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Aren't we better off without religion?

By Pastor Tom Anderson

Millions of people in the rising generation would say emphatically, "yes". They self-identify as “spiritual” but not religious.” In this case “religious” means regular worship attendance and participation in an organized faith community. Yet the answer is ill-conceived and contradicted by a growing body of evidence demonstrating the positive effects of religion on individual and social life in America.

In 2016, the Harvard School of Public Health released a study concluding that religious participation “may be a miracle drug” because of its clear effect on the physical and mental health of individuals and their communities. It should be stated here that the study did not consider mere religious beliefs but specifically religious participation in churches, synagogues and mosques. The study found:

  • Religious participation lowers mortality rates by 20-30% over 15 years

  • Religious participants are more optimistic

  • Have lower rates of depression

  • Are less likely to commit suicide

  • Experience a greater purpose in life

  • Are less likely to divorce

  • Are more self-controlled

All of these personal benefits result in measurable social benefits--less expenses in healthcare, court costs, law enforcement and human services. The data is beyond dispute: religious participation overall makes all our lives dramatically better in terms of physical and mental health.

Why is this so? We must point to the power of human relationships. By connecting with religion, people find support, encouragement and greater purpose. Non-religious people as a whole simply do not involve themselves at the same level in sustained and meaningful human relationships.

Jesus said it is more blessed to give. Religious people on the whole give significantly more to charity than do the “spiritual but not religious” people. They also far give many more hours in volunteer community service and form the largest percentage of regular blood donors. It’s not a coincidence they report greater happiness than the general population. The data show Jesus is right! The blessing truly is on the givers!

Religious people experience greater meaning in their jobs. In Christian tradition, work is often considered a “calling”. Here’s an illustration. Three people are laying bricks. When asked what they are doing, the first one says, “I’m doing my job.” The second person says, “I’m building a church.” The third person says, “I’m building the House of God.” The first one has a job. The second one has a career. The third person has a calling.

Gratitude is good for us. Paul said, “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Religious people are regularly participating in acts of thanksgiving through worship attendance and daily prayer. This also has measurable mental health benefits.

Self-control is crucial to human thriving. (2 Peter 1:5-7) The scriptures teach frequently on the importance of controlling one’s desires for greater purposes. This quality is often called “grit”--a passion and perseverance for very long term goals. Grit is more predictive of success than emotional intelligence, IQ, health or good looks. Religious people demonstrate more grit than the general population.

Forgiveness is foundational. It’s the central message of the Christian gospel and a practice enshrined in the Lord’s Prayer recited daily by religious people. Forgiveness is linked to multiple positive health outcomes (see the Mayo Clinic website for more on this relationship).

Religious people have a clear happiness advantage measured in social science data. The same cannot be said for those who identify as “spiritual.” The difference is not in beliefs but actual practices. The Harvard study authors conclude, “Any educated person should at some point have critically examined the claims for Christianity and should be able to explain why they do or do not believe it.” In other words: The evidence for the benefits of religion--particulary Christianity-- are overwhelming--so great that even secular scholars are urging people to carefully consider participating in the Christian Church. This is not yet saving faith in Christ but it’s a big step forward.


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