Mental Health and Religion

Religion is the way that human beings deal with their ultimate concerns. These may be concerns about what happens after death, or they could be more proximate in nature (a more wiser, fruitful, charitable, successful and joyful life); they are often tied into the natural world (cosmos, gods and spirits) but in some traditions they are also related to human society, and even the physical world.

It is easy to see why researchers have found that religion has a range of beneficial effects on people. These have included reduced levels of stress and anxiety, greater coping capability in the face of hardship, increased social connectedness and better mental health. However, it is important to note that these benefits are only observed in the case of those who are genuinely religious, those who are ‘intrinsically’ religious, who through their beliefs, teachings and rituals change their thinking and behaviour. Those who are ‘extrinsically’ religious, who do not change their behaviour, appear to be at greater risk of poor mental health.

This is a complex and fascinating topic, and there are many different theories of how religion works. One approach is to look at its function and purpose, as in Durkheim’s definition that religion is whatever dominant concern serves to bind the members of a group together. This is a functionalist approach that has also been taken up by Paul Tillich. Other scholars have looked at the more psychological aspects of religion, including its influence on morality and identity, or how it functions as a source of comfort.

In the last several decades some scholars have rethought what it means to study religion, moving away from the classical model of monothetic sets of properties. These newer “polythetic” approaches, which take into account a range of characteristics in each instance of a concept, have shown that it is not only possible but necessary to define religion in terms of a network of interacting features.

It has become increasingly clear that the majority of the population are religious believers, so it is vitally important for public policy, psychotherapy and education to understand this group. This is particularly true when it comes to the treatment of mental illness, where a completely secular approach often misses the mark.

The great value of a religious framework is that it can help to give meaning to otherwise stressful and difficult times, to make the impossible possible, and to make sense of an unpredictable and sometimes hostile universe. As such, it is a resource which should not be underestimated or dismissed. It is a shame that it continues to be associated with violence and oppression, but there is much more to religion than these dark sides. Ultimately, the best thing about religion is that it can help us to live longer, happier and more fulfilling lives. We all need that, don’t we? Religions have provided that for millions of people throughout history, and for many it remains the only game in town.