Intrinsic religiosity has a protective effect against depression symptoms.
- According to new research, intrinsic religiosity has a protective effect against depression symptoms.
- Religion was only a pipeline, however—a sense of meaning mattered most.
- With increasing rates of depression globally, religion could be a "natural antidepressant" for some.
The question of meaning remains one of life's greatest inquiries. Is religion necessary for deriving meaning? Can a modern, secular Buddhist approach work better, in which meaning is derived in moment-by-moment perception instead of reserving faith for a revelation at some future point?
These questions won't be answered here, though new research from Brazilian researchers has found that religion alleviates depressive symptoms in believers. Published in the journal Trends in Psychology, the researchers asked 279 volunteers (72 percent female) to respond to an online questionnaire that focused on intrinsic religiosity, meaning in life, and levels of anxiety and depression.
The team concludes, "intrinsic religiosity has a protective effect against depression symptoms; however, it occurs indirectly, via meaning in life."
The authors note that 4.4 percent of the global population suffers from depression, with women 1.5 to 3 times more likely to experience depressive symptoms. Religion, it appears, provides a bedrock for communing with the sacred. They define religion as the general "beliefs, practices, and rituals related to the sacred and vary according to each religious tradition." Intrinsic religiosity, the focus of this research, skews toward individual relationships with the sacred, not utilitarian values—the extrinsic dimension.
Religion Is Nature's Antidepressant | Robert Sapolsky
The question of meaning in life and religion has been a hot topic of late. Leigh Stein recently pinpointed the emerging trend of influencers being treated as moral authorities, to which she pointed to decreasing faith as a potential reason: void of traditional religion, people are searching for meaning in digital spaces.
She writes that 22% of millennials now identify as "nones." The broader religious landscape in America has shifted dramatically in the last generation. According to a 2019 Pew poll, American adults claiming Christianity dropped 12 points in the last decade. Overall, 26% of adults identify as "none."
"None" is an umbrella term signifying an atheist, agnostic, or someone not interested in anything in particular. Sometimes this includes dabblers who pull from a variety of traditions without feeling invested in one. Stein noticed that wellness influencers have rushed in to fill a void, intentionally or not. As she writes,
"I was once one of those millennials who made politics her religion; I lasted three years as a feminist activist and organizer before I burned out in 2017. That's when I began noticing how many wellness products and programs were marketed to women in pain, and how the social media industry relies on keeping us outraged and engaged. It's no wonder we're seeking relief."
Shadi Hamid occupies a similar place, though he identifies tribal political affiliations as the replacement for religion—specifically, to replace meaning. He claims a quarter of American adults qualify as "none," noting that less than half are traditionally religious, i.e. Christan church attendees, based on a 2019 Gallup poll. Hamid argues that this pivot occurred when religion left our lives.
"As Christianity's hold, in particular, has weakened, ideological intensity and fragmentation have risen. American faith, it turns out, is as fervent as ever; it's just that what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations. This is what religion without religion looks like."
Credit: sutichak / Adobe Stock
Hamid believes the Left and Right channel their political-religious hybrids differently: the woke Left repurpose original sin, atonement, ritual, and excommunication as pathways to creating a more just society while the Right has stripped much of the religion from their religion in order to focus their existential angst into blood and soil themes. QAnon, for example, is essentially a religious doctrine, requiring of its devotees the same leaps of faith.
Stein looks at the politicization of religion—really, the religiosity of politics—as a failure of imagination. Why, she wonders, have people put their faith in memoir-selling, supplement-slinging influencers instead of people who have actually accomplished something in their lives other than turnkey marketing campaigns? Why would we turn to so-called leaders incapable of even attempting to answer life's big questions, or at the very least offer solace in the face of uncertainty, the classical role of religious leaders?
"There is a chasm between the vast scope of our needs and what influencers can provide. We're looking for guidance in the wrong places. Instead of helping us to engage with our most important questions, our screens might be distracting us from them. Maybe we actually need to go to something like church?"
