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When Religion Becomes Rational

Imagine that you could take a pill that would extinguish your deepest insecurities. Imagine that, having taken this pill, the thought of your impending mortality no longer terrified you. This pill has the power to replace the deepest anxieties about your future and your personhood with a profound sense of direction and purpose. Would you take it?

For many students on campus, conversation about religion seems to have ended. The average student is agnostic or atheist but respects other people’s rights to adhere to a faith, so long as they do not impose it on others. This “you do you” attitude makes conversations about religion potentially uncomfortable. But what if I told you that it was in your best interest to become religious?

Before you roll your eyes and click back to Facebook, consider the following. One study by the American Journal of Epidemiology, among many, suggested that participation in a religious organization “may offer mental health benefits beyond those offered by other forms of social participation.” In fact, it found that, of volunteering with a charity, taking educational courses, participating in a political organization, and participating in a religious organization, only participation in religious organizations was associated with “sustained happiness.” The other activities were either found not to be related to mental health or even potentially harmful.

Just because religious activity is often accompanied with happiness does not mean that it leads to it. Yet intuitively, this causality makes sense. Growing up with a faith means sitting down at the dinner table on religious holidays to celebrate centuries-old traditions with friends and family. It means telling stories of shared trials and tribulations. Being religious means reflecting periodically in group settings about the trajectory of your life and the lives before you. It means being prompted to express gratitude through fasting or through feasting, in suffering and in happiness. By way of example, the Catholic practice of prayers before meals is, to some, an antiquated ritual; yet if done agnostically (or at least without the threat of hellfire for not being a good Catholic), then it becomes a regular gesture of gratitude toward family and friends. These practices endow otherwise mundane gestures or incantations with a grander sense of meaning and, in doing so, serve to enable psychological continuity and group cohesiveness.

Read the rest over at The Stanford Review. Republished with permission.


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