Churchgoing is good for you (even if you don’t believe in God)

Forget being ‘spiritual but not religious’. It’s much better to be religious but not spiritual

21 June 2014

8:00 AM

21 June 2014

8:00 AM

Few people, don’t you find, are as irritating as those who define themselves as Spiritual But Not Religious? There was a riveting  piece in the Sunday Times ‘Style’ magazine last week about them, featuring people who were both fabulously stylish and spiritual. Among the names checked was a shop called Celestine Eleven (‘when you buy a new dress, you’re buying into a beautiful piece of energy’) and a website called Numinous (motto: ‘material girl, mystical world’). So, you can be spiritual and design-conscious, as in Pamela Love’s pentagram ring, £1,500.

What this Gwyneth Paltrow-style combination of spirituality and consumerism involves, apart from the absence of any kind of discernible doctrine, and certainly nothing that might interfere with a full sex life, is the possibility of focusing perpetually on yourself. As opposed, that is, to engaging with the rest of the community as you might, say, at a coffee morning after Mass, where all comers descend on the free tea and biscuits, especially the lonely and the broke. Muriel Spark observed that ‘the irreligious environment of modern Europe embraces large numbers of intelligent aspiring souls who are nevertheless looking for a “religion” which offers all things beautiful and demands nothing practical.’ The seekers have since discovered that they’re spiritual instead.

So I was delighted the other week to hear Tom Shakespeare coming out as a member of the opposite tendency, viz, those who self-define as Religious But Not Spiritual. He’s an atheist Quaker. That makes two self-declared RBNSs I know of — the other being Julie Burchill. (I’ve always assumed Hilaire Belloc was one too; he loved the Catholic church but thought Christ was a milksop.) They are an under-studied group so far as sociologists are concerned, possibly on account of the difficulty of doing longitudinal studies on a group you can count on the fingers of one hand.

But one thing that is increasingly clear is that religion — though the studies don’t actually distinguish between the religious who believe in God and those who don’t — is actually rather good for you. There have been a number of interesting studies on this in recent years: one of the most famous was by Michael King of UCL, who suggested in 2012 that when it came to mental health outcomes, being religious was best, being atheist was second best and both were better than being merely spiritual. But for years the benefits of religion on things like depression was plagued by the inability of researchers to distinguish between the spiritual and the religious: the funniest instance was a World Health Organisation questionnaire which asked respondents whether they had any belief of any kind that might give them a bit of uplift: which put belief in extraterrestrials on the same basis as the Incarnation.

But gradually researchers are trying to establish what the effects of religion qua religion are on things like mental health. A study in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry last year suggested that adolescent girls who attended church or religious services and who weren’t depressed at the start of the year-long study were much less likely to become depressed during that time than those who didn’t; the researchers put this down to something called ‘self-efficacy’. Boys who were depressed at the start of the study who attended religious services had lower odds than others of still being depressed a year later.

As for suicide, research published in April in the British Journal of Psychiatry has found that people who attended religious services at least 24 times each year were at a 67 per cent lower risk of suicide than those who did not. There were only two predictors of suicide: being male, which increases your risk, and attending church or whatever regularly, which decreases it. The critical point is, belief isn’t what matters; it’s what you do. In fact another recent bit of Canadian research, based on a national study, was quite specific: attending a service at least monthly has a protective effect against depression.

The real question, of course, is why this is so, which brings us back to our friends, the Religious But Not Spiritual. Is it a matter of the social support you get, the uplift from the liturgy, simple grace, the prohibitions on stuff like self-harm or the volunteering that churchy people do? A psychiatrist friend, Professor Patricia Casey, thinks being part of a church community is qualitatively different from say, football club membership, but we don’t really know. Anyway, if it’s the social connections you get from going to church that helps, atheist church attenders should be doing just fine. Let’s see more of them.

