Let’s put aside for a moment the question of whether, or which, religion is “true.” If you think this question is answerable, you are likely already a partisan and have taken certain claims on faith. Say we ask whether religion is good for you? What say the scientists? As always, it depends. For one thing, the kind of religion matters. A 2013 study in the Journal of Religion and Health, for example, found that “belief in a punitive God was positively associated with four psychiatric symptoms,” including general anxiety and paranoia, while “belief in a benevolent God was negatively associated with four psychiatric symptoms.”
So, a certain kind of religion may not be particularly good for us—psychologically and socially—but other kinds of faith can have very beneficial mental health effects. Author Robert Wright, visiting professor of religion and psychology at Princeton, has argued in his lectures and his bestselling book Why Buddhism is True that the 2500-year-old Eastern religion can lead to enlightenment, of a sort. (He also argues that Buddhism and science mostly agree.)
And famed Stanford neuroendocrinologist and atheist Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, makes an interesting case in the Big Think video above that “this religion business” humans have come up with—this form of “metamagical thinking”—has provided a distinct evolutionary advantage.
Religion seems to be an almost universal phenomenon, as Sapolsky—who is himself an atheist—freely admits. “90 to 95% of people,” he says, “believe in some sort of omnipotent something or other, every culture out there has it.” Rarely do two cultures agree on any of the specifics, but religions in general, he claims, “are wonderful mechanisms for reducing stress."
It is an awful, terrifying world out there where bad things happen, we’re all going to die eventually. And believing that there is something, someone, responsible for it at least gives some stress reducing attributes built around understanding causality. If on top of that, you believe that there is not only something out there responsible for all this, but that there is a larger purpose to it, that’s another level of stress-reducing explanation.
Furthermore, says Sapolsky, a benevolent deity offers yet another level of stress reduction due to feelings of “control and predictability.” But benevolence can be partial to specific in-groups. If you think you belong to one of them, you’ll feel even safer and more reassured. For its ability to create social groups and explain reality in tidy ways, Religion has “undeniable health benefits.” This is borne out by the research—a fact Sapolsky admits he finds “infuriating.” He understands why religion exists, and cannot deny its benefits. He also cannot believe any of it.
Sapolsky grudgingly admits in the short clip above that he is awed by the faith of people like Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame, despite and because of her “irrational, nutty,” and stubborn insistence on the impossible. He has also previously argued that many forms of religiosity can be indistinguishable from mental illness, but they are, paradoxically, highly adaptive in a chaotic, world we know very little about.
In his interview at the top, he pursues another line of thought. If 95% of the human population believes in some kind form of supernatural agency, “a much more biologically interesting question to me is, ‘what’s up with the 5% of atheists who don’t do that?’”
It’s a question he doesn’t answer, and one that may assume too much about that 95%—a significant number of whom may simply be riding the bandwagon or keeping their heads down in highly religious environments rather than truly believing religious truth claims. In any case, on balance, the answer to our question of whether religion is good for us, may be a qualified yes. Believers in benevolence can rejoice in the stress-reducing properties of their faith. It might just save their lives, if not their souls. Stress, as Sapolsky explains in the documentary above, is exponentially harder on the human organism than belief in invisible all-powerful beings. Whether or not such beings exist is another question entirely.
Biology That Makes Us Tick: Free Stanford Course by Robert Sapolsky
Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky Demystifies Depression, Which, Like Diabetes, Is Rooted in Biology
Robert Sapolsky Explains the Biological Basis of Religiosity, and What It Shares in Common with OCD, Schizophrenia & Epilepsy
How Buddhism & Neuroscience Can Help You Change How Your Mind Works: A New Course by Bestselling Author Robert Wright
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness