Religion’s importance in society:
The roots of religion go back to the prehistoric dawn of humanity. The bulk of human religiosity predates written history which is only c. 5000 years old. According to Richard Swinburne’s book ‘The Purpose of Religion’, “The purposes of the practice of a religion are to achieve the goals of salvation for oneself and others, and (if there is a God) to render due to worship and obedience to God.” Humans are meant to meet these goals in order to achieve something greater that’s meant to be worthwhile by following the rules and guidelines of the religion. There are different types of religions in the world with Hinduism being the oldest recorded religion in written human history.
Religion and spirituality and cults:
So what is the difference between religion, cults, and spirituality? On the surface, all three sort of sound the same since they’re connected to a higher being or energy and involve following some sort of rules and believing in an idea that can’t necessarily be proven.
Regardless, there are some pretty large differences between them.
A religion is, according to Meriem Webster, is “(1) the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance.” Religions are often large and are followed by millions or billions of people around the world. They are also often institutionalized by a system of beliefs, attitudes, and practices. Religions also most often involve rituals and ceremonies for certain events. Examples of religions include Christianity, Islam, Jainism, Taoism, etc.
Cults are usually smaller and are often associated with a particular place. A cult is a social group that is defined by unusual religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs or common interests in a particular personality, object, or goal. Cults normally have a very negative connotation to them due to their connection with a dark history of people committing mass suicide like the Peoples Temple and Heaven’s Gate.
Spirituality is defined by Oxford Languages as “the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.” Normally spirituality doesn’t involve following specific rules or rituals. Normally spirituality is less general that religion or cults. Being spiritual can be a part of being religious. Examples of spirituality include praying, meditation, visualization, ceremonies, etc.
Now that we have this all down, let's talk about why religion is important and how it affects our lives.
I will be considering 2 research papers that have found a particular effect of religion on factors of our lives.
Religion’s effect on our mental and physical health:
Dr. Harold Koenig’s work focuses on religion and how it affects people’s mental and physical health. In his research, Dr. Harold Koenig concluded that there are no negative influences of practicing religion on health. He quotes, “One conclusion we can make with a high degree of confidence is that religion, particularly that based on traditional Judeo-Christian belief and practice, does not have a negative influence on health.” Dr. Koengin adds that “There is simply no solid research that supports a negative influence on mental or physical health for church attendance, prayer, scripture reading, or devout religious commitment, particularly when these occur in the context of an established Judeo-Christian religious tradition.” It’s important to notice that Dr. Koengin specifically studies Judeo-Christian religious traditions so it’s important not to generalize these findings to other religions.
In terms of the positive effects of religion on mental health; Dr. Harold found that the use of religion not only correlated but caused a positive effect on mental health. This is important since in statistics there is a difference between two factors having a correlational relationship between each other and two factors having a causal relationship between each other. Dr. Harold’s research found that being religious is associated with higher self-esteem, less depression, greater well-being and morale, an internal locus of control (in the other episode), and other positive effects of life. Dr. Harold found that “private religious activities, such as prayer and scripture reading, are associated with greater well-being, greater life satisfaction, less death anxiety, and lower rates of alcoholism and drug use.”
Reflecting on the positive effects of religion on physical health, Dr. Harold found that religious people tended to be physically healthier than their nonreligious counterparts. Religious people were found to have; a higher ability to function when dealing with chronic illness, lower blood pressure, lower risk of stroke, and lower overall mortality in more than 80% of studies examining the association.
Overall Dr. Koengin established a positive relationship between practicing religion and having good overall mental and physical health.
When looking over this research, I think it’s easy to see why religion has such a positive impact on health. Religious organizations are the basis of many of the health organizations we have nowadays. In both the Middle East and the American colonies, there was such a huge focus on mental health services and they established many of the first hospitals and medical organizations that we have nowadays.
It’s important to note; though, that this research is from 1997 so the data might not necessarily reflect the population’s attitudes and beliefs in 2020.
Still very interesting findings!
Religion’s effect on our self-control:
If you read my article, you would realize how absolutely important self-control is to people’s success and overall life satisfaction. This is why I decided to discuss the effect of religion on self-control. Self-control is such an important concept in many religions, a predominant example of self-control is the fasting of Ramadan in Islam where Muslims are expected to control many of their wants in order to teach many concepts and one of them is self-control.
Rounding and Jacobson (2015) found in their study that after completing a task that involves self-control, people who were primed with religious themes exhibited more self-control and greater cooperative behavior than those who were primed with neutral concepts.
The researchers presented several mechanisms that might have caused these results. One of the reasons given is that religious people believe that there is a higher power that is watching over them which results in self-monitoring. Another reason given for these results is that religious people might perceive a benefit to working hard or a cost associated with not working hard which pushes them to perform well on the tasks given to them by the experimenter. A final reason given by the researchers is a heightened positive mood due to repetitive tasks which cause the participants to have greater retention power and again perform better on the tasks given to them.
It’s great the religion seems to have such positive effects on people but again it’s important to realize that these results are relatively old, especially the first paper and thus we can’t ethically apply all the findings to our societies since statistically speaking their sample would no longer represent the group. However, I think it’s important to still reflect on the findings and be able to take away a positive note about the human experience and the positive impact religion could have on our lives even if it’s not necessarily as accurate as described in the papers.
I left some extra sources for those who are interested in learning more about religion, its background, or research projects that are relevant to this article.
Rounding, K., & Jacobson, J. (2015). Religion and Self-Control(ProQuest Dissertations Publishing). Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1821354864/
Koenig, Harold G. (Harold George). Is Religion Good for Your Health? : the Effects of Religion on Physical and Mental Health . London; Routledge, 1997. Web.
Townsend, Mark et al. “Systematic Review of Clinical Trials Examining the Effects of Religion on Health.” Southern Medical Journal 95.12 (2002): 1429–1434. Web.
Turner, Mahshid. “Can the Effects of Religion and Spirituality on Both Physical and Mental Health Be Scientifically Measured? An Overview of the Key Sources, with Particular Reference to the Teachings of Said Nursi.” Journal of Religion and Health 54.6 (2015): 2045–2051. Web.