Belief in God is good for you.
That's the gist of a recent story trumpeted in The Washington Times and Fox News. Specifically, they report on a couple of studies concluding that belief in a caring God is associated with relief of depression. Here's a smidge of the story:
The "Big Man Upstairs" is getting accolades from mental health specialists who say they are finding that a belief in God plays a positive role in the treatment of anxiety and depression, The Washington Times, reports. University of Toronto psychologists reported last year that "believing in God can help block anxiety and minimize stress," their research showcasing "distinct brain differences" between believers and nonbelievers. A new study released Wednesday by Rush University Medical Center in Chicago took the idea a step further. In patients diagnosed with clinical depression, "belief in a concerned God can improve response to medical treatment," said the new research, which has been published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.
Let me be the first nonbeliever to say: I believe it. That is to say, I find it plausible that such an association exists. I even find it is plausible that some causal connection exists, though as we'll see in a sec, it's probably confounded by other factors.
These studies raise some mighty big questions, though. Why do people believe? Because it's true? Or because it's good for them? If they differ, which should we value more: pursuit of truth or pursuit of happiness? And, as with all remedies, we must ask: what are the side effects? Do the benefits exceed the risks?
Surprisingly, none of these questions is addressed in the Times-Fox story. Instead, it goes on to present data about how more than nine in ten Americans believe in God. I don't think the editors realized it, but these data could undermine the causal implications of the depression studies.
If you're part of a cultural minority of nonbelievers, you might be subject to greater depression simply because of subtle (and not-so-subtle) signs from the majority that you are despised. When you learn, for example, that more Americans are prepared to elect a Muslim president than an atheist, it can sting. But that's nothing compared with the finding that more Americans would vote for a gay president than an atheist. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
In short, atheists are the most distrusted minority in America. It's strange that belonging to no religion would make you less trustworthy in the eyes of the majority than belonging to the "wrong" religion, but polls have consistently shown this to be true. How depressing!
Let me hasten to add, however, that I am not depressed. I was depressed, but only because it was February. Now that it is March, I feel fine, thank you.
Back to the big questions. This antipathy toward nonbelievers may have a subtle connection with the "benefits of belief" studies. Could it be that in contemporary America, belief in God is more about self-help than truth, justice, or the way of all flesh? Is "God has a plan for you" just the power of positive thinking writ large? And are atheists resented because they threaten to break the spell?
I would not go so far as to cast such a large wet blanket over all believers. But I suspect it is true for the segment of frantic, science-denying fundamentalists. Randy Pope, founder of Modest Clothing Distributors (a sort of Christian burqa business) certainly feels that way.
"It is bad enough that the teenage girls show up at church in revealing dresses, and high-cut skirts or, worse yet, low-cut jeans and high-cut tee shirts," he writes. "Eliminating Jesus and His law as the foundation for an ordered society you have left the door wide open for the supremacy of man."
Yeah. Next, they'll be teaching natural science in the schools...
Gloom and doom religionists are the noisy exception in America. Most contemporary religion is about being happy. And nothing makes people happier than banding together against a common enemy.
This, unfortunately, forms a large chunk of the earthly story of religion down the ages, one that continues to accumulate new chapters today. It was true for the Israelites in their partially mythical struggle against the Pharaoh, it was true for the Muslims in their empire-building conquests, and it was true for Christendom in the Crusades against Islam.
If you have to go into battle against a formidable foe, it undoubtedly helps to believe that God is on your side. And so, every army claims Him for their own. Abraham Lincoln recognized the irony in that. General Stanley Boykin, commander of the Abu Ghraib prison, did not. As he saw it, our invasion of Iraq was a God-ordained mission against a false idol.
The crusader-jihadist mentality is one of the dangerous side-effects of belief in God. At least, some kinds of God-belief. They makes it so easy to dehumanize "the Other." The rejection of science and its findings is yet another hazard.
Fortunately, the kind of belief that confers hope, cheer, camaraderie, and faith that something good lies ahead need not have any of these side effects. You can choose to believe in a non-steroidal, generic God. Clothe your conception of God, if you like, in Christianity or any other religion, but leave plenty of room for ambiguity.
Your life, like those of everyone else alive, is still being written. Science shows that it is impossible, even in principle, to know just how it will turn out. If belief in a caring God makes it better, there's truly nothing wrong with that, provided you keep your beliefs within the bounds of rationality. Better yet, if you follow a few important provisos your belief will, at least in a metaphysical sense, be true.
Here are those provisos: to be consistent with the world as science finds it, you have to let go of belief in a master plan, special powers, or magical interventions. To be a rational believer, you must reject the idea that God supports this army or that, loves one group better than another, takes offense at certain sexual practices, or sends down specific commandments to certain people, along with promises of rewards and threats of punishment.
Life doesn't work that way. And what's more, it shouldn't. No God worth worshiping would go about things in such a mean-spirited, vague, illogical, shifty, and partisan manner as the history and theology of traditional religion reveals.
If God there be, we have yet to come anywhere close to comprehension. However, through science we have established beyond reasonable doubt what God is not. The quest for deeper understanding goes on. In the meantime, a spiritual belief in in God for personal or shared inspiration can surely be melded with a rational understanding of the world as we find it. Of course, this melding demands more a little more effort than accepting unquestioned a hand-me-down, superstition-laden tradition. But it makes for a healthier, freer mind and a safer, better world.