I much prefer being churchless to my previous true-believing. However, it bothers me when I read about how religious people tend to be healthier and happier than atheists/agnostics.
Hey! I want to be healthy and happy too. But I don't want to believe in God. Can't I have the benefits of believing without the religious dogma?
I've assumed that I could -- the admittedly subjective evidence being that I'm (1) healthy and happy, yet also (2) irreligious. Still, I wanted more conclusive reasons for doubting that religiosity, as such, is what brings bodily and psychological benefits to the "churched."
In this month's Scientific American, Michael Shermer fulfilled my desire with one of his Skeptic articles, "Sacred Salubriousness: New research on self-control explains the link between religion and health." (In case that link eventually fails to work, I'll copy in the article as a continuation to this post.)
Shermer says that in science "God did it" is not a testable hypothesis. So what does account for the benefits people derive from being religious?
Even such explanations as “belief in God” or “religiosity” must be broken down into their component parts to find possible causal mechanisms for the links between belief and behavior that lead to health, well-being and longevity. This McCullough and his then Miami colleague Brian Willoughby did in a 2009 paper that reported the results of a meta-analysis of hundreds of studies revealing that religious people are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, such as visiting dentists and wearing seat belts, and are less likely to smoke, drink, take recreational drugs and engage in risky sex. Why? Religion provides a tight social network that reinforces positive behaviors and punishes negative habits and leads to greater self-regulation for goal achievement and self-control over negative temptations.
This fits with my lengthy experience with being a member of an India-based meditation organization, Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB).
To be initiated by the guru, you had to agree to not have sex outside of marriage, be an eggless vegetarian, abstain from alcohol and illegal drugs, and to meditate for several hours every day. Even though these vows frequently weren't followed, most initiates likely had a healthier lifestyle as a result of being part of RSSB.
A vegetarian diet has proven health benefits. Meditation reduces stress. Otherwise, the health impact of the vows was neutral or a bit detrimental (I now drink a glass of red wine every day, with my doctor's blessing.)
The main point of Shermer's article is that when someone says "I feel so much better now that I've joined such-and-such religion," it's important to recognize that the same benefits can be obtained in other ways.
People enjoy being part of a close-knit group with shared interests and goals. But this doesn't have to be a religious organization. There are plenty of secular groups that will stimulate the same sort of psychological good feelings.
And while its true that social pressures help religious people stay on the "straight and narrow" because they don't want their fellow true believers to know that they've strayed from the godly path, Shermer notes other ways to strengthen self-control.
The underlying mechanisms of setting goals and monitoring one’s progress, however, can be tapped by anyone, religious or not. Alcoholics Anonymous urges members to surrender to a “higher power,” but that need not even be a deity—it can be anything that helps you stay focused on the greater goal of sobriety.
Zen meditation, in which you count your breaths up to 10 and then do it over and over, the authors note, “builds mental discipline. So does saying the rosary, chanting Hebrew psalms, repeating Hindu mantras.” Brain scans of people conducting such rituals show strong activity in areas associated with self-regulation and attention. McCullough, in fact, describes prayers and meditation rituals as “a kind of anaerobic workout for self-control.”
This is pretty much how I've come to look upon my still-daily meditation, which now lasts about twenty minutes rather than two hours: as brain exercise, similar to the physical exercise I do at an athletic club.
I used to look upon meditation as one of the most important activities of my life. Now, I view it as helping me to productively enjoy the rest of my life by being more focused, open, aware, and sensitive to what I'm experiencing inside and outside of me.
I've learned that I haven't lost anything by no longer being religious.
I can continue with the healthy habits that still make sense to me, and discard the dogmatic injunctions that don't. I'm just about as disciplined as I was before. My self-control just is directed in different directions, toward concrete earthly aims rather than abstract religious imaginings.
Health and happiness don't come from God, even though godly people believe they do. Whatever benefits accrue from being religious can be had in other ways. Read on if you need more convincing.
