Dec 11 2014

The Travelers and the Dry Well

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Ethics,Evil,goodness,Morals,religionJames @ 9:36 am

Long ago, two men in a far-off desert land were traveling on foot down an empty road through desolate country. They had drunk the last of their water. Feeling thirsty and nearing one of the infrequent wells along the route, they stopped to refill their waterskins and to refresh themselves. When they dipped the bucket into the well, though, it came up dry. They tried again, and again it came up dry.

The first traveler, a wise, practical man, decid­ed to set off again on his journey to search for a well further along the road with water in it. The second traveler, a fool, disagreed. He said to the wise traveler, “you fool—you do not know how long it will be until you reach the next well. You do not know if that well will be dry too. I will stay here instead and keep trying to draw water from this well.”

The wise traveler replied, “you are right, I do not know how far it is to the next well, and I do not know whether it will have water. But I do know that this well is empty, and it would be foolish to continue seeking water from a dry well. If I wish to complete my journey, I must seek water where it can be found, not where it is convenient for me to look for it.” Moved with compassion for his foolish friend, though, he add­ed, “If I do find water, I will try to bring some to back to you.” And with that, he got up and left.

The foolish traveler remained, dipping the bucket again and again into the dry well. It always came up empty. By the time the wise traveler returned with water, it was too late. The foolish traveler had already died, weak and thirsty, full of regret for his foolish choice.

**Inspired by Gospel of Thomas 74.

Dec 04 2014

The Pelican and the Fisherman

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Ethics,Evil,goodness,Morals,religionJames @ 9:35 am

A poor fisherman would go out to sea each day to catch what he could to support his family. A lazy pelican that lived nearby hated the effort of flying over the water, searching for fish, and diving to catch them. One day, it was flying over the poor fisherman’s boat, and saw his catch of fish for the day—a small pile—stacked up in his boat. Sensing an opportunity for an easy meal, the pelican dived down and stole a fish out of the pile. The fisherman shooed the pelican away. The pelican flew up into the air, waited until the fish­erman was not looking, and then dived down again to steal another fish. Over and over again, the pelican stole more and more of the fish. The fisherman’s catch had been meager to begin with, and the pelican’s thefts depleted so much of it that the fisherman did not have enough to both feed his family and sell fish at the market for money to buy other necessities.

The fisherman kept a lifelike wood carving of a fish in his boat as a sort of good luck charm. He knew that the wooden fish did not really bring luck—that his success really depended mostly on his own hard work—but his father and grandfather had carried the wooden fish with them every day when out to sea, and so he brought it with him to continue the tradition (especially because his aged father lived at the fisherman’s house with his family, and seeing his son carry on the tradition brought him comfort). Seeking solace, the fisherman picked up his wooden fish and despaired the meager remnants of his catch following the pelican’s thefts. The fisherman then set down the wooden fish and started to row to shore.

The pelican, still circling overhead, saw the wooden fish. The fish looked real to the pelican and it was larger than the rest. Greedily, he swoop­ed down, plucked it up, and swallowed it. As he tried to fly back up into the air, the fish caught in his throat, and the pelican fell back down to the water’s surface, struggling to get the fish out. He expended much effort try­ing—far more than he would have spent just working to find and catch his own fish. He had swallowed the wooden fish so enthusiastically, though, that it was firmly lodged in his throat. No matter what he did, he could not get it out. The pelican flailed around on the surface of the ocean, and soon choked to death. The fisherman used his net to catch the pelican, and rowed in to shore—with his wooden fish (retrieved from the pelican’s throat), a small pile of fish to sell, and a pelican for his family to eat for dinner.

When he entered his home with the dead pelican, the man’s father smiled knowingly and asked one question, “the wooden fish?” The fisherman nodded.

The pelican died because it failed to learn the simple lesson that each must work for his own sustenance, rather than living off the labors of others. The fisherman and his family did not go hungry that night because the fisherman had learned to value tra­dition, even though he could not initially recognize its purpose.

Nov 27 2014

The Prayer Dog and the Eastern Wall

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Ethics,Evil,goodness,Morals,religionJames @ 9:33 am

A spiritual teacher would meet with others for prayers at his home once a week. His dog, though, would always cause a commotion and distract them from their prayers. The teacher thus began tying up his dog outside each week at the start of their meet­ing, and would then release the dog after they had finished their prayers. The teacher eventually died, but a spiritual community had grown around his teach­ings, and they continued to meet and pray together weekly at his house. Every week, they would tie up the dog before prayers and then release him afterward. Eventually the dog also died. As a way of remembering the quirks of their beloved teacher, the community adopted a new dog to tie up before their prayers and release at their completion. After many years had passed, the original reason for this practice—to remove distractions from their prayers—was eventually forgotten, and also it was forgotten that the second dog had been adopted in remembrance of their teacher. The practice became a tradition, though, and continued through the years as a part of the community’s weekly prayer ritual.

Many decades later, after all who had known the teacher had died, some members of the community began to question the need for tying up the dog, and whether it served any real purpose. The commun­ity’s leaders were horrified to hear such talk, and considered this questioning to be blasphemy. The learned members of the community took for grant­ed the necessity of their ritual of tying up the dog. In response to the questioning, they offered long discourses and wrote complicated treatises, justifying the importance of their dog-tying ritual and its spir­itual symbolism.

The questioners eventually left the community and started a new one with no dogs. They would meet in a building with a noisy street to the east. Eventually, they filled in the windows and doors on the east of their building to block out the sound and create greater peace and serenity during their meetings. When that building grew too old and fell into disrepair, they tore it down and built a new one with no windows or doors on the east. Many decades later, they moved to a new location surrounded by quiet peaceful streets. So much time had passed that the original members of the communiy had died. The re­maining members did not know the purpose of having no windows and doors on the east. It felt improp­er and irreverent to most of them, though, to construct a new building that was not faithful to their previous one, so they built it with no windows and doors to the east.

Some members of the community began to ques­tion this decision. The leaders saw this questioning as blasphemy, and their learned members offered long discourses and wrote complicated treatises explaining the spiritual symbolism of this practice. . . .

**Inspired by an old Buddhist story, source unknown.

Nov 20 2014

The Banquet and the Spider

One day a hardened and greedy man was walking through the forest when a poisonous spider bit him. He fell to the ground, unconscious and dreaming. He felt as if transported to hell. He saw a banquet room, with an endlessly long table piled high with delicious foods. The people sitting at the table, however, groaned in misery. Their arms were tied with splints so that they could not bend their elbows, and they thus could not lift food to their mouths. Worse still, they were tied to their chairs and the food was piled in the middle of the table, so they could not bend forward to eat with their mouths. They would try over and over to feed themselves by picking up food, throwing it into the air, and catching whatever they could in their mouths. Without being able to bend their arms, though, their throws were clumsy, and most of the food landed elsewhere. The banquet hall was a chaotic mess, with food flying in the air and food spilled and rotting all over the ground and the diners. The hall was filled with the diners’ moans of hunger and angry shouts at one another.

The man was suddenly carried away into heav­en. He was puzzled, though, for heaven was set up identically to hell. Once again, there was an endless­ly long banquet table, with guests tied to their chairs, their arms tied to splints. But here, the banquet room was clean. The only sounds were the sounds of happy conversation between the guests. One thing caused this marked difference: in heaven, since it was not pos­sible to feed oneself, each person would pick up food and feed it to that person’s neighbors. Invariably, the person receiving food would thank the one feeding, and then offer food back to that person in return.

