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What benefits are there to being religious?

June 21, 2011

The Challenge

Atheist authors Christopher Hitchens[1] and Richard Dawkins[2] have condemned religious belief as harmful and useless. Both authors have been criticized for failing to note specific benefits of strong religious belief. [3] [4] [5] [6] [7]

The Facts

Strong religious belief provides a range of physical, emotional, social, financial, psychological, and health benefits;[8] [9] reducing health risks, increasing the likelihood of longevity[10] and mental health,[11] and having a positive effect on wellbeing in childhood,[12] [13] [14] as well as later economic outcomes.[15]

High religious involvement has a positive effect on social integration,[16] [17] [18] behavioural regulation,[19] and a range of positive societal outcomes.[20] However, lower levels of religious belief, involvement, and commitment produce negative outcomes.[21] [22]


[1] ‘God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything’ (2007).

[2] ‘The God Delusion’ (2006).

[3] ‘Unfortunately, however, both authors either fail to appreciate, or have chosen not to acknowledge, the extraordinary importance that a very “personal God” may play in the lives of many individuals forced to deal with these profoundly life-changing situations.’, Markman, ‘Benefits of Religious Beliefs for Cancer Patients: A Response to Dawkins and Hitchens’, Current Oncology Reports (10.185), 2008.

[4] ‘But there is increasingly strong evidence that when confronted with a life-changing challenge such as being diagnosed with a malignancy, a genuine human need exists, as noted by Professor Dawkins and Mr. Hitchins’s headmaster, for the presence of personal spiritual support.’, ibid., p. 185.

[5] ‘Empiric evidence exists that a cancer patient’s ability to successfully deal with spiritual issues at the end of life is associated with less overwhelming despair and intense feelings of hopelessness [15]. Effective coping with these concerns can favorably impact the quality of life [16]. Existing data also support the hypothesis that it is the impact of a general feeling of spiritual well-being—not specific religious beliefs or practices—that is correlated with the favorable effect [17].’, ibid., p. 186.

[6]the overwhelming existing evidence demonstrates that some patients with malignant disease may experience considerable benefit from a strong sense of spiritual well being and the presence of a “personal God.”’, ibid., p. 187.

[7] ‘It is unfortunate that Professor Dawkins and Mr. Hitchens were not willing to fully acknowledge the relevance of these points.’, ibid., p. 187.

[8]Many studies have documented the benefits of religious involvement. Indeed, highly religious people tend to be healthier, live longer, and have higher levels of subjective well-being.’, Mochon, Norton, & Ariely, ‘Who Benefits from Religion?’, Social Indicators Research (101.1), 2010.

[9] It is recognized that not all religious systems provide such benefits; for example, some groups result in negative outcomes due to prejudice against education, or to oppressive power structures and failure to reinforce positive behaviours.

[10] ‘Similarly, although there are exceptions and the matter remains controversial (Sloan et al. 1999), a growing body of research documents an association between religious involvement and better outcomes on a variety of physical health measures, including problems related to heart disease, stroke, hypertension, cancer, gastrointestinal disease, as well as overall health

status and life expectancy. This research also points to differences by religious affiliation, with members of stricter denominations displaying an advantage (Levin 1994). Many of the early studies in this literature suffer from methodological shortcomings, including small, unrepresentative samples, lack of adequate statistical controls, and a cross-sectional design that confounds the direction of causality. Yet the conclusion of a generally positive effect of religious involvement on physical health and longevity also emerges from a new generation of studies that have addressed many of these methodological problems (Ellison and Levin 1998). In one of the most rigorous analyses to date, Hummer et al. (1999) use longitudinal data from a nationwide survey, the 1987 Cancer Risk Factor Supplement–Epidemiology Study, linked to the Multiple Cause of Death file. Their results show that the gap in life expectancy at age 20 between those who attend religious services more than once a week and those who never attend is more than seven years—comparable to the male–female and white–black differentials in the United States. Additional multivariate analyses of these data reveal a strong association between religious participation and the risk of death, holding constant socioeconomic and demographic variables, as well as initial health status. Other recent longitudinal studies also report a protective effect of religious involvement against disability among the elderly (Idler and Kasl 1992), as well as a positive influence on self-rated health (Musick 1996) and longevity (Strawbridge et al. 1997).’, Waite & Lehrer, ‘The Benefits from Marriage and Religion in the United States: A Comparative Analysis’, p. 2 (author manuscript 2003).

