It is of course well known that religious people, and especially Catholics, live a miserable life. Obliged to worship an egotistical and vengeful deity who demands nothing but praise and endless sacrifice, they are trapped in a web of sinfulness which touches every aspect of their lives. They are ultimately motivated by the selfish reward of eternal happiness, the nature of which they do not know, but they are extremely unlikely to get there. They are much more likely to arrive in a place of eternal torment – in which fire and brimstone is the expected environment. And should they be fortunate enough to avoid this they will undergo a lengthy and painful cleansing process continuing until the least sin has been expiated.
No wonder Catholics live out their lives in anxiety, guilt and fear. They, and others, need to be told that “there is probably no God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
The only problem with this conclusion is that it does not concur with what actually happens. Let’s look at the evidence. We might start with a study, reported in March 2008, by the University of Toronto. The researchers concluded: “We found that religious people or even people who simply believe in the existence of God show significantly less brain activity in relation to their own errors. They’re much less anxious and feel less stressed when they have made an error.” They actually had greater cognitive control. “Believing in God can help block anxiety and minimise stress” was the summary headline.
Studies which tracked older people over a number of years, conducted by the Rush University Medical Centre, looked at outcomes related to people’s sense that they had a “higher purpose” which inspired their lives. A person with high purpose in life was about half as likely to die over the follow-up period compared to a person with low purpose.
A study, reported in March, from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, looked at people dying from cancer. The study’s author reported: “Recent research has shown that religion and spirituality are major sources of comfort and support for patients confronting advanced disease.” We should not be surprised at this, given that it was reported in September 2008 that Catholics viewing a religious image, compared to a secular image of similar quality, experienced 12 per cent less pain on receiving electric shocks. This was confirmed by scans of brain activity. Atheists had no such reduction.
Broadening out the scope, the University of Miami’s study (reported in January) which evaluated eight decades of religious studies from different countries found “… persuasive evidence from a variety of domains within the social sciences, including neuroscience, economics, psychology, and sociology, that religious beliefs and religious behaviours are capable of encouraging people to exercise self-control and to more effectively regulate their emotions and behaviours, so that they can pursue valued goals… This, in turn, might help explain why religious people tend to have lower rates of substance abuse, better school achievement, less delinquency, better health behaviours, less depression, and longer lives.”
The BBC News channel published an interesting overview of the advantages of religion, including a dissenting statement from Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society. Broadly, we get a similar picture of religious observance, summed up in the phrase “They had higher levels of life satisfaction.” You might like to check the pros and cons (see first link below). And we enjoy this satisfaction for longer; a longitudinal study by Yeshiva University reported, in November 2008, that women who attended religious services regularly had a 20 per cent lower mortality than those who did not. This corroborated earlier studies, showing a 25 per cent reduction.
To bring us up to date, recent scientific work, reported in the Sunday Times on September 6, shows that a tendency to religious belief is hardwired into the human brain, using a network of neural connections rather than a simple “God spot”, as originally thought. The argument, as one might expect, is that this tendency arises from its evolutionary value – adding a sense of identity, social cohesion and bonding to the kind of advantages I have already described.
And that brings me to a point of considerable importance. The studies which I have quoted cannot in themselves be taken as proof that any reality lies behind religious belief in general – let alone the beliefs of any particular denomination. They are scientific observations made, we may hope, with proper scientific objectivity. The most we can say is that, whether religious belief be true, it does appear to be useful in areas such as sense of purpose, freedom from anxiety, ability to endure pain, higher levels of life satisfaction and greater longevity. The bus advertisement should have read: “There is certainly a God. So stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
But the spiritual side of man – whether we are talking about faith, the exercise of free will, our response to our aspiration to do good and to avoid evil and so on – does not exist in a vacuum. In this life it operates through the machinery of our biology, just as the violinist can only express his inspiration through his violin. We should be surprised not to find the biological correlates of spirituality in the brain.
In order to find spirituality we have first to look inside ourselves. You must forgive subjectivity here, for I can only look inside me. I find that, at a deeper level, faith (pace the penny catechism) is not an assent to a collection of truths, but an active encounter. When I say that I believe in God, in the Nicene Creed, I am not making a metaphysical statement (what an impertinence to inform the Almighty that I believe that he exists!) but that I have confidence in Him and, however inadequately, I commit myself to Him.
So faith is not a state but an active journey. In my case it is a bumpy, boulder-ridden path as I thread myself through the obstacles of temptation and sin. I look continuously at the compass, which is Christ, and almost invariably find that I have to correct or even reverse my direction. Am I making overall progress? I can hope, but only God knows.
At the heart of this is prayer. Whether we think in terms of prayers of worship, gratitude, repentance, intercession or a deeper and wordless contemplation of God, prayer is always the fundamental encounter which sustains the determination and direction of the journey. I find that the Eucharist has become more and more important as I age, and that I need the Holy Spirit more frequently in the dilemmas of life. I wouldn’t miss for anything my conversations with Our Lady; they are by no means one-sided. She has a lovely sense of humour, as Bernadette revealed in one of her accounts. Truly, in prayer the veil between heaven and earth is so translucent that you would not know that it was there.
So I was delighted by Archbishop Vincent’s pastoral letter on prayer last week. Forgive my using just the name by which he will be known in heaven. When I first met him he was nobbut a priest – albeit a priest with the sort of backbone which travels. His choice of models for us is just right.
St Thérèse (my wife’s baptismal name) is the saint for the straphanger in the bus, or, in my case, the saint for finding me a lower syncromesh gear on a steep hill. Cardinal Newman is the model for those who must struggle towards faith and an uncompromising clarity of vision. Surely he should become the patron of all writers in this newspaper. And the Curé d’Ars, about whom I first wrote in these pages 50 years ago, made no claim to a great brain; indeed, he was only accepted for the priesthood because his virtues so exceeded his academic abilities. But he had the quality which is the one essential for the pastor: the quality of holiness.
God calls each of us according to our individual temperaments. But I find that I cannot choose between the models the Archbishop offers. I find that each one has something to teach me.
Here are the links to the brief, professional accounts of studies I mention. They will give you a fuller picture. You may well want to comment, adding further thoughts, and telling us whether you agree.