Written and researched by Bob Murray, PhD
Latest News |
Back Issues | Get updates:
Do Scientists Believe In God?
Nov 1, 2005
Scientists in the social sciences are more likely to believe in God and attend religious services than are scientists in the natural sciences, according to a survey of 1,646 faculty members at elite research universities by a Rice University sociologist.
"Based on previous research, we thought that social scientists would be less likely to practice religion than natural scientists are, but our data showed just the opposite," said Elaine Howard Ecklund, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Sociology at Rice. She presented the preliminary results of her study at the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of
Religion in Philadelphia.
"Science is often perceived as incompatible with religion and spirituality, but few have asked how scientists themselves think about religion," Ecklund said. "So I wanted to examine how academic scientists in the natural and social sciences understand the relationship of religion and spirituality to topics ranging from developing a research agenda to ethical decisions involving human
subjects and interactions with students."
Her survey contained 36 questions on a variety of topics, including religious beliefs, participation in religious services, spiritual practices, and the intersection of spiritual beliefs and research ethics. When Ecklund compared faculty in the natural science disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology with those in the social science disciplines of sociology, psychology, political science and economics, she found "distinct frameworks" for the ways in which they view religion and spirituality as well as how they make ethical decisions related to their research. Nearly 38 percent of natural scientists surveyed said they did not believe in God, but only 31 percent of the social scientists gave that response.
Among each of the two general groups, one discipline stood out: Forty-one percent of the biologists and 27 percent of the political scientists said they don't believe in God.
"Now we must examine the nature of these differences," Ecklund said. "Many scientists see themselves as having a spirituality not attached to a particular religious tradition. Some scientists who don't believe in God see themselves as very spiritual people. They have a way outside of themselves that they use to understand the meaning of life."
This research is not available on the web.
Top of page
More Evidence for the Benefits of Spirituality
May 1, 2005
Previous research that we've drawn your attention to has shown that spirituality can give us hope, is a powerful antidepressant and can help cure illnesses such as heart disease and cancer. Now researchers have shown that spirituality and the practice of religion may help slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease as well. The research behind this finding was presented at the American Academy of Neurology 57th Annual Meeting in Miami Beach, Fla. (April 9 - 16, 2005).
The study assessed 68 people aged 49 to 94 who met criteria for probable Alzheimer's disease. Religiosity and spirituality were measured with the validated Duke University Religion Index and the Overall Self-Ranking subscale from the NIH/Fetzer Brief Multidimensional Measure of Religiousness / Spirituality. These methods collected information on the patients' practices such as attendance at religious events and private religious activities.
"We learned that the patients with higher levels of spirituality or higher levels of religiosity may have a significantly slower progression of cognitive decline," said study author Yakir Kaufman, MD, who conducted the research as a fellow at of the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto, Ontario.
"Spirituality and religiosity have been linked to better health outcomes," said Kaufman. "Our research addressed the question whether this link is also relevant in Alzheimer's disease."
Spirituality and private religious practices accounted for 20 percent of the total variance. In other words you have a 20% lower chance of Alzheimer's if you allow your natural inclination for spirituality to develop.
We use spirituality in the Uplift Program. BM
Note: this research paper is not available on the web.
Top of page
Spiritual Practice and Belief Indicates Well-being
November 6, 2004
College students who participate in religious activities are more likely to have better emotional and mental health than students with no religious involvement, according to a national study of students at 46 wide-ranging colleges and universities.
In addition, students who don't participate in religious activities are more than twice as likely to report poor mental health or depression than students who attend religious services frequently.
Being religious or spiritual certainly seems to contribute to one's sense of psychological well-being, says Alexander Astin, co-principal investigator for the study of 3,680 third-year college students. The study was released by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Those who participate in religious activities also are less likely to feel overwhelmed during college. Religious involvement includes such activities as reading the Bible or other sacred texts, attending religious services and joining religious organizations on campus.