The man found himself again back in hell. Puzz­led that those in hell had not figured out how to feed each other, the man approached the nearest suffering diner, leaned down and whispered, “You fool! There is no need for you to go hungry. Feed one of your neighbors, and certainly he will return your kindness and feed you.

“You expect me to feed him?” the diner said, looking with disapproval at his neighbor. “I’d rather starve than give him the satisfaction of eating!”

The man returned to himself, laying on the ground in the forest, but he soon everything faded again and he found himself in a hell nearly identical to that of his first dream, except that now there was no ceiling to the room. Far off in the distance, he could see heaven up above him. He now believed he was truly dead, in hell. Somehow a thread from a spider web hung down from heaven, extending all the way to him in hell. He figured that the thread must be compensation to him for his untimely death from the spider’s bite.

The man had not yet been strapped to a chair. Not wanting to spend eternity in hunger with such selfish companions, he began climbing the thread, eager to reach the banquets of heaven.

The climb out of hell is a long one, and the man eventually grew tired. He stopped halfway up the thread to rest. He saw how far he had come, and laughed lightheartedly as he realized that he might escape. To his dismay, however, he saw others climbing up after him. They were also new arrivals to hell who had not yet been tied down and had seen him escaping. They had begun climbing to escape as well. Fearing that the thread may break from the weight of so many other climbers, he shouted down to the others, demanding that they get off the thread, that it was his and his alone. At that moment, the thread broke. The man fell down into hell, and was strapped into a chair for all eternity. His table companions were those who had also been climbing the thread. He was so angry with them for breaking the thread that he refused to feed them.

With regret he called out to heaven, “please warn those who are still living—I did not learn, but if I had seen what I see now, I would have learned.”

A voice replied, “you did see when you were still living, unconscious on the forest floor, and many times before that, yet you never learned. Even now, you still refuse to learn. The living have teachers enough. Those with ears to hear and hearts that feel have what they need to learn and do to become worthy of heaven. Those without ears to hear and hearts that feel will never learn, no matter how many times they are taught, unless they choose to open their ears and hearts.” With that, the man’s dream ended and he died from the effects of the spider bite.

Now, to you reading this story, this man like­ly seems foolish and selfish. But, it is easy to see the fool­ishness and selfishness of others, to correct them and offer advice. It is much harder to see your own foolish­ness and selfishness. Focus on shedding your own fool­ishness and selfishness, and you will build heaven a­round you.

**Inspired by an old story, known as “The Allegory of the Long Spoons,” “The Par­able of the Long Chopsticks,” or “The Parable of the Banquet,” attributed as an old Buddhist, Chinese, Chri­stian, Hindu, or Jewish parable, also attributed to Rab­bi Haim of Romshishok; Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “The Spider’s Thread,” 1918; Luke 16:19-31.

Nov 13 2014

The Teacher

A wise healer came among a community of the blind. She taught the people what they needed to do to cure their own blindness. The people whom she taught were so in awe of her wisdom and compassion that they wanted to know more about who she was. Being blind, they used their hands to feel her to understand her features. Each person touched a differ­ent part of her. Only being able to become acquainted with a small part of the healer, they each concluded different things about her nature and traits. Each person was so self-assured about his or her limited perception of the healer, though, that each presum­ed to understand the full truth about her.

The healer was only with the people a short time. Almost as soon as she left, the people began ar­guing about who and what she was. News of her vi­sit, as well as news of the disagreements about her nature, passed quickly through the community. Each person who had encountered her in person told a di­f­ferent story about her visit and gave a different interpretation of her nature. As the stories spread, the details were slightly changed with each re­tell­ing, and each person formed an opinion about the healer based on which story they had first heard or based on which story made them feel best. None of them acknowledged her imperfections—they could not idolize an im­perfect being.

The people began to divide into groups based on which opinions about the healer they believed. There was great disagreement between the different groups, and the people spent much time debating the mi­nute details of all aspects of the healer’s superficial na­ture. Almost all of their opinions were either wrong or misleading because they were taken out of context. The people were so obsessed with validating their faulty perceptions and opinions about the healer that they ended up ignoring her teachings about how to heal their blindness. They lived out their lives in un­necessary darkness, clinging to false, misleading, tri­vial, and petty beliefs about the healer, rather than applying her words to heal themselves.

Oct 30 2014

The Cities’ Bridges

Three cities, each some distance from the other, were spread out along one side of a great river. The river was wide and deep, with a powerful and fast current. Lumber was in short supply, and boats were scarce. Crossing the river was dangerous and rarely accomplished. There were legends that across the river lay an undiscovered country, where could be found great wealth and knowledge. Occasionally, someone with an adventurous and seeking spirit would would search out that wealth and knowledge. They would diligently save their resources to be able to build a boat, and then carefully practice their boating skills to be able to make the crossing. When they finally made the crossing and then returned, they spoke of marvelous wonders that could only be understood by going there and experiencing them. Each city had skilled engineers and builders capable of building a bridge, and materials necessary to do so. Intrigued and excited by the stories of the undiscovered country, the people of each city decided to build a bridge from each of their cities to connect itself to the other side.

In the first city, the citizens were concerned with the trivialities of life, such as sporting contests, entertainment, and personal gossip. They could not be bothered with the details of such things as bridge-building. They left these sorts of problems to their leaders to solve, blindly giving them power over such matters. No one monitored the leaders or held them accountable for their actions. Because of this, the evil and corrupt were most attracted to leadership positions. Those few leaders who did not start out corrupt were quickly corrupted by the system—by the lack of accountability and by the influence of already-corrupt leaders who preceded them. The corrupt leaders used their power to benefit themselves and not the people. The leaders discouraged questioning and independent thinking, and when anyone tried to challenge their leadership, the leaders would demonize and ostracize that person to neutralize that person’s potential ability to threaten their power. The leaders cared about money, not about wisdom or knowledge. When the city decided to build a bridge, the leaders craftily drew out the process so they could run up the expenses and divert as much money from the project to themselves and their cronies. Eventually, new corrupt would-be leaders were able to seize power and, seeing that much of the ongoing project expenses would still go to the old leaders’ cronies who had secured the building contracts, they canceled the old bridge project, making excuses about the bridge’s quality and safety, and started a new one they could control. This process repeated yet again. The first city never completed a bridge, having only the eyesore of three incomplete bridges jutting out partially into the river, only half finished. The townspeople found utility in the unfinished bridges—they used them for social gatherings, for picnics, and for fishing, but they never served the purpose for which they were built, and the meager uses to which they were put could not justify the expense of building them.