The research team in Brazil might agree. One defining symptom of depression is an inability to foresee a better future. The global number might be 4.4 percent, but in America, the number is closer to 8 percent. America, now considered the twelfth wealthiest country in the world, ranked third in terms of depression. Money is never going to buy happiness.
Will religion? While the track record is spotty, this new research entertains an intrinsic sense of belief in the sacredness of life as a natural antidepressant, as Robert Sapolsky phrased it. During a time of growing unease, the suspension of disbelief might be what the doctor ordered—for some at least.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Spirituality can be an uncomfortable word for atheists. But does it deserve the antagonism that it gets?
- While the anti-scientific bias of religious fundamentalism requires condemnation, if we take a broader view, does the human inclination towards spiritual practice still require the same antagonism? The answer, I think, is a definitive "No."
- Rather than ontological claims about what exists in the universe, the terms spiritual and sacred can describe the character of an experience. Instead of a "thing" they can refer to an attitude or an approach.
- One can be entirely faithful to the path of inquiry and honesty that is science while making it one aspect of a broader practice embracing the totality of your experience as a human being in this more-than-human world.
The tension between science and religion is old news to us moderns. Historical events like the Catholic Church's trial of Galileo or the Scopes Monkey Trial over teaching Darwin in schools, seem to imply that religion and science are incompatible. More recently, writers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and other 'New Atheists' have been vigorous in their condemnation of the anti-scientific bias of religious fundamentalism. But if we take a broader view beyond these fundamentalisms, if we ask about the human inclination towards spiritual practice in general, do we still have to find the same antagonism? The answer, I think, is a definitive "No." And that answer is important as we consider the totality of what it means to be human.
First, it's important to distinguish between religion and what I'll call spiritual practice. In his excellent book "Sapiens," Yuval Noah Harari defines religion as "a system of human norms and values that is founded in the belief in a superhuman order." There are two parts of this definition that are important for our discussion. First is the "system of human norms." That phrase points to a lot of stuff, but it also means politics. There is an aspect of organized religion that has always been about establishing and enforcing social norms: Who is an authority; who justifies who is in charge; who marries whom; who tells you how to behave. This aspect of religion is about power within social hierarchies.
The second part of Harari's definition refers to a "superhuman order." Note that he does not say a "supernatural" order. Why? Because some religions like Buddhism don't pivot around the existence of an all-powerful deity. This distinction is important because it allows you to see a point many scholars of religion have made after looking at the long human history of what I'll call spiritual endeavor. From our beginnings as hunter-gathers, we have always been responding to a sense of a "superhuman order." That response has taken many different forms from beautiful paintings on cave walls to beautiful paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Even though I consider myself an atheist, experiences of a superhuman order have been with me since I was a kid.
In my first book, I looked in depth at this response, its history, and its relation to science. Even though I consider myself an atheist, experiences of a superhuman order have been with me since I was a kid. Heck, that's what science was to me—an order expressible in mathematics beyond the purely human. In fact, many of my deepest experiences of being alive had come to me through my scientific practice. Working through some line of mathematical reasoning or encountering some image of a nebula or galaxy, I'd get thrust into an overwhelming sense of the universe's presence, of its perfect unity and wholeness. At first, I saw the laws of physics as the source of that order but as I got older my focus widened.
Now, one could say that my experiences were "just awe" and nothing more. But as the great scholar of religion, Rudolph Otto noted, awe is the essential component of a spiritual experience. It is an encounter with what other scholars have called "sacredness."
So, what are we to make of these words "spiritual" and "sacred"? Some strident atheists recoil at these terms because they believe they must entail a belief in supernatural entities. This is a mistake. Both can point to something much broader. Rather than ontological claims about what exists in the universe, spiritual and sacred can describe the character of an experience. Instead of a "thing", they can refer to an attitude or an approach. This is the central point William James made in his masterwork "The Varieties of Religious Experience." To speak about sacredness is to understand that some experiences (the birth of your child, coming upon a silent forest glade, hearing a powerful symphony) evoke an order that is more than just our thoughts about that order. And to speak of "the spiritual" can call to the highest aspects of the human spirit: compassion, kindness, empathy, generosity, love.
