Another School Paper. I can’t remember when it was written, but I think it was in the Spring of 2010. I am posting it on here as a page because I didn’t want to go through the trouble of basically rewriting so it would be easily read as a post. I plan to discuss a few aspects of things surrounding this paper in the future though, so on the website it goes.
The issue I chose to research surrounds the question of whether or not religious commitments improve mental health. I’ve had an interest in all things religion since late elementary school, probably due to a number of factors. I’ve spent several years diving into the philosophy of religion, which includes the reading of historical and recent argumentation, interviews with faithful people and non-faithful people, and of course reading some of our societies holy books. The conclusion I’ve reached is that belief in the God of Abraham (my researched focused on this one because that’s the one our culture focuses on) is about as intellectually defensible as believing in Zeus and the probabilities of their existences are about the same. I don’t mean to sound callus or stand-offish, but there really isn’t that much serious debate among the bulk of scientists and philosophers about the validity of the truth statements made by the three great monotheisms. The bulk consensus of these groups is that it’s a rather dead topic. However, other live questions surround these ancient traditions and stories and they absolutely deserve our time to investigate. Questions like do people who hold religious convictions tend to be more moral than those who don’t? Do societies with a heavy religious population flourish more than societies with scant amounts of religion? Does religious conviction correlate (or cause!) higher levels of things like happiness, life satisfaction, and physical and mental health? While I’d love to write a paper that included investigating all of these topics, and I’ll try to touch on all of them, the article only focuses on the last question, so that’s the one I’ll focus on.
This topic is important for several reasons. First and foremost, the majority of people on our planet claim to be religious, so it is absolutely worth finding out the answers to questions like the ones above. Secondly, and a close second at that, is that the claim that religious people may be healthier tends to be very polarizing. On one hand, we have the faithful who are eager to throw up evidence that supports the benefits of religion (perhaps without reviewing the evidence first) and on the other we have non-religious people who are immediately suspicious that there might be anything beneficial about religion (perhaps to the point of ignoring evidence.) Clearly, this is an emotionally charged issue. However, good science and objectivity act as a buffer to the hopes and desires or the distrust and fears of the claim being tested and allow us to plainly examine the evidence. It is with this mindset, that of an unbiased researcher, that we must proceed with.
The first article is written by David B. Larson, and is taken from “Have Faith: Religion Can Heal Mental Ills,” Insight (March 6, 1995) and his position is (if you haven’t guessed) that religious commitment improves mental health and that spirituality can be used as a form of treatment. From the forefront, the first thing to jump out at me about his article is that he mentions no less than twenty studies or articles that support his findings, but only cited one of them with author, year, and journal of publication. This makes it impossible to verify his research and thus impossible to determine whether or not he’s actually conducted this research. While I don’t think its at all likely that he is outright lying about the bulk of evidence in his favor, he leaves the unbiased skeptic in a bit of conundrum. Another waving red flag is that the claim is being put forward by someone who has a personal interest in promoting it. As put by William P. Wilson M.D in a forward to a book that was written in Larson’s honor: “Dave felt that the research he did would demonstrate the power of God in healing, and it has done just that. But mostly it has demonstrated the preventive medical aspects of a faith in the one true God” This is doing science backwards. A good scientists never starts investigating with his or her conclusion already decided. When researchers do that, they’re just begging to fall prey to observational selection, cherry-picking, and selection bias. While it doesn’t follow from this that his claims aren’t true, red flags give us extra incentive to approach what he says with a healthy dose of skepticism. Keeping this in mind, I’ll summarize the main points he made and give my thoughts on each point as we move past it.
Larson argues that the evidence shows that religiosity is correlated with mental health and well-being across the board. For the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on just a few expressions of this heightened mental fitness that he discusses. He mentions early, and focuses on, the correlation he located between higher religiosity and – in a separate paragraph – church attendance, and lower rates of divorce. As I said, he didn’t cite the sources he used to defend this claim, and when I did some brief searches myself I found that not only was religion not a major factor in predicting the probability of divorce, but that some of the most pious denominations, like the born-again Christians and the Baptists, have the highest rates of divorce. Larson also submits the claim that religious commitment correlates with lower instances of substance abuse in teenagers. When I looked up some statistics for myself, the results indicated that level of religiosity wasn’t the largest determining factor in whether or not teens used drugs, it was whether or not their parents were divorced. Just to be clear, I’m not trying to disagree with Larson on every point he made. I was just shocked at the lack of cited sources and when I did my own research, I found different results. It could be that I’m simply not looking in the right places, but I can’t check his information because I don’t know where he got it. I actually think that there is some good preliminary research out there to defend some of his conclusions, but unfortunately I didn’t find any compelling evidence in Larson’s article. I’ll come back to a further elaboration on my thoughts after we look at Ellis’s position. The last point that Larson makes in his article is that the psychological community is largely opposed to he possibility that religion may have positive impacts on mental health.
Albert Ellis’s article, taken from “Dogmatic Devotion Doesn’t Help, It Hurts,” Insight, (March 6, 1995) begins by pointing out that the scientific method is far from objective because it employed by non-dispassionate individuals. I’m inclined to interject here before I move on. While it is true that most science is conducted by people who aren’t entirely detached from their research, the scientific method itself is self-correcting by its very nature. If the data is obviously skewed, it doesn’t get published in reputable journals. If it is un-obviously skewed, this will become apparent when others try to replicate or build on the original research. Back to Ellis. His next point is to specifically critique the research presented and done by Larson. Ellis charges that practically all of the studies that Larson mentions were conducted by religious people and published in religious journals (I have no idea how Ellis tracked down the sources that Larson used.) This drives home the point that I made earlier, as well as shows that Ellis saw that same red flag that I did – we need unbiased research! Ellis stops short of pointing out to his readers that, just because the research is performed by biased individuals, it doesn’t invalidate their conclusions – it just calls for a higher level of skepticism. Ellis goes on to explain that he has personally done research that seems to invalidate much of the research that was put forward by Larson. I should mention that while Ellis does cite a lot of the research he mentions, he doesn’t cite all of it. Ellis concedes Larson’s closing point; that many psychologists already have negative preconceptions about religion’s impact on mental health, but Ellis says that some decent data does exist to support their position.