In the second city, the wealthy and powerful cared about little beyond their own social standing and wealth. There was less personal corruption among the city’s leaders, but they were controlled by the elite citizens, and the leaders managed the city’s affairs to further the interests of the wealthy and powerful. The wealthy and powerful did not like to think of themselves as being only concerned about their own interests, so they pretended to make shows of their concern for the interests of the poor. But really such shows were just status competitions amongst themselves to prove which of them could appear more concerned and charitable. When it came down to a conflict between charity and their own interests, they always supported the city policies that would promote their interests. They discouraged questioning and independent thinking, and when anyone outside of the elite tried to challenge the leadership of the elite, they would demonize and ostracize that person to neutralize that person’s potential ability to threaten their power and position. None of the elite wanted to have a new road to the river and a bridge built near their homes. They were worried about all the extra traffic on the road, the unsavory characters whom it might bring close to their neighborhoods, and that it might ruin their views of the river. They wanted all of the benefits of the bridge without bearing any of its costs. They were concerned with unimportant minutiae of the bridge’s construction and spent years debating unnecessary and irrelevant details of its construction. Eventually the bridge was built, but on the poor side of town. The bridge had taken so long to build that its design had been changed several times over its construction, and it had become saddled with so many unnecessary elements that it was ugly, and not entirely safe. To make sure that the new road and bridge did not facilitate travel for those they deemed undesirable, the elite imposed a toll on anyone crossing the bridge or using the road. Worse still, the wealthy citizens set up a company owned by themselves that would control and operate the road and bridge. They planned to use the profits from the tolls to pay lavish salaries to themselves and toward the upkeep of their own neighborhoods, rather than for the benefit of all townspeople. But the country on the other side used a different kind of currency than the town, and citizens from the other country were unable to pay the tolls to cross the bridge. Being offended at the wealthy townspeople’s unjust attempts to control access to their country and at being spurned by the wealthy townspeople, the citizens of the country on the other side of the river refused to allow contact between their country and the town, and they closed the bridge at their end. As in the first city, the rich townspeople were still able to find utility in the unfinished bridge, using it as a space for social gatherings, for picnics, and for fishing, but the bridge never served its real purpose and the meager uses to which it was put never justified the expense of building it.

In the third city, the poor did not let their leaders or the wealthy take advantage of them and the wealthy and powerful did not seek to abuse their power for their own gain. The residents of each neighborhood met together often, to foster a sense of community. They banded together to assist one another, to fight injustices, and ensure that wrongdoers were held accountable. They sought for unity not just within neighborhoods, but also between them. The townspeople from all walks of life strove to create friendships one with another and to be a unified people. They kept their leaders accountable and they limited how long anyone could remain in power. Because of all this, there was much less difference between income and wealth of the richest and the poorest citizens. When the townspeople decided to build a bridge, they did not delegate its construction to someone else, but each person volunteered his skills and cooperated in his field of expertise to build it. They built the road and bridge through the middle of town, to give everyone equal access, and to unify the town around the bridge. They cared more about the long-term welfare of their community than about petty concerns. All townspeople contributed their time and money to the bridge’s construction, and it was built quickly and efficiently. When it was done, it was beautiful and became the pride of the town. Access to cross the river was given to all townspeople equally, because they had all contributed what they could to its construction. There was free intercourse between the town and the country on the other side. The wealth to be found on the other side was not money, but a great library full of books teaching knowledge and wisdom. Through the greater knowledge and wisdom that they learned, along with their trade with the other country, the town grew prosperous and its people’s lives became more full of joy and meaning.

The townspeople of the first two towns continued in their ignorance and misery, unaware of the wisdom and joy that was possible. Occasionally, a few residents from the first two towns would learn of the third town’s prosperity and try to move there. The third town welcomed with open arms all those who proved they were willing to become one with the townspeople. All those who adopted its language and customs and worked to build, support, and contribute to the community, were welcomed. These things were required of the newcomers because these things had given the community the strength and unity to build its bridge. The newcomers who proved themselves became great pillars and defenders of the community, and they experience and delighted fully in the wisdom and joy to be found there. All others who came to the town and did not adopt the town’s language and customs, and all those who did not work to build, support, and contribute to the community, were cast out, and permanently forbidden from returning to the town. They were cast out because they were seeking to gain all of the benefits of living in the town, but without paying the necessary costs and undertaking the required responsibilities of becoming a townsperson, and allowing such people to remain would destroy what had made the town great.

Jun 06 2014

Read my new book!

I’ve written a book summarizing my thoughts on life, truth, morality, and religion. About half of the book contains material from this blog (revised, re-written, and greatly improved), while the other half is new material never released before. The book is called The Triple Path. You can download it here (currently available only in PDF format).

Sep 23 2013

Cosmology: Theism?

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Reasoning,religion,scienceJames @ 8:00 am

This post is a follow-up to my previous series on Cosmology, Religion, and Reason. Part one is here. Part two is here. Part three is here.Part four is here. Part five is here. Part six is here. Part seven is here.

Current scientific models give us tremendous insight into how the universe began, how it works, and into the origins of humankind. These models, however, also have significant gaps and cannot explain the root cause of many scientific observations. Why did the Big Bang happen? How and why do the fundamental forces work? How and why do the elementary particles exist? How did consciousness evolve? What is consciousness? We at best have only incomplete answers to these questions.

These gaps and unanswered questions leave room for belief in things that exist beyond the material world. Moreover, the inherent limitations of our senses, our scientific instruments, and our brains leaves open the possibility that there are realities that exist outside the material world with which we are familiar and that we are incapable of perceiving or understanding. But within the realm of our perception and experience, materialism and the scientific method are clearly the superior way of understanding the world. Where claims derived from religious belief and from materialism have clashed, the evidence has almost always overwhelmingly resolved the contradiction against the religious claim. In spite of all of the questions still unanswered by science, the scientific method has time and again conclusively refuted and contradicted many previous cosmological “truths” espoused by the world’s religions. Furthermore, our perceptions, actions, and thoughts all seem to take place in a material world, and no one has provided any credible, conclusive evidence to contradict this.1

Many of the unanswered questions of science are “known unknowns”—they are things that we know we do not know. These known unknowns leave room open for the possibility of belief. But it would be wise to have the epistemological humility to also recognize the possibility of “unknown unknowns”—things that we do not even know that we do not know. Both the strident new atheists and fundamentalist religious believers lack this necessary humility that recognizes the limitations of human knowledge and the possibility of unknown unknowns. The new atheists are more concerned with combating religion and trying to prove their own views right than with finding truth. They lack the wisdom or humility to take into account the known unknowns of science and the possibility of unknown unknowns. They seem incapable of recognizing the possibility that they may be wrong.

On the other side, the certainty espoused by the fervent, dogmatic believers in the major traditional religions does not stand up to a careful examination of their religious claims—from the contradictions in their holy books to the fallibility of the religious feelings that often form the foundation of their belief—their belief is built on a very shaky foundation. If there is a god, he does not seem to communicate in very clear terms. All of the world’s major religions have glaring internal inconsistencies and deviate from our modern superior understandings of how the world works. Believers in different, mutually contradictory belief systems claim the same sorts of spiritual feelings as confirmation of the truth of their beliefs.

So what does this mean? The first possibility is that I am wrong and that there is at least one religion that avoids these problems with consistency, accuracy, and clarity. This would mean that there is a god who communicates clearly with humankind and there exists somewhere a religion or teacher who consistently and accurately understands what god is saying. I think this possibility is unlikely. At least, I have not yet found a religion or religious teacher who shows this to be a possibility. At the other end of the spectrum, the second possibility is that there is no god.

The third possibility is that there is a god, but that we can infer from the lack of any religion that avoids the problems of consistency, accuracy, and clarity that no religious belief system correctly represents the perfect truths of god or describes existence as it really is. This could be because we human beings are not very good at understanding communications from god (and indeed Paul acknowledges this in 1 Corinthians 13:12 (KJV): “For now we see through a glass, darkly”) or because god wants us to figure things our for ourselves and is not going to give us the truth.

