Religion is good for your health, good for your mood, even good for your motivation. People who have religion believe that random events have a purpose, that they will be rewarded for helping other people, that they will be punished for their crimes and that they have an almighty protector that loves them unconditionally. These are all useful lies. They might be true or they might not be, but holding these beliefs can have a massive positive impact on a person’s life.
The list of beliefs or ways of living that are beneficial goes on: ask and you shall receive, do unto others as unto yourself, forgive one another, take action, be grateful. The cumulative effect that these beliefs or habits bring endows a cultural advantage on those tribes and individuals that follow them. I will now discuss each one in depth:
The human mind is built on pattern-recognition and cause-and-effect relationships. To add random events to the mix can be very demoralizing, especially when the events have a major traumatic impact on their life. It keeps people motivated to believe that a car crash where their parents died is sent to make them stronger (instead of unmotivated chaos) they do become stronger and then this belief is a self-fulfilling prophecy. They become anti-fragile, where setbacks are turned into opportunities and failures are turned into successes.
People need help but frequently other people are too self-absorbed or unwilling to help. This has an evolutionary bias: accomplishing anything uses so much effort that the people who did not look after themselves first died out and did not become ancestors. On the other hand cooperation has massive synergistic benefits to society. Any cultures where helping others was encouraged, outcompeted those who did not. Having a religion promising a heavenly reward cost these cultures nothing, but overcame the natural resistance to hoarding effort for personal use. The good feelings that people feel after altruism reinforces this behavior and leads to long-term increases in happiness for both parties.
God will always know if you have committed a crime and can punish you with an eternity of suffering. This decreases the chance of getting away with crime to zero and creates a big punishment that is independent of society’s law enforcement in the religious criminal’s mind. Everybody who believes this starts policing themselves, resulting in less crime – a benefit for any culture.
Believing that you have an almighty protector definitely improves your frame of mind; an alternative is that you believe that there is nothing that stands between you and horrible death, that you are almost alone in the wide, big, large world – one that can be very cruel indeed. Believing in a protector can give you courage to do the things you are afraid of or allow you to not live your life in fear.
Unconditional love: UNCONDITIONAL. In a world where it is almost impossible to find unconditional acceptance; something we experience as a child and many people spend the rest of their life searching for. Unfortunately not something that is likely to change: society has needs that are in direct contrast to those of an individual.
Asking is very important. Asking is of extreme import. To ask is a priority (Get the hint? ;)). Religions that preach “ask and you shall receive” have seen that people needlessly deny themselves basic needs because they are afraid to ask for it. We have been taught not to ask from childhood and very few of us are assertive of our needs. It is almost impossible for someone to satisfy your need if they are not aware of it. Often people are happy to help, you only need to ask them. Asking is free – people can always say no. This ties in with another fear of people: the fear of rejection. Rejection is not someone saying they hate you(BAD DOG!) :), it merely means that they are not aligned with your needs. Every person that says no increases the chance that the next person will say “YES!”
Do unto others as unto yourself is part of the christian ethic. I apply would rephrase this to say that you should not mistreat people. Not everyone wants to be treated in the same way, but it does help a lot to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and imagine how having that done to you would feel. A religion that encourages people to consider other people and their feelings results and better harmony and bestows a cultural benefit.
Forgive people. Not because some god says that you have to and not because they have grovelled for an apology. Forgive other people because nothing you do now can have any effect on the past. Do not throw your happiness and joy away because of other people being nightmarish creatures. Forgetting is easier and quicker. Take responsibility for how you feel and don’t let them get you down!
Procrastination is a big problem which affects everyone. Having a religion that encourages action helps you not to procrastinate. This is another protocol for living that many religions have incorporated, because it works.
Be grateful. Very cliche and very useful. On any day, at any time, there are always a thousand good things and a thousand bad. Focus on the nice things and your life will feel better, focus on the bad and your life becomes a hell. The way something looks depends on what filter you use. Gratitude increases baseline happiness as shown in this study. This leaves people feeling happier in the long term.
These are some of the possible benefits of religion, specifically the christian religion. In a following post I will discuss some of the negatives.
To happiness, and beyond!