Religion’s necessity and relevance is up for grabs more than ever with the religiously unaffiliated (“nones”) now the second largest religious demographic in North America. According to National Geographic, U.S. nones have overtaken Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants and followers of non-Christian faiths over the past decade. This has had a major impact on how people see the world and live their lives.
But all is not lost.
Several recent studies have cited the benefits of living a religious life, including one from the Pew Research Center that said 40 percent of religious U.S. adults say they are “very happy,” compared to 29 percent who are less or not religious.
How can religion and happiness be connected, what are the benefits of living a religious life and what influence does it have on people? With more people saying “no thanks” to religion, Living Lutheran took a look at the potential benefits for those who have kept the faith.
While the relationship between well-being and religion is dependent on how religious experience is understood, Thomas S. Taylor, an ELCA pastor and certified psychoanalyst and clinical social worker with the Lutheran Counseling Center on Long Island, said positive correlations between the two are “no accident.”
“Think about it,” he said. “How many other social groups and institutions are involved in someone’s life from cradle to grave? For many, religious experience is unique, maybe with the exception of family, among social institutions and groups in having the potential for a lifelong involvement and influence.”
Taylor said those who are introduced to religion at a young age start to build faith at a key developmental phase—often when they are at the peak of seeing their parents as all-knowing and caring. This creates a space for idealized authority and caregivers.
“This early childhood foundation of believing in an idealized and gracious caregiver—God—stays with us as an anchor throughout our lifespan,” he said. “But as our faith life develops, it expands in our realization that just because I’m a person of faith, I am not immune to bad things happening to me and my loved ones.”
Taylor said recognizing that reality can determine if someone continues to mature in their faith life. “When religion is seen as a key element to health and sustained happiness throughout life, it’s because it isn’t a static type of faith life, but one that is in flux, adapting and expanding to integrate the slings and arrows life offers.”
Tori Saunders, a member of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, knows firsthand about having a faith in flux. Before her son’s birth, Saunders and her husband struggled for seven years to get pregnant. The situation was painful and challenged their marriage, but their faith kept them strong.
“Throughout my struggles to get pregnant, I never stopped praying to receive a child in God’s time and in [God’s] way,” Saunders said. “When I found out I was pregnant, the struggles made me appreciate what a blessing I truly have been given with my son. But the years of struggling to get pregnant caused a slow breakdown of communication and affection between myself and my husband.”
The couple found a Christian counselor to help them work on their marriage, Saunders said, and they started a daily devotional so “God was part of our individual healing, as well as healing our marriage.” She credits her faith and the power of prayer for helping them strengthen their marriage and find themselves in a good place with a healthy toddler.
“It surprised both of us that by asking God to take the lead in healing our marriage and rebuilding trust how quickly strides were made in both areas,” Saunders said. “Without prayer and faith in God being there and directing our steps, we would be a long way from where we are now.”
Power of prayer
Saunders isn’t alone in exalting the practice of prayer, as the Pew Research Center reports that 55 percent of Americans pray every day. Prayer is so prevalent in the U.S. that the government has recognized a national day of prayer since 1952.
Taylor said prayer and other practices that accompany living a religious life can have positive benefits for one’s mental health. This is good news for people who already incorporate prayer into their everyday life.
“There are many spiritual practices, such as prayer, meditation and mindfulness, that nurture our ability to better redirect our energy outside of ourselves,” Taylor said. “When any of us become depressed or anxious, we tend to withdraw and become preoccupied with ourselves and default to survival mode. Directing our preoccupied energy outward interrupts depression’s downward spiral and anxiety’s escalation.”
Kevin Massey, vice president for mission and spiritual care at Advocate Health Care, Chicago, has witnessed the power prayer has for hospitalized patients. “People request prayer perhaps more than any other single thing,” he said. “It’s a verbal presence of God that helps them cope with their situation. People feel God’s presence closer when they’ve had the ability to hear and experience prayer.”
People of faith can also have a foundation and perspective beyond themselves that can provide comfort, strength and peace during times of crisis. Taylor said the identities of people of faith are grounded in teachings and understandings of Scripture and mission in the world.
