Think Religion is Detrimental to Mental Health? Think Again

The data suggests that religion may actually be very good for you, writes John Dickson.

Contrary to one increasingly common claim, religion is probably very good for your wellbeing.

If the latest scientific research is anything to go by, governments, schools and civic organisations concerned to foster mental health in our community might do well to encourage us to pursue an active spiritual life.

People sometimes say that religion is detrimental to mental health. Key explanations of this tale include religion’s apparent tendency to inculcate feelings of guilt, self-loathing, bigotry and even anti-social behaviour. “Religion proceeds from the death wish,” writes French philosopher Michel Onfray.

“The three monotheisms share a series of identical forms of aversion: hatred of reason and intelligence; hatred of freedom; hatred of all books in the name of one book alone; hatred of sexuality, women, and pleasure; hatred of the feminine; hatred of the body, of desires, of drives.”

The story is neat and easy to understand, but probably false in every detail.

The most authoritative systematic review of all relevant investigations into religion and mental health is found in the 1200 page Oxford Handbook of Religion and Health (OHRH). Far from proceeding from a “death wish,” it turns out religion and spirituality are positively correlated with pretty much every known measure of wellbeing.

None of what follows should be taken as an argument for religion – certainly not for the truthfulness of any religious claim. But it does put the lie to the common argument against religion offered by Onfray and others.

To date, 40 separate studies have explored the positive emotion of “hope,” an outlook that “keeps people going even when circumstances are difficult and there is little evidence that a good outcome is likely.” 29 of the 40 studies (73%) found that religion and spirituality are associated with greater hope. Religious beliefs tend to lift people’s capacity to expect good things. “Blind faith,” the sceptic might say. At the same time, what else but “hope” kept a moral giant like Nelson Mandela going through decades of personal trial?

74 studies have focused on “social support,” a person’s perception that they would find help in difficult circumstances. 61 of the studies (82%) reported significant links between religion/spirituality and expectations of social support. This is not merely a “community” effect – the sort of thing you get belonging to Rotary or the local footy club. Britain’s Social Integration Commission recently found that “churches and other places of worship are more successful than any other social setting at bringing people of different backgrounds together, well ahead of gatherings such as parties, meetings, weddings or venues such as pubs and clubs.” Why might this be? Perhaps because communities that focus on a shared sense of higher purpose also lift their members’ sense of belonging, to one another and the cause.

Of special interest as we mark Mental Health Week are the numerous studies of depression and suicide. Of the 413 observational studies, 252 (61%) found lower rates of depression or faster recovery from depression in people who were more religious. Moreover, 19 of 30 experimental studies (63%) report that a religious “intervention” – where patients are offered religious input during their ordeal – reduces depressive symptoms. The OHRH adds, “the percentage of positive findings increases to 67% for the higher quality studies.”

Perhaps most serious is the OHRH‘s reporting that 106 of 141 studies (75%) found that greater religiosity/spirituality is associated with less suicidal ideation, fewer suicidal attempts, or fewer completed suicides. Only four studies (6%) reported more attempts or more completed suicides among the more religious.

Perhaps the best explanation of the positive relationship between religion and wellbeing is found in a final series of studies reviewed by the OHRH. Of the 45 separate studies into “meaning and purpose,” 42 (93%) found that religion and spirituality are associated with an increased sense of purpose and meaning. At this point, the OHRH quotes Freud: “only religion can answer the question of the purpose of life. One can hardly be wrong in concluding that the idea of life having a purpose stands or falls with the religious system.”

The father of psychoanalysis, of course, rejected the reality of any such higher purpose, preferring the brave metaphysical nihilism of atheism. In more recent times, Richard Dawkins famously wrote in his River Out of Eden, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good; nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

Fortunately for the human race, few of us – few atheists included – actually live like there is “no purpose, no evil and no good.” Most of us simulate lives of higher meaning, whether or not we believe in God.

But it is not difficult to tease out why 93% of scientific studies on the question find that religion enhances one’s sense of meaning and purpose. If you genuinely think this temporal, material reality comes from a timeless immaterial Mind, all of life – food and wine, as well as sex and relationships, and all the rest – are infused with added meaning. They become not only earthly pleasures but also heavenly treasures. All of life becomes infused with the meaning we would find in a precious gift of a lover. Dawkins’s “blind, pitiless indifference” cannot compare with that.

None of this means that any particular religion is true. I am not even sure it amounts to a positive case for religion. Nevertheless, it surely raises a question over the increasingly common “meme” that religion is bad for you and your kids. It is not. It is probably very good for you.

John Dickson is an author and historian specializing in early Jewish and Christian history. He is a director of the Centre for Public Christianity and Honorary Fellow of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University.

This article orginally appeared at ABC Religion & Ethics.