This kind of understanding of spiritual and sacred have always been with us and they may, or may not, have anything to do with a particular religion. This is where we can draw a distinction between a spiritual practice and a religious one. In a spiritual practice, people purposely attempt to deepen their lived sense of the superhuman order they experience. It is, literally, a practice. You work on it every day, perhaps using meditation or ritual or service to others. The methods differ but the daily application and aspiration are the same.
The important point is that spiritual practice has a purpose: transformation. It is to become a person who lives in accord with that sense of experienced order, that sacredness. Such a lifelong aspiration and effort can happen within an individual religious tradition if there are domains within that tradition that truly support this kind of interior work. Unfortunately, the politics of religion can sometimes keep this from happening. As scholars Joseph Campbell, Walter Houston Clark, and others have said, church can be a "vaccination" against the real thing.
It's also possible to build such a practice outside of established religious tradition. In that case, the difficulty comes in inventing forms that can support a lifelong practice. There is something to be said for traditions or rituals that have endured for many generations and the best of these often occur within some religious traditions.
The bottom line is human beings have felt the need for spiritual practice for a long, long time. That means that even as participation in traditional religions drops, people claiming to be "spiritual but not religious" and people who embrace science continue to grow. The writer Annaka Harris and her spouse New Atheist Sam Harris are, for example, strong defenders of science. They have also both written about the importance of contemplative practice in their lives.
I have long argued that science is one way that the aspiration to know the true and the real is expressed. It is one way we express that sense of an order beyond us. But there are other ways that go beyond descriptions and explanation, and all of them make up the totality of being human. That means you can embrace science in all its power and still embed it within the larger context of human experience. All of us can be entirely faithful to the path of inquiry and honesty that is science while making it one aspect of a practice meant to embrace the fullness of your experience as a human in this more-than-human world.
Here's what Einstein meant when he spoke of cosmic dice and the "secrets of the Ancient One".
- To celebrate Einstein's birthday this past Sunday, we examine his take on religion and spirituality.
- Einstein's disapproval of quantum physics revealed his discontent with a world without causal harmony at its deepest levels: The famous "God does not play dice."
- He embraced a "Spinozan God," a deity that was one with nature, within all that is, from cosmic dust to humans. Science, to Einstein, was a conduit to reveal at least part of this mysterious connection, whose deeper secrets were to remain elusive.
Given that March 14th is Einstein's birthday and, in an uncanny coincidence, also Pi Day, I think it's appropriate that we celebrate it here at 13.8 by revisiting his relationship with religion and spirituality. Much has been written about Einstein and God. Was the great scientist religious? What did he believe in? What was God to Einstein? In what is perhaps his most famous remark involving God, Einstein expressed his dissatisfaction with the randomness in quantum physics: his "God doesn't play dice" quote. The actual phrasing, from a letter Einstein wrote to his friend and colleague Max Born, dated December 4, 1926, is very revealing of his worldview:
Quantum mechanics is very worthy of regard. But an inner voice tells me that this is not the true Jacob. The theory yields much, but it hardly brings us close to the secrets of the Ancient One. In any case, I am convinced that He does not play dice.
Einstein clearly had no qualms with the effectiveness of quantum mechanics as a tool to describe the results of laboratory experiments concerned with the world of the very small— the world of molecules, atoms, and particles. But his intuition (his "inner voice") would not gel with quantum physics as formulated then, that is, as a probabilistic theory: "The theory yields much, but it hardly brings us close to the secrets of the Ancient One." What could Einstein mean by the "secrets of the Ancient One"?
Taken at face value, this reads like the remarks of a mystic. The secrets of the Ancient One could well be the title of a documentary series on revelations from God. But to consider Einstein's quote literally would be misleading. Of course, no one knows what Einstein really thought (or anyone, for that matter); we are bound by his written and recorded words, and he could easily have kept his own "secrets of the Wise One" close to his heart. The more direct interpretation is that the 'Ancient One' was a symbolic representation of Einstein's own beliefs, which, in a telegram to a Jewish newspaper composed three years after the letter to Max Born, he related to a kind of all-pervading Spinozan God: "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of human beings."
