“[If] you do not listen to Theology, that will not mean that you have no ideas about God. It will mean that you have a lot of wrong ones— bad, muddled, out of date ideas.” —C. S. Lewis
From all appearances, the importance of religion in the U.S. has dramatically declined in recent years. According to the prestigious Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, changes in religious affiliation have affected all regions of the country, and many demographic groups.
The study showed that, since 2007, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of Americans who claim to be religiously unaffiliated, up from 16 percent to nearly 23 percent. Among the youngest millennials, 36 percent claim to be unaffiliated with religion.
These findings cause me concern. Anyone who knows me or reads my blog is aware of the central place that my faith holds in my life and my work. I would never presume to tell anyone that my religion is the “right” one, or that they should follow any particular theological path. In my heart, I believe that there are many ways to find God. However, I strongly believe that making space for God and religious practices is not only important for personal wellbeing, but also for the wellbeing of all.
In today’s world, mention theology or doctrine at almost any gathering and you’ll get a variety of reactions, many of which will be quite negative. I would not define myself as religious, but I am very spiritual. I believe, however, that religion is not a matter of dogma, belief, ritual or superstition. Nor is it the cultivation of personal salvation, for this is a self-centered activity, and a person of religious character is seeking selflessness.
Religion is the total way of life for the pursuit of Truth, Beauty and pure agape selfless Love. It is the inner and outer awareness of the relationship and unity with God as the Trinity, inclusive of the Cosmos, Nature and Humankind. From within that awareness follows an understanding of the ‘Truth.’ The challenges that call us to respond to that Truth in all that we are and all that we do are exemplified by Religion.
When contemplating ‘theology’ and ‘practical faith,’ most people opt for the latter. But is it truly possible to grow in faith without growing in insightful wisdom of God? There should never be any judgment whatsoever, from any healthy perspective or belief, as long as goodness and love are in your heart.
How Religion Serves the Common Good
Many research studies show that religious practices serve the common good. Within our ever-evolving technological world, isolation, depression, anxiety, and drug abuse are rising at alarming levels. Religion may provide an antidote for this downward spiral, though.
Studies show that regular attendance at religious services is linked to a healthy, stable family life, strong marriages, and well-behaved children. The practice of religion also leads to a reduction in the incidence of domestic abuse, crime, substance abuse, and addiction. In addition, religious practice leads to an increase in physical and mental health, longevity, and education attainment. Additionally, these effects are intergenerational, as grandparents and parents pass on the benefits to the next generations.1
Religion Makes People Happier
Many people claim to be spiritual, but not religious. But what does this actually mean? Does spirituality allow room for God, and for sensible belief and a traditional religious practice?
In a 2006 paper titled “Deliver us from evil: Religion as insurance,” researchers Andrew Clark and Orsolya Lelkes surveyed hundreds of studies on the effects of faith. They found that those who believe in God are happier than those who do not, and determined that activities like praying and attending worship services enhance well-being. They also found that faith provides essential support in times of life difficulties. For example, they found that atheists suffer more psychological damage from the divorce or death of a partner than those who believe in God.
In another study, researchers David Campbell and Robert Putnam found that people who attend religious services are more inclined to be “neighborly” than those who don’t. The researchers also proposed that, “While having more friends is, for civic purposes, better than having fewer friends, what matters most is having friends within a religious congregation.” The study also showed that Americans who regularly attend worship services are more generous with their time and resources. They are more likely to engage in volunteerism for the poor and elderly, and to donate more to secular charities than secular Americans.
In similar findings, a seven-year follow-up to the 1987 National Health Interview survey (conducted partly at the University of Colorado at Boulder) found that people who never attended religious services had an 87 percent higher risk of dying during the follow-up period—essentially, those who were religious gained, on average, about seven additional years of life. The findings are especially meaningful given that the researchers controlled for education, income, marital status, number of friends, number of relatives, smoking, alcohol use and broad indexes of health and behavior.
William James, a 19th-century American philosopher, argued that certain beliefs must be held before one can obtain the evidence that they are true. For example, if you refuse to engage in friendship with others until they’ve first proven themselves as your friends, you are unlikely to make many friends. Likewise, James said of theism that, “evidence might be forever withheld from us unless we meet the hypothesis half-way.” Recent research reveals that this evidence manifests in the lives of those who believe.2
Belief in God Can Improve Mental Health Outcomes
In other recent findings, a study found a strong association between belief in God and a significant improvement in the outcome of those receiving short-term treatment for psychiatric illness. In the study of 159 patients, researchers followed patients receiving care from a hospital-based behavioral health program.
Each participant was asked to gauge their belief in God as well as their expectations for treatment outcome and emotion regulation. Levels of depression, well-being, and self-harm were assessed at the beginning and end of their treatment program.
Interestingly enough, more than 30 percent of the patients claimed no specific religious affiliation; yet still saw the same benefits in treatment if their belief in a higher power was rated as moderately or very high. Patients with “no” or only “slight” belief in God were twice as likely not to respond to treatment as patients with higher levels of belief.
The researchers believe the findings demonstrate that a belief in God is associated with improved treatment outcomes in psychiatric care. Investigators hope that the study will lead to additional investigation on the clinical implication of spiritual life.3
How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health
I don’t think there’s any question that a strong link exists between positive emotions and physical health. Many theorize that an upward-spiral dynamic continually reinforces the tie between positive emotions and physical health, and that this spiral is mediated by people’s perceptions of their positive social connections.