[11] ‘The connection between religion and mental health has been the subject of much controversy over the years, and many psychologists and psychiatrists remain skeptical, in part because most of the research has been based on cross-sectional analyses of small samples. The studies to date are suggestive of an association between religious involvement and better mental health outcomes, including greater self-esteem, better adaptation to bereavement, a lower incidence of depression and anxiety, a lower likelihood of alcohol and drug abuse, and greater life satisfaction and happiness in general (Koenig et al. 2001). Recent longitudinal analyses of subgroups of the population provide additional evidence in support of this relationship (Zuckerman et al. 1984; Levin et al. 1996).’, ibid., p. 3.

[12] Religious participation has also been associated with better educational outcomes. Freeman (1986) finds a positive effect of churchgoing on school attendance in a sample of inner-city black youth. Regnerus (2000) reports that participation in religious activities is related to better test scores and heightened educational expectations among tenth-grade public school students. In the most comprehensive study to date, using data on adolescents from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, Muller and Ellison (2001) find positive effects of various measures of religious involvement on the students’ locus of control (a measure of self-concept), educational expectations, time spent on homework, advanced mathematics credits earned, and the probability of obtaining a high school diploma.’, ibid., p. 4.

[13] ‘Several studies have documented an association between religion and children’s well-being. Recent research on differences in parenting styles by religious affiliation reveals that conservative Protestants display distinctive patterns: they place a greater emphasis on obedience and tend to view corporal punishment as an acceptable form of child discipline; at the same time, they are more likely to avoid yelling at children and are more prone to frequent praising and warm displays of affection (Bartowski et al. 2000). As to other dimensions of religion, Pearce and Axinn (1998) find that family religious involvement promotes stronger ties among family members and has a positive impact on mothers’ and children’s reports of the quality of their relationship. A number of studies document the effects of children’s own religious participation, showing that young people who grow up having some religious involvement tend to display better outcomes in a range of areas. Such involvement has been linked to a lower probability of substance abuse and juvenile delinquency (Donahue and Benson 1995), a lower incidence of depression among some groups (Harker 2001), delayed sexual debut (Bearman and Bruckner 2001), more positive attitudes toward marriage and having children, and more negative attitudes toward unmarried sex and premarital childbearing (Marchena and Waite 2001).’, ibid., p. 4.

[14] ‘Overall, we find strong evidence that youth with religiously active parents are less affected later in life by childhood disadvantage than youth whose parents did not frequently attend religious services. These buffering effects of religious organizations are most pronounced when outcomes are measured by high school graduation or non-smoking and when disadvantage is measured by family resources or maternal education, but we also find buffering effects for a number of other outcome-disadvantage pairs. We generally find much weaker buffering effects for other social organizations.’, Dehejia et al., ‘The Role of Religious and Social Organizations in the Lives of Disadvantaged Youth’, NBER Working Paper No. 13369 (2007).

[15] ‘However, as we discuss below, an emerging literature shows a positive effect of religiosity on educational attainment, a key determinant of success in the labor market. These studies suggest a potentially important link between religious involvement during childhood and adolescence and subsequent economic well-being as an adult. Preliminary results from a new line of inquiry at the macro level are consistent with this hypothesis. Using a cross-country panel that includes information on religious and economic variables, Barro and McLeary (2002) find that enhanced religious beliefs affect economic growth positively, although growth responds negatively to increased church attendance. The authors interpret their findings as reflecting a positive association between “productivity” in the religion sector and macroeconomic performance.’, ibid., p. 3.

[16] ‘Ellison and George (1994) find that people who frequently attend religious services not only have larger social networks, but also hold more positive perceptions of the quality of their social relationships.’, Waite & Lehrer, ‘The Benefits from Marriage and Religion in the United States: A Comparative Analysis’, p. 7 (author manuscript 2003).

