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Religious Apathy: Should We Care?

Last month, Pew Research released its survey on religious beliefs, practices and affiliation in America, surprising some with its results.  According to Pew [1]:

The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing … affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups.  While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages.  The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men.

While Christianity in America may not be “in collapse” as some have declared [2], there are reasons we should be concerned about people detaching from their faith lives and shifting to a more secular focus.

Religion and Mental Health 

There is a substantial volume of research pointing to the health benefits that accompany the practice of religion.  Kenneth I. Pargament, PhD, a leading expert in the psychology of religion and spirituality, notes [3] that people often turn to their faith as a source of solace and support:

[e]mpirical studies of many groups dealing with major life stressors such as natural disaster, illness, loss of loved ones, divorce and serious mental illness show that religion and spirituality are generally helpful to people in coping, especially people with the fewest resources facing the most uncontrollable of problems. 

Similarly, literature [4] examining the relationship between levels of depression and religion report that religious factors become more potent as stress increases.  Further, the benefits extend [5] beyond the individual to relationships and society at-large.  Religious practice is correlated with more stable family life, higher education and income, more modest sexual behavior, relational strength, and physical well-being.  So, far from being the cause of oppression and hostility as some would have you believe, a robust faith life may reduce emotional disturbances or mental health problems in the wake of trauma, and supports a more flourishing community.

At the same time, however, some studies reflect that in certain instances, religious practice is correlated with increased levels of depression and mental illness.  So what makes the difference?

Not All The Same

Pargament states that it is important to know how the individual is making use of religion to understand and deal with stressors.  Some religious practices or attitudes (being angry with God, feeling let down by one’s religious community, doubts about faith) correlate [4] with higher depression scores.  Other research [6] suggests that people who described themselves as spiritually untethered to formal religion were more likely to have a variety of mental health disorders and substance abuse problems.  The obvious difference between having one’s own private spirituality and being a part of a community of persons who share a belief system is the level of social support that could be expected, which is crucial given the benefits of positive relationships on psychological adjustment.

Yet, Pargament’s research shows that some groups such as the elderly and minorities may be more likely to look to their faith for help than even to family and friends, suggesting that there may be something apart from the social support of organized religion that is helpful.  “Belonging to a religious congregation is not equivalent to belonging to the Kiwanis or Rotary Club,” he states, noting that:

unlike any other dimension of life, religion and spirituality have a unique focus on the domain of the sacred — transcendence, ultimate truth, finitude and deep connectedness….  [S]piritual forms of support, meaning-making and coping predict health and well-being beyond the effects of secular support, meaning-making and coping. 

Religious practice has also been associated [4] with “decreased suicide attempts…independent of the effects of social supports.”   Thus, while religious prohibitions against suicide are one factor and social support is important, the meaning of life derived from religious belief also impacts a person’s will to live.

The Biggest Bang

Positive religious coping methods include spiritual support from God or a higher power, rituals to facilitate life transitions, support from a religious institution or clergy, and reframing a stressful situation into a larger, more benevolent system of meaning.  These aspects are present in many faith systems, and so there is a general benefit from practice of many faiths which takes a person “out of themselves” and promotes focus on another.

However, among the strongest impacts found was the virtue of forgiveness.  While forgiveness can be practiced without a religious underpinning, the Christian demand to forgive others provides both the impetus to consider forgiving even in the most dire of situations (see this story of a genocide survivor [7]), and the spiritual support and rationale for understanding the reality and meaning of man’s inhumanity to man, even in the smaller, niggling ways that are the bane of many people’s existence.

The overall decline of the practice of Christianity generally, and the further shifting to more individualistic and less formal spirituality, then, is not without consequences both at the individual and community level.  People struggle for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways, and people of faith are no different in this respect.  Yet, evidence suggests that a world-view which points outward toward grander ideas, and provides direction aimed at reconciling relationships places the person in the best position to handle with joy and hope the challenges that life affords.