Religion equals an endless discussion. But if we leave out the ceaseless arguing about the existence of God or the validity of the Bible texts, can we find benefits in being religious?
I think we can. Have you ever wondered where the word religion comes from? It is derived from the latin word religare, which means to connect. This means that we can see connection as the essence of religion. This could be the connection with yourself, with other people, with nature or with a higher power.
Many psychological problems actually occur because of the lack of connection with results in social isolation. In this case, religion could offer benefits that help you to get connected again. While I am not a religious person myself: in this listicle I want to present you 5 benefits of religion.
This is a big one. Almost every religion I have come across is based on certain traditions and rituals which will guide you through your daily life.
Islam prescribes its followers to pray five times a day, and Christianity expects its followers to attend Church every Sunday. Also, there are numerous rituals like Ramadan, Christmas, or Holi in Hinduism, which are all tethered to a calendar and are repeated at set times.
Also, there are Rites of Passage, like the Christian baptism or funeral rituals. And yes, even marriage. All these rituals are part of a system that plans and structures our lives and the lives of our community. Now more and more people have become atheists, we see that this structure has largely disappeared.
Nevertheless, some religious elements have still survived, which indicates that people still value tradition and ritual. Having structure increases your conscientiousness. So, if you feel lost in life, you might want to consider following a religion; it may give you the structure you desperately need.
Social isolation is increasingly common. Especially in Western countries. This often goes hand in hand with other problems like substance abuse, unemployment, depression and even suicide. Although some people love being alone, most of them crave social interaction at some point. Even myself, The Solitary Wolf, needs to interact with other people from time to time, even though naturally I am a loner.
Being able to participate in a group setting is the best cure for social isolation, and religion can offer that. This group could be a Church, a Mosque, a Buddhist Sangha, or whatever you prefer to be part of.
For me, I would choose a group that does not invade my private life too much and respects my individuality. And from my own experiences and observations, social control is the downside of many religious groups.
The upside however is a wide support network, social connections and people to interact with on weekly or even daily basis. In general these are people that are not or considerably less involved with self-destructive habits, which is a good reason be part of such a group.
Muslim prayingThe meditative effect is part of almost every religion. This could come in the form of prayer, contemplation, mindfulness meditation, or perhaps other practises that will make you come closer to a higher power.
A few years ago I have lived in a cistercian monastery for a week – yes, as a non-believer – and the meditative effect of praying was much more upfront than I had expected. The monks prayed seven times a day, and basically directed themselves to God in order to calm their thoughts and live in the present moment. The monks incorporated working in their daily schedule, which ought to be a meditative practice by focussing on the work itself as much as possible.
Islamic prayers, for example, can be considered as five meditative moments a day. Although Muslims reject meditation in a Buddhist sense; the effects are similar. The movements, the moments of silence, the concentration on a higher power or the communication with God as they would call it, are ways to center yourself into the present moment.
If you are high in neuroticism, anxious or depressed, religion may offer you the tools to battle overthinking and worrying, so you will be more calm.
Increased conscientiousness, discipline, a good and positive support network, and a calm mind are all ingredients to inner strength. If you engage in religious practice, chances are high that you will be a more centered and more grounded person. Most religions offer answers to day-to-day problems.
Buddhism for example is basically a complete form of psychology that not only explains human behavior, but offers solutions as well. It explains why you are suffering, what behaviors might lead to your suffering and how to fix them.
Another example. The twelve steps programs offered to people that struggle with addiction, exist to build inner strength by embracing a higher power, which, in modern interpretations of the Steps, does not necessarily have to be God. The higher power can be of your own choosing and be as simple as turning inwards, connecting to your true self.
The essence of this practice is to admit that you are powerless over the substance. Your current life situation is proof. It is simply acknowledging that you are not an island: your life is part of a whole. Paradoxically, it is taking control of your life by making the conscious decision of becoming receptive to outside forces, that take care of things that you cannot do on your own. Inner strength, in this case, relies on connection with the world around you.
Practising Positive guidelines
Last but not least; in general religion promotes positive guidelines that could help you live a more fulfilled life.
In Christian ethics we find mercy and forgiveness, and Buddhism has the eightfold path which is basically a guide to spiritual enlightenment. Important Muslim ethics are piety and humility. Taoist ethics however are completely different and evolve around non-doing and leaving things be, to let the things shine that are truly great.
Either way: the main goal is goodness. Following guidelines does not mean that you have to become a mindless slave of some authority figure. In my opinion, you should still think for yourself and do frequent reality checks to see if you are truly doing the right thing for yourself, your fellow man and for the planet, and that you are not blindly obeying a priest, imam or spiritual teacher.
Practising positive guidelines may lead to a more happy and positive life. If you have too much negativity in your life and you are an overall miserable, negative person, you may want to benefit from the positive guidelines that religion has to offer.
That´s it. I have not had a religious upbringing myself, and that fact alone motivated me to learn about and experience religion to in order to form an opinion about it. It is not hard to criticize religion and the people that are involved in religion, but religiosity comes in many forms and degrees.
A thing that concerns me is that religious decline in the West seems to have deprived the people of the benefits – or perhaps NEEDS – as well. They have thrown away the baby with the bathwater.
It does not surprise me at all that many people are stuck in nihilism and that a man like dr. Jordan Peterson, author of the book 12 Rules For Life, has become so popular. He refills the spiritual vacuum among young Western males by virtues that are very much overlapping religious virtues. He has admitted that he is a religious apologist, because he makes an argument for religious perspectives on life.