The power of religion
In recent decades there has been a turning away from organised religion. People have struck out on their own in search of a more personal spirituality. Yet it has been observed that in the 21st century there is something of a move back; people are finding that being out there on your own searching for meaning is a difficult business. Now a new study has hinted at exactly what it is that organised religion, at least organised Christian religion, has that makes it special.
Researchers from Harvard University used data on adults across the United States taken in 2006 and 2007. The researchers say that not enough data was present on Moslems or Buddhists to draw conclusions so what they found at this stage can only truly be applied to Christians.
They found that 33 per cent of people who attend religious services every week and have three to five close friends in their congregation scored as being â€œextremely satisfiedâ€ with their lives. By comparison among people who attended services every week but had no friends in the congregation only nineteen per cent expressed â€œextreme satisfactionâ€.
Among people who only attended services irregularly but who had three to five friends in the congregation, 23 per cent were â€œextremely satisfiedâ€. Among people who never attended religious services â€œextreme satisfactionâ€ came in at the same score as for those who attended services but had no friends: nineteen per cent.
The researchers concluded that it is the friends, and not the services and other offerings of religion, that make people happier. They theorise that one of the important functions of religion is to make people believe that they belong. An abstract sense of shared values does not seem to carry as much weight when it comes to generating happiness as does having real and tangible friends.
In all the researchers conclude that it is the social ingredient of religion, rather than theology or spirituality, that lead to life satisfaction.
Interestingly, the word religion probably derives (although this is disputed) from the Latin re (again) and ligare (to bind or connect), so religion means to reconnect. In origin the intention is to reconnect with what is sacred, or God, but as this study shows, what is also offers is the chance to connect to those around you, and that is powerful in itself.
Perhaps we might conclude that connecting to God is indeed a solitary activity but religion offers us the happiness and state of mind from which that connection can be made.