The latest issue of The Tablet contains an interesting piece by Mark Vernon (available online here) on ‘why religion is good for you’.
After presenting some of the well-known indicators of this, he says that ‘the evidence becomes more complicated when a further, crucial question is asked. Just why is it that religion has positive effects?’, noting that ‘a range of possibilities are mooted, and hotly contested’.
A first possibility he explores is ‘the proscriptive character of religion’, adding that proscriptions work ‘not when they are perceived as persecutory commandments but rather when they are perceived as charting a path to a new way of life’, perhaps especially combined when an individual’s well-being ‘is boosted by the social support provided in groups’. Another possibility, via Richard Layard, is emotional habits, where ‘religious practices train individuals to control their feelings’.
Vernon (who has a book due out soon – The Big Questions: God) writes that ‘many of the researchers in the positive psychology field are searching for ways of reformulating such religious attitudes for a secular age’, exhibiting a desire ‘to raid religious traditions for their wisdom, while removing the theological scaffolding that has traditionally supported them’ (Alain de Botton is a well-known recent example of this).
But, if I have understood him correctly, Vernon wonders whether such researchers have overlooked... God, noting that, for believers, goodwill and well-being ‘are happy by-products of the main task, which is not actually to have a successful life. It is to come to know God’.
As he concludes:
‘It is striking that atheistic writers and researchers are coming to a new appreciation of religion. Going are the days when faith could simply be written off. Nonetheless, I suspect that their ideas will flounder because a basic and obvious question is being avoided... Might human well-being actually have something to do with God?’