To Einstein, science's goal was to dig ever deeper into the causal machinery of the cosmos, unveiling its mechanisms one by one.
This "harmony of all that exists" represents Einstein's profound and unchanging position that there is a fundamental and all-encompassing causal order in nature that affects all that is:
Everything is determined… by forces over which we have no control. It is determined for the insect as well as for the star. Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust—we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.
Einstein's worldview reveals a strange interplay between an over-arching causality that affects all that exists in nature (human beings, cosmic dust, vegetables, stars…) but whose deepest inner workings remain unreachable and mysterious to us and to science. The tune intoned in the distance by an invisible piper is barely audible by human ears. This reminds me of another quote, this one much older, from Democritus, the pre-Socratic philosopher from the 4th century BCE who came up with the notion of "atoms" as the building blocks of everything (with his mentor Leucippus.) Democritus wrote: "In reality, Truth is in the depths."
To Einstein, science's goal was to dig ever deeper into the causal machinery of the cosmos, unveiling its mechanisms one by one. In true Platonic fashion, to Einstein, every scientific discovery revealed a little more of this inner harmony of all things. No wonder he rejected the probabilistic nature of quantum physics! It went precisely in opposition to his worldview that nature was "rational," causal, and thus understandable as such by the human mind, even if imperfectly. If quantum physics worked as a probabilistic explanation, it was because there was a deeper one, underlying this randomness, that made sense from a causal perspective. Otherwise, nature wouldn't be harmonious, and the causal chain would be disrupted, deafening the tune from the invisible piper. To Einstein, an acausal world would be a senseless world, without harmony, without divine beauty. An acausal world would be lawless and godless.
Almost 100 years have passed since Einstein expressed his worldview, and we remain confused about the nature and interpretation of quantum physics. We have learned a lot since then, of course, and current knowledge indicates quite strongly that nature really is probabilistic at the fundamental level. It may be that the invisible piper is still there, but that, instead of one of Mozart's harmonious tunes that Einstein loved so much, the musical spirit of nature is keener on improvising, creating an unexpected harmony born out of dissonance.
Placing science and religion at opposite ends of the belief spectrum is to ignore their unique purposes.
- Science and religion (fact versus faith) are often seen as two incongruous groups. When you consider the purpose of each and the questions that they seek to answer, the comparison becomes less black and white.
- This video features religious scholars, a primatologist, a neuroendocrinologist, a comedian, and other brilliant minds considering, among other things, the evolutionary function that religion serves, the power of symbols, and the human need to learn, explore, and know the world around us so that it becomes a less scary place.
- "I think most people are actually kind of comfortable with the idea that science is a reliable way to learn about nature, but it's not the whole story and there's a place also for religion, for faith, for theology, for philosophy," says Francis Collins, American geneticist and director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). "But that harmony perspective doesn't get as much attention. Nobody is as interested in harmony as they are in conflict."
A debate is raging inside and outside of churches.
- Over 1,200 pastors in California claim they're opening their churches this week against state orders.
- While church leaders demand independence from governmental oversight, 9,000 Catholic churches have received small business loans.
- A number of re-opened churches shut back down after members and clergy became infected with the novel coronavirus.
Last week a group of over 1,200 pastors signed a petition to announce that their churches will be open for business beginning on May 31. This announcement defies California's shelter-at-home orders—in fact, a federal court just backed Governor Newsom's directives. Under the state's four-stage reopening roadmap, churches are allowed to resume corporate worship in Stage 3. At the moment, California is early in Stage 2. Church leaders claim they need to open now.
This problem isn't confined to California, as churches from Massachusetts to Texas are already open for business. This story doesn't always have a happy ending. A Catholic church in Houston had to shut its doors again after five church leaders were diagnosed with COVID-19. Two weeks after reopening, a Georgia church closed after several families that attended discovered they had the virus.