These findings are important because psychological well-being declines during the college years, Astin says. One in five students has sought personal counseling since entering college, and 77% of college juniors report feeling depressed frequently or occasionally during the past year. Only 61% of the students were depressed frequently or occasionally when they first started college. This is still, of course, a very high figure since official figures indicate that only 25% of the population suffers from depression.
A high degree of spirituality correlates with high self-esteem and feeling good about the way life is headed. The study defines spirituality as desiring to integrate spirituality into one's life, believing that we are all spiritual beings, believing in the sacredness of life and having spiritual experiences.
But the study also finds that highly spiritual students are more prone to experiencing spiritual distress, or feeling unsettled about spiritual or religious matters, than students who aren't as spiritual. Being religious also could play a role in whether someone starts to drink alcohol while in college. Three-fourths of students who don't drink beer before attending college won't start in college if involved in religious activity, the study says, but only 46% of students will continue to abstain if not involved religiously.
Astin says the next question to answer is whether students who are more religious and spiritual are more psychologically healthy or whether the more psychologically healthy students are seeking religious and spiritual activities. The research also finds that 77% of college students pray, 78% discuss religion with friends, and 76% are "searching for meaning and purpose in life."
Read more on the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California website
Top of page
Global Resurgence in Religion?
December 2, 2003
In a recent research paper Assaf Moghadam of Harvard University outlined the facts pertaining to the state of religion in the world. Since any decline in spirituality/religion has been shown by the World Health Organization to be one of the factors behind the global upsurge in depression, Moghadam's findings are obviously of some interest to us.
He and his fellow researchers found that there was, in fact, an increase in religious observance in most countries of the world, including the United States. Previous studies had tended to show that modernization tends to lead to a fall off in interest in religion. The new findings contradict that assumption. However the upswing in religion is by no means universal. As Moghadam says: "The findings of this study suggest that while in fact a process of religious resurgence affects most states in the world, there are some notable exceptions to this process, as a result of which the religious revival is not truly global in scope." Nor is it true that all religions are equally on the rise.
Moghadam and his team, after going through the official figures and adding large pinches of salt to many of them, came up with an approximate number of active adherents for the major beliefs. Of the present world population of 6.2 billion people they estimate there are:
- 2 billion Christians
- 1.2 billion Muslims
- 932 million atheists and nonreligious persons
- 836 million Hindus
- 367 million Buddhists
- 24 million Sikhs
- 15 million Jews
The number of Christians grows by 1.36% per year. Christians affiliated with the Anglican Church have the highest growth rate and the Orthodox Churches the lowest. The Roman Catholic Church loses the most people to other religions--355,181 per year.
Islam is the fastest growing religion, up by 2.13% a year. Each year 865 million people convert to Islam. Of th two major branches of Islam, the Sunnis are by far the more numerous but the Shias are growing more quickly.
The number of Buddhists is growing by just over 1% a year. Hinduism, Judaism and atheism are all suffering a net loss of people to other belief systems.
In terms of particular countries, religious observance is resurgent in the United States, Italy, Ireland and Finland. These are the only OECD member (Organization of Cooperation and Development, basically the club of the highly-developed world) countries where religion is on the rise. In all the rest of the "post-industrial" world, including Australia, New Zealand and all of the remaining countries of Western Europe it is declining. By contrast, the only countries where religion is on the decline in the rest of the world are India, Poland and Turkey.
13% of all countries have Islam as their state religion compared to 7% for Christianity (the vast majority have no state religion).
A separate study showed that pantheists--who are not mentioned in Mogadham's study and who are sometimes classed as atheists though they believe that all of existence is one Unity--outnumber Protestants.
Read more in the Harvard University paper
Top of page
Religion Helps Shape Wealth Of Americans
September 21, 2003
A new national study shows that religious affiliation plays a powerful role in how much wealth Americans accumulate, with Jews amassing the most wealth and conservative Protestants the least. Mainline Protestants and Catholics fall in between and are about average with the rest of the population in terms of overall wealth.
Moreover, people who attend religious services regularly build more wealth than those who don't, the study found.