Whichever of the three possibilities is right (of course there may be other possibilities I have not yet conceived of; I am always looking for better answers, this is the best I have so far come up with), the rational response is the same: seek wisdom, do good, and labor with hope to make the world better. What does it mean to seek wisdom, do good, and labor with hope? The next three sections of the book go into far more depth on each of these three, but in a nutshell, seeking wisdom means seeking the best, most accurate knowledge and information we have, relying on the scientific method to discover new things, having the epistemic humility to acknowledge the limitations of human knowledge, and having serenity and the depth of emotional maturity to live rightly.

Seeking wisdom means searching for the truth—not just to learn it, but also to figure out how to learn it. It means having the humility to acknowledge human limitations and to accept truth wherever you find it. If there is a true religion or teacher out there that has the truth, then you should seek to find it, and part of seeking wisdom is finding the good aspects from all religions and philosophies. If the reality is that no religion is right and that we humans are not very good at understanding god, you should do what you can to improve your ability to understand him. It is easier to understand those who are similar to you. Seeking wisdom, doing good, and laboring with hope to improve the world will make you more closely approximate the monotheistic god’s omniscience and omnibenevolence, and thus allow you to understand him better. If religions’ problems with consistency, accuracy, and clarity are because god wants us to discover the truth for ourselves or because there is no god, then wisdom is essential to understanding reality and how to live a good life.

Doing good means living morally (I have already talked about it earlier, and discuss it more later on). Laboring with hope is an extension of doing good and means actively working to make the world into a better place for the coming generations. All of the major religions teach that we should behave rightly. If there is a god, we should seek to do his will. If we cannot understand him, or if he wants us to figure things out for ourselves, then having rational, universally applicable moral rules allows us to live how he would like us to live. If there is no god, the premises and reasons for the moral rules we discussed before are still just as valid, and they require that we seek wisdom, do good, and labor with ope. Seeking wisdom, doing good, and laboring with hope to make the world better are the best approaches to finding truth, internalizing it, living morally, and leaving a better world behind after we are gone.


I have discussed three possibilities relative to god’s existence and his relationship to humankind, but I have wrestled for a long time to come to my own conclusion on the issue. I go with with third possibility: there is a god, but we are either not able to understand him very well or he is intentionally withholding communication from us because he wants us to figure things out for ourselves. In arriving at my belief in god, I have two key questions: 1) Does god exist? and 2) Does any religion’s teachings about god accurately describe god? My answer to the first question is yes, god exists. My answer to the second question is no, there is no religion that accurately describes him.

As an empirical question, it is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of god as he is described by the monotheistic faiths (how do you prove or disprove the existence of an invisible, all-powerful, all-knowing being who is present everywhere at once? No one has yet figured out a way to falsify these claims). Further compounding the problem is that every religion’s conception of god, as well as the agnostics’ and atheists’, make many contrasting, unproved, and unprovable assumptions about the nature and the very concept of god. How can we prove the existence of god if our very concept of god is suspect? We cannot meaningfully discuss the question of god’s existence if we do not even have a coherent definition of what god is. Since many different faiths and teachers have put forward contradictory and mutually exclusive purported revelations about god, and because personal feelings are not a trustworthy guide to discerning their truth, the only basis we have for evaluating the truth of any revelation is on the authority of the person making the claim and we therefore have no independent means of determining which claims about god are correct.

Because of these problems, I do not claim to have a good definition of god or to understand who he is. But my theism is still rooted in rationality. Much like William James, my theism is rooted entirely in pragmatic concerns. Just as there is a relationship between well-being and religiosity, there is also a relationship between belief in god and well-being. People who perceive having a close connection to god have lower rates of depression and loneliness and greater rates of self-esteem, self-rated health, and psychological adjustment in response to major life stressors.2 Attachment theorists hypothesize that believers on god can look to him “as a safe haven, a being who offers caring and protection in times of stress” and that this attachment leads believers to “experience greater comfort in stressful situations and greater strength and confidence in everyday life.”3 Indeed, people who “report a closer connection to god experience a number of health-related benefits: less depression and higher self-esteem, less loneliness, greater relational maturity, and greater psychosocial competence.”4 A secure relationship with god is tied to “better self-rated health and better psychological adjustment among people facing a variety of major life stressors.”5 These effects are greater than the effects associated with measures of religiosity or spirituality, and they have not been explained by nonreligious factors.6

People who believed in god who were being treated for depression had greater reductions in depression and self-harm and great improvements in psychological well-being than disbelievers.7 In a 2013 study of ninety-two countries, there was a positive relationship between a person’s happiness (and life satisfaction) and the self-reported level of importance of god in that person’s life, relative to the average level of faith in that person’s country (but the authors found that some of this relationship was explained by a culture’s level of preference for uncertainty avoidance).8 Among stroke victims, spiritual belief was positively correlated with better mental health (but not with better physical health).9

A meta-analysis of studies that examined the relationship between religious involvement and mortality found that greater religious involvement is associated with greater odds of survival.10 People who perceive having a close connection to god have lower rates of depression and loneliness and greater rates of self-esteem, self-rated health, and psychological adjustment in response to major life stressors.11

Based on what we can measure about belief in god, deciding on theism makes the most sense. Observable results show that theists are happier, healthier, and more moral. If the question of god’s existence is fundamentally unprovable, but belief in him brings such positive results, then the rational response (if your goal is to maximize your well-being and moral behavior) is to believe in god. Thus, I choose to believe. But when a religious teaching or claim is internally contradictory, irrational, immoral, or otherwise similarly absurd, then I choose to reject that teaching or claim, or even that teacher, rather than reject belief in god.

My belief in god is a kind of deism. I believe in a god who does not usually actively intervene in the world, he is a being who has set the universe in motion but does not interfere with its natural laws. I believe that he has given (or allowed us to develop) the ability to love and to observe, learn, and reason and to use these things to figure things out for ourselves. Is god personal? impersonal? a physical being? infinite and incomprehensible, existing outside of time and space? Is god the sum total of all that exists in the universe, thus making each of us a part of god? I do not know. I believe in a higher power with whom I can commune and communicate, but who puts me in total control of my actions, who does not act to change the course of my life. I pray to god to express my gratitude and my goals and desires, but I do not pray for miracles. I believe that the outcomes of my life are the result of my actions, natural laws, random chance, and the choices of others, and I believe that bad things happen for the same reasons.

And most importantly, I do not think any less, or any more highly of someone whether that person believes in god or not. The universal inconsistency, inaccuracy, and ambiguity of human institutions and teachers in religion and spiritual matters shows to me that if there is a god, he is not much concerned with whether we believe in him or not or correctly understand him. The most consistent thing we see across the teachings of religions is that we love others and follow the Golden Rule, and from this I believe that this is what god is most concerned with. I am universalist—I believe that most religions have some truth to them, but that none of them have all truth. I believe that god does not care which church you belong to, if you belong to one, or even if you believe in him. I think he cares about whether you are using your capacity for thought and reason to seek wisdom and your capacity to act to do good and work to make the world better. Whether or not you believe in god and whether or not you go to church, so long as you are doing those three things, then I think that god approves of you. On the other hand, based on the benefits of religion and theism, I think it would be rational to try out religion and theism to see what they can do for you, and to see if they help you on your path to wisdom, goodness, and hope.

