Since time immemorial religion has been associated with ecstasy and what Richard Dawkins, an American ethologist, called as insane courage that enabled the horror of 9/11. Sciences offer two hypotheses on whether or not pursuing religion breeds joy. One is credited to provide happiness, character, compassion and health along with intolerance and aggression. The other frames religion as an obsessional neurosis that breeds, in Freud’s term, the sexually repressed and guilt laden unhappiness.
In a survey conducted to access the life satisfaction of people, religious people were reportedly marked as happier than the irreligious people. The national Opinion Research Survey (NORC) reveals higher happiness in Americans who feel close to god than those who do not feel very close to god or not close at all. Similarly, a number of studies in 1980s suggested that elderly people tend to be happier and satisfied with life if they are engaged in religious activities. While one may conclude, by looking at these surveys, that religion has a strong connection with the wellbeing of people, this connection in actuality, is rather not as simple as it appears.
There are a number of factors that explain the correlation between religion and happiness which are important to be considered to fully understand the phenomenon. In the modern times when individualism is rampant and depression rates are increasing, humans continuously face the need to belong somewhere. They seek for a social support, in the form of fellowship that can either come from an individual or a faith community that facilitates kindred spirits. This is how religion as a social support emerges wherein people rejoice together, labour together, and mourn together.
Another factor attached with this is the meaning and purpose of life in one’s belief system. Studies suggest that a sense of these two enhances the wellbeing of people. Interestingly, both meaning and purpose of life, is claimed to be offered by most of the religions which is why many feel inclined towards the path of religion. It fulfills the fundamental human needs of love, care, and solace.
In today’s world the run for self-worth through material well being, achievement, and other social approval is yet another issue that the millennial grapple with. Religion teaches them the virtue of non-defensive self-worth and self-acceptance. This humility is intrinsic to the belief that there is a God and he loves every one. It promotes the ideas of forgiveness, kindness, and compassion in people. The idea of forgiveness, for example, is based on the premise that it instills positive emotions in the human nature which can lead to reconciliation of fractured relations and make them more humane.
Clinical and laboratory studies also suggest that forgiveness and other similar virtues improve the emotional and physical wellbeing of people. Much as forgiveness and compassion enhances emotional wellbeing, gratitude or appreciation of life also enhances the emotional wellbeing of people. So, these values espoused by religious people are said to be connected with altruistic behavior, which in turn, fosters happiness.
However, religion is also associated with hate at the same time. History has been evident of how the cruelest rulers in the past have been the most religious people as well. The Bible thumping slave owner, apartheid defender, and religious persecutors are just to name a few. This extremism essentially comes from the prejudices that are taught as a part of religious preaching. Every religious group deem their own affiliation as the highest and purest form of belief over other beliefs and hence breed an inevitable un-approval of the other.
In a study conducted on the cluster of religious prejudice in 20th century US the people who visited church daily expressed more radical prejudice than people who do not visit church. The study also revealed that people with conservative Christian beliefs are more radical than those who are less conservative. This shows that while religion teaches you the virtue of forgiveness, compassion and more, it also blinds you to believe in the supremacy of one’s own faith and community.
Unfortunately, yet evidently this is true for all the other religious as well. In the name of pride towards the self-righteous nature of a faith community, religion teaches you to consider other faiths as low and wrongful. Hence, the activities of religious conquest and expansion ensues as a result leading to endless wars and holocaust.
In other words, although religion serves as a balm of solace in the face of uncertainty. Particularly, in the modern times when faith and culture, both, has fragmented at the hands of materialist pursuit. Religion still has the capability to incur hatred in the minds of people if not kept in check. Thousands of studies correlate the faith factor of religion with health, happiness, and life satisfaction.
However, in numerous instances, religious affiliation have fostered the opposite of love, peace, and justice as is evident from the current state of global political affairs. Time and again, radical religious groups who are extrinsically motivated have bread in-group bias, disapproval of ethic and sexual minorities, and self-justification of all the oppression in the most hypocrite manner. Ironically this is when all religions openly profess the virtues of love and compassion to be their fundamental ideas.
Nevertheless, expressed religiosity in the Western societies, have exhibited positive correlation with happiness in terms of coping up with loss, charity giving, health, and uplifting the virtue in one’s character. Psychologically speaking religion does serve as a social support for distressed people promoting health and happiness. However, an irrational acceptance of religious doctrines and beliefs can do us more harm than benefit.