Thursday, January 1, 2009

Believing in the Sacred Is Good For You, Even If It’s Nonsense.

For years, research projects have been producing results that seem to indicate that going to church is positively correlated with lots of good things. People who regularly attend seem to be happier, healthier, live longer, are less depressed, and so on. Non-believers, and those who don’t want to get out of bed on Sunday morning, have groused long and loud about those studies. Lots of atheists have pulled out the magnifying glasses and attacked the rigor of these studies with enthusiasm. Many of these efforts have appeared to me to be clear cases of putting their conclusion first and then forcing the evidence to fit it. Believing is bad, atheism is right, therefore, we will not accept that church going could be a good thing.

But the evidence in favor of the correlation seems to be there, and it’s been replicated in lots of studies. The great debate, of course, has been over what the cause of the correlation is. Does going to church cause these benefits? Or do happy, thoughtful, healthy, and long-lived people tend to go to church in greater numbers? Sloppy thinking believers, encouraged by these studies, want to treat the correlations as vindication of believing (“God is blessing us!”). And equally sloppy minded atheists have sputtered and pointed out that non-believers can get all of those benefits by gathering together, supporting each other, meditating, doing charity work, and so on. In short, if we can do all or most of the things that church people do, but without the actual believing part, then we’ll get all the same benefits.

But it looks like that’s not true either. John Tierney published this report in the New York Times today: For Good Self-Control, Try Getting Religious About It

Michael McCullough and Brian Willoughby are the authors of the study under review: “Religion, Self-Regulation, and Self-Control: Associations, Explanations, and Implications”
(Not surprisingly, the Templeton Foundation, big money promoter of religion in science, was behind the study.)

McCullough and Willoughby draw five conclusions:
1) Religiousness is positively related to self-control as well as agreeableness and conscientiousness.
2) Religiousness achieves this influence through goal selection, goal pursuit, and goal management. Specific religions prescribe specific goals: Jews, Christians, and Muslims value positive social relationships and social harmony more, and individualistic and hedonistic pursuits less, than the non-religious.
3) The evidence is mixed for the claim that religiousness promotes self-monitoring. More research is needed.
4) Some religious rituals like meditation, prayer, religious imagery, and scripture reading promote self-regulation.
5) Religion’s ability to promote self-control or self-regulation (avoid drugs, alcohol, pre-marital sex) can explain some of religion‘s associations with health, well-being, and social behavior. More research is needed.

They argue that a very special state of mind or set of cognitive practices need to be achieved. It’s not enough to just go through the motions, and it’s not enough to have a general spiritual idea like “my life is directed by a spiritual force greater than any human being.” Strongly religious people are more conscientious and have more self-control than these sorts of new-agey believers. “Thinking about the oneness of humanity and the unity of nature doesn’t seem to be related to self-control,” Dr. McCullough said. “The self-control effect seems to come from being engaged in religious institutions and behaviors.”

It also won’t be enough to go to church and fake it for selfish reasons: Tierney says, “because personality studies have identified a difference between true believers and others who attend services for extrinsic reasons, like wanting to impress people or make social connections. The intrinsically religious people have higher self-control, but the extrinsically religious do not.”

Cranky, and short-lived atheists will holler, “But, but these people are being well-behaved for the wrong reasons…they’re just being obedient because they’re afraid of God.”

But that’s not the case either, “Religious people, [McCullough] said, are self-controlled not simply because they fear God’s wrath, but because they’ve absorbed the ideals of their religion into their own system of values, and have thereby given their personal goals an aura of sacredness. He suggested that nonbelievers try a secular version of that strategy.”

Apparently, what the sexed-up, drunken, church-skipping atheist needs is exactly what they can’t have: a real belief in the sacred. One has to have it in your head not just that eating right and exercising is good for you, but that there is something magical, mystical, or transcendent and maybe objective like God in your ideas about pursuing those goals. It looks like to really get the positive effects, you’ve got to have it in your head that the values are inviolate. (Although it’s not clear to me how this endorsement of sacred-mindedness fits with McCullough’s denial that new-agey believers can get the benefits.)