I admit, my simple belief in god and religion leaves open many questions about life, existence, and the supernatural. Those questions are important, and I do think about them a lot. I have found no good answers, though, nor have I found anyone else who has good answers. The lack of those certain answers, though, is not a reason to reject the good that comes from theism and religion. I think the Buddha’s parable in the Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta is highly relevant:

It is just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends and companions, kinsmen and relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, “I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.” He would say, “I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name and clan name of the man who wounded me . . . until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short. . . until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored. . . until I know his home village, town, or city. . . until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow. . . until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark. . . until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated. . . until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird. . . until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.” He would say, “I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.” The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.12

Our time on this earth is limited. I do not think it makes much sense to reject religion and theism—even if we do not understand what they mean or how they work—if they can help us to act more morally and be healthier and happier. Do not worry so much about first getting the answers to all of life’s questions, there are more important things to focus on first. Instead, worry about removing the arrows of hate, selfishness, hypocrisy, ignorance, foolishness, evil, and despair from your life. The evidence shows that religion and theism can help you do that. And that is good enough.


1Which is not to say that this might not change or that this area is not worthy of further investigation. For example, cases such as those detailed in Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation by psychiatrist Ian Stevenson certainly bear further investigation and research.

2Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament (see footnote Error: Reference source not found), pp. 67-66.

3Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament (see footnote 129), p. 67.

4Same (citations omitted).

5Same at 68.


7David H. Rosmarin, Joseph S. Bigda-Peyton, Sarah J. Kertz, Nasya Smith, Scott L. Rauch, Thröstur Björgvinsson, “A test of faith in God and treatment: The relationship of belief in God to psychiatric treatment outcomes,” Journal of Affective Disorders, Vol. 146, No. 3, pp. 441–446, April 25, 2013,,; see also Timothy B. Smith, Michael E. McCullough , Justin Poll, “Religiousness and Depression: Evidence for a Main Effect and the Moderating Influence of Stressful Life Events ,” Psychological Bulletin , Vol. 129, No. 4, pp. 614 – 636 , 2003,

8Aleksandr Kogan, Joni Sasaki, Christopher Zou, Heejung Kim, and Cecilia Cheng, “Uncertainty avoidance moderates the link between faith and subjective well-being around the world ,” The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2013,,

9Brick Johnstone, Kelly Lora Franklin, Dong Pil Yoon, Joseph Burris, and Cheryl Shigaki, “Relationships Among Religiousness, Spirituality, and Health for Individuals with Stroke ,” Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings , Vol. 15, No. 4, pp 308-313 , December 2008,

10Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament, “Advances in the Conceptualization and Measurement

of Religion and Spirituality : Implications for Physical and Mental Health Research ,” American Psychologist, Vol. 58, No. 1, 6474 at 66, January 2003,,,%20Conceptualization%20of%20spirituality,%20AmPsy,%202003.pdf.

11Same at 67-68.

12Cula Malunkyovada Sutta, The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu,

Sep 20 2013

Cosmology & Reasonable Religion: Worthwhile Religious Practices – Prayer and Meditation

Category: cosmology,Reasoning,religion,scienceJames @ 8:00 am

This post is a follow-up to my previous series on Cosmology, Religion, and Reason. Part one is here. Part two is here. Part three is here.Part four is here. Part five is here. Part six is here.

In my previous posts on cosmology, I talked about practicing resaonable religion. So what does it look like in practice to apply reasonable religion? Let’s apply a reasonable approach to two very common religious behaviors: prayer and meditation. The first step would be to look at the evidence for the efficacy of the behaviors we are looking at. The scientific research shows that prayer has a beneficial effect on the person who prays: it increases gratitude1 and has a strong relationship with hope and adult attachment.2 Praying with and for one’s partner or for a friend increases couple trust and unity.3 Praying for one’s partner also decreases infidelity (both unfaithful acts and thoughts) by increasing the perception that the relationship is sacred.4 In several of these studies, prayer was measured using a questionnaire asking participants a series of three or four simple questions asking participants to rate things such as how frequently they pray or pray for their partner. In one of the studies, a controlled experiment was conducted in which the participants were instructed to pray together and were given a sample non-denominational example prayer as a starting point in which the person praying addressed god and petitioned for help for the friend.5 The benefit to these prayers, however, did not come from benefits to the person being prayed for, but to the strength of the relationship of the two people praying. Studies on intercessory prayers (prayers said with the intent to benefit someone a else) have given inconsistent results, but the evidence so far indicates that such prayers are “neither significantly beneficial nor harmful for those who are sick.”6 Other reviews of the evidence have concluded that there is no effect, or perhaps only a very small effect, for intercessory prayers.7 Praying for another person seems to provide little or no benefit for that person—the collective evidence seems to show that the benefits of prayer come primarily to the person or persons doing the praying. I would like to see randomized controlled, studies that more precisely control the conditions for praying and the type of prayer being said so that we can better understand the effect of different types of prayers and better understand why there is an effect. But for now, the research does indicate that there is some kind of effect that brings personal benefit to the person praying.

Meditation is a prime example (at least to those of us from a western religious tradition) of the good we can find in other religious traditions. Meditation can mean a lot of different things, from following rigid techniques and reciting specific mantras all the way to quietly thinking. My discussion of meditation is limited to the form with which I am most familiar: stilling your thoughts and emptying your mind. The National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine provides an excellent description of what I am talking about:

Meditation refers to a group of techniques, most of which started in Eastern religious or spiritual traditions. In meditation, a person learns to focus his attention and suspend the stream of thoughts that normally occupy the mind. This practice is believed to result in a state of greater physical relaxation, mental calmness, and psychological balance. Practicing meditation can change how a person relates to the flow of emotions and thoughts in the mind.8

Scientific research indicates that this type of “stillness” meditation can have tremendous benefits. Randomized controlled trials into meditation techniques that focus on stilling one’s thoughts and achieving mental silence show significant effects (greater than other common stress management techniques) on work-related stress and depressive feelings.9 Beyond effects on stress and mental health, meditation actually causes physiological changes in practioners’ brains and bodies.10 Meditation improves physical and mental well-being for people suffering from a variety of physical and mental ailments, leading to improvements in measures of not just mental health, but also physical well-being.11 A review of research into the effect of meditation on biological pathways showed that meditation is associated with lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, lower stress hormone levels, and better health outcomes.12 Other related practices are also beneficial: saying rosaries and saying mantras both have a positive effect on cardiovascular health13 and transcendental meditation (involving saying mantras) modestly reduces blood pressure.14 Indeed, more generically, just cultivating sacred moments has positive effects on subjective well-being, psychological well-being, and on stress reduction.15

The research seems to indicate that prayer and meditation have real beneficial effects on mental, physical, and relationship. Why? How? We do not know exactly. The small or nonexistent effect of prayer on third parties seems to discount (but not entirely foreclose) a likely supernatural explanation. It is very possible that given enough time, we will be able to find entirely materialistic, physical explanations for how these behaviors cause the measured benefits (and once we understand the causal mechanism, hopefully we can learn how to improve our prayer and meditation techniques to maximize their benefit). But regardless of the exact mechanism of action for prayer and meditation, and regardless of whether the mechanism of action is natural or supernatural, the fact is that the research shows they work. Given how easy and simple it is to practice prayer and meditation, it makes sense to try them out—to learn how to effectively pray and meditate and regularly do so to see if they bring the same types of personal benefits that have been found in studies of large groups. I have not yet found good research that can provide guidance on the optimal method for prayer—the studies I have found generally allowed participants to define the meaning of prayer for themselves, or encouraged them to use a generic non-denominational prayer addressed to god. It thus appears that until we have better data, using generic commonly-used methods of prayer are best.