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  • HorseshitHunter

    Could it be possible that there are 3 predictors of suicide potential, rather than 2? What if intelligence is factored in, based on the notion that the higher the subject’s IQ, the more likely he/she is to say “no thanks” to the world of 2014? People of genius/near genius appear to top themselves rather frequently…perhaps stupid people are more easily persuaded to accept their lot in life. If this conjecture is accurate, then the link between aversion to suicide and a tendency to attend church services is explained: both characteristics are common to the stupider members of our species…

    • DanV

      Well it all depends what you mean by intelligence. As far as I understand it, intelligence is a quality that evolves in living beings in order to facilitate their survival and reproduction. By that definition, any act or behaviour that works against the survival and reproduction of a human being cannot be defined as intelligent – and suicide would actually be defined as an act of the utmost stupidity. Personally, I think you’re confusing intelligence with intellectualism – so-called intellectual geniuses top themselves regularly, not because they are too intelligent to accept their lot in life, but because those high IQs tend to have been developed as a response to a pre-existing sense of loneliness or social rejection. Many intellectuals are tortured by the fact that they are not as socially or sexually succesful as their intellectual ‘inferiors’, and this is the jumping off point for a bleak misanthropic vision of human society, that eventually leads to their deciding to say ‘no thanks’ to the world. In reality, there’s nothing wrong with the world at all – it’s just that it doesn’t necessarily want to fit in to the ‘geniuses’ view of what they deserve.

      • tolpuddle1

        There is an almost infinite number of things wrong with the world – do you ever watch or read the news ?

        Britain in particular suffers from an obscene plague of people like you – brutal, heartless and ludicrously self-satisfied nitwits, who rub their hands with a certain glee when anyone tormented (or more intelligent than themselves) is driven to suicide.

        Result: Britain is a paradise for complacent, third-rate scumbags, though happily, a Paradise that is both rapidly declining and heading for History’s graveyard.

        • DanV

          tolpuddle – Sorry, but you seem like someone in a state of fairly severe torment and depression yourself. Your belief in the infinite number of things wrong with the world, your apparent rejoicing in the idea of the destruction of your own country, and your apparent hatred of human life itself, as being only suitable for the ignorant, stupid and nasty are pretty indicative of depressive states – and I say that as someone who’s been through three major bouts of clinical depression. Having been in that horrible state myself, you have my sympathies and I hope that one day you can find the peace of mind to realise that although it’s a long, long way from perfect, the world really isn’t the terrible Manichean hell that it seems to you right now.

      • HorseshitHunter

        While I disagree with your definition of intelligence – for me, it’s simply the ability to identify, analyse and solve problems, and to communicate the solutions – I do take your point that some intellectuals are overly self-oriented and petulant, while not being particularly effective as functioning human beings…but these tend to be highly educated, rather than highly intelligent, individuals. My basic point, which I was trying to make with a degree of tact, was that religion of any stripe is for stupid people…

        • DanV

          HH -so are you arguing that the best way to understand intelligence is simply as ‘an ability’, with no reference to the fact that this is an ability evolved in a living being, intimately concerned with it’s own survival and flourishing ?

          • HorseshitHunter

            I have no doubt that intelligence was a (perhaps the) key parameter in the process of natural selection as it applied to hominids…but in the world of 2014, as applied to Homo Sapiens Londinium, I am comfortable with the definition I provided earlier…

          • DanV

            OK, you’re kind of skirting the issue here – so are you saying that the intelligence of Homo Sapiens Londinium is of a qualitatively different kind to that of all other hominids in history, and so my (I thought) straightforward argument that intelligence can only meaningfully be discussed as a quality of living beings that has evolved to increase their chances of survival and reproduction doesn’t apply in this case ?

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    There’s this late middle age Jewish lady, who told me she attended church regularly. *But, you’re Jewish.” “Not an issue, I just go for the company.” By that she meant the business connections. Boy, was she a scrounging free-loader, always slipping out the back door to avoid payment. They never ask themselves the obvious question, “Why does everyone dislike us?” Down through the centuries.
    Jack, Japan Alps

    • Shorne

      If this comment isn’t meant as a joke then it should be removed immediately, it would probably be illegal in Germany under the Volksverhetzung (“incitement of the people”) law.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        German jurisprudence, where the truth is no defence,

  • Kitty MLB

    You say its better to be religious then being spiritual.
    I’d ask is it possible to be religious without being spiritual?
    Some say they are spiritual without believing in God, regardless
    of the fact faith in whatever form is a gift from God.
    But what of miserable people athiests, can they say they
    are faithless and spiritual at the same time, this must
    be a contradiction of terms.

    • davidofkent

      So you think that atheists are miserable, do you? Perhaps you should get out more.

      • Kitty MLB

        Well they’re not the most cheery of souls when they tell you that
        once your dead that is it.. no hope, you are just gone.