So the non-believer who wants to score all the benefits needs to find a sacred-feeling way to substitute for all the praying, believing, and devotional-ing that the believers are doing. And that sacredness needs to be a very close analogue to what the believers are doing when they focus all that mental energy and ritualized practice on God. But if the non-believer wants to stay true to their convictions and what they think the evidence shows about God, they need to walk this fine line without actually believing in God.

I can’t see how to do that. I don’t see how one can really accept the obvious and rational conclusion that there’s no magic, no spiritual forces, and no gods AND simultaneously achieve the mental states and habits of the believers that are producing these benefits. Either the non-believer has got to make a choice about what’s more important to them—truth or benefits—or they’ve got to find a way to have their cake and eat it too. (But cut back on the booze.)

Pascal’s choice here, famously, was to “deaden my acuteness.” It looks like some sort of self-lobotomy is in order.


Anonymous said...

The only thing im sure of is it wont involve god.

Anonymous said...

It looks like another study I will definitely need to look at. The thing I am wondering about is whether it is not the case that while the effect of religiosity at the individual level is positive, religion may have a negative effect at the societal level, particularly over the long term. A societal level effect seems to be suggested by the admittedly weak George Paul study and could be explained by interference with the development of modern social democratic institutions. If this was correct, it would lead to an interesting mismatch at the two levels.

Konrad Talmont-Kaminski

Brigitte said...

Trying to believe in the sacred just to get these benefits would be like pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps; it can't be done. It is a different kind of nonsense.

It is like Steve Martin keeps saying: the Sacred, (God, Logos, Love) will need to find you, draw you, convict you.
(Trahe me ad te.)

M. Tully said...


You make a good point when you write, "The thing I am wondering about is whether it is not the case that while the effect of religiosity at the individual level is positive, religion may have a negative effect at the societal level, particularly over the long term."

McCullough and Willoughby consider this to be an important question for further research. In their recommendation they state, "Indeed, the evidence for religion's ability to motivate
aggression (Bushman, Ridge, Das, Key, & Busath, 2007) and
prejudice (Altemeyer & Hunsberger, 2005) is at least as convincing
as is the evidence for religion's ability to facilitate cooperation
(Shariff & Norenzayan, 2007) and other forms of prosocial behavior
(Saroglou, Pichon, Trompette, Verschueren, & Dernelle, 2005),
especially when the religion is of a fundamentalist, authoritarian
variety (Altemeyer & Hunsberger, 2005; Rowatt et al., 2006)."

I'm also not as pessimistic as Matt appears to be. In both articles meditation appears to be as effective as prayer. As a naturalist I can find no reason not to adopt a meditative regime if the data suggests it's beneficial. Also, in the Times article, it appears that having a belief in something "sacred", not necessarily divine, has an effect. And although McCullough and Willoughby don't address this particular element, their research did suggest that their findings had an applicability across cultural lines, leaving open the idea that one's notion of the sacred need not be confined to supernatural phenomena.

Now, I wish I would have kept those Zen meditation books I read when I was in school.

Anonymous said...

The absurb part of the claim is that scientists purport to know what characteristics are good or best for you. Contented cows are not well equipped to survive outside of protected pastures. It seems clear though that religions have helped people survive in the past. I just finished Atran "The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion". What we need is more of this type of scientific study and less ideologically motivated anecdotes on either side of the question.

Anonymous said...

It seems clear though that religions have helped people survive in the past.

It also seems clear that religions have contributed to people's demise in the past. Other than self-destructive cults like that of Jim Jones and David Koresh, we have sects that were persecuted by other sects. You don't have to go back any further than the Holocaust to come up with an example of people being killed for their religious affiliation.

Anonymous said...