The basic form of prayer that I was taught was to first thank god for the good things in my life and then to ask him for the things I wanted or needed. I still follow that formula, but with a few changes. I lack confidence that prayer has any efficacy to change anything in the world outside my mind. I do not believe that prayer has the power to invoke divine intervention, but I still pray to god. I now use prayer as a way of focusing my mind on those things that I am grateful for and to express my hopes and desires, but without any belief that the mere act of praying will do anything to bring them about. Articulating those things in a formalized, sacralized way has helped me to be more grateful for the good things in my life and to focus my time and attention on achieving the things that are of highest priority. These prayers have helped me feel more spiritual feelings such as elevation, gratitude, awe, and a resolve to do better. They have helped me feel better, and be better. Whether there is any supernatural component to prayer, these things are enough justification for me to make prayer worthwhile.

I am no expert in meditation, but I have found a technique that works for me. I find a quiet place where I can sit comfortably. I close my eyes, take deep breaths, and clear my mind of thoughts. I also use some visualizations that I learned at a meditation class to help me clear my thoughts. As I have gained more practice in meditation, I find I need to use the visualizations less frequently—I can just sit and start to breath deeply and gradually switch my mind over into “meditation mode.” The most effective visualization I found (and that I still often use) is to imagine that my mind is a stormy sea and that my thoughts are violent stormy waves undulating across my mind. Then I imagine the sun rising over the sea of my mind, gradually burning off the storm clouds, slowing and stilling the winds. I think about the waves of thoughts in my mind slowly weakening and subsiding. I continue to breath deeply and imagine my mind as being the glassy smooth surface of a perfectly calm sea. Other times, instead of the sea visualization, or together with it, I recite in my mind a simple mantra as I breath in and out—usually I will think the word “stillness” as I breath in and then think the word “peace” as I breath out. Whatever method I use, once my thoughts have been stilled, I continue to breath deeply and enjoy the serenity of a still mind, I imagine a window in my heart opening and drawing in heat and love, and this induces a feeling of elevation to add to the serenity. Like I said, I am no expert in meditation, but this technique has worked well for me. I would recommend taking a class on meditation to get some ideas on practice and to find something that works for you.

Just because a religious practice is common does not by itself mean that this practice is optimal or worth following. Path dependency can mean that useless or harmful religious practices become widespread because they are part of a “religious package” that a large number of people have come to accept, perhaps because other aspects of the religion do bring real benefits, or because the religion has become widespread because macro socio-political forces or even because of random chance. But at least some, if not many, widespread religious practices are followed because they bring real benefit. It is worth learning about and examining the religious practices of others to evaluate whether those practices are worth following. In the case of prayer and meditation, the evidence shows that they are worth adopting.


1Nathaniel Lambert, Frank Fincham, Scott Braithwaite, Steven Graham, and Steven Beach, “Can Prayer Increase Gratitude?” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 139–149, August 2009,

2Peter Jankowski and Steven Sandage, “Meditative Prayer, Hope, Adult Attachment, and Forgiveness: A Proposed Model,” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 115–131, May 2011,

3Nathaniel Lambert, Frank Fincham, Dana LaVallee,and Cicely Brantley, “Praying Together and Staying Together: Couple Prayer and Trust,” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 1-9, 2012,

4Frank Fincham, Nathaniel Lambert, and Steven Beach, “Faith and Unfaithfulness: Can Praying for Your Partner Reduce Infidelity?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 99, No. 4, pp. 649–659, October 2011,

5Nathaniel Lambert, et. al. “Praying Together and Staying Together: Couple Prayer and Trust,” at p. 5.

6L. Roberts, I. Ahmed, S. Hall, A. Davison, “Intercessory Prayer for the alleviation of ill health,” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, November 9, 2011, (“[I]t is only possible to state that intercessory prayer is neither significantly beneficial nor harmful for those who are sick. Further studies which are better designed and reported would be necessary to draw firmer conclusions. . . . [A]lthough some of the results of individual studies suggest a positive effect of intercessory prayer, the majority do not and the evidence does not support a recommendation either in favour or against the use of intercessory prayer.”)

7David R. Hodge, “A Systematic Review of the Empirical Literature on Intercessory Prayer,” Research on Social Work Practice, Vol. 17, No. 2, pp. 174-187, March 2007,,; K. Masters, G. Spielmans, and J. Goodson “Are there demonstrable effects of distant intercessory prayer? A meta-analytic review,” Annals of Behavioral Medicine Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 21-26, August 2006,; but see Randolph C. Byrd, “Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population,” Southern Medical Journal, Vol. 81, No. 7, pp. 826-9, July 1988,, (Hodge discounts Byrd’s results because only 6 of the 26 measured problem conditions had positive results, raising the strong possibility that Byrd’s results were false positives) and William S. Harris, Manohar Gowda, Jerry W. Kolb, Christopher P. Strychacz, James L. Vacek, Philip G. Jones, Alan Forker, James H. O’Keefe, Ben D. McCallister, “A Randomized, Controlled Trial of the Effects of Remote, Intercessory Prayer on Outcomes in Patients Admitted to the Coronary Care Unit,” Archives of Internal Medicine, Vol. 159, No. 19, pp. 2273-2279, October 25, 1999.,

8National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine, “Terms Related to Complementary and Alternative Medicine,” (accessed May 12, 2013).

9Ramesh Manocha “Meditation, mindfulness and mind-emptiness,” Acta Neuropsychiatrica. Vol. 23, No. 1, pp. 46-47, Feb. 2011,; see also Ramesh Manocha, D. Black, and J. Sarris, “A Randomized, Controlled Trial of Meditation for Work Stress, Anxiety and Depressed Mood in Full-Time Workers ,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Vol. 2011, June 2011,,,%20Controlled%20Trial%20ofMeditation%20forWork%20Stress,%20Anxiety%20and%20DepressedMood%20in%20Full-TimeWorkers.pdf

10B. Rael Cahn and John Polich, “Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies,” Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 132, No. 2 pp. 180-211, March 2006,

11Paul Grossman, Ludger Niemann, Stefan Schmidt, and Harald Walach, “Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits A meta-analysis,” Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Vol. 57, No. 1, pp. 35 – 43 , July 2004,,

12Teresa E. Seeman, Linda Fagan Dubin, and Melvin Seeman, “Religiosity/Spirituality and Health: A Critical Review of the Evidence for Biological Pathways ,” American Psychologist, Vol. 58, No. 1, 53-63, January 2003,,,%20Religiosity-health,%20bio%20pathways,%20AmPsy,%202003.pdf.