The effect of religion is consistent, even after taking into account inheritances, levels of education and other factors affecting wealth that may be associated with particular religious denominations, said Lisa Keister, author of the study and associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University.
"Religion is an important factor in wealth accumulation, a factor that hasn't received a lot of attention," Keister said. "The results suggest people draw on the tools they learn from religion to develop strategies for saving, investing and spending, and those tools may be different in various faiths."
The study is published in the journal Social Forces.
Keister used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. The NLSY is a nationwide survey, conducted by Ohio State for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which follows a group of people over time, visiting each participant annually or biennially. She used data on 4,950 participants collected from 1985 through 1998.
Overall, the median net worth of Jewish people in the survey was $150,890, more than three times the median for the entire sample ($48,200). The median net worth for conservative Protestants (which included Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, among others) was $26,200, or about half the overall average. The median net worth of mainstream Protestants (including Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Unitarians and others) and Catholics were similar to each other and about the average for the whole sample.
While some may say that the results confirm religious stereotypes, such as the contention that Jewish people are greedy and acquisitive, Keister strongly disagrees.
"What I'm finding is that families have a powerful influence on how people learn to save, and religion is often an important part of family life," she said. "The things children are taught in Jewish homes are very different than those that are taught in conservative Protestant homes."
But it wasn't just religious affiliation itself that had an impact on wealth accumulation. The study found that people who regularly attended religious services tended to be more wealthy. "It seems strange--why should it matter whether you go to church in terms of building wealth?" Keister said. "But going to religious services may be another opportunity, especially for Jews, to be indoctrinated with beliefs that help build wealth. Also, it is a social network issue--a church or synagogue can be a good place to meet people with investment tips or money to loan for a new business."
The religious beliefs children learn in their families translate into educational attainment, adult occupations, financial literacy, social connections and other factors that influence adult wealth ownership, she said.
Religious teachings of different faiths may influence spending and saving strategies in a variety of ways, according to Keister. For example, conservative Protestants often emphasize prayer and trust in God, which may reduce their desire to invest. Conservative Protestants also look forward to the rewards of the afterlife and don't promote acquiring wealth as a good for this life.
Jews, on the other hand, don't have a strong orientation to the afterlife, but encourage pursuits that will lead to wealth accumulation, such as high-income careers and investing.
Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics were at one time distinct from each other and from the rest of the population, Keister said, but this study shows that the distinctiveness has diminished in recent years. The result is that both groups look like the rest of the population in terms of wealth.
These religious backgrounds lead people of various faiths to take different financial trajectories in their lives, Keister said. In the study, she examined how religious affiliation related to some typical financial trajectories for Americans. For example, only 1 percent of Jewish people remained asset poor throughout life, compared to 15 percent of conservative Protestants. About 9 percent of mainline Protestants and 7 percent of Catholics followed this trajectory.
The most common trajectory is to buy a home relatively early in life and then accumulate other assets, such as stocks and bonds, later. About 35 percent of Jews followed this path, compared to 3 percent of conservative Protestants, 22 percent of mainline Protestants and 20 percent of Catholics.
Jewish people stood out in a third trajectory in which people invest early in life in high-risk, high-return assets such as stocks and bonds and build wealth quickly while putting less emphasis on homeownership. About one-third of Jews followed this path, compared to no conservative Protestants, 7 percent of mainline Protestants and 4 percent of Catholics.
Keister emphasized that religion is only one among many factors that influence wealth. However she adds: "Religion keeps coming up in any model you run to explain wealth. It's something you can't ignore, but there's been little effort to explain the connection between religion and wealth accumulation. There are lessons to be learned here. For example, we can take what we see happening in Jewish families and translate that into ways to help others teach their children about building wealth."
Read more in the PSocial Forces
Top of page
Buddhists are Happier
May 25, 2003
Buddhism may be good for your mental health. Tests carried out in the
United States reveal that areas of their brain associated with good mood
and positive feelings are more active. The findings come as another study
suggests that Buddhist meditation can help to calm people.
