The Psychological Benefits of Religion

Let’s put aside, for the moment, the question of whether the Torah is true. Does it work?

Okay, full disclosure: I am a rabbi, and my understanding of the world may slant my perspective on whether keeping kosher or observing Shabbat will improve your life. But I was surprised to find that I am in good company with behavioral economists, psychologists, researchers and historians. Rather than questioning the veracity of religious claims, they are now asking if subscribing to religious beliefs is beneficial to one’s happiness and to the stability of society as a whole. For many academics and scientists, even self-described atheists, the answer has been overwhelmingly, “yes!”

Let’s take the psychologist Ernest Becker, who wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death that mankind’s most essential psychological fixation is to grapple with its mortality. Our awareness of death creates our most basic terror: the finitude, and therefore insignificance, of our lives. The most potent antidote, he claims, is religion, which affirms our ability to transcend our numbered days on this earth, thereby giving an objective meaning to what we do whilst alive.

In a similar but more cynical vein, famous historian, writer, and atheist Yuval Noah Harari also finds usefulness in religion. In an article describing the challenges of the future, he writes that with robots replacing humans as the working class, people will struggle to fill their lives with purpose. The answer, he writes, is to create games for ourselves. On a simple level it could be someone who takes his Call of Duty very seriously. But on a much more complex level, he describes religion as the world’s oldest game - a series of “imaginary” laws through which you must score enough points to “win.” Despite his somewhat mocking tone, Harari seems to admit that religion is one of the best ways to have a psychologically healthy life.

But enough speculation. What about research? Enter Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, where he magnificently outlines the process of creating and undoing any and all habits, be they positive or negative. In a specific chapter on substance addiction, he observes an unexplainable phenomenon that crops up repeatedly in different studies. In order to break the ironclad habit of any addiction, one of the essential ingredients in the recipe is…belief in a higher power. The most notable example of this is the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous model in which steps 2, 3, 5, 6, and 11 all make explicit reference to God or a similar all-powerful Being who can imbue us with the power to change.

Then there are the fascinating experiments of behavioral economist Dan Ariely, who performed a particular study involving test-taking in university students. He found that a consistent percentage of students who were asked to grade their own papers would cheat to some degree by giving themselves a higher score than they actually deserved. Then he threw in a spanner: he had the next group of students simply read the Ten Commandments before taking the test. In the ensuing groups the percentage of those who cheated came close to zero, and those who did cheat, cheated less. Makes you think, no?

Let’s get more specific. What about Judaism as opposed to other religions? Well Martin Seligman has an answer to that. Seligman, the founder of positive psychology and former president of the American Psychology Association, explains in his book Learned Optimism that being optimistic may be the most important trait a person can have. Not only does it predict one’s personal success, but he found that optimistic speech is the greatest predictor of which politician will win an election. He also found a strong correlation between the levels of optimism found in religious liturgy, and its ability to survive. Under 19th century oppressive Russian rule, religious Jews took fate into their own hands and emigrated, while the equally-persecuted Russian Orthodox Christians remained under unbearable conditions. Comparing the prayer books of the two religions, Seligman found that Jewish liturgy is systematically more hopeful and optimistic than the Russian Orthodox counterpart, and hypothesised that the tone of the religion has helped Jews to remain afloat through years of persecution.

In March of 2011, the New York Times covered a Gallup poll of 1,000 randomly selected Americans who were asked a range of questions about their quality of life, in an attempt to find common factors that could determine which types of people were generally happier. The results came back. The happiest person in America was a composite of the following traits: male, of Asian descent, in his sixties, tall, owned his own business and made at least $120,000 per year, lived in Hawaii, and, you guessed it, was an orthodox Jew. (Even more stunning than the results is that the Times then tracked down a real live person named Alvin Wong, a Chinese convert living in Hawaii who actually fit that description.)

As an observant Jew I might be inclined to disregard the scientific literature on the efficacy of Judaism. If it’s true, one could argue, then who cares if it works? But our tradition teaches otherwise. In the foundational 11th century work, The Kuzari, Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi emphasises that Judaism is not a purely doctrinal religion, and the Jewish God is not understood merely by divine text. Rather, He is the God of history, the God of our ancestors, who took us out of Egypt. Our religion is accessed not just through information, but through personal experience. It should be important to us that the Torah has a track record of being effective. One can be a non-believer and still derive much benefit from Judaism. But those who do believe, may find that the latest research reminds us that our Higher Power is still very much helping us out.

- January 15th 2019

About the Author

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Rabbi Moshe Friedman (Rav Mo) Rabbi Moshe Friedman grew up in Manhattan, New York, and received his B.A. in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at the University of Pennsylvania. He studied Jewish Thought and Talmudic Law for ten years in Israel, including several years at the Mir Yeshiva, and has passed rabbinic ordination examinations from the Israeli Rabbinate. Rabbi Friedman has been a regular lecturer at Machon Yaakov Yeshiva in Jerusalem and on numerous learning-based Israel trips. In 2017, he moved to London with his wife and children to take up the role of FJL UK Liaison, a role which includes regular campus visits and London based educational programmes. Moshe is currently the rabbi for Aish on Campus in Bristol University. Known also by his stage name "Rav Mo", Moshe is a rapper and spoken word artist and has produced music videos with international acclaim. 

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