13Luciano Bernardi, Peter Sleight, Gabriele Bandinelli, Simone Cencetti, Lamberto Fattorini, Johanna Wdowczyc-Szulc, and Alfonso Lagi, “Effect of rosary prayer and yoga mantras on autonomic cardiovascular rhythms: comparative study,” BMJ, Vol. 323, No. 7327, pp. 1446-1449, 22 December 2001, and

14Robert D. Brook, Lawrence J. Appel, Melvyn Rubenfire, Gbenga Ogedegbe, John D. Bisognano, William J. Elliott, Flavio D. Fuchs, Joel W. Hughes, Daniel T. Lackland, Beth A. Staffileno, Raymond R. Townsend, and Sanjay Rajagopalan, “Beyond Medications and Diet: Alternative Approaches to Lowering Blood Pressure : A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association,” Hypertension, vol. 61, No. 6, p. 1360-1383, June 2013,,

15Elisha David Goldstein, “Sacred Moments: Implications on Well-Being and Stress ,” Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol. 63, No. 10, pp. 1001-1019, 2007,

Sep 17 2013

Cosmology: The Benefits of Religion

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Reasoning,religion,scienceJames @ 5:15 pm

This post is a follow-up to my previous five-part series on Cosmology, Religion, and Reason. Part one is here. Part two is here. Part three is here.Part four is here. Part five is here.

In part five of my previous series on cosmology, I talked about some of the potential evolutionary explanations for the development of religion. Many of these evolutionary explanations are compelling, and it is likely that a combination of some or all of them may be right. But whatever the reasons for the evolution of religion, it is clear that religion offers practical, observable benefits to adherents, such as “improved health, survivorship, economic opportunities, sense of community, psychological well-being, assistance during crises, mating opportunities, and fertility.”1 There is a large body of research showing a strong relationship between religiosity and a variety of positive outcomes.

Religiosity has a positive relationship with good physical health. Regular church attendance is associated with a twenty-five percent decrease in risk of mortality, even after accounting for confounding variables; religiosity and spirituality is also associated with decreased risk of cardiovascular disease (but religiosity does not appear to help with cancer or to help recovery from acute illness).2 Religiosity and spirituality are associated with lower blood pressure and better immune function.3 Another study of elderly patients found a positive relationship between physical health (although the effects on mental health were greater) and religiosity and that non-religious and non-spiritual patients had worse health and higher morbidity.4 A meta-analysis of studies that examined the relationship between religious involvement and mortality found that greater religious involvement is associated with greater odds of survival.5 Another study concluded that a 20 year old who frequently attends church has a life expectancy of 83 years, whereas a 20 year old who does not attend church has a life expectancy of 75 years. This increased life expectancy appears to be caused by selection effects—unhealthy people are less likely to attend church—and also by increasing social ties and behavioral factors that decrease the risk of death.6 In studies examining the relationship between religion and health, “salutary effects of religious involvement persist despite an impressive array of statistical controls for social ties, health behaviors, and sociodemographic variables.”7

Religion also has a positive relationship with mental health. [S]ystematic reviews of the research literature over the years have consistently reported that aspects of religious involvement are associated with desirable mental health outcomes.”8 Church attendance is indirectly related to improved physical health (through associated decreased substance abuse and increased mood) and directly increases subjective well-being.9 Higher religiousity and spirituality among elderly patients was positively associated with fewer depressive symptoms and better cognitive function.10 When people were asked what they were striving for in their lives, people with a larger number of spiritual goals had greater purpose in life, life satisfaction, and levels of well-being.11 People with a more intrinsic religious orientation have better mental health, self-esteem, meaning in life, family relationships, and a feeling of well-being; they have lower levels of alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and sexual promiscuity.12 Weekly church attendance has about the same significant positive effect on happiness as being married.13

Most of the above studies were conducted in the United States. Critics might point out that American culture is more religious than other developed nations and that the negative comparative effects of irreligion may come from the stress of being part of a minority group. Studies involving international samples, however, contradict this assumption. One study found that religiosity in the United States, Denmark, and Netherlands were all weakly associated with happiness (although the correlations in Europe were not statistically significant).14 A study of a representative sample of elderly adults in the Netherlands showed that even after adjusting for physical health, social support, alcohol use, and demographic variables, there was a consistent relationship between lower depression and regular church attendance.15 Using data from seventy countries from the World Values Survey, a person’s self-definition of being “a religious person” (versus being not religious or atheist) was positively associated with subjective personal life satisfaction. Membership in a country’s dominant religion had no effect on the relationship with life satisfaction, nor did a person’s membership in a minority religion. In other words the relationship did not seem to depend on whether a person was a member of the majority or minority religion, but on whether a person was religious.16 This relationship has apparently held across countries for several decades—in 1990 a study of sixteen countries found that the relationship between church attendance and a person’s happiness and life satisfaction “is not a uniquely American finding, but a general pattern that holds true” across the industrialized world, including in Europe, Canada, and Japan. As a whole in the countries examined, eight percentage points more of the people who attended church once a week were satisfied with their lives and nine percentage points more of those people were happy.17

Like all social science research, this research on the effects of religiosity will never be as conclusive as research in hard sciences such as physics and chemistry. Human beings are complicated, and it can be difficult to set up the regressions equations correctly and create an adequate model to take into account all of the relevant variables. In studies where we look at population-level data, it can be difficult to infer causality. It is difficult, and often impossible, to set up double-blind studies, or even studies with control populations, to let us analyze the effects of the independent variable we would like to study. One clever study, though, uses a natural experiment from the 1960s and 1970s in the United States that led to decreased church attendance. Many U.S. states used to have “blue laws” that prohibited commercial activity, such as retail, entertainment, and sports activities on Sunday. Blue laws were repealed throughout the 1960s and 1970s, often in response to court challenges (and thus not, apparently, because of declining religiosity among the population). These conditions allowed for a natural experiment to compare the behavior and happiness of people before and after the repeal of such blue laws. The repeal of state blue laws led to a decrease in church attendnace among white women (but not men). This decrease in church attendance was associated with a very significant and substantial negative effect on happiness in white women (but not men—the authors conclude that decreased church attendance explains much of the decrease in happiness that women have experienced, relative to men, since 1973).18 This research provides a strong indication that religiosity causes well-being, and not that happy people also tend to be religious.

What is responsible for the relationship between religion and well-being? Religion does not appear to have much of an effect on the “Big Five” major personality traits that psychologists use to describe human personalities (the Big Five traits are agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and openness). Religion does, however, seem to have “rather profound effects on midlevel personality functions such as values, goals, attitudes, and behaviors, as well as on the more self-defining personality functions of life meaning and personal identity.”19 Religion can provide hope and optimism, which in turn increases a person’s well-being.20 We invest more care and attention into parts of our lives that we view as sacred, and those sacred aspects of our lives give greater life satisfaction and meaning. Religion serves as an orienting, motivating force that provides coping mechanisms (such as meditation and religious rituals) to adherents.21 Some scholars have concluded that the many of religion’s benefits come because it helps “solve significant communication problems inherent in human life.”22 Religions provide social support, companionship, and a sense of community.23 Indeed, the social aspects of religion appear to have the greatest relationship with happiness (both in the more-religious United States and in secular Europe).24 Social support from religion often leads to greater self-esteem and a sense of intrinsic self-worth among adherents and to a continuous support network from birth to death.25 Religious support, however, seems to offer something greater than mundane social support—religious support has a strong relationship with psychological adjustment even after controlling for general social support.26 It is likely that part of the health benefits associated with religion come from religion’s encouragement of healthy behaviors–people who attend church more often also tend have other characteristics that are associated with lower risk of dying, such as more physical activity, more social interactions, and being married.27 These additional healthy behaviors do not explain all of the benefit, however, because a twenty-five percent reduction in risk of death still remains among churchgoers even after accounting for these other behaviors that are related to health.28 This additional effect of religion appears in samples outside the United State as well: increased Church attendance was found to be associated with lower depression even after accounting for other explanatory variables.29

