If you look at the broad literature that has been done on religious and spiritual beliefs and practices and how they relate to human health the large majority of the studies point to a positive influence that when people are religious or spiritual they tend to have lower levels of stress, anxiety.  They tend to have better overall health outcomes.  They can cope with various issues and problems more effectively.  

But there are some times where religion and spirituality can be negative and when people are struggling with their religious or spiritual beliefs, when people wind up engaging in ideas that are more negative, that are not inclusive of other people, but create feelings of anger or hatred in people. Those are things that actually increase the level of stress, increase the level of anxiety and they can be detrimental to people's health.

So one of the things that I often encourage people to think about is to look at their own religious and spiritual beliefs that are creating a more compassionate way of looking at the world, a more compassionate way of looking at people.  Are your beliefs helping to make you feel more comforted, make you feel less stress or are they doing the opposite? And if they are making you feel more stressed, more anxious and more angry and hateful at other people I think it's important to take a look at those beliefs and see if there are more positive kinds of beliefs that you can turn to.  

What I think the literature shows is that the more you keep your mind focused on positive emotions, positive feelings of compassion and love for other people and inclusiveness of other people then the better your brain is going to work and the better your behaviors outwardly will help to improve the world, whereas if you do continue to kind of focus on the negative sides of religion, maybe the notion that God is angry at you, that people who disagree with you are completely wrong and evil, then those are the kinds of feelings that are ultimately going to create a lot of anxiety and stress in your brain. I think that to me one of the goals of this neuro-theological research is to try to find ways of identifying the negative as well as the positive effects and to try to ultimately have people turn to a more positive way of looking at religious and spiritual ideas.

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

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