Researchers at University of California San Francisco Medical Centre
have found the practise can tame the amygdala, an area of the brain which
is the hub of fear memory. “There is something about conscientious
Buddhist practice that results in the kind of happiness we all seek,”
says Dr Paul Ekman the lead researcher.
The researchers found that experienced Buddhists, who meditate regularly,
were less likely to be shocked, flustered, surprised or as angry compared
to other people.
In a separate study, scientists at the University of Wisconsin at Madison
used new scanning techniques to examine brain activity in a group of Buddhists.
Their tests revealed activity in the left prefrontal lobes of experienced
Buddhist practitioners. This area is linked to positive emotions, self-control
and temperament. Their tests showed this area of the Buddhists' brains
are constantly lit up and not just when they are meditating.
This, the scientists said, suggests they are more likely to experience
positive emotions and be in good mood. "We can now hypothesise with
some confidence that those apparently happy, calm Buddhist souls one regularly
comes across in places such as Dharamsala, India, really are happy,"
said Professor Owen Flanagan, of Duke University in North Carolina. Dharamsala
is the home base of exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama.
more in New Scientist
Top of page
Spiritual State of the Union
April 23, 2003
Faith and spirituality guide the lives of three out of four American adults, according to a new report by the Gallup Organization and the University of Pennsylvania. The initial findings indicate that, in the face of war with Iraq, threats of terrorism at home and an economic recession, the spiritual state of the union is strong.
"I was completely surprised by the findings. The level of spirituality that we discovered in the United States was much higher than we'd expected," said Byron Johnson, director of the Center for Religion and Spirituallity at Penn. "The Spiritual Index, a measurement of the nation's faith and spirituality, now stands at 74.7 percent, plus or minus 1.4 points, out of a possible score of 100 percent. That is a strong indication that the majority of Americans find meaning in life through religious faith and spirituality."
The Spiritual Index measures and compares respondents' inner spiritual lives, their connection with God or some divine will or higher power and how they live their lives in service to others, to the community and to society at large.
The results of the survey of 1,509 adults can be projected to the entire English-speaking American adult population of approximately 200 million people of all spiritual and religious beliefs, Johnson said.
Read more at the University of Pennsylvania website
Top of page
Does Religion Boost Self-Esteem?
December 2, 2002
High school seniors who consider themselves religious have significantly higher self-esteem and hold more positive attitudes about life than do their less religious peers, a new study shows.
The research revealed a statistical association between religion and higher self-esteem among 12th-graders who went to religious services at least once a week or who professed deeply held spiritual views, said study director Dr Christian Smith.
"We found that of the 13 variables we examined about attitudes, only one was not significantly related to some dimension of religion in a positive way after controlling for the effects of age, race, sex, family structure, region of the country and other characteristics," said Smith, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina. "This was contrary to the belief held by some people that religion is associated with psychological neurosis or dysfunction. These findings seem to suggest the opposite -- that religion is associated with a constructive outlook."
The UNC study relied on data gathered through Monitoring the Future, a nationally representative University of Michigan survey of 2,478 high school seniors, he said. The new analysis is among the most comprehensive looks yet on the link between religion and positive attitudes among teens. "The factors most commonly related to the outcomes we saw were religious service attendance and the stated importance of religion, although religious affiliation and youth group participation also were important in many cases," said Smith, associate chair of sociology.
Researchers found that the 31 percent of all 12th-graders who attended services weekly and the additional 30 percent who said religion was very important to them were significantly more likely than non-religious students to enjoy life. In addition they:
- think their lives are useful
- feel hopeful about their futures
- are satisfied with their lives and
- enjoy being in school
Smith said he could not say for certain what caused the link between religion and positive attitudes because their study was not designed to answer that question. "We always like to say that correlation is not causality," he said. "Just because things are statistically associated doesn't mean one necessarily causes the other. It could be that people who are more positive about life are more interested in going to church. It might be that the more you go to church, the more you develop positive attitudes about life."