New research on self-control explains the link between religion and health
December 12, 2011
by Michael Shermer
Ever since 2000, when psychologist Michael E. McCullough, now at the University of Miami, and his colleagues published a meta-analysis of more than three dozen studies showing a strong correlation between religiosity and lower mortality, skeptics have been challenged by believers to explain why—as if to say, “See, there is a God, and this is the payoff for believing.”
In science, however, “God did it” is not a testable hypothesis. Inquiring minds would want to know how God did it and what forces or mechanisms were employed (and “God works in mysterious ways” will not pass peer review). Even such explanations as “belief in God” or “religiosity” must be broken down into their component parts to find possible causal mechanisms for the links between belief and behavior that lead to health, well-being and longevity.
This McCullough and his then Miami colleague Brian Willoughby did in a 2009 paper that reported the results of a meta-analysis of hundreds of studies revealing that religious people are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, such as visiting dentists and wearing seat belts, and are less likely to smoke, drink, take recreational drugs and engage in risky sex. Why? Religion provides a tight social network that reinforces positive behaviors and punishes negative habits and leads to greater self-regulation for goal achievement and self-control over negative temptations.
Self-control is the subject of Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister’s new book, Willpower, co-authored with science writer John Tierney. Self-control is the employment of one’s power to will a behavioral outcome, and research shows that young children who delay gratification (for example, forgoing one marshmallow now for two later) score higher on measures of academic achievement and social adjustment later. Religions offer the ultimate delay of gratification strategy (eternal life), and the authors cite research showing that “religiously devout children were rated relatively low in impulsiveness by both parents and teachers.”
The underlying mechanisms of setting goals and monitoring one’s progress, however, can be tapped by anyone, religious or not. Alcoholics Anonymous urges members to surrender to a “higher power,” but that need not even be a deity—it can be anything that helps you stay focused on the greater goal of sobriety. Zen meditation, in which you count your breaths up to 10 and then do it over and over, the authors note, “builds mental discipline. So does saying the rosary, chanting Hebrew psalms, repeating Hindu mantras.” Brain scans of people conducting such rituals show strong activity in areas associated with self-regulation and attention.
McCullough, in fact, describes prayers and meditation rituals as “a kind of anaerobic workout for self-control.” In his lab Baumeister has demonstrated that self-control can be increased with practice of resisting temptation, but you have to pace yourself because, like a muscle, self-control can become depleted after excessive effort. Finally, the authors note, “Religion also improves the monitoring of behavior, another of the central steps of self-control. Religious people tend to feel that someone important is watching them.” For believers, that monitor may be God or other members of their religion; for nonbelievers, it can be family, friends and colleagues.
The world is full of temptations, and as Oscar Wilde boasted, “I can resist everything except temptation.” We may take the religious path of Augustine in his pre-saintly days when he prayed to God to “give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Or we can choose the secular path of 19th-century explorer Henry Morton Stanley, who proclaimed that “self-control is more indispensable than gunpowder,” especially if we have a “sacred task,” as Stanley called it (his was the abolition of slavery).
I would say you should select your sacred task, monitor and pace your progress toward that goal, eat and sleep regularly (lack of both diminishes willpower), sit and stand up straight, be organized and well groomed (Stanley shaved every day in the jungle), and surround yourself with a supportive social network that reinforces your efforts. Such sacred salubriousness is the province of everyone—believers and nonbelievers—who will themselves to loftier purposes.
Brian, I agree, religion provides a social network, net and fence which should and often do lead to self control and a sense of security, the benefits of which are taken by the individual to the broader society. It could however be detrimental to health and healthy interactions to pretend to be a believer... that surely would create a type of psychopathic individual. With all the information about religions on the table, more and more people may fall into the latter category. One cannot overlook the fact that people often just don't want to think and would rather soak up the atmosphere of togetherness at church and in it's community. I sometimes enjoy T.V. evangelism where there are some good secular life orientations preached.
Tara, beneficial to who or what? What would you say to the statement that a vegetarian in an SUV is far more eco-friendly than a meat-eater on a bicycle?