        • HorseshitHunter

          That is neither cheery nor miserable…it is simply looking out the window, and telling you honestly what’s out there…

  • DaveTheRave

    Well, I must be one of those irritating people then!
    So, the implication is that it’s much better to believe in myth than what might be the truth.
    That’s exactly the same as our political culture, isn’t it?
    Let me explain in my irritating manner what I ‘believe’. I think there almost certainly is a continuation of our individual consciousness after physical death. There is no absolute proof, but much much circumstantial evidence that this is true if you look in the right places. If this is so, then MY afterlife (I can after all only speak for myself, the whole universe exists through my own senses as far as I can see) will owe nothing at all to any accepted religion or figure. I will be surprised to meet familiar people ‘on the other side’ and probably think, ‘what was I worried about?’ I think rebirth is a very real possibility too.
    I don’t think this is about believing in God or gods, it’s about a wholly natural ‘spiritual’ process which our present society has confused and befuddled by all manner of belief and controlling processes.
    If I’m wrong and there’s nothing after death, then I’ll know nothing about it.

    • “So, the implication is that it’s much better to believe in myth and ritual than what might be the truth.”

      Since we know, we no longer need to believe.

      • DaveTheRave

        I truly hope you have found inner peace for yourself, but I cannot agree with you. Sorry. Kind regards.

        • “…but I cannot agree with you.”

          That’s the point…there’s nothing to agree or disagree with. The Romans and Jewish authorities KNEW who Jesus was, since both groups had agents watching Jesus and disciples. That’s why both parties refused to go after Jesus & disciples, when if it had been any other “Messiah/prophet” Rome immediately executed them…

          “If we give any credence to the apocryphal acts and believe that the apostles attracted large crowds, then we have to concede that the apostles might have been viewed as revolutionaries. If they were arrested, then the charges levied against them may have been insurgency or inciting unrest among the people. As the death of Jesus shows, Romans had no problems executing people who caused trouble or could potentially start a rebellion. They were taking elementary precautions.” (“The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Early Martyrdom”, by Professor Candida Moss; p. 137).

          The above quote is affirmed by New Testament professors for the PBS Frontline documentary “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians”, who unanimously agree that Roman governors in Judea immediately executed charismatic persons that attracted large crowds …

          “Jesus would have represented a kind of activist and resister in Pontius Pilate’s experience that he had been dealing with for years, and with varying degrees of success and effectiveness, obviously. Jesus would have been a blip on the screen of Pontius Pilate, because the unrest and the uprisings were so common, part of daily life for the Roman administration of Judea, that Jesus would have been seen, I think, as very little out of the ordinary.”


          “Now I don’t for a moment think that Pilate would have been worried that Jesus could have challenged the power of the emperor. That’s not the point. The point is, any challenge to Roman authority…any challenge to the peace of Rome would have been met with a swift and violent response.”


          fast-forward to 37:55 minutes in Part I of “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians” for another Biblical scholar’s account of how Roman governors in Judea IMMEDIATELY reacted towards PEACEFUL “Messiahs”:


          This confirms Josephus’ accounts as to what immediately happened to any person claiming to perform miracles in Roman Judea.

          Between 44 and 46 CE, one Theudas caused some consternation with what may have been a claim to be the Messiah:

          “It came to pass, while Fadus was procurator of Judea, that a certain charlatan, whose name was Theudas, persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the river Jordan; for he told them he was a prophet, and that he would, by his own command, divide the river, and afford them an easy passage over it. Many were deluded by his words. However, Fadus did not permit them to make any advantage of his wild attempt, but sent a troop of horsemen out against them. After falling upon them unexpectedly, they slew many of them, and took many of them alive. They also took Theudas alive, cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem.” — [(Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.97-98]


          The Roman governor Festus, who was -according to recent research- in office from 58 until 60 CE, was confronted with another rebel:

          “Festus sent forces, both horsemen and footmen, to fall upon those that had been seduced by a certain impostor, who promised them deliverance and freedom from the miseries they were under, if they would but follow him as far as the wilderness. Accordingly, those forces that were sent destroyed both him that had deluded them, and those that were his followers also.” — [Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.188]

          Yet the Bible scholars interviewed for this PBS Frontline program fail to explain why Pontius Pilate failed for three years to swiftly deal with the threat of Jesus when if it had been anyone other than Jesus, that threat to the Roman Peace would have been immediately dealt with three years earlier (see first embedded comment, and in the link provided fast-forward to 37:45 minutes in Part I of “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians” for another Biblical scholar’s account of how Roman governors in Judea IMMEDIATELY reacted towards PEACEFUL “Messiahs”)!

