Is Religion a Tranquillizer?

In earlier posts, I argued that the basic function of religion is coping with anxiety. More specifically, it helps people to deal with the stress of uncertainty from third-world living conditions. In developed countries having a better standard of living, better health and longer life expectancy, basic anxieties recede and religion fades along with them.

If this is true then, religion has a primary soothing function rather like the security blanket from which a small child derives comfort. We now have good scientific evidence that religious rituals and prayer work in just this way. Each produces a slowing of heart rate and other signs of physiological calming.

This implies that the psychological effects of religious rituals are analogous to those of anti-anxiety drugs like tranquillizers or alcohol. Religion is a downer.

The security-blanket idea is particularly good at accounting for the decline in religious belief in developed countries and even for the fact that the U.S. with its harsher living conditions is more religious than Western Europe. Yet, the tranquillizer approach is often discounted by religious people because of what it leaves out. They argue that far from being a spiritual pacifier, supernatural beliefs supply the faithful with a sense of meaning, purpose, and optimism that is otherwise unavailable.

Yet, it is a mistake to assume such benefits are peculiar to religion. Virtually any social activity has the same potential from being a sports fan, a philanthropist, an entrepreneur, an artist, or a scientist. Such passions give people a reason for getting up in the morning and inspire them to work hard and surmount challenges. I have met many sports fans who were a lot more enthused by their sport than the faithful are by their religion. Indeed, sport shares many features of religion lacking only a supernatural belief system.

The insanity plea?

The psychological benefits ascribed to religion are also available through many secular channels. When reminded of this possibility, some religious people resort to playing what they see as their ultimate trump card. They confide that they know religion directly, that God has revealed himself to them, that they have been spiritually reborn, or that Jesus has touched their heart (as George Bush II liked to say).

Such subjective unverifiable claims certainly cannot be refuted, and may be sincerely believed. Yet, they are the weakest possible sort of evidence. Enter any locked ward and you will find one person who believes he (or she) can eavesdrop on other people's thoughts, another can fly to distant stars, broadcast thoughts directly on the radio, or cause the earth to be destroyed. Hearing the voice of God is a paltry side show by comparison.

In his book Why I am not a Christian, Bertrand Russell argued that if a person has a delusion alone they are judged insane whereas if they share the delusion with others they are considered religious. The revealed religion camp seems dangerously close to insanity.

Religion as an institution

Apart from their subjective chemical and hallucinatory implications, formal religions may have important legal, social, and political functions in daily life. Churches used to wield monopoly control over marriages and funerals as well as baptisms so that it was impossible to lead a normal life without going through the motions of being religious. The churches owned property, ran charities, acted as political blocks and exerted influence over rulers and legislators.

Such worldly aspects of religion may be important around the world today but they are not the reason that religion first emerged in hunter-gatherer societies. Indeed many pious people see worldly involvement as a threat to the true mission of their religion.

That religion may serve many different functions, or that it can be perceived very differently by insiders and outsiders does not shake the conclusion that its central, and original function is likely anxiety reduction.

Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski noticed that Trobriand Islander fishermen always resorted to religious rituals when fishing in rough and dangerous waters beyond the reef where many of them drowned. They never bothered praying when they fished the calm waters of a lagoon. This is a bit like passengers in a commercial aircraft beginning to pray whenever the plane encounters turbulence.

Religion may be many different things. Yet, at its core, it serves the same function as tranquillizers. It is a downer.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. (1954). Magic, science and religion, and other essays. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Russell, Bertrand. (1957). Why I am not a Christian. London: Routledge.