Of course, religion is not all good. Religion can be a source of conflict and struggle. It can be hard to deal with a shattered worldview when you discover the religion you were raised in is not true. It is difficult to handle doubts about god’s existence after a tragedy or after discovering the logical fallacies and inconsistencies of the world’s theistic religions. Personal conflict with other members of your religious community can lead to social isolation and loneliness. Such religious struggles—whether they be internal struggles about your values, behaviors, and feelings; struggles with god and his existence; or even interpersonal struggles in a religious context—represent “a crucial fork in the road for many people, one that can lead in the direction of growth or to significant health problems.”30

Religious and spiritual struggles are associated with negative physical and psychological health, such as “anxiety, depression, negative mood, poorer quality of life, panic disorder, . . . suicidality. . . . declines in physical recovery in medical rehabilitation patients, longer hospital stays, and greater risk of mortality following a medical illness.”31 On the other hand, religious and spiritual struggles are also associated with “positive outcomes, such as stress-related growth, spiritual growth, open-mindedness, self-actualization, and lower levels of prejudice.. . . How well the individual is able to resolve these struggles may hold the key to which road is taken.”32 Reasonable religion means adopting a more mature, intelligent approach to religion to minimize the likelihood of having religious struggles and to develop the intellectual and emotional tools to work through struggles. After all, in spite of the potential pitfalls, in general religion is a very beneficial force in most people’s lives.


1Richard Sosis and Candace Alcorta, “Signaling, solidarity, and the sacred: the evolution of religious behavior,” Evolutionary Anthropology Vol. 12, No. 6, pp. 264, 2003, Nov. 2003, http://dx.doi.org10.1002%2Fevan.10120,

2Lynda H. Powell, Leila Shahabi, and Carl E. Thoresen, “Religion and spirituality: Linkages to physical health,” American Psychologist, Vol. 58, No. 1, pp. 36-52, January 2003,,,%20Religion,%20spirituality,%20health,%20AmPsy,%202003.pdf.

3Teresa E. Seeman, Linda Fagan Dubin, and Melvin Seeman, “Religiosity/Spirituality and Health : A Critical Review of the Evidence for Biological Pathways ,” American Psychologist, Vol. 58, No. 1, 53-63, January 2003,,,%20Religiosity-health,%20bio%20pathways,%20AmPsy,%202003.pdf.

4Harold G. Koenig, Linda K. George, Patricia Titus, “Religion, spirituality, and health in medically ill hospitalized older patients.” Journal of the American Geriatric Society, Vol. 52, No. 4, pp. 554-62, April 2004,,

5Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament, “Advances in the Conceptualization and Measurement of Religion and Spirituality: Implications for Physical and Mental Health Research ,” American Psychologist, Vol. 58, No. 1, 6474 at 66, January 2003,,,%20Conceptualization%20of%20spirituality,%20AmPsy,%202003.pdf.

6Robert A. Hummer, Richard G. Rogers, Charles B. Nam, and Christopher G. Ellison, “Religious involvement and U.S. adult mortality,” Demography, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 273-285, 1999,

7Christopher G. Ellison and Jeffrey S. Levin, “The Religion-Health Connection: Evidence, Theory, and Future Directions ,” Health Education & Behavior, Vol. 25, No. 6, pp. 700-720 at 702, December 1998,,


9Laura B. Koenig and George E. Vaillant, “A prospective study of church attendance and health over the lifespan,” Health Psychology, Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 117-24, January 2009,

10Harold G. Koenig, Linda K. George, and Patricia Titus, “Religion, spirituality, and health in medically ill hospitalized older patients.” Journal of the American Geriatric Society, Vol. 52, No. 4, pp. 554-62, April 2004,,

11Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament, “Advances in the Conceptualization and Measurement of Religion and Spirituality: Implications for Physical and Mental Health Research ,” American Psychologist, Vol. 58, No. 1, 64-74 at 68, January 2003,,,%20Conceptualization%20of%20spirituality,%20AmPsy,%202003.pdf.

12Same at 68.

13Danny Cohen-Zada and William Sander, “Religious Participation versus Shopping: What Makes People Happier?” Journal of Law and Economics., Vol. 54, No. 4, pp. 889-906, 2011,,

14Liesbeth Snoep, “Religiousness and happiness in three nations: a research note,” Journal of Happiness Studies, Vol. 9, pp. 207-211, 2008,

15Arjan W. Braam, Erik Hein, Dorly J. H. Deeg, Jos W. R. Twisk, Aartjan T. F. Beekman, and Willem Van, “Religious involvement and 6-year course of depressive symptoms in older Dutch citizens: results from the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam,” Journal of Aging and Health, Vol. 16, No. 4, pp. 467-89, 2004,,

16Marta Elliott and R. David Hayward, “Religion and Life Satisfaction Worldwide: The Role of Government Regulation,” Sociology of Religion, Vol. 70, No. 3, pp. 285-310, 2009, .

17Ronald Inglehart, Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society, 1990. pp. 227-29.

18Danny Cohen-Zada and William Sander (see footnote 13).

19Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament (see footnote 11), p. 71.

20Christopher G. Ellison and Jeffrey S. Levin (see footnote 7), p. 708-9.

21Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament (see footnote 11), p. 68; see also Christopher G. Ellison and Jeffrey S. Levin (see footnote 7), p. 707-8.

22Richard Sosis and Candace Alcorta (see , footnote 1 p. 264.

23Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament (see footnote 11), p. 69; Christopher G. Ellison and Jeffrey S. Levin (see footnote 7), p. 705-7.

24Liesbeth Snoep (see footnote 14), p. 209-10,

25Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament (see footnote 11), p. 69; Christopher G. Ellison and Jeffrey S. Levin (see footnote 7), p. 705-7.

26Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament (see footnote 11), p. 69;

27Lynda H. Powell , Leila Shahabi, and Carl E. Thoresen (see footnote 2), p. 41; see also Christopher G. Ellison and Jeffrey S. Levin (see footnote 7), p. 704 and Laura B. Koenig and George E. Vaillant (see footnote 11).

28Lynda H. Powell, Leila Shahabi, and Carl E. Thoresen (see footnote 11), p. 41.

29Arjan W. Braam, Erik Hein, Dorly J. H. Deeg, Jos W. R. Twisk, Aartjan T. F. Beekman, and Willem Van (see footnote 15).

30Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament, “Advances in the Conceptualization and Measurement

of Religion and Spirituality : Implications for Physical and Mental Health Research ,” American Psychologist, Vol. 58, No. 1, 6474 at 70, January 2003,,,%20Conceptualization%20of%20spirituality,%20AmPsy,%202003.pdf.

31Same (internal citations omitted); see also Kenneth I. Pargament, Harold G. Koenig, Nalini Tarakeshwar, June Hahn, “Religious Struggle as a Predictor of Mortality Among Medically Ill Elderly Patients,” Archives of Internal Medicine, Vol. 161, No. 15, pp. 1881-5, 2001,

32Same (internal citations omitted).

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