Religion On The Mind

Today’s entry marks the last Easter-themed one for the week, and as usual we end with a psychological perspective of religion. It seems that people have tried to study religious behaviour psychologically for a long time, dating back to as far as the 18th century. Not much seems to have been found in the way of conclusive theories about why religion causes positive and negative effects on people, and most studies aren’t adequately validated either. There have been questionnaires created to measure people’s religious dimensions and religious experiences, and it has also been found that prayer and rituals have emotional and social benefits.

Good news for religious people, religion not only has benefits on emotions and social status, it also benefits physical and mental health as well. Mortality rates are lower for people who consider them religious and spiritual, and it may be due to lower rates of alcohol consumption and improvement in mood (therefore lower rates of alcohol and mood improvement mediate this correlation between religion and health; which is a term I’ve just learnt in psychology statistics). So really, the main factor is still the adoption of a healthy lifestyle, which is a relief to atheist me.

Mental health, on the other hand, is a bit iffier. Religiosity is associated with mental disorders that involve an excessive amount of self-control. However, to most of us healthy fellows, religiosity is still good. It mainly offers coping strategies to deal with stress, which are characterised by Pargament as 1) self-directing, characterised by self-reliance and acknowledgment of God; 2) deferring, in passively attributing responsibility to God; and 3) collaborative, involving an active partnership with God and is most commonly associated with positive adjustment. This does indicate that people with troubles may find solace in having a discourse with God (though I would extend this beyond Christianity).

Evolutionary psychology largely scratches its head when it comes to why there is a universal propensity towards religion. Adaptationists have tried to explain it, but Steven Pinker argues that it doesn’t meet the criteria for adaptations. It could be that religious psychology is a by-product of some parts of the mind that evolved for other purposes, such as folk psychology. Religious cognitions also interestingly purposefully violate innate expectations about how the world is constructed, such as bodiless beings with thoughts and emotions. So maybe it marks the beginnings of fantasy and imagination? Who knows.

In any case, religious thoughts are mainly transmitted through social exposure. However, in certain historical — and perhaps modern as well — tribes, drugs are used to induce “religious” experiences in people and thus persuade them of its authenticity. For instance, cannabis is used in Indian and African communities. There is also the ayahuasca, which apparently grant healing powers and clairvoyance, and do produce the sensation of flying. There is also the datura, which produces glorious visions in warriors before battle and is still used by natives in North and South America. These plants are quite scary and I do wonder why they exist. Wouldn’t it be self-detrimental for the plant to produce godly feelings in people and animals that eat it? Wouldn’t they want to eat it more instead? How does the plant protect itself this way? Then again, maybe the animals know better than to touch such ghastly things, and humans are the fools to crave it and even grow and harvest it for more. At any rate, such plants still exist in big quantities today, so whatever their regenerative strategy is, it sure works.

A possible reason why the study of religion in psychology is not quite advanced may be because some psychologists reject religion altogether. For example, Sigmund Freud viewed religion as an illusion and a sign of psychological neurosis. However, I think researchers understand now that excluding anything — especially a global phenomenon as religion — from psychological study is going to limit its findings, so we’ll probably see more scientific insight into it in the days to come. Cognitive science and many other fields promise to use computational methods to study religious thought processes, and that sounds quite exciting to me if nothing else.


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