Depression is the leading cause of illness and disability in adolescence. Many studies show a correlation between religiosity and mental health, yet the question remains whether the relationship is causal. We exploit within-school variation in adolescents’ peers to deal with selection into religiosity. We find robust effects of religiosity on depression that are stronger for the most depressed. These effects are not driven by the school social context; depression spreads among close friends rather than through broader peer groups that affect religiosity. Exploration of mechanisms suggests that religiosity buffers against stressors in ways that school activities and friendships do not.The key finding:
…a one standard deviation increase in religiosity decreases the probability of being depressed by 11 percent. By comparison, increasing mother’s education from no high school degree to a high school degree or more only decreases the probability of being depressed by about 5 percent.It seems obvious to me that religious arose as a way to cope with terrible feelings: grief, rage, anxiety, depression. So it makes sense that religious people would be happier. On the other hand the effects you see in a broad societal analysis are not this big; religious adults are (from what I have read) only slightly less likely to be depressed than non-believers.
I wonder if the particular mental and emotional tasks of adolescence magnify this effect. I remember as a young teenager being really, really freaked out by the thought of my own death and non-existence, and by the thought that everyone around me would also die. Now I am not nearly so bothered by these ideas. So maybe the intense emotionality of teenage thinking about the world makes the support of faith particularly valuable.
Why any degree of surprise? Religion, like other opiates, is a palliative:
"Christianity has done its utmost to close the circle and declared even doubt to be sin. One is supposed to be cast into belief without reason, by a miracle, and from then on to swim in it as in the brightest and least ambiguous of elements: even a glance towards land, even the thought that one perhaps exists for something else as well as swimming, even the slightest impulse of our amphibious nature -- is sin! And notice that all this means that the foundation of belief and all reflection on its origin is likewise excluded as sinful. What is wanted are blindness and intoxication and an eternal song over the waves in which reason has drowned."
--Nietzsche, Daybreaks, p. 89, R J Hollingdale transl.
I feel you've hit the nail on the head.
It's right there in the Bible itself. Ecclesiastes 1:17-18
"I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly. I perceive that this also was a chasing at the wind. For in much wisdom, is much grief. And he that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow."
Embracing rational knowledge over blind faith does, indeed, bring sorrow. People - and in this case, I would note particularly young people - want to have a compelling reason for why things are the way they are. The world is so vast and complicated that even rationality and science struggle to provide satisfying answers to many troubling questions. It is far more comforting to have simple, all-encompassing answers derived from faith, which do away with all that complexity and potential doubt.
"Consider again that pale blue dot we've been talking about. Imagine that you take a good long look at it. Imagine you're staring at the dot for any length of time, and then... try to convince yourself... that God created the whole universe for -one- of the ten million or so species of life that inhabit that speck of dust.
Now take it a step further. Imagine that everything was made just for a single -shade- of that species, or gender, or ethnic or religious subdivision.
We can recognize here a shortcoming - in some circumstances serious - in our ability to understand the world. Characteristically, we seem compelled to project our own nature onto Nature.
'Man, in his arrogance, thinks himself a Great Work, worthy of the interposition of a deity', Darwin wrote telegraphically in his notebook. 'More humble, and I think truer, to consider him created from animals.'
We're Johnny-Come-Latelies. We live in the cosmic boondocks. We emerged from microbes and muck. Apes are our cousins. Our thoughts and feelings are not fully under our own control. And on top of all this, we're making a mess of our planet, and becoming a danger to ourselves.
The trapdoor beneath our feet swings open. We find ourselves in bottomless free fall. If it takes a little myth and ritual to get us through a night that seems endless, who among us cannot sympathize and understand? We -long- to be here for a purpose, even though, despite much self-deception, none is evident.
The significance of our lives, and our fragile planet, is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. -We- are the custodians of life's meaning. We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes.
But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth, than a reassuring fable."
~ Carl Sagan, The Sagan Series
I love La Barre, and there's no question that part of what religion is about is, as John says, dealing with terrible feelings. Or, if you will, that it is an opiate or palliative or (perhaps more or less hollow) reassurance.
But I think no human phenomenon so huge and broad can be about one thing. The same should be said of family, war, law, or the state.
For one thing, religion can act as the very opposite of a palliative--it can be a provoker of doubt, sadness, and terror. In this vein, I always (literally) think of a phrase from an old Visigothic lectionary: "ad mensam terribilis Dei noster." See also the life of Martin Luther.
Beyond that, many, perhaps most humans have an intuition or feeling that there is another, hidden world with other, hidden beings in it. No less a figure than Freud wrote about this, and with respect (he did not dismiss it as sublimated sex or whatever). I do not believe such a world exists, but the feeling is powerful. One theory, put forward by a researcher at, I think, McGill, is that this feeling itself evolved in humans as a palliative to our developing consciousness of death. It's just a theory, but it suggests how our palliatives can (in this case, organically) develop their own powers and purposes.
In any case, I believe that religion is in part, if only for some, about longing to see the face of God--a face we will never see. And, on some level, that longing now exists in us for, in, and of itself. It's not just a symbol or fetish or placeholder for something else.
By the way, "terribilis Dei noster" is how I remember it. It might be bad Visigothic Latin, or it might be my own.
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