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Maggie Ciskanik, M.S., MSc.April 27, 20244 min read

The Negative and Positive Effects of Religion

In the early 20th century, the influential writings of Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche both focused on their perception of religion as a neurosis or “sickness.” Karl Marx’s dictum, “Religion is the opium of the people,” became well known in the 1930s when Marxism became popular. Currently, “religion” is viewed as divisive and often associated with conflict, war, and fanaticism. 

The reality is quite different.

Religion: Opiate or Optimizer?

Duke University professor Dr. Harold Koenig and colleagues analyzed hundreds of 21st-century scientific studies examining the relationship between religion and health. Their analysis appears in their 2012 Handbook of Religion and Health:

Religion is positively associated with life satisfaction, happiness and morale in 175 of 224 studies (78%). Furthermore, religion is positively associated with self-rated health in 27 of 48 studies (56%), with lower rates of coronary heart disease in 12 of 19 studies (63%) and with fewer signs of psychoticism (“characterized by risk taking and lack of responsibility”) in 16 of 19 studies (84%).

More recently, a 2019 Pew Research study examined the relationship of religion to happiness, civic engagement, and health across the populations of thirty-five countries. The study was interested in knowing if affiliation (inactives), participation (actives), or non-affiliation mattered when comparing eight indicators of both individual and societal well-being. These indicators included five individual health measures, two measures of civic participation, and self-reported levels of happiness. The data was collected in international surveys over a ten-year period.

Researchers reported some surprising correlations.

Actively religious adults are more likely to vote, participate in non-religious volunteer organizations, and seemingly have more “social capital” than their inactive or non-affiliated counterparts.

The friendship networks fostered by religious communities create an asset that Putnam and other scholars call “social capital”—which not only makes people happier by giving them a sense of purpose and belonging, but also makes it easier for them to find jobs and build wealth. In other words, those who frequently attend a house of worship may have more people they can rely on for information and help during both good and bad times. —Pew Research Center

The relationship of religion to individual health measures, however, varied both positively and negatively, but overall, there was little difference between the three groups.

Taking a Closer Look: Negative Effects of Religion

Does this mean that religion is never a liability? Some research indicates that in certain circumstances, religious beliefs do become “entangled with neurotic and psychotic disorders.” This does not mean, of course, that religious beliefs caused them.

It is possible that studies focusing on the negative role of religion on mental health are a reflection of psychology’s predominant focus on negative pathology in general. The Positive Psychology movement by contrast examines human experiences and mental health from the perspective of what is going right–what attitudes, behaviors, and practices contribute to optimum human flourishing. This perspective is found in an interdisciplinary project funded by the Templeton Foundation.

Taking a Closer Look: Positive Effects of Worship

A good example of breaking down “religion” into its multilayered components is the effort of two Jewish philosophers of religion who are leading an international research project into the effects of worship on human flourishing. Worship includes the rituals-prayers, songs, service, recitations, and readings—offered by multiple faith traditions. These actions are seen as symbolic, given meaning by the faith of the participants.

It turns out that symbolic actions involved in worship matter, according to philosopher Robert Adams, because they give us an opportunity to align ourselves with transcendent Good.

A genuine love for the Good can find in symbolic expression an integration and completion that would otherwise be impossible. . . .Qualitatively limited as I inevitably am in the goodness of my life, and even in my conception of the Good, I can still name and praise a transcendent Good. —Robert Adams

So, while we offer worship to God because of His perfection and Goodness, worship also provides an avenue to union with the Divine. Dr. Maria Beer Vuco, University of Oxford, believes that worship taps into “the distinctiveness of God’s majesty and the closeness of interpersonal relationships.” In her view, if God is the greatest good and worship is a path to align us with that good, then worship actually helps us to become our truest selves and can bring about union, even friendship, with the Divine.

Do We Really Need Science to Understand Religion?

And here, too, I say you’re truly educated if you bring everything to bear on the truth. Taking what’s useful from geometry, music, grammar, and philosophy itself, you guard the Faith from assault.  —St. Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150-211), quoted in A Year With the Church Fathers

Faith and its consequent worship have been part of the human experience for all of recorded history. Efforts to understand its origins and examine its consequences, both positive and negative, should not all be interpreted as threats against belief.

Even the early Church Fathers understood this. St. Clement of Alexandria warns against ignoring philosophy, logic, and the natural sciences. He says people who want to rely solely on faith think they can “harvest grapes right away without putting any work into the vine.”

*Originally published October 10, 2022.


Maggie Ciskanik, M.S., MSc.

Maggie Ciskanik, MS, MSc, has been a neurological nurse, an educator, and a writer. Her interests, life experience, and education have put her at the crossroads of philosophy, theology, and the science of human flourishing. With a B.A. in Philosophy, an MS in Nursing, and an MSc in Applied Neuroscience, she thrives on sharing scientific information from a faith perspective. She has written short biographies of many scientists, keeps up with astronomy news, and explores topics such as purpose, intelligence, free will, and consciousness. She is a regular contributor to the Magis Center for Faith and Reason, Purposeful Universe and has guest posts on Aleteia, the Vatican Observatory, and the Templeton Foundation.