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.