This hypothesis was recently tested in an experiment in which participants were randomly assigned to an intervention group of self-generated positive emotions elicited through loving-kindness meditation or to a control group. The researchers found that participants in the intervention group increased in positive emotions relative to those in the control group, and at the same time showed a positive effect on vagal tone, an index of autonomic flexibility and physical health. (The vagus nerve networks the brain with the organs, and is an essential part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming the body after the flood of adrenaline released during the stress response.)
The results of this experiment suggest that positive emotions, positive social connections, and physical health influence one another in a self-sustaining upward-spiral dynamic.4,5
Another study also supports the relationship of vagal tone (VT) and social and psychological well-being. The researchers suggest that the association between VT and well-being reflects an “upward spiral” in which autonomic flexibility, represented by VT, encourages taking advantage of social and emotional opportunities and the resulting benefits, in turn, lead to higher VT.
In the study, community-dwelling adults were asked to monitor and report their positive emotions and the degree to which they felt socially connected each day for 9 weeks. VT was measured at the beginning and end of the 9-week period.
Adults who possessed higher initial levels of VT increased in connectedness and positive emotions more rapidly than others. Furthermore, increases in connectedness and positive emotions predicted increases in VT, independent of initial VT level. This evidence is consistent with an “upward spiral” relationship of reciprocal causality, in which VT and psychosocial well-being reciprocally and prospectively predict one another.6
How an Upward Spiral Can Heal Us Now
These are challenging times for many people, on a personal level, extending to our communities and our country. This is the perfect time to be asking ourselves—are we engaging in an upward or a downward spiral? Instead of engaging in controversy, I choose to focus on how I can contribute to creating an upward spiral.
Politically speaking, I often refer to myself as a Socialist-Republican, which means:
- The resources of the planet belong to everyone;
- Production takes place to meet human need rather than to make profits for a few (that’s the socialist in me);
- There are no classes, hence no poverty and no privileged minority, yet there is little government intervention (that’s the republican in me).
Most importantly, I believe in a life centered in family, local community, town governments, followed by county and state governments. I believe in the empowerment of non-profit voluntary associations, churches, and socially conscious/responsible small companies and corporations.
I believe in a home where families talk over dinner about politics, history, and faith, about national movements and local ones. They encourage positive action, rather than experiencing the world through electronic devices. They encourage and promote an appreciation of the arts, music, and the natural world.
If we listen to the media, we might believe that human nature is too immature and dysfunctional or even too corrupt for us to able to successfully work together to solve our problems, or that our problems are too polarizing and now too large.
We must not fall prey to those limiting beliefs and that downward spiral. I personally will work for a world that is fundamentally better in every way than the one we have now. If we want a culture that is truly sustainable, then we will have to communicate and cooperate with intelligence, sincerity, compassion, and compromise and always in the pursuit of truth, beauty and love. Conservative traditionalists and liberal secularists can love and understand each other.
An upward spiral is the antidote to a downward spiral. Focusing on and strengthening an upward spiral helps us to reverse the momentum of a downward spiral that demoralizes us, and that drags our communities and our society down to the lowest common denominator. To reverse the direction of a downward spiral, we must be the catalyst of change for our relationships, our communities, our nation, and ourselves.
An upward spiral, on the other hand, is a metaphor for growth and expansiveness. It can be incredibly challenging to reverse the direction of what appears to be a downward spiral. Bringing this discussion back full circle, I have found in my life no better resource for tapping into the energy of an upward spiral than my relationship with God.
In the peace prayer of St. Francis it states:
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace!
That where there is hatred, I may bring love.
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony.
That where there is error, I may bring truth.
That where there is doubt, I may bring faith.
That where there is despair, I may bring hope.
That where there are shadows, I may bring light.
That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted.
To understand, than to be understood.
To love, than to be loved.
- Fagan Patrick F., Why Religion Matters Even More: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability; published by the Heritage Foundation, No. 1992, December 2006.
- Huyett, Ian, Faith in God bolsters health, happiness; atheism flawed, Feb 21, 2013, http://www.kstatecollegian.com/2013/02/21/faith-in-god-bolsters-health-happiness-atheism-flawed/
- Nauert, Rick, Belief in God Can Improve Mental Health Outcomes, from McLean hospital, April, 2013, http://psychcentral.com/news/2013/04/26/belief-in-god-improves-mental-health-outcomes/54121.html
- Kok BE, Coffey KA, Cohn MA, Catalino LI, Vacharkulksemsuk T, Algoe SB, Brantley M, Fredrickson BL. How positive emotions build physical health: perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone. Psychol Sci. 2013 Jul 1;24(7):1123-32. doi: 10.1177/0956797612470827.
- Kok BE, Fredrickson BL. Evidence for the Upward Spiral Stands Steady: A Response to Heathers, Brown, Coyne, and Friedman (2015). Psychol Sci. 2015 Jul;26(7):1144-6. doi: 10.1177/0956797615584304.
- Kok BE,Fredrickson BLUpward spirals of the heart: autonomic flexibility, as indexed by vagal tone, reciprocally and prospectively predictspositive emotions and social connectedness, Biol Psychol. 2010 Dec;85(3):432-6. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2010.09.005. Epub 2010 Sep 22.