Other possibilities, Smith said, are that at least for some adolescents, religious involvement gives them greater sense of their place in the world and their destiny in life and that there may be a God who cares about them. Another possibility is that social involvement in religious institutions such as youth groups provides teens with more exposure to caring adults and resources that can help them cope with difficulties or uncertainties.
Despite the good news about religious participation, between 10 percent and 20 percent of such adolescents still struggle with feelings of hopelessness and meaninglessness, and so religion is not a cure-all for every young person, he said.
An earlier report from the study showed that religious youth were less likely to smoke, drink and use drugs and more likely to start later and use less if they started at all, he said. They went to bars less often, received fewer traffic tickets, wore seat belts more, took fewer risks and fought less frequently. Shoplifting, other thefts, trespassing and arson also were more rare.
"Religious 12th-graders argued with parents less, skipped school less, exercised more, participated more in student government and faced fewer detentions, suspensions and expulsions," Smith said.
"It could also be that kids who are initially religious and start getting into trouble drop out of religion because it feels uncomfortable for them," he said. "Then when someone takes a survey, those teens show up as being not very religious, and so there is an apparent association."
We are wired for belief, to feel that we are watched over, it is part of our genetic inheritance. No wonder religious people feel more confident. What's more religion provides a community which ties into our being social animals. Our technology and our present social arrangements conspire to strip us of these two facets of our evolutionary background to our great detriment. BM
Read more on the University of North Carolina website
Top of page
Faith, Social Ties "Protective" for Older African Americans
The study, reported in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, led by Joan M Cook, PhD, a geriatric psychologist at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania, found that African Americans with strong religious and social ties were the least likely to have suicidal thoughts.
"The good news is that there are protective factors in the community, and we can work to facilitate and maintain the strengths that are already there," said Cook. She said the findings may be helpful to providers of geriatric mental-health and social services both in and outside the African American community, as they look to design interventions to prevent suicide.
Older Americans are particularly at risk for suicide, although the rates among African Americans, especially women, are remarkably lower. In 1998, white men age 65 or older died by suicide at a rate of 33.1 per 100,000, compared to a rate of 11.7 for black men in the same age group. The rate for older white women was 4.85. So few black women died by suicide, fewer than 20 in 1998, that a reliable rate cannot be figured.
Cook's study was based on interviews with 835 public-housing residents in Baltimore during the early 1990s, part of a larger study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.
Participants were asked questions focussing on suicide, such as whether they had ever thought life was not worth living, or whether they had considered taking their own life, along with a battery of questions on mental and physical health, social support, alcohol use, life satisfaction, and religion. They were also tested for cognitive function.
Of those interviewed, about 3 percent reported thoughts of suicide, either passive or active. While factors such as depression, anxiety and lack of life satisfaction showed a relation to suicidal thinking, the key areas that emerged as "protective" were respondents' religious and social support. Social support was defined as getting help with daily tasks if they needed it, or having a friend they could confide in and depend on.
"We found that 90 percent [of the participants] reported they obtained a great deal of support and comfort from their religion, and that this support from religion and friends was related to overall lower mental health problems, including thoughts of suicide," said Cook. She added that the study focuses attention on a group, older African Americans, that is often overlooked by researchers, and whose needs and strengths may be misunderstood.
Cook noted that 60 percent of those interviewed were living at or below the poverty line. In past research on older African Americans, Cook and her colleagues found, curiously, that objective hardships such as poverty and social inequality had little if any impact on participants' subjective satisfaction with their own lives.
The researchers =elieve that in these seniors, being disadvantaged over a lifetime may lead to increased adaptation and resourcefulness. These factors may play a positive role in mental health as they age. "Support from religion and relationships may be one way of adapting to lifelong hardships," said Cook.