          The PBS Frontline program also fails to explain the similar three-year inaction of the religious leaders in Jerusalem (and Galilee/Perea) to execute Jesus for blasphemy under the Law of Moses, AND why for the next 37 years (before the fall of Jerusalem) Roman and Jewish religious authorities are still refusing to put to death Jesus’ disciples and all Jesus Sect members (excepting for three fluke cases: Saint Stephen and the two disciples named James. In the case of Saint Stephen, he was pointed out to the religious leaders of Jerusalem by foreign Jews from what is today Turkey, who were in town for Passover. The religious leaders of Jerusalem were pressed into the arrest and stoning of Stephen by ignorant foreign Jews, otherwise Stephen would not have been arrested in the first place. See first embedded comment to this review for how the two disciples named James died.)!

          • EschersStairs

            That is an interesting idea.
            I think though it is too strong to say that the authorities ‘knew’ who Jesus was. It is a stronger position to say that they were clearly unsure of just who Jesus was, whether he was an imposter… or no. And that is actually quite a statement.
            “Ye know not whence I am.” “As for this man, we know not whence he is.”
            “Some say John the Baptist, some say Elias…”
            “Who art thou? Art thou the Christ?” “Askest thou this of thyself, or have others told it thee?”
            “I adjure thee by God – art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”
            It can be argued that the confusion and debate that existed about who Jesus was, is actually proof of who he was all things considered about human nature. But some will close their minds at that point.

          • “It is a stronger position to say that they were clearly unsure of just who Jesus was, whether he was an imposter… or no.”

            The Romans and Jewish authorities knew who the impostors were, and were immediately put to death by both parties. For Romans such impostors were labelled “rebels” and killed immediately with their followers. For the Jewish authorities such impostors were blasphemers, who were immediately stoned under the Law of Moses.

    • DanV

      “The whole universe exists through my own senses” – Sorry, you’re not doing much to contradict the theory that SBNR people are self-obsessed here…

      • DaveTheRave

        Then please let me explain.
        The universe, however we perceive it, can only be experienced through the senses by ourselves as INDIVIDUALS. That is, you can’t take for granted that other people, or animals, see things the way you do. THAT would be true self obsession.
        This is fact, logic, but nonetheless very profound. If this is interpreted as ‘self-obsession’ then it is the interpreter’s problem, not mine. Sorry.

        • DanV

          Sorry, that’s just sophistry and solipsistic nonsense. Who said anything about taking it for granted that other people or animals see things the same way I do ? One of the most obvious facts of human existence is that people see things differently – hence the thousands of years and arguments and discussions of questions just like this. But it’s another fact of human existence that although there are sometimes significant differences in the way we see things, there are also huge areas of commonality, that allow us to tentatively and with all due humility come to an imperfect, shaky, but nonetheless valid understanding of an objective reality that exists ‘out there’ separate from us. And one thing I am pretty sure of, is that that reality doesn’t require MY senses to bring it into existence, and when my senses are no longer functioning it will continue to exist quite happily without me.

  • Since Jesus’ ministry, there never again was a reason to “believe” in God, since everyone now knew God (deities) existed. For the Romans Jesus was empirical proof that deities existed, hence (1) why ten Roman governors in Judea between 30 – 64 AD (the Jewish Revolt taking place in 64 AD) refused to execute Jesus and disciples/apostles (Pilate executed Jesus only when presented Jesus by the Sanhedrin, but both Pilate and the Sanhedrin refused to execute the remaining eleven apostles).

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  • dado_trunking

    Richard Gere changed our society like no other.
    Twenty years ago he was laughed at, look at where society is now!

  • Joann Roxbury

    No matter how egotistical or altruistic a person may be, the human needs that one can gauge accurately are limited to a small circle of influence and thus a tiny slice of civilization.

  • Brentfordian

    Assuming “religious” to mean an attachment to one of the several organisations claiming to be the (only) channel through which you can contact God, and “spiritual” to mean you’ve a direct line, your argument looks pretty silly.