In “Sacred Salubriousness: Why Religious Belief Is Not the Only Path to a Healthier Life” (Scientific American, December 19, 2011) , Michael Shermer explains, “New research on self-control explains the link between religion and health”:
Ever since 2000, when psychologist Michael E. McCullough, now at the University of Miami, and his colleagues published a meta-analysis of more than three dozen studies showing a strong correlation between religiosity and lower mortality, skeptics have been challenged by believers to explain why—as if to say, “See, there is a God, and this is the payoff for believing.”
Didn’t notice that. The story we heard was that the link between spirituality and health was largely ignored, until it was finally forced on the attention of the medical profession