God and Religion can provide meaning, purpose and solace. Active participants have a community with which they have a sense of belonging. Striving together for a cause is one of the most potent reasons for living well.
Then there are evidences from some other practices derived from religion. Prayer, group chanting and praising of God, and contemplative prayer and meditation has been extensively explored. There are secular meditation techniques like mindfulness meditation that have clearly been shown to have great benefits. These practices are ultimately derived from Godly beliefs.
Religions can be incredibly restrictive. ‘Thou shall not do this, thou shall not do that. You should not cut your hair, but keep it inside a turban. You should not drink; eat pork or beef, or even- no animal foods whatever. One should marry only members of a particular group of people and restrict sex according to strict rules. And in many strict interpretations of numerous religions, one cannot even masturbate. Really? One could expect many of the members to be miserable.
Martin Seligman and Sheena Iyengar, quite famous in Psychology circles, sought to answer this question. Sheena went to Churches, Synagogues and Mosques. They categorised beliefs based on how fundamentalist and strict they were. Then the members were quizzed to ascertain the strength of their beliefs. Then they were assessed for optimism, subjective well being, signs of depression and having a sense of personal control over their lives. The results were surprising. They found out that serious believers in the more severe sects were happier and more optimistic. They also felt that they had more control over their lives, when in real fact; many were pitifully restricted by their practices! Sheena says that the unhappiest were the Unitarians, a rising group with a liberal world vision, and many of whom describe themselves as secular humanists. Let me quote ‘Sheena Iyengar’ from her book, ‘The art of choosing’:
“We all want and need to be in control of our lives, but how we understand control depends on the stories we are told and the beliefs we come to hold. Some of us come to believe that control comes solely through the exercise of personal choice. We must find our own path to happiness, and no one can find it for us. Others believe that it is God who is in control, and only by understanding his ways and behaving accordingly will we be able to find happiness in our lives”. It is worth noting that the researchers were not believers.
As part of my work, I deal with cancer patients. The sheer grit and coping capacity of ordinary men and women in dealing with an enemy that can potentially take their life is sometimes, astonishing. Most of it is powered by a belief in a higher power. Mutilating surgery, radiation and difficult chemotherapies can leave people bruised and bleeding, but not always broken. This is a quality called resilience. A pattern of belief in purpose, acceptance and God increases resilience.
Our earnest and thorough efforts might ultimately fail. We have fleeting existences, and all our efforts, striving and puny successes are casually brushed aside by the looming reality of death. How do humans face imminent death? Show me a person who is calm and serene in its presence, and I can show you real courage. There are many with this kind of fortitude. At least for me, this is not possible without a belief in God. This is not a rational argument. But it could be persuasive enough for many.
My theism is a tentative one, and I can easily describe myself as a secular and humanist first. What hope does the human race have, if humans are happier with a narrower world view? Belief in God is not narrow, but the conviction that only a certain belief system is true, can be.
As a good lawyer, I should stop at this. Religion is good, God is good. “That is all, your honour”. God will be pleased. I will go to heaven, and you will be left with a satisfying answer. Some may find it gratifying, while many may bay, with abandon bordering on religious fanaticism, for my blood.
But you see, as a scientist and Science writer, I have to grasp at the truth as much as possible. It is not only that. My client, the good God above, alpha and omega, all powerful and all knowing, would have disapproved if I didn’t.
“Thou can be biased. But thou shall not deceive when the truth is clearer.”
But the truth, as in many instances is blurry. In good conscience, I could have stopped with the above. But certain recent findings show some refinements.
If you look at countries, the happiest and most contented people with a very supportive and trusting social structure are found in Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Sweden etc. They are the countries with the maximum percentage of atheist, agnostic and religiously indifferent citizens among the populace! How do we explain that?
Daniel Mochon and colleagues, in 2011, brought out a paper titled ‘who benefits from religion?’ In that he has tried to differentiate between types of believers. They accept that till date, there is some evidence indicating that many benefits are to those who participate in religious activity. But when they tried to tease apart types of belief and tried to grade it, a startling fact emerged:
Strong believers are happier and healthier. They are charitable and generous, if that is part of their teaching. But there are certain types of religious practitioners, who are weak believers. They are half hearted at it, and are semi-reluctant participants in the great religious drama that unfolds around them. Many of us can keenly identify with them. They are not that happy or content.
In fact, they are worse than strongly articulated atheists or agnostics, many of whom are activists of some sort. The avowed atheists are many a time, happier than the indifferent or the weakly religious. They have a community or organisational membership that enables them to act in a meaningful and purposeful way to better (At least in their minds) the society in which they live.
In short, they have a strongly articulated story or world view that exhorts them to act. They have a sense of belonging to a common purpose, which could be the betterment of their secular, civil society. And they have a community with that structured statement to that good end.
Worse is to follow. Some have found out that strong religionists may have good self control, may be charitable, are content and so much else besides, but they score low on two key moral parameters:
These are out group tolerance and moral universalism. Staunch believers in a particular belief system generally like people of their own group more than others. Their level of tolerance to different points of view is low. In plain brutal speak, they are relatively intolerant. Many are rather indifferent to suffering of a different type of people. If their religious views are against homosexuals, some of them may not think that they deserve fair treatment. They may be prone to typecasting, and might think that a person belonging to another religion or race may not deserve the same rights as them. Many may not have a concept of animal rights, for example.
For those who have read history, and have travelled through the killing fields that have been religious wars and atrocities, these findings are not exactly startling. In fact, it may even be common sense.
But as a self proclaimed advocate for God and confessed man of bias, this is not an indictment against God. In fact, a move for universalism and against strong religious belief is one of God’s mysterious plans.
He loves us all, and wants all of us to love and care for one another, irrespective of our affiliations. Surprisingly, many of us, now, in the twenty first century, might agree with him- an unprecedented trend in human history. But to reach here, he had to do a lot of work.
Interpretation- isn’t that the queen of arguments?
One who interprets well, Lives Really Well J