While I wont go too much into the specifics, Ellis then discusses some instances of negative consequences following from fanatical religious devotees. He covers things like faith inspired murders, modern attempts at suppressive theocracies, mass suicides and psychosis. He then moves to exonerate himself of the charge that he’s only citing extreme cases by pointing out that all he’s trying to demonstrate is that religiosity doesn’t necessarily equal mental wellness, which is a sound point. He then explains the distinction he draws between fanatical faith and moderate faith, which is good because I was beginning to suspect that he was going to try and bunch the whole of the religious world in with obvious fanatics like Paul Hill and Ayatollah Khomeini. It is worth mentioning that this is a distinction that Larson failed to draw, or even acknowledge. Ellis then asks if there is a correlation between fanatical devotion to religion and instances of mental illness and says that his experience as a clinical psychologist leads him to conclude that there might be. He closes his article by advising us that if we do choose to to subscribe to religious faith, we should aim for a moderate form rather than a dogmatic one or we are probably headed for emotional trouble. I feel compelled to ask, however, whether or not ever “chooses” to be a religious fanatic.
Now I need to wrap up by stating my own thoughts on this issue. As I eluded to earlier, I do think it is likely that there likely could be a connection between faith and mental health. According to Gallup Polls, there does indeed seem to be an inverse correlation between religiosity and rates of suicide. I’ve been calling for unbiased research since the onset of my investigation, and while I think Ellis made an effort for it, he may have fallen prey to the same faults in his research methodology as Larson did. As luck would have it, I’ve recently finished a New York Times Bestseller that is centered around the same point I’ve been making. In Daniel C. Dennett’s book Breaking The Spell, he calls for the scientific study of religion. The book largely focuses on why this research is important, what some preliminary research has shown, and what more research might uncover. This type of objective inquiry is exactly what we need when studying issues like these. While it is true that Dennett is not the most loved philosopher in the religious community, you couldn’t ask for a better type of person to evaluate the evidence that is out there on this. He is not pushing for a particular outcome, but rather calling for more high quality research to be done. His conclusion is nicely summed up in chapter 9, section 4, on pages 272-273:
It might well be that believing in God (and engaging in all of the practices that go with that belief) improves your state of mind and thereby improves yours health by, say, 10 percent. We should do the research to find out for sure, bearing in mind that it may also be true that believing that Earth is being invaded by space aliens who plan to take us back to their planet to teach us how to fly (and engaging in all of the behaviors that are appropriate with that belief) improves your state of mind and health by 20 percent!
What he’s getting at with this is that there simply isn’t enough research out there and it’s important that we do more. He cites no less than three good quality studies or books that make the case that religion is good for your health on just those two pages. I’m inclined to agree that religion may correlate with physical and mental health. Indeed, Ayatollah Khomeini lived to be 86 in a country where the average life-span for males is 69, and this might have something to do with his intense religious faith. It could well turn out that there is a direct relationship between level of faith and level of health, but it is worth asking if the answer for the best overall outcome is more religious faith for everyone, or if there are other important factors to consider. After all, Khomeini’s faith was at the heart of many of his decisions and he’s not remembered as one of the most compassionate figures of the twentieth century. To sum up, though I believe that there very well could be a link between religion and health, there needs to be more substantive, dispassionate research on this topic. The findings, whatever they are, will have important ramifications for everyone.
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PS This paper got long really fast and as a result, I didn’t get a chance to cover many of the topics I wanted to. But, I couldn’t bring myself to delete the topics themselves, as the list may provide some food for thought for my readers. Also, I took the time to type up the questions at the end of the article and I never got around to:
Things I meant to cover:
- The distinction between spirituality and religion. Do the religious have a monopoly on spiritualism?
- The mental health of suicide bombers.
- Does biblical literalism entail a frail grasp of reality and hence mental fragility and delusion?
- Is a belief that makes you happy the same thing as a belief that is true?
- Can science test religion?
- Difference between using something like spirituality to treat something like depression vs something like a bleeding head wound.
- Rates of religious people in prisons.
- The validity of larson’s conclusions. Did he rule out other possible reasons for the correlations he observed?
- Did Ellis have an ax to grind, or was he being as objective as possible?
Discussion questions from the end of the article:
- Explain why Ellis feels that the data concerning the benefits of religion are not objective. Could his explanation be applied to other types of psychological research?
- Ellis is the founder of a major school of psychotherapy: rational-emotive therapy. Find a description of this therapy and discuss how Ellis’s own nonreligious values might influence his formulation of this therapy.
- If it were generally agreed that religious factors were beneficial for mental health, how might a psychotherapists use these factors? What problems might a person encounter in employing theses factors?
- How does Ellis distinguish between those who adopt moderate forms of religion and those who adopt fanatical forms of religion? How is this distinction different from the distinction between those who consider their religion relatively superficially and those who take their religious beliefs seriously?
- For the last few centuries, religion and science have been considered completely separate endeavors. How might this historical separation play into the controversy between Larson and Ellis?