Posted by: Catherine | November 24, 2011 at 01:35 AM
I wont't argue about the physical health religiosity connection but will only focus on the psychological aspects.
It's really amazing how people analyze and judge things they know nothing about! (i mainly mean scientific studies of religiosity)
You know, the issue is similar to a scientist studying addiction to heroin without ever trying it. He can build very fancy theories that will miss the most basic fact. People get addicted to heroin because it's awfully blissful and pleasurble.
You siad you have lost nothing by quiting religion. But did you consider that may be you didn't have what is lost by leaving faith in the first place (i.e. grace or peace or joy or contendedness or whatever)?
Or in other words, you were never really religious?
Becuase as is well known, once you taste the beauty of religion, you're hooked. You can't leave it. And all scientific and rational philosophizing about it are met with a peacfull grateful smile and one can't help but think: THEY HAVEN'T TASTED.
Posted by: Mohamed Sharnoubi | December 04, 2011 at 02:14 PM
I understand what you are saying, faith in your god or religion is a good feeling. It is comorting to believe you are on the right path to salvation, heaven, nirvana, valhalla, eternal life, 72 virgins or whatever.
However, it still comes down to faith which means you don't really know for sure absolutely or it would not be called faith. Even science is faith because any physicist knows that all percepts and knowledge are conditioned by thellimitations of the perceiver(s).
So, really we know nothing absolutely. In fact, that may not even be possible. Ever.
Whoop de do !!
Posted by: tucson | December 04, 2011 at 06:12 PM
You're proving my point. From the outside faith seems to be a feeling but it's not. It's very difficult to define but i can say it's another sense of perception like a six sense whose center is the heart (not the physical). It's also action and presence.
It also has degrees, it can be very faint just holding one frm atheism or not can be very strong completely over powering the senses and the mind. We call it witnessing and seeing and it has nothing to do with a feel good attitude.
Of course, I'm not asking you to beleive anything of this crap :)
I just wanted to point how different it is seen frm different perspective and therfore how futile to analyze it from a scientific perspective alone.
Posted by: Mohamed Sharnoubi | December 05, 2011 at 01:38 AM
the scientific worldview never claimed to offer consolation or pleasure, it is concerned with how the world is, not how we might wish or hope it to be.
It appeals to those who want the cold hard facts, not those whole like to believe in fairy tales.
If you would like to continue believing in fairy tales, that is your own business, and indeed you are welcome to engage in hedonistic pleasure till your hearts content, scientists dont give a crap about any of that, knock yourself out by shooting up in neverneverland.
Religion, like drugs, is almost certainly beautiful and blissful - but both having nothing to do with reality.
Posted by: George | December 05, 2011 at 06:00 AM
You really disappointed me, I thought that be schooling and profession that I was an accomplished scientist. But it seems I was deluded.
Posted by: Mohamed Sharnoubi | December 05, 2011 at 10:30 AM
Perhaps you are an accomplished scientist, I dont know, but there is no scientific study of religion, unless there is a part of the brain which has been identified as giving rise to religious belief.
Science cant really say much if anything on subjective experience, that is not its domain.
Posted by: George | December 05, 2011 at 10:55 AM
you say: "From the outside faith seems to be a feeling but it's not."
--no commenter on this blog said that faith is a "feeling". faith is defined as having trust in something... and in this case, its something (god, etc) that is unknown, invisible and intangible.
"[its] difficult to define but i can say it's another sense of perception like a six sense"
--anyone can say that. but that does not prove the existence of the object of someone's faith.
"It's also action and presence."
--no. again, faith is simply having trust in something. in religion, its having faith in a supposed god. faith is not action, faith is predicated upon a belief in the existence of the object of that faith.
"It [faith] also has degrees, it can be very faint just holding one frm atheism or not can be very strong completely over powering the senses and the mind."
--so what? the intensity of faith does not prove the existence of the object of that faith.