“For Lutherans, this is based on our baptismal proclamation that we are ‘reborn children of God, made members of the church, the body of Christ,’” he said. “Remembering who and whose we are, especially when we find ourselves lost, confused or uncertain in our daily life, can be a key guidepost to navigating through life’s twisty pathways.”
Christians commit to believing in a presence that is neither material nor observable. This practice and acceptance of believing in something that can’t be seen can make people of faith well-equipped to cope with challenges because they can imagine a future beyond a crisis.
“The active component in faith that supports coping in a difficult time is the capacity of faith to kindle hope,” Massey said. “Hope is an anchor that you can throw into the future and faith is the chain on the anchor you can use to pull yourself toward the future.
“People who lack faith might lack [the understanding that the] future can hold promise. The present moment is only the present moment. The God who lives in the present also lives in our future and faith, therefore, can be a bridge to a future and enhances the ability to cope.”
Community of faith
Sometimes what benefits someone most from living a religious life is the connection to a faith community.
“In mental health we see that there are imbalances that are present in the neurology of a person, but what seems unique is that being part of a community can transform that neurology,” Massey said. “When one is part of a community, the particular senses of satisfaction and belonging, the experience of emotions can attest itself in physical ways.”
In addition to offering socialization and a sense of belonging, faith communities are characteristically known as sanctuaries of support, and this is likely most exemplified during times of crisis. Massey, who has served as a parish pastor and chaplain, said people often seek out spiritual support when they are hospitalized. While health-care chaplains play an important role for people who lack a faith community, he said a visit from someone’s congregation is superior.
Anita Marth, a member of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, Granite Bay, Calif., sustained life-threatening injuries in a small airplane crash in 2015. She doesn’t know where she and her family would be today without the support of their faith and church community.
“I have witnessed faith in action within and through the members of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection,” she said. “They showered us with prayers, cards, phone calls, visits, hugs, and offers of meals and support. I know my recovery was made possible by the love and prayers poured out to us.”
In March, Marth was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent surgery and has several months of chemotherapy and weeks of radiation treatment ahead of her. Again, she quickly credits her faith for helping her stay strong.
“My faith has remained growing and centered on Jesus Christ, my savior,” she said. “My faith family has rallied around my family and me once again. I am known affectionately as ‘God’s miracle.’ During my hospital stay and the cancer diagnosis, I have literally been carried by the power of healing prayer and can attest to God’s abundant grace through faith. I know God has a remarkable purpose for me.”
While there is no guarantee that a secular community that meets regularly wouldn’t have the same socialization benefits that a faith family provides, Taylor thinks religious communities have a “head start,” so to speak, because they have traditions and practices that have been passed down from generation to generation.
“Our communities of faith have centuries of practice offering support,” he said. “Crystallized in the Sermon on the Mount, Christianity’s tradition places charity and the care of widows, orphans, the sick, the imprisoned and the poor at the center of our faith’s action in the world. Our communities of faith have, as a tradition and out of conviction, committed ourselves to being specialists in providing support to those in need.”
So what is religion good for? While that answer varies depending on one’s religious tradition and experiences, the more one’s faith life develops and adapts, the more possibility it has to enhance someone’s health and contribute to sustained happiness throughout life.
Can singing hymns be good for your heart?
Researchers at the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden found that choral music has a calming effect on the heart—especially when sung in unison, according to a National Public Radio (NPR) article. Their research was based on a study of high school choir members’ heart rates.
“When you sing the phrases, it is a form of guided breathing,” Bjorn Vickhoff, a musicologist who led the research project, told NPR. “When you exhale, the heart slows down. The members of the choir synchronize externally with the melody and the rhythm, and now we see it has an internal counterpart.”
With music and singing being an important shared experience in religious cultures, this study could explain the calming effect singing favorite hymns in church can contrive in people of faith.
“Singing one’s faith [has been] an important part of being Lutheran from the very beginning,” said Scott Weidler, ELCA program director for worship. “The ELCA Principles for Worship says, ‘In the church, the primary musical instrument is the human voice, given by God to sing and proclaim the word of God.’ Our tradition recognizes that even if it isn’t perfect, there is something really important in congregations coming together to sing.”