PRESENT TENSE: LAST WEEKEND, it was reported that the Iona Institute had published a document saying that religious practice makes you happier, healthier, and less likely to stray as a teenager or as a spouse. You may have missed that, because the news that a Christian think-tank says religion is good for you is not exactly agenda-setting stuff.
It was granted a small amount of coverage in the national press on the same day that the Humanist Association of Ireland came out with an ad campaign arguing that the need to take religious oaths before becoming a judge or president is discrimination against the non-religious. Its slogan – “Unbelievable” – is less arresting than the British atheists’ recent bus posters saying “There’s probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life”, but at least it hasn’t sparked a disagreement between agnostics and atheists over the wording (probably no God?). Where there has been grumbling over the Irish Humanists’ confusing an oath with a declaration, it has come from people who could be national champions at missing the point.
This battle between believer and non-believer was short and not particularly fierce, but skirmishes broke out across this newspaper’s Letters page over the course of the week. However, it is the claims about religion being good for you that are most tantalising. There is the attendant insinuation that because we’re now less likely to spend our Sundays in a shopping centre, we can shake ourselves down and crawl back to worshipping something far less tangible than money. More than that, as Breda O’Brien touched on in The Irish Times last Saturday, if belief does indeed make us happier and healthier, then it may act as partial proof that there’s something worth believing in. Actually, even the Iona Institute’s report doesn’t claim this. Nor does it claim that the evidence is overwhelming.
So, is religion good for you? It depends on how you look at it. Some research, in regard to certain areas, has returned supporting evidence. But that evidence can be scrappy and the research often debatable and occasionally unconvincing to the point of farce. For instance, the report, authored by UCD professor of psychiatry Patricia Casey, cites, without irony, a study on the behaviour of teenagers in which the subjects were interviewed with a parent in the room. Asking teenagers to be frank about sex and drugs while their mother sits with them is just about the surest route to a flawed result. (The report is also quite amusing in how it talks in its main text about Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion without mentioning either by name. Say it: Dawkins, Dawkins, Dawkins. He won’t materialise in a puff of sulphur.)
Ultimately, it’s an interesting but often vague document. You can add your own Bible joke at this point. Religious practice, it says, is sometimes, maybe, depending on who you ask, good for you and for society.
It has indeed been linked with certain benefits, such as longer life expectancy. There is also some evidence that it makes people “nicer”, although that’s also been linked to the idea that people act better when they feel they’re being “watched”. The problem for those who advocate religion as a sort of spiritual Prozac is that there are plenty of reasons why religious practice may be linked with certain psycho-social benefits, but any one of them can be explained as well – better, in fact – by the environment in which religious practice takes place. Social bonds, community, friendship are all contributors. People tend to be happier and healthier when socially active. Religious practice offers that opportunity. Atheists, you’ll have noticed, tend not to come together in large groups once a week.
Such research, then, opens up questions about community, society, relationships, peer pressure, and psychology. What it has very little to say about is God. It has more value as a launching pad for asking the obvious question of how we can create similar conditions in a secular society, without the need to bring an omnipotent being into the equation. Instead, for faith-based groups, it means taking the weakest stance any religious believers can, which is to advocate worship as nothing more than a lifestyle option. Even in a recession, there will be a great many happy to choose a lifestyle that doesn’t involve a god and who would prefer to live in a society that chooses likewise.
This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times