I think the Nazi's went after the Jews primarily for percieved genetic/ethnic differences, rather than religous ones. I don't think you want to say the the Jewish religion caused the Holocaust, or that religions are dangerous because they might cause non-religious people to attack them. Otherwise Atran makes the same point, religious differences can cause or exacerbate conflicts between groups. The 4 year war in Gombe shows that chimpanzees are quite capable of splitting into rival groups and exterminating each other without any help from religion. So if group rivalry isn't caused by religion, atheism, or atheistic religions isn't likely to be a cure.

On the subject of happiness, other studies have shown that its genetic. Losing a leg, or winning a lottery will have a large short term effect but won't change the happiness baseline much in the long run. So maybe happier people on average, tend to go to church more, but that doesn't mean going to church is likely to make a particular person any happier. Some effective treatments (on average) are useless on some patients.

Anonymous said...

Religion may make people happier, but I believe that God hates religion.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you want to say the the Jewish religion caused the Holocaust, or that religions are dangerous because they might cause non-religious people to attack them.

The former, no. And I notice how specific your wording is, whether the Jewish religion caused the Holocaust.

The latter statement, if true, would indeed run against your original statement, "It seems clear though that religions have helped people survive in the past."

You should deal with what I did say, and with what you did say, rather than worrying about what I might have wanted to say. It would make you appear less weasely.

I think the Nazis went after the Jews primarily for perceived genetic/ethnic differences, rather than religous ones.

And I think you are ignoring more than a millenium of blood libel.

Anonymous said...

I apologize for missing your point. The opposite to the idea that a religion has helped those who hold it, is that it has harmed those who hold it. This is consistant with your Jonestown example. So when you brought up the holocaust I assumed you were talking about the Jewish religion, as the Jews were clearly the ones harmed.

I agree that a thousand years of anti-semitism contributed to Hitler's views, and bear some responsibility for the events. Was anti-semitism an integral part of some Christians' beliefs? Yes.

Is anti-semitism an essential feature of all Christian belief? I don't think so, but even if it is this does not mean that all religion is dangerous, evil etc. only that this specific one is.

The opposite to all religion is bad is not that all religion is good, but rather that some religion is not bad. As Atran says
"religion" like "system of government" does not exist except in specific instances. So democracies are not bound to have the same faults as dictatorships, just because they are also "systems of government". Similarly one religion may or may not contain the excesses of another. Being able to classify something as a system of belief, or of governement doesn't do much unless you believe or have proved that all belief or all government is bad.

Matt McCormick said...

What is essential to western monotheistic religions is authority, obedience, and acceptance without doubt or questions. Truth is simply declared from on high and the religious are expected/commanded to accept, conform, believe and to overcome their skepticism. The fundamental approach to the world is: here is the one and only doctrine, accept it or be rejected, and anything else you encounter must be made to conform to it or it must be rejected too.

Contrast that to the scientific method where doubt, criticism, and skepticism are the virtues and the conclusions are drawn AFTER we have observed the world and they are only acceptable if they conform to what we discover.

The former is the path to intellectual stagnation, ignorance, danger, and slavery. The latter is the the path to intellectual virtue, enlightenment, freedom and hope.


Teleprompter said...


I agree that classifying something in a category such as a religion or a system of government does not really say much about the characteristics of an individual entity, especially in comparision to others.

Personally, I believe that both the positive and the negative attributes of individual religions just demonstrate how religion as a whole has developed from human origins, as certain religions have acquired the negative or positive aspects of their followers, as certain people have manifested certain qualities through religion or have chosen to express certain characteristics through their religion.

If we can show how people had a hand in changing their religions for both better and worse, we can show how religion is ultimately more natural than supernatural.

Anonymous said...



That is why God hates religion.

Teleprompter said...

steve martin:

I think you're misinterpreting what MM is trying to say. It would be absurd and meaningless for any atheist to say a god or gods hates religion, wouldn't it?

MM is explaining the differences between the scientific method and the often blind faith acceptance of religious ideologies.

