Does religion do you harm or good?


Famous atheists have said that religion is harmful to the believer and to society. Religious belief is “poisonous”, making believers “delusional” and anti-social. And internet sceptics have followed them in repeating the allegations until they have some sort of authority.

These accusations may trouble some christians. But the thing is, the scientific evidence shows otherwise.

The science of religion and wellbeing

You may not be aware of it but the study of the neurophysiology, sociology and psychology of religion is a scientific discipline. There have also been many scientific studies of health and wellbeing, including many on the contribution religious belief or attendance makes. These studies make no assumptions about the truth or otherwise of religious belief, but look at how such belief is experienced and how it affects people and society.

I have listed almost 40 studies on religion and wellbeing in Studies of medicine and religion and outlined the conclusions of these studies in The health and wellbeing benefits of active and positive christian belief.

Religion, wellbeing and prosociality

The results are not black and white, sometimes different aspects of religion have different effects, but the overall conclusions are very clear. Religious belief and religious practice are associated with higher than average levels of physical and mental health and wellbeing, and higher levels of prosociality (prosociality is a term for “voluntary behavior intended to benefit another”). Sometimes religion is found to be a significant cause.

So religious belief and or practice has been found to help people under stress, assist recovery from physical and mental illnesses, and reduce the incidence of depression, suicide, substance abuse and anti-social behaviour. Believers are generally happier and more likely to donate to charity and volunteer in the community.

Some summary quotes

  • “our brain-scan research, which we document in our new book, How God Changes Your Brain, led us to the conclusion that faith is the most important thing a person needs to maintain a neurologically healthy brain. Indeed, we believe that faith is more essential than exercise, especially in light of the cumulative research showing how doubt and pessimism can shorten your life by years.” (Neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman.)
  • “the data that religion has social and individual benefits is so overwhelming that saying that religion has no benefits is active science denial.” (Connor Woods, PhD student in Science and Religion.)
  • “the data consistently point to a negative association between religiosity and criminal behavior and a positive association between religiosity and prosocial behavior. Both relations are modest in magnitude and ambiguous with respect to causation.” (Scott O. Lilienfeld and Rachel Ammirati, university researchers and atheists.)
  • “There’s no shortage of research on religion and health. Most of it suggests that the religious not only live longer, but are also likely to live better.” (Jonathan Morgan on the Science on Religion blog.)

Take-home messages

1. This question can be settled by properly designed medical studies carried out by competent medical and psychological researchers and reported in respected scientific journals.

2. The overwhelming evidence is that religious belief and practice, overall and with many exceptions, lead to better than average health and wellbeing and a higher than average degree of prosociality.

3. The causation and mechanisms are not always clear. Possible explanations have been proposed but in most cases the jury is still out.

4. None of this “proves” God exists, and I haven’t seen any researchers would claim that. But it is consistent with belief in God.

5. This evidence is broadly contrary to the claims of some atheists that religion causes great harm.

6. Christians should not be concerned about scientific studies of religion. Scientists may often treat them as an explanation of religion, but we can just as reasonably see them as how God is experienced by human beings.

Further reading

Photo Credit: realize_photo via Compfight cc


9 thoughts on “Does religion do you harm or good?

  1. ignorantianescia says:

    I wonder if a similar correlation with respect to prison population for atheists. Basically that atheism correlates with fewer prison inmates as well. It is at least my anecdotal impression that there are also few atheists in “the hole”.

    Do you know whether those studies are corrected for class, education and ethnic background? And whether there are differences between I-, E- and Q-religiosity?


  2. Noel says:

    Personally , in overall . it has done harm . It made me live a delusional lifestyle that simply made me fantasize about an all powerful deity that takes care of me .


  3. unkleE says:

    Hi IN, yes I have read that there are less atheists in prison than in the overall US population. The problem here is that no causation has been assessed that I have seen. It could be that atheists are less likely to commit crimes, or that prisoner are likely to convert, or that poor people are more likely to be both religious and in prison (my guess), or some other causation. The internet is full of interesting correlations, but until other variables are dealt with, the correlations prove little.

    So yes, most studies correct for other variables, and different types of religiosity can give different results. Some studies better define religiosity, some don’t.


  4. unkleE says:

    Hi Noel, I’m sorry that you feel harm has been done to you. Can you tell us how “a delusional lifestyle” and fantasizing about God harmed you?


  5. ignorantianescia says:

    It could be that atheists are less likely to commit crimes, or that prisoner are likely to convert, or that poor people are more likely to be both religious and in prison (my guess), or some other causation.

    True, poverty must increase the amount of believers in prison and so must racism, considering how high religiosity and religious affiliation is among black Americans. That makes it difficult to predict how the factors swing on my question.


  6. Jebus says:

    I thought that I was clicking a link to get unbiased, real scientific data about religion and the mind, but no, I got this crap


  7. Life after Sixty-Five says:

    I am in a group for people who have left high demand religious groups/cults and another member works as a case manager in mental health. He quotes research that shows people are less damaged going through using drugs/alcohol etc for a period of time than those raised in these types of religions as the guilt and shame are so pervasive.


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