Religion and Self-control

Posted By Stefan Monsaureus

Religiousness has often been associated with a number of favorable behavioral and health outcomes, such as increased longevity, decreased affinity for risky behaviors, greater compliance with rules and regulations, and subjective well-being. In an article in the upcoming issue of the Psychological Bulletin, University of Miami researchers Michael E. McCullough and Brian L. B. Willoughby report on a meta-analysis of the literature exploring the purported connection between religious adherence and a variety of beneficial outcomes.

[M]any measures of religiousness are associated consistently (albeit, in most cases, weakly) with a wide variety of outcomes that are relevant to health, well-being, achievement, and social flourishing. However, these associations present an interesting puzzle, because an overarching explanatory mechanism that might explain them has not been identified.

The authors undertook a comprehensive review of prior research surrounding the role of religion in fostering self-regulation and self-control, and the putative relationship between self-control and a variety of reported benefits. For purposes of this study, the authors defined religion as the “cognition, affect, and behavior that arise from awareness of, or perceived interaction with, supernatural entities that are presumed to play an important role in human affairs” and self-control as situations in which people suppress tendencies or emotions in pursuit of a goal with greater long-term utility.

Their analysis showed strong evidence that religion is positively related to self-control (and the related traits of agreeableness and conscientiousness), that religious practice influences goal selection and pursuit (with greater value placed on social harmony than on individual pursuits), and that religious ritual promotes self-regulation. Importantly, they found that these attributes of religious belief (that is, the tendency toward greater self-control) could account for some of the correlations between religion and improved health, well-being, and social behavior.

While their data supports positive effects from religious belief, the authors are not oblivious to the antithetical position that religion can lead to great harms.

There is no reason to think that religion’s effects on human life are uniformly good or socially desirable, even though most of the research on religion that has been relevant to this review has involved outcomes that are generally valued (e.g., health, psychological well-being, relational harmony, staying out of trouble with the police, school achievement). Indeed, the evidence for religion’s ability to motivate aggression and prejudice is at least as convincing as is the evidence for religion’s ability to facilitate cooperation and other forms of prosocial behavior, especially then the religion is of a fundamentalist, authoritarian variety.

Commenting on this research in the New York Times, John Tierney notes

So what’s a heathen to do in 2009? Dr. McCullough’s advice is to try replicating some of the religious mechanisms that seem to improve self-control, like private meditation or public involvement with an organization that has strong ideals. Religious people, he said, are self-controlled not simply because they fear God’s wrath, but because they’ve absorbed the ideals of their religion into their own system of values, and have thereby given their personal goals an aura of sacredness. He suggested that nonbelievers try a secular version of that strategy.

In fact, although it may not be religious beliefs, per se, that yield these societal benefits, participation in a religious tradition fosters an important sense of community. Recapitulating that sort of community ( and its corresponding social support structure) among nonbelievers is no small order. As has been noted here before, the mere rejection of archaic fables is an insufficient basis for organizing such communities, especially given the breadth of the nontheistic population.

Humanist Community Centers, anyone?

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31 December 2008

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