Do you have a serious rebuttal to his statements?

Anonymous said...

Atran address most of your charges in "In Gods we Trust: The evolutionary landscape of religion" All quotes below are from section 10.10 Secular science and religion: Coexistance or a zero-sum game.

While many religions do make appeals to conform to a timeless doctrine or be rejected,
the reality is that the doctrines and religions do change. "The world's religios panorama is a kaleidescope of forms that continously develop, split, merge, transform, decay, and reemerge in a relentless process of competitive agitation". "new religious movements ... arise at ... the rate of 2-3 per day [Lester 2002]".

If western monotheistic religion causes intellectual stagnation, than it is hard to account for the strength of the US in scientific endeavors or the emergence of western science.

Moral sentiments like your hopes for a better world, are not deducible from science.

This does not mean that one shouldn't try to rid the world of stupid religions. but "As long as people share hope beyond reason, religion will persevere" because "no other mode of thought and behaviour deals routinely and comprehensively with the moral and existential dilemmas that panhuman emotions and cognitions force on the human awareness"

Even the idea of supernatural agents arises naturally. "They are always held meta representationally" "never fully assimilated with factual and commonsensical beliefs"

Anonymous said...

Piano Player,

I was saying that what he says religious people would have to 'do' on order to be doing what the God in question would want , is totally antithetical to biblical faith. Faith in Christ is not religion. Religion being that which men do to somehow ascend to the divine.

Most Christians and religious people do not understand this.

Teleprompter said...


Aren't you ignoring the contingency that science could've strengthened in spite of this religious tendency? One could argue that Americans' (as an entire society) understanding of science is significantly behind other, more secular countries.

steve martin:

I'm sorry if I don't really understand the difference between "religious" Christianity and "non-religious" Christianity.

By the way, my pseudonym is "Player Piano", not "Piano Player". Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Player Piano,

Sorry about that!

Religious Christians are under the false impression that something they do will bring them closer to God (accepting Jesus, making a serious committment to God, being obedient, doing good things, etc.)

Non religious Christians rely totally on what God has done for them through Christ Jesus. It's all about trust and that trust is not even something that the person musters up, but rather it is a gift of God through the hearing of the gospel (your sin is forgiven for Jesus sake). Nothing at all to do. And the word is...nothing.

You now know more about the Christian faith than 95% of Christians (for whatever that is worth to ya)

Thanks Player Piano!

Anonymous said...

The opposite to all religion is bad is not that all religion is good, but rather that some religion is not bad.

Point taken.

Anonymous said...

Re M.M. What is essential to western monotheistic religions is authority, obedience, and acceptance without doubt or questions

I could claim, ispe dixit, that what is essential to nationalism is blind loyalty to, and acceptance without doubt or question, the existing borders or leadership of a nation.

Of course there is no clear scientific answer to the question of where borders should be. And some views of where the borders should be cannot be reconciled with others.

While the above definition of nationalism may describe some instances (Deutzland uber alles), most would hold that nationalism can be more than just blind loyalty. It can mean a commitment to work together to improve and defend a nation, without being blind to its faults.

And religion can be more than just blind obedience to a dogma. The view of many scientists including anthropologist Scott Atran, is that religion is more about commitment to a set of moral sentiments, than it is about blind obedience.

Like borders, there is no clear scientific answer on moral sentiments. Should humans pair off for life, like some geese, or should a dominant male or female control the reproductive activities of the others. I know which one I prefer, but I can't really make a scientific argument that it is the best choice.

This doesn't mean we need to accept any moral sentiment as equally valid (Bikinis or Burkas)without argument. Like John Stuart Mill knew
that you couldn’t prove that good things were good. But he also knew that questions not decidable by proof were still amenable to argument, and that he would rather have the side of the argument that suggested that health, prosperity, and pleasure were good things than the side that said they weren’t.
From an Oct 8 2008 review in The NewYorker

Teleprompter said...


What are you trying to imply?

