Feb 15, 2012 | By

The Science of Willpower – the Power of Religion?

I have recently come across several pieces from scientists skeptical of religion suggesting that they are coming to see significant benefits to both individuals and society of religion. Religious people tend to have higher self control, they are more trusting, and they are happier, than people who are not religious. So, is this benefit the gift of a divine being, or is it an emergent property of a non-conscious evolutionary selection process?

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney (Penguin Press 2011), is a wonderful new book that weaves dramatic stories of human achievement with the latest scientific discoveries about the origins and implications of human self-control. What I found most fascinating was the review of the last two decades of psychological research on what motivates humans and what makes people successful. From child-rearing to dieting to addiction to human accomplishment, the science lays bare the fallacies with which most of of us have been living. One key finding: While positive self-esteem is tightly linked with success, it is not the cause, but the consequence; specifically, self-esteem is the consequence over time of the exercise of self-control in achieving goals. Another key finding: Dieting is virtually impossible from a physiological point of view as it demands extraordinary self-control in the face of overwhelming countervailing physical and psychological triggers.

A more profound finding from the ISAS perspective is that religious people tend to have better self-control – and are provably happier than those who are not religious.
The authors detail the religiously inspired conversions from alcoholism to sobriety of Eric Clapton and Mary Karr, and then note: “That wizardry can be especially hard to understand for agnostics, a group that includes us. But after looking at the data, we have no trouble believing there’s some kind of power working at 12-step meetings and religious services. Although many scientists are skeptical of institutions that promote spirituality – and psychologists, for some reason, have been particularly skeptical of religion – self-control researchers have developed a grudging respect for the practical results.” (p170)

Baumeister and Tierney offer some explanation of how this phenomenon might work in secular terms – improved goal-setting and self-reflection, strong peer pressure, “bright-line” behavioral rules – but in the process they report glowingly on the benefits of being religious: “at any given point, a religiously active person was 25 percent more likely than a nonreligious person to remain alive… religious people are less likely than others to develop unhealthy habits… they are more likely to wear seat belts, visit a dentist, and take vitamins… they have better social support… they have better self-control… religion promotes family values and social harmony… religion reduces peoples inner conflicts among different goals and values… students who spent more time in Sunday School scored higher on laboratory tests of self-discipline…” (p179-180)

“Pascal’s Wager” postulates that since the risks of non-belief in God (e.g. possible eternal damnation) far outweigh the cost of being religious, it is “rational” to be a religious observer. Now, with the help of Baumeister and Tierney, we know that being religious can be good for you in this life as well – the very best of self-help programs ever invented.

This is a fascinating finding, but it still does not address the question of why this is the case. Is the power of religion evidence of the existence of a divine God who blesses our prayers and devotions? Or, as the skeptics would argue, is religion merely an illusion, an invention of human civilization that has advanced over the centuries through a process of “natural selection” without divine intervention?

The irony of the skeptics’ position is that it denies the premise of religion at the same time it promotes its benefits. While I don’t put too much credence in the rationality of Pascal’s Wager, I also do not find the skeptics’ position to be rational either. I intend to explore this issue in greater detail in coming posts.

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