Religious belief is hugely beneficial – physically and psychologically. So says Daily Telegraph writer Sean Thomas in a blog article. A vast body of research, primarily from the US, appears to support this. The University of California published a report which stated that college students involved in religious activities have better mental health than the non-religious students. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Texas found that the more often you go to church, the longer you live. Harvard’s take on the issue is that hospital inmates who are believers have less depression. Other studies show that believers are less likely to commit suicide, cope with stress better and are generally happier than unbelievers. Believers also have more children.
The implication drawn from this is that the human brain is hard-wired for faith and belief, that the species has evolved with an inbuilt religious belief system and that is the reason why believers today are generally happier than unbelievers. Conversely, atheists who lack this vital faculty of faith are seen as sick people with a tragic affliction akin to blindness. A form of mental illness, says Sean Thomas the blogger (it is perhaps no surprise to learn that he is a believer).
Atheists tend to see things differently. For a start they do not usually agree that believers are the happy ones and they might point to the constant scandals in the Christian church. Plenty of atheists appear to be just as happy as religious folk and probably would agree with the early 20th century political thinker, Annie Besant in saying: ‘No philosophy, no religion, has ever brought so glad a message to the world as this good news of Atheism.’
The view of many atheists is rather different – they tend to view religious believers as mentally sick people trapped in a kind of spiritual Stockholm Syndrome*, held captive by a God whom they love in spite of the torments and constrictions that he imposes. A far more serious and recognisable condition than theirs, they suggest.
So who is right? Certainly believers obtain support and fellowship through their religions that must increase their sense of wellbeing but no doubt atheists get similar encouragement from scientific evidence and interaction. Perhaps all should ponder the words of that well known atheist, George Bernard Shaw:
“The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”
In my view, everyone is entitled to an opinion on such a profound matter without being labelled mentally ill. What I would find really scary would be not having an opinion at all.
*Stockholm Syndrome describes the psychological phenomenon when hostages have positive feelings towards their captors.