Yes, religion has its advantages. I usually do want to scream at other atheists who pretend that it doesn't, because I feel they're just being dogmatic about it generally, which is stupid, because we're supposed to be the freethinkers.

Religion can be a committment to a collection of moral sentiments, but many religions have a flawed collection of moral sentiments.

My morality does not tell me that it's okay to condemn someone eternally for finite actions. My morality doesn't tell me that it's perfectly acceptable if I condemn two young, immature children to eternal scorn for a single offense.

Yes, by cherry-picking from various religious teachings, religion can exercise influence for the establishment of positive moral values. However, it would be of much more utility to hone one's own moral values through the combined moral wisdom of ALL religions. Belief in any one particular religion as "True" with a capital "T" often constrains moral development. Yes, I applaud the religious liberals and moderates who combine exterior sources of morality with their own religious beliefs to form a unique moral compass. However, people need to realize that once you do this, you are surrendering the argument that your religion is the "ultimate source of morality". Even if someone takes all of their morality from the Bible, if one only selects certain sections to adhere morally, one is still using an exterior standard and applying it to form their individual morality! Most Christians' morality is formed in more or less the same way that non-Christians form theirs.

That's the larger point, really: religious belief is largely unnecessary to the formation of morality. Yes, the social environments of religious communities often holp reinforce particular moral conventions. However, I believe that it is more productive to emphasize the diverse and deeply-seated origins of morality in human culture that are not strictly dependent on any one particular religion.

What's your Mill quote implying, anyway - that non-Christians' don't believe that morals are good things? That is an absurd and ridiculous straw-man. I believe in morality, but my morality is more broad-based than the claims of any ONE religion.

Many religious people claim that atheists and others emphasize morality less than they do, but I believe that morality is SO important that I shouldn't limit myself to any one particular SOURCE of morality. I recognize that our natural empathy, combined with our social conventions and standards, is the source of our morality.

It's deceptive to say that non-Christians are any less moral than Christians, or that any one religion is the exclusive source of morality. Yes, I know that we can't prove morality, but neither can religion, and my sense of morality is larger than the sense of morality within any one religion.

I have a firm conviction that there is so much more of everything - including morality -in our world than there is in any one particular form of religion.

Anonymous said...

What was I implying? Mostly I was troubled by MM's categorical statement about what is essential to certain religions, and what I believe is false dilemma of doubt vs. dogma (which he carries forward in his next post).

My point is not to defend every or all religious beliefs. Atran argues the from an anthropological perspective, religious beliefs can co-exist easily with factually information, but represent moral sentiments, or commitments to a specific moral framework.

The dilemma is how do we deal with conflicting moral sentiments, if we believe for example that women should be allowed to drive (unlike Saudi Arabia), and that all moral sentiments are unprovable sentiments.
Dr McCormick argues we must reject all belief so that we use only the scientific method to determine what is right.

But morality (what is a good action) as you say, can't be proven, even by religion. This is analagous to Mill and the question of what is good, and why I quoted him. While morals can't be proven true, they can be checked for self-consitancy, and arguments can be brought to bear against them. Non-religious have moral sentiments as much a religious people do, and I'm troubled that my comment came across otherwise.

I can't find anything in what you said that I disagree with. My point is that while religion can be blind obedience to doctrine, and hence constrain moral development (like nationalism can be blind obedience to existing leadership), there is no reason to conclude that this is the essence of religion (or nationalism), anymore than one should conclude that obesity is the essence of eating.

Anonymous said...


I haven't looked at the links you cited, but from listening to various debates which make reference to the kind of data you mention (e.g., on Beyond Belief 2008,, relevant YouTube videos of debates by Harris and others), I notice a misunderstanding of the interpretation of the results. Really, when it comes to this kind of data analysis, it is all about the interpretation!

