that maybe there is no point to our existence and we must enjoy our life on earth while it lasts, as humanity is but a naturally-occurring, egotistical blip on the timeline of the planet that serves no higher purpose. Perhaps still we may never know why we are here. Maybe we aren’t meant to do anything but live as we see fit and allow for cosmic justice to guide what is beyond us. Whatever our beliefs are, they all come from the same places.

"Losing My Religion" by the Economist

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Religion and Psychology: Why We Believe (Or Don't)-And Why It Matters