So, I heard some years ago that religious people tend to be happier and healthier.Â It didn’t especially jive with my experience, but hey, it’s what the scientific data say, right?
Here’s an interesting piece from the NY Times, corroborating and explaining some of the benefits of “religious attendance â€” [or] at least, religiosity” the reasons for which are “not entirely clear”.Â Some of the benefit derives first from “social support [which] is directly tied to better health” and second from “healthy behavior” (” on average, regular church attendees drink less, smoke less, use fewer recreational drugs and are less sexually promiscuous than others”).
But the author also suggests a third factor, something rooted in the imaginative and intellectual experience of creating a relationship with an immaterial being:
I want to suggest that this is a skill and that it can be learned. We can call it absorption: the capacity to be caught up in your imagination, in a way you enjoy. What I saw in church as an anthropological observer was that people were encouraged to listen to God in their minds, but only to pay attention to mental experiences that were in accord with what they took to be Godâ€™s character, which they took to be good. I saw that people were able to learn to experience God in this way, and that those who were able to experience a loving God vividly were healthier â€” at least, as judged by a standardized psychiatric scale. Increasingly, other studies bear out this observation that the capacity to imagine a loving God vividly leads to better health.
For example, in one study, when God was experienced as remote or not loving, the more someone prayed, the more psychiatric distress she seemed to have; when God was experienced as close and intimate, the more someone prayed, the less ill he was. In another study, at a private Christian college in Southern California, the positive quality of an attachment to God significantly decreased stress and did so more effectively than the quality of the personâ€™s relationships with other people.
She goes on to posits possible benefits even beyond those who want to believe in God. Perhaps it
may teach us how to harness the â€œplaceboâ€ effect â€” a terrible word, because it suggests an absence of intervention rather than the presence of a healing mechanism that depends neither on pharmaceuticals nor on surgery. We do not understand the placebo effect, but we know it is real. That is, we have increasingly better evidence that what anthropologists would call â€œsymbolic healingâ€ has real physical effects on the body. At the heart of some of these mysterious effects may be the capacity to trust that what can only be imagined may be real, and be good.
I find this all pretty intriguing, because I have had some remarkable experiences with an unseen world that I cannot and frankly prefer not to explain.Â I mean, it’s unseen!Â I don’t know enough about it.Â It might be this externally verifiable thing, or it might be just an idea that is very real to me.
I believe in the realness of ideas.Â Fictional characters are not real people, but they are real ideas.Â Heavenly Mother is, to me, a real idea, a real idea with real potential.Â So is Edward Cullen.Â He’s a bad idea, but he’s a real idea.Â Elizabeth Bennet (the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, in case you don’t know) is a terrific idea!Â Cinderalla is a hyper-real idea–she’s so real she’s an achetype for us.Â All these ideas, although they are only ideas, have had real effects on the world.
We can see the same thing with political ideologies.Â Consider the idea that one race is superior to others, that one gender is superior to the other(s), or all that men are created equal.Â These are all real ideas, and they become more or less “true” as we believe in them more or less.
The problem with the character of God as he exists in the Mormon fiction about him is that he’s an asshole.Â It takes an act of willful blindness not to see this.Â And once you see this, praying to him creates greater and greater psychic and “psychiatric distress,” as the author put it.
Furthermore, in Mormonism he’s such a nasty, vicious douche that even once you realize that there are nicer versions of him out there–versions where he’s not racist, misogynist and homophobic, anti-intellecual and obsessed with the minutea of dietary codes, pruriently obsessed with his children’s sex lives, and gleefully sentencing to hell women who hate polygamy–the taint of his cruelty and barbarity lingers on. It’s really HARD to replace that asshole with a kinder, gentler version.Â After all, the whole atonement thing, the requirement that some of his children execute his favorite son as a condition of anyone being able to hang out with him, is pretty barbaric and cruel.Â The idea that the atonement shows love is somehow real, despite being absolutely nonsensical.
Once you figure all that out, it’s easy, even when you read an article like this one, to do the math: “Let’s see: going to church can add up to three years to your life.Â Three times 365 is 1095 days.Â But you have to go to church every Sunday.Â If you started going to church as an infant and live to be 75, that’s 3900 days.Â Even if you skip a few Sundays here and there, that’s still at least three times as many days that you LOSE to church throughout your life as you GAIN BACK from at it at the end.Â Hmm.Â I’ll stick with having Sunday off, thank you very much.”