[17] ‘Recent research has emphasized that religion can play a pivotal role in the socialization of youth by contributing to the development of social capital. Religious congregations often sponsor family activities, stimulating the cultivation of closer parent–child relations; they also bring children together with grandparents and other supportive adults (parents of peers, Sunday-school teachers) in an environment of trust. This broad base of social ties can be a rich source of positive role models, confidants, useful information, and reinforcement of values that promote educational achievement.’, ibid., p. 7.

[18] ‘At the other end of the age spectrum, the social ties provided by religious institutions are of special value to the elderly, helping them deal with the many difficult challenges that tend to accompany old age: illness, dependency, loss, and loneliness (Levin 1994).’, ibid., p. 7.

[19]Most faiths have teachings that encourage healthy behaviors and discourage conduct that is self-destructive; they also provide moral guidance about sexuality. Some religions have specific regulations limiting or prohibiting the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and potentially harmful foods. Several studies show that religious involvement is generally associated with health-promoting behaviors (Koenig et al. 2001) and that such behaviors explain in part the connection between religion and longevity (Strawbridge et al. 1997; Hummer et al. 1999).’, ibid., p. 7.

[20] ‘At the societal level, higher religious involvement is related to increased levels of education (Gruber 2005), lower crime rates (Baier and Wright 2001; Johnson et al. 2000), increases in civic involvement (Putnam 2000; Ruiter and De Graaf 2006), higher levels of cooperation (Norenzayan and Shariff 2008; Shariff and Norenzayan 2007), lower divorce rates, higher marital satisfaction and better child adjustment (Mahoney et al. 2001; for a review, see Sherkat and Ellison 1999).’, Mochon, Norton, & Ariely, ‘Who Benefits from Religion?’, Social Indicators Research (101.2), 2010.

[21]While fervent believers benefit from their involvement, those with weaker beliefs are actually less happy than those who do not ascribe to any religion—atheists and agnostics..’, ibid., p. 1.

[22]Indeed, weakly affiliated adherents may actually be less happy than their unaffiliated counterparts—atheists, agnostics, and those who report no religion at all—and therefore would appear to benefit from abandoning their faith.’, ibid., p. 2.

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4 comments

  1. I’m not sure the sources for this page are complete. Although it’s been proven over and over that having a community that offers support in times of despair is extremely important. Yet I work with hundreds of Chinese and Chinese Americans. They are not religious at all for the most part (except for some Taiwanese). OK I only see the brightest as they are all MSEE’s or PhD’s, but still they a better family structure and sense of family loyalty than most Americans I know. Our prison system is far underrepresented (even on a % basis) by our Chinese immigrants, and their work ethic is second to none.

    I also work with many Hindu’s. They are highly religious, yet their religion is very accommodating. They too are highly underrepresented in our prison system.

    What about the folks from Latin America? They are a highly religious group. Every one of them has the Virgin of Guadalupe in their car or office or bedroom. Yet they run the drug cartels and are abundant in our prisons.

    Churches like the Westboro Baptist Church (don’t google it, you’ll be sorry!) are evil. They propagate hate in the name of religion. Yet the Episcopal Church I attend is a great support. The Catholic Charities here in San Francisco offer services and help to the poorest among us.

    So religion can be evil or a blessing, just as Churches can be evil. It’s no different than asking if politics is evil.

    1 John 2:27
    But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him.

    The only benefit to being religious is acceptance by our peers. Religion cannot offer eternal life or happiness. We have to discover those things ourselves (without any teacher).

    ~Rose


  2. Rose if you want to challenge the sources by all means present your evidence. I have already made the point in the article that religious belief is not a mixed blessing. I wrote this:

    * ‘It is recognized that not all religious systems provide such benefits; for example, some groups result in negative outcomes due to prejudice against education, or to oppressive power structures and failure to reinforce positive behaviours.’

    From the numerous studies available, it is clear that ‘being accepted by our peers’ is not the only benefit to being religious.


  3. fyi 2 of the bible study links on the right margin are dead links and the third is associated with Christadelphians. Is this site (bibleapologetics.wordpress.com) a Christadelphian site?


    • Thanks, I’ve removed the dead links and edited the third. This is a Christadelphian site insofar as I’m the admin and author, and I’m a Christadelphian.



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