Religion often gets a bad rap. We live in a world where moderate religious folks rarely make the headlines. It is the radical extremists that always seem to get the bulk of the attention, making the rest of us look bad.
With such a negative light cast on religion, why would anyone wish to be involved with faith or a religious community?
Even in the mental health arena, religious people have historically been viewed as “unwell”. Sigmund Freud himself established this fundamental belief in the field of psychology. After all, if a person truly was normal, healthy and well, why would they turn to some invisible, magical higher power to run their lives? This ultimately suggested that people of faith are somewhat crazy!
Yet, I recently surveyed a number of research articles that tackled this very notion as to what a life of religion means for one’s wellbeing. Not surprisingly, the research shows that people of faith are actually far better off than Freud suspected.
When it comes to dealing with stressful and painful life-crises, people of faith are found to have a higher level of “stress-buffering”. This basically means they have a higher threshold for dealing with life’s challenges, particularly, those of high-intensity pain and trauma.
For example, when comparing the coping mechanisms of couples that have tragically lost a child, those who have strong religious beliefs have reported far better outcomes for coping and healing than those who do not.
Why might that be?
There are a number of explanations for this phenomenon. Some suggest that when a person has faith, it gives them hope and optimism. Rather than falling into the grips of despair and depression, the person who has faith, can be carried through hardships, simply by holding on to the knowledge that they are not alone. They live with the comfort that they can be rescued by God from their darkness. Furthermore, they find comfort knowing that everything in life happens for a purpose – even hardships which cannot always be understood. Their relationship to a higher being, also allows them to channel their feelings through prayer, which can be a meditative, cathartic and healing process.
Additionally, the research suggests that a person of faith is often connected to a religious community of like-minded people. Therefore, when a hardship may strike, they are supported by a church, synagogue, temple or mosque – filled with friends, family, and a community of people to help get them through difficult times.
On a family level, religious families report having higher rates of satisfaction in marriage, improved physical and sexual health, lower rates of divorce, domestic violence, suicide and substance abuse.
On a societal level, it is often through religious communities that charity, philanthropy and social capital emerge. In other words, so many of the soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and educational initiatives are born in religious institutions, aimed at improving the world around us.
When I was a child, I recall that religion was something to almost feel embarrassed about. If I proudly wore a head-covering in my personal life, I might hesitate before wearing it at school or in the workplace for fear of being judged or discriminated against. Yet today, we have moved beyond those feelings. We have evolved to a greater level of tolerance and acceptance, where we can better support and respect the diverse religious needs of those around us.
Unfortunately, extremists of many varieties have hijacked the good name of religion. Too often, there is a stigma of irrationality, anger and fanaticism associated with religion, which may prompt many ordinary religious people to feel the need to conceal or subdue their religious lives. When those among us who are more “enlightened and progressive” look down upon the religious community as being antiquated and outdated, or as something we are just stuck with and must tolerate, it stands to push the many benfits of religion away. Yet, as a truly progressive society, it behooves us to turn to the successful models found within all faiths and religious communities and explore ways to learn from them and collectively support society around us.
There will always be extremists and religious fanatics who hog all the attention. Society, however, must rise above that, and keep in mind that those are the exceptions, and perhaps the ones that Freud was most concerned about for being emotionally or psychologically unsound.
While each religious community must maintain their distinct viewpoints and values, the common strengths and benefits that we share should be recognized and celebrated by all people.