Religion gets a lot of bad PR these days. Some of it is certainly deserved. Much, I would argue, is not. But all of that begs the question, “Does religion provide any objective purpose for the psychological health of the person and the good of society?”
Benefits of Religious Faith: All in Your Head?
It’s an important question, especially as more and more people jettison religious faith in favor of more subjective, personal, spiritualities. According to the Pew Research Center, the rate of 18-29 year olds jettisoning religion has doubled from 8% to 16% over the last 10 years.
If religion is merely a personal affectation–something done in private for one’s own pleasure–then throwing it over for a more self-styled spirituality–or nothing at all–just makes sense. But what if religion offers more specific and robust benefits to psychological health and the health of society than personal spirituality? What if there are objective benefits to following a specific creed, participating in specific rituals, and actively associating and worshipping with a particular group on a regular basis?
Does the person and society as a whole lose something if it jettisons, specifically, religious faith?
A Question of Science, Not Faith.
I want to be clear that these questions go beyond both the truth claims of any particular religion and the issue of whether religion is personally meaningful or not. The question of any objective benefit of religion to the person or society is really one of social science–psychology, anthropology, and sociology, especially. Obviously, religious people subjectively think that religion is useful, but why? Perhaps they’re just deluded. Psychologists going all the way back to Freud have argued that possibility. Does it really all just come down to religion giving people a warm-fuzzy feeling inside? And why should non-religious people care about religion at all?
Freedom and Dignity
It would be easy to say that religion concerns itself with “the big questions.” But the truth is, no one needs religion to (with apologies to Douglas Adams) contemplate life, the universe, and everything. Almost everyone is fully capable of asking those questions without a creed, rituals, or a group to support them.
But I would argue that what a person and society does need religious faith for is to proclaim and protect the dignity of the human person and the value of authentic freedom. Atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have correctly noted that you don’t really need religion to be moral or good. But even a casual look at the data seems to suggest that as religiosity of a particular society decreases, human rights abuses increase.
As a society actively (like in communist countries) or passively (as in the consumerist West) stamps out religion (and I’m not just speaking of Judeo-Christian faiths, but virtually all religious faiths) two things happen: First, society begins to see people as things. Second, people begin to see themselves as things. And when people become depersonalized, “thing-ified” if you will, psychosocial health suffers to the point of non-existence.
Reason Without Faith is Nihilism
People are capable of great feats of reason on their own, but without religion, people struggle with significance. There’s an old saying that goes, “Some people know the price of everything but the value of nothing.” That’s reason without faith. Without faith, people too easily begin to think of themselves and each other as things, as merely means to a particular end. Every person has a price. But no one is valued.
Religion: ”Meet Needs AND Respect the Person”
Human beings tend to be pragmatic by nature and we stink at delaying gratification. We see a need and we want to fill that need in the quickest way possible. Unfortunately, the quickest way to fill a need usually involves treating people (others and ourselves) as things. When I’m hurting, the last thing I’m prone to care about is human dignity and freedom. I just want to meet my need. Now. By any means possible. What’s the quickest way to meet a sexual need? Porn or prostitution. What’s the quickest way to win a domestic argument? Treat my spouse like a punching bag. What’s the quickest way to meet an economic need? Treat workers like slaves. What’s the quickest way to achieve a political goal? Treat people like cattle to be hearded instead of citizens deserving of respect.
And though these may be the quickest means to meet particular ends, they are hardly means that respect the dignity and worth of the human person. The thing is, it is difficult to object to these practices on reason alone. All reason can tell us is that people are bags of meat. Reason can tell us that consciousness exists, but it can’t tell us the significance of that fact. Reason can tell us that, generally speaking, it’s better for me to treat others with respect–unless I can get away with doing otherwise. If I have the power to sheild myself from the consequences of my actions, why shouldn’t I treat people as things if it would benefit me? It simply isn’t reasonable to think otherwise.
Likewise, because they are personal, individual spiritualites tend not to stand up well to social pressure. Individual spiritualities thrive where religions have made it safe for them to grow. But when religous faith is stamped out, mere pragmatism–the organized thing-ification of persons–kills spirituality altogether.
The more a person is treated, or treats themselves as a thing, the more they break down. The cost of porn? Sexual addiction, depression, lost work hours, broken marriages and families. The cost of prostitution and sexual trafficking? Post-traumatic stress, depression, addiction. The cost of domestic violence? Depression, suicide, anxiety, addiction, broken marriages and families, and an increase in all manner of psychosocial disorders in children. The cost of inhumane working conditions? Depression, suicide, anxiety. The cost of political oppression? All of the above.
The Life You Save May Be Your Own
When mainstream religious faith is in conflict with a particular society as a whole, or with particular groups within a society, it is almost always because a religious faith is asserting that a particular means a person or society is attempting to use to satisfy a particular need runs contrary to the dignity and freedom of the human person.
Whatever you think of the nature of their respective creeds, Christianity, Buddhism, Falun Gang, are all mercilessly persecuted in China because they assert that persons must be more than cogs in the system. Whatever you think of their particular claims, progressive Christianity came under attack during the civil rights movement just as traditional Christianity is now under legislative attack in the US because it asserts that certain efficient means of solving social problems are beneath the dignity of the human person. In every case, it is organized, religious faith–much more than even individualized spiritualities which, because they are personal, tend to be easily subverted by outside pressures–that has the power to inspire people to realize that they are worth more than others (and even they, themselves) say they are. It is religious faith that consistently asserts, as point of revelation as opposed to mere reason, that people must be treated as persons, not things.
Moreover, it is organized religious faiths, more than personal spiritualities, that have the organizational power to demand social change and encourage personal growth and change in a manner that is respectful of the person and the groups those persons participate in (family, work, society).
So, whether you are a believer or not, the next time religious faith stands in opposition to a pet solution you favor, stop and consider whether your impulse is driven by a pragmatism that has not considered the dignity and worth of the people around you. As Flannery O’Connor once put it, the life you save may be your own.
For more information on ways to meet your own needs that respect your dignity and the dignity of others, check out…
Gregory Popcak, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping people-of-faith find effective solutions to tough marriage, family, and personal problems.
The author of over a dozen popular books integrating solid theological insights and counseling psychology (including; For Better...FOREVER! , Holy Sex!, Parenting with Grace, Beyond the Birds and the Bees), Dr. Popcak directs a group pastoral tele-counseling practice that provides ongoing pastoral psychotherapy services to faithful couples, individuals and families around the world.
Together with his wife and co-author, Lisa Popcak, he hosts More2Life, Airing M-F, Noon-1pm Eastern (Tune in online or to podcasts at www.AveMariaRadio.net). A sought after public-speaker, Dr. Greg has been honored to address audiences across North America, Australia, and Hong Kong.
For more info on books, resources, and tele-counseling services visit www.CatholicCounselors.com.
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Last reviewed: 20 Feb 2012