"We call it witnessing and seeing"
--thats only YOUR "witnessing" and YOUR "seeing". just because you think you see (or "witness") something, that you believe in something and you have faith in something... that does not make real the object of your belief and faith. your "witnessing and seeing" is entirely subjective.
"I just wanted to point [...] how futile to analyze it from a scientific perspective alone."
--there is no other way to analyze. but if you are satisfied with faith alone, then why do you care to analyze? and just because YOU have faith, doesn't mean that other people should therefore have faith too.
Posted by: tAo | December 05, 2011 at 03:43 PM
It's either I have a problem conveying myself in English as it's my third language or either you have a problem in accepting another perspective.
I said in the post you were replying to:
"Of course, I'm not asking you to beleive anything of this crap :)
I just wanted to point how different it is seen frm different perspective and therfore how futile to analyze it from a scientific perspective alone."
Which means this is crap for you from your perspective as your perspective is for me. And then what you do?
You reply with an exposition of your perspective that I already know very well.
What can I say more?
Posted by: Mohamed Sharnoubi | December 05, 2011 at 08:07 PM
this is not about my not accepting another (your) perspective. it is simply not clear what exactly is your perspective.
you said: "Which means this is crap for you from your perspective as your perspective is for me."
--no, you are incorrect and mistaken. I never said (or implied) that your perspective is "crap". but what exactly is it about my perspective, that you think and regard as being "crap" for you??
"You reply with an exposition of your perspective that I already know very well."
--well then, if you know so much about my perspective, then would you please tell me what exactly is my perspective, in your opinion??
Posted by: tAo | December 05, 2011 at 09:35 PM
Let me first make it clear that I didn't mean crap as a derogatory term. I just meant that normally one thinks of the opposing perspective as such (or else he would have espoused it). It's another method of saying it's wrong.
Now, let me explain myself again since it seems you lost me. I don't like debates because generally they're a waste of time, one always leaving with the same opinions he entered with. So I wasn't debating my idea of faith with yours (and others), I just wanted to point that scientists analyze and theorize about religion from the outside never knowing it from the inside and this leads to erroneous results.
I meant the heroin case as an example and someone took it literally and started talking about religion as an opiate and feel good thing! And you know the rest.
So, I'll repeat my initial point. Studying religion from a scientific perspective, or from the concept of neurons and neuro-transmitters ALONE is flawed because it misses a very important and crucial component in the religious experience; again exactly like studying heroin without considering its subjective effects.
Hope this is clearer.
And your perspective is more or less the one you elaborated on in your before last post :)
Posted by: Mohamed Sharnoubi | December 06, 2011 at 01:17 AM
"Studying religion from a scientific perspective, or from the concept of neurons and neuro-transmitters ALONE is flawed because it misses a very important and crucial component in the religious experience...."
--What exactly, is this very important and crucial component in the religious experience? Please respond with some sort of specific example. The endless babble is not needed.
Posted by: Roger | December 06, 2011 at 08:50 AM
That is exactly my point. Without tasting you can't know. I can't describe to you the taste of apples if you never tried it and again the boring heroin rush.
We use terms such as grace, presence, witnessing, inner peace, certitude, faith,.. to denote inner inexpressible states (and not feelings), knowledge and senses for those who have experienced them. It's our special vocabulary like momentum, kinetic energy,... in physics and like the vocabulary of any science.
However, the essence of the experience can't be transmitted without personal tasting. It can only by approximated using the closest possible experiences for those who haven't tasted.
For example, you can describe the taste of apples to someone who has never tasted it as something sweet similar to pears.
That is as far as I can go.
Hope I didn't babble to much :)
Posted by: Mohamed Sharnoubi | December 06, 2011 at 09:52 AM
yes, the babble did kinda continue.
What exact example of a very important and crucial component of a specific religious experience can you write a comment?
The analogy of tasting apples is more babble. Do you babble when you engage in scientific writings?
Posted by: Roger | December 06, 2011 at 10:39 AM
You still prove my point.