In Sacramento County, California, 71 people that attended a service later learned they were infected. The virus has hit African Americans especially hard. So far, 33 bishops, pastors, and reverends have died from the disease. Epidemiologist Kimberly Powers says indoor religious services are a high risk for transmission.
An ongoing spreadsheet database by mathematical modeler Gwen Knight has linked around 220 different church events resulting in disease transmission. Her detailed report links to each case, which tracks religious services around the world.
But not all religious are rushing back to the pulpit. Father James Martin, Jesuit priest and consultant to the Vatican's Secretariat for Communications, called for leaders to listen to the advice of public health officials and state orders. He said reopening early is "the opposite of pro-life." California churches that have reopened are producing new clusters of cases. Martin is hosting services on his Facebook page instead of in person.
All of this makes you wonder: What is the rush to reopen really about?
Coronavirus: Who is driving the U.S. protests against lockdown?
The U.S. government has been unprepared from day one. Are shut-downs the best idea? There are credible cases against it. This administration has gutted our health care system, which was already hemorrhaging from previous administrations supporting the for-profit model. Our response to this virus has been piecemeal because that's exactly how health care has been dismantled. That trend leaves the onus to state and local governments.
The rebellion against state orders has largely been Christian, as mosques and temples have remained quiet. Religious believers claim their houses of worship are essential even though churches are not necessary for survival. Food stores, pharmacies, and laundromats, sure. Appliance repair and plumbing, understandable.
In California, questionable inclusions are on the list of essential businesses. Florists? Big Flower might rule yes, but that's a strange one. Speaking of flower, a bit of an uproar ensued when marijuana dispensaries remained open. Yet my local dispensary only allows a handful of people to enter, masks are required, and social distancing is strictly enforced. Is that really possible in a church?
Perhaps. Smaller services, absolutely. Some of the stated reasons for reopening don't add up, however. Over 12,000 Catholic Churches in the United States applied for small business loans after lockdowns began. In total, roughly 9,000 received them. Yet on the petition to reopen, the author opens with a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote which reads, "[The church] must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool."
How does an institution alleging to be the "guide of the state" claim it doesn't have to play by the state's rules, yet turn to the same governing body—one it doesn't pay taxes to—and request money? This is a longstanding problem. Revenue from church taxes would equal $71 billion a year. A lot of heat is rightfully aimed at Amazon for not paying its fair share. Tax evasion from religious organizations is equally problematic.
The church organist plays for the congregation during a drive-in Sunday church service at Dunseverick Baptist Church on May 24, 2020 in Bushmills, Northern Ireland.
Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Many churches are small and rely on member donations. While an understandable concern, the problem with church structure must be addressed. A 2018 investigation into the Catholic Church in Australia uncovered $30 billion in holdings in that country alone. The overall wealth of the Church is, according to one journalist, "impossible to calculate." For an institution to claim independence (and even superiority) over government yet turn to the same government for taxpayer money needs to be addressed.
The social impact is hard on church communities, as it is on all communities. Increasing mental health distress due to isolation is a growing problem we need to reckon with as a society. We must also ask how a church service is different from other gatherings. Many religious will claim this to be the case, but plenty of Americans find solace in yoga studios, health clubs, and sporting events. There is no supremacy for one social circle over another. This is about transmission of disease, not personal preferences.
Prayer has long been a group activity, yet it is also an individual connection, as Matthew 6:5-6 states. Church goers are missing the feeling of being in a group. Severing this connection is painful. But we mustn't confuse loss of group for loss of faith.
The loudest garner headlines. Fortunately, plenty of religious leaders are putting smart guidelines in place for reopening. As with every public event, vigilance is required. A number of churches appear ready to practice precaution for the health of their flock. They're also listening to public health officials for a reopening timeline.
Finally, there's a belief floating around that God will protect the faithful. We don't have to spend too much time on this, except to shame anyone using the pulpit to make such a ridiculous claim. Viruses don't pray. They only prey. Their followers deserve better than that.