Sunday, April 21, 2013

Going to Church Is Therapeutic

When anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann set out to study evangelical Christianity she did some field work. She joined a church.

If her New York Times article she shows that she is objective and even sympathetic to evangelical Christianity.

She begins by reminding us of recent scientific studies of religious experience:

ONE of the most striking scientific discoveries about religion in recent years is that going to church weekly is good for you. Religious attendance — at least, religiosity — boosts the immune system and decreases blood pressure. It may add as much as two to three years to your life.

Social support is no doubt part of the story. At the evangelical churches I’ve studied as an anthropologist, people really did seem to look out for one another. They showed up with dinner when friends were sick and sat to talk with them when they were unhappy. 

One does not want to sound any more churlish than usual, but atheism provides none of those benefits. Atheism offers people the kind of false pride that accrues to those who are smug about being trendy.

Since no group congregates once a week to celebrate nothing, atheism will not provide you with an affirmative sense of belonging to a community.

Given the state of the ambient discourse, it is natural and normal to ask whether churchgoing is therapeutic.

I prefer to turn the question around. Modern therapy developed for people who lost their religion. Despite its pretense to be science therapy offers access to an imitation religion. Beginning with psychoanalysis it has mostly offered a religious experience to non-believers.

Regular churchgoing affirms your social being. This, it turns out, is good for your health. Since we are more than biological organisms, having more friends and better relationships will improve our morale and our overall well-being.

Attending religious services regularly contributes significantly to these.

Luhrmann explains:

A study conducted in North Carolina found that frequent churchgoers had larger social networks, with more contact with, more affection for, and more kinds of social support from those people than their unchurched counterparts. And we know that social support is directly tied to better health.

If you define yourself as a member of a group, you will care about how your behavior is seen by other members of the group. Your therapist might tell you to ignore what other people think of you. The result: you will not care about your moral character. 

When you value your membership in a church or religious group you will naturally want to look good in everyone’s eyes. And that means, more good behavior.

In Luhrmann’s words:

Healthy behavior is no doubt another part. Certainly many churchgoers struggle with behaviors they would like to change, but on average, regular church attendees drink less, smoke less, use fewer recreational drugs and are less sexually promiscuous than others.

To top it off, those who pray to a loving God accrue other psychological benefits. This point should sound familiar. It has more than a passing similarity to the recent work on positive psychology. It turns out that if you believe that God loves you it is easier to sustain positive thoughts about yourself.

Luhrmann explains that the capacity to visualize a loving God adds to your well-being:

What I saw in church as an anthropological observer was that people were encouraged to listen to God in their minds, but only to pay attention to mental experiences that were in accord with what they took to be God’s character, which they took to be good. I saw that people were able to learn to experience God in this way, and that those who were able to experience a loving God vividly were healthier — at least, as judged by a standardized psychiatric scale. Increasingly, other studies bear out this observation that the capacity to imagine a loving God vividly leads to better health.


Nick said...

"To top it off, those who pray to a loving God accrue other psychological benefits"

Very true. Take it from someone who was forced into therapy and had it unknowingly harm them for years:

God is the greatest therapist.

Sam L. said...

And the NYT printed it! They do so love anthropological studies of the lesser classes...

CatherineM said...

I found this laughable:

There is an atheist community?

This annoyed me because of the "me me me" complaint.