For instance, Jonathan Haidt, on Beyond Belief: Candles in the Dark (link), mentions his analysis of how happy people who believe along theological lines are more happy, etc. Sam Harris (in the panel discussion) tries to argue against these points, but fails to address the fundamental problem with Haidt's retort that "this is the evidence." He seems to suppose, as most will, that evidence is simply objective and homogeneous, and if we have the data quantified then "where it leads to is the truth."

Obviously, there are epistemic problems with this perspective, and that is precisely the problem. From my metaethics (ethical theory) class, two papers we had to read really opened my eyes to an area of study that appeals to me, considering my major is in decision theory, statistics and the social sciences. In particular, they appeal to the fact there is something subjective needing to be weighed into the analysis.

The two papers which demonstrate how we can use subjective (e.g., self-reports) information in an objective, scientific and quantifiable analysis. It must also be appreciated, however, that this analysis is not like, say, studying physics which is studying objective data. This is to say, there is something characteristically different between data which is objective like that of studying gravity, mass or inertia of an object, trajectory, etc, versus that of a consumer purchasing a good, a business deciding if it should expand its trade internationally, etc.

I haven't jumped too far into the philosophy of society or the philosophy of social science, but John Searle's book, "The Construction of Social Reality" presents a really good introduction to some of the ideas regarding these issues, though on his part, it has nothing to do with the two papers referred to above: Amartya Sen, "Positional Objectivity" Philosophy and Public Affairs 22 no. 2 (1993):126-45, and Jennifer Tannoch-Bland, "From Aperspectival Objectivity to Strong Objectivity: The Quest for Moral Objectivity" Hypatia 12 no. 1 (1997):155-78.

There is plenty of literature on these topics of objectivity, I have found in my cursory investigations. What is important is that they try to weigh in crucial subjective information, the role it plays and how it should color our analysis of the facts. I wont go into examples here because it is far off point, but from my studies of Sen's work in welfare economics, it is a central aspect of his decades of work demonstrating the weakness in the attempt to have a purely objective and quantified analysis of wants, desires and utility. In short, he focuses on a different metric, and topics brought up in his "Positional Objectivity" weigh into those kinds of analysis because the perspective from the position the individual is in with regard to the situation under investigation can shed critically important information not manifest by either looking solely at objective information or solely subjective information.

Thus, I was concerned with, in my example, the implication by Haidt's response because I fear he would fail to make that kind of connection, cross exam self-reports to really get at the important information, relevance of the subjective information and develop a meta-theory which explains the way to even do the analysis (e.g., in Sen's work, his "Capabilities Approach" is such a framework for even cross-comparing self-reports of, say, a person's perception of health (a possible welfare parameter) after a famine depending on whether they were a widow or widower [Sen, pg 136]).

So when considering analyzing things of a subjective nature, we really need to do more than just quantify information. Even the best statistics will completely miss the point by not addressing qualitative, or non-quantitative, information that wouldn't be weighed in. Of course, this requires a justification for why that, say, qualitative information is even important (because it could just be "noise"), and that is where that "meta-theory" of the analysis becomes critical.

I will look at this blog again later. These are issues I think that are important in epistemology because it comes down to how we analyze information to claim some kind of knowledge. If things were as simple and discrete as "this is objective" and "this is subjective" and "our objective figures say X," then we might have a nice simple framework of epistemic norms to deal with.

Unfortunately, things are rarely that simple. I think those articles mentioned, and even Searle's book, demonstrate the complexity of the issues regarding social aspects of analysis. Subjective information is important and often overlooked or interpreted without qualification or a justifying meta-theory. Even appeal to statistical correlations or searching for, as you bring up Matt, the "cause of the correlation" will miss much if we don't consider important factors not captured by our quantification that should have been weighed in. That "should" is where our epistemic norms need to step in, and this is far from a simple matter. Maybe if I get motivated I will finally write that epistemic norm piece I've been thinking about since summer! I have had a busy winter, though.

feralboy12 said...

Alternate explanation for the data: religious people are happier and healthier than the non-religious because they are making the non-believers miserable and sick.