Read more in American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry
Top of page
Witches on the Increase in Australia
July 7, 2002
Witchcraft is the fastest-growing religion in Australia, according to the latest census figures just released. There are now nearly 9,000 witches compared with fewer than 2000 in 1996 and the number of pagans has more than doubled to 10,632. Druids, animists and pantheists, considered to be pagan traditions, also increased their ranks between 1996 and 2001. At the same time most of the major Christian denominations lost followers. Dr Neville Knight, a sociologist at Monash University, said there was plenty of religious expression on offer. "There's certainly a smorgasbord of religious expressions out there," he said. But Consumer Affairs Victoria also warned con artists were keen to profit from the trend. It has received more than 100 complaints about clairvoyants, palm readers and astrologers in the past two years.
Belief of some kind is essential for the prevention of depression. In societies where spiritual belief is actively discouraged, as in the former Soviet Union and other communist countries the depression rate is 70% higher than in those where there is freedom of worship (WHO figures). BM
Read more in Ananova News Service
Top of page
Spiritual Belief Helps Grieving Process
July 7, 2002
In what must rank as the century's most profound discovery of the obvious researchers have found that having a strong spiritual foundation helps with the grieving process. They hope the information could now be used to target people who have difficulties adjusting to life following the death of a relative or close friend.
The study, carried out by the Royal Free and University College Medical School in London, studied 135 people close to patients at a London hospice. They found that those who said they had no spiritual beliefs were still struggling to come to terms with their grief after 14 months, but that those who expressed beliefs coped better.
Professor Michael King, of the department of psychiatry and behavioural science, said the researchers had been surprised by the findings. They had already done a lot of research into whether a spiritual belief helped someone recover from a serious illness and found this was not the case, he said.
But he said that a spiritual belief did appear to help people grieving. "Most spiritual beliefs whether or not associated with religious practice contain tenets about the course of human life and existence beyond it," he said. Professor King added that most palliative care units, such as hospices, did try to involve family and friends and that some might include an element of spiritual care in this.
The findings could now be used to identify people who might need further help and guidance. "We are not suggesting that an intervention concerning spiritual matters is appropriate for people with no professed beliefs," said Proffessor King. "Rather our finding might help in identifying people who are having difficulty in re-adjusting to life after their loss."
The study is now being extended to look into whether people suffering from a terminal illness cope better during their last few months if they have a spiritual belief.
Read more in the British Medical Journal
Top of page
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Linked to Piety
June 10, 2002
The notion that a strict, possibly even God-fearing, upbringing may contribute to obsessive-compulsive disorder has been boosted by a survey which discovered that devout Catholics were more likely to show symptoms than less religious people.
Patients with OCD get caught in a vicious mental cycle that can take over and cripple their everyday lives. For instance, a sufferer may become convinced that everything around them is dirty, and in extreme cases spend up to eight hours a day cleaning in a bid to banish the thought.
The causes of the disorder, which affects at least five million Americans and a million Britons, are still obscure. But genes, upbringing, head injuries and emotional trauma have all been implicated.
Now Claudio Sica at the University of Parma in Italy and his team have found that committed Catholics are more likely to show symptoms of OCD.
The researchers compared people, such as nuns and priests who worked in the Church, with committed lay Catholics and others with virtually no religious involvement. Each subject was asked to document mild OCD symptoms, such as intrusive mental images or worries. The more devout Catholics reported more severe symptoms. "It is tricky to tie these findings to clinical OCD," Lynne Drummond, a psychiatrist at St George's Hospital in London told New Scientist. She thinks a patient must have a genetic predisposition to develop such symptoms. However, she adds that many OCD patients do say they had a strict upbringing where actions were either right or wrong.
There is a movement in many churches, including the Anglican Church, to class the forcing of undue strictness in piety and morality as "spiritual abuse." No doubt there will soon be an officially listed psychiatric category for it. BM
Read more in New Scientist
Top of page
Check our event schedule for workshops and seminars.
About the Author
Dr Bob Murray is a widely published psychologist and expert on emotional health and optimal relationships. Together with his wife and long-term collaborator Alicia Fortinberry, he is founder of the highly successful Uplift Program, and author of Raising an Optimistic Child (McGraw-Hill, 2006) and Creating Optimism (McGraw-Hill, 2004).
Do you like our site? Recommend this page to a friend!