Atheist Stanford Biologist Robert Sapolsky Explains How Religious Beliefs Reduce Stress

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

by | Permalink | Comments (7) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (7)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Mike Lowery says:

    It makes sense that as the U.S. is becom­ing less reli­gious, men­tal health issues are more preva­lent. Good arti­cle.

  • A recovering, former Jehovah's Witness says:

    Spo­ken like some­one who does not still have PTSD-type flash­backs of an imag­i­nary armaged­don destroy­ing every­one on the plan­et. I grew up being utter­ly ter­ri­fied of God’s wrath for every sec­ond of every day. Any­one who believes reli­gion brings com­fort does­n’t under­stand reli­gion’s pri­ma­ry place in soci­ety, as a source of fire, brim­stone, armaged­don, and con­trol. This is not only true for Jeho­vah’s Wit­ness­es, but most branch­es of Chris­tian­i­ty (includ­ing Catholi­cism), and Islam, cov­er­ing between them about half the pop­u­la­tion of the world.

    The warm fuzzy uni­tar­i­an types are the excep­tion, not the rule.

  • Michel Chénier says:

    2017- 11- 17

    It is a drug, after all.

  • Arlynda L Boyer says:

    Per­haps we believe as much as we need to believe (of either our local cul­tur­al belief sys­tem or a self-cho­sen one) in order to bring per­son­al stress down to an inter­nal­ly man­age­able lev­el. For some peo­ple, man­ag­ing the stress­es of life requires 100% belief; for oth­ers, 50%; and for some, life’s stress­es are inter­nal­ly man­age­able with 0% belief. Such a hypoth­e­sis would­n’t explain sui­cide, but that occurs across belief sys­tems.

  • Arlynda L Boyer says:

    Strange as it seems, I think the belief in vio­lent armaged­don *does* com­fort a lot of peo­ple — they invari­ably believe they’ll be among the ones saved, and this jus­ti­fies a lot of the moral out­rage against oth­ers that so many believ­ers love to wal­low in.

  • Brad says:

    I have nev­er met a con­vinced athe­ist who deep down only want­ed
    to be con­vinced otherwise…There seems to be a lot of ener­gy and pas­sion to that premise that yearns to be proven wrong…often they are the great seek­ers after all…I love that irony and wish them all great fruit on the way to the truth of us all…You might lis­ten to Bish­op Robert Bar­ron on YouTube regard­ing athe­ism. ..Bless you seek­ers!

  • Yusuf M Mang'le says:

    Reli­gious believes and stress free soci­ety is a mirage. I feel stress free when I part ways with it. Reli­gion goes with psy­cho­log­i­cal grid­lock, although as is prac­tice in Africa.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.