Science is not enough to study religious experience, we need to add the babble dimension from people like yourself.
So in any case , my argument, sorry my babble holds.
In any case, I think I won't babble with you again since it bothers you that much.
Posted by: Mohamed Sharnoubi | December 06, 2011 at 11:26 AM
I agree: babble. Mohamed, every, repeat EVERY, subjective experience is ineffable. We don't have access to someone else's mind. So you can't know how I experience life, nor can I know how you do.
What kind of argument, then, is it to say that religious experience can't be described accurately? Nothing can be described accurately from the standpoint of subjective experience.
But religious believers don't claim that their experience is simply subjective, like liking rap rather than country music is. They say that religious experiences point to something objectively true: God, or some other spiritual entity.
Well, show some proof of this. Otherwise the religious experiences are just like every other subjective experience: ineffable. Nothing special about that. Like you said, the taste of an apple can't be described, and neither can the taste of God. Difference is, other people can see an apple, yet there no objective evidence of God.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | December 06, 2011 at 11:27 AM
Well it seems we're all babbling but the only point is that you don't want to admit it.
Objective, hard core facts are clarssified as such by your (and mine and scientists) subjective, ineffable experience. You can't escape this.
You want proof? What about the babble theory you proposed by your freind Rosenberg? Because demanding proofs is thinking ABOUT something and then judging and taking action. And all these actions are taboo according to your esteemed scientist,s theory.
Posted by: Mohamed Sharnoubi | December 06, 2011 at 11:57 AM
Mohamed, you've misunderstood Rosenberg, and science in general. Rosenberg says of course thinking happens in the brain. It just doesn't happen in the way people intuitively/introspectively believe it does.
Thinking, feeling, emoting, all that subjective stuff, it isn't taboo to scientists. Where did you get that idea? Scientists have the same brains everyone else does, including religious believers. Neuroscience simply is able to reveal hidden secrets of the brain, opening up the hood of the brain engine, so to speak.
In this way, scientists give us a sort of "revelation" akin to the revealing of hidden truths that religions ascribe to saints, prophets, gurus, masters, and the like. They tell us about how reality actually is, not as we consider it to be from our everyday experience.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | December 06, 2011 at 12:08 PM
What you are saying is that science can not adequately analyze religious experience, and that only those who have actually had religious experiece(s) can do that. but belief, faith, and religious experience is confined only to the person having it.
You also say, or rather you imply that those who disagree with you, simply have not had the experience of religion or a (religious) experience, so therefore they have not tasted it. but actually, you are incorrect, because many people (myself included), have had profound religious or mystical experiences, even more than one such experience.
So it is incorrect of you to assume that just because some folks don't regard religious or mystical experiences as substantial proof, that those folks have not had any real religious or mystical experience.
I in fact have had many deep and powerful mystical/religious type experiences, indeed far more than the average person. But those were confined only to my own awareness and perception, and, they were just as transitory as any other experience.
So simply having some religious or mystical experience, does not give the person who had the experience, any real advantage over those folks who have not. nor does it mean that science has no ability to gain insight or understanding into human consciousness, perception, and religious experience, etc.
Posted by: tAo | December 06, 2011 at 01:20 PM
Ok forget the word taboo that made the misunderstanding.
Rosenberg refuses thoughts about something, they are things in and of themselves. Never mind that this is a lame attempt to defend against self nagation.
Consider it right. Then demanding proofs of me is an illusion played on you by your mind. Because you hold my perspective (thought) as an objective entity and relate to it as such falling in the trap of aboutness (now this trap of aboutness) is what I call taboo.)
Of course, i don't beleive any of this I'm babbling and I sadly found myself babbling too much here, so please guys excuse me I'll have to dissapoint you and stop.
Good luck to you all.
It was nice visiting your place Brian and interacting with you all.
Posted by: Mohamed Sharnoubi | December 06, 2011 at 02:15 PM
Another Gem by respected tAo.
Posted by: Moongoes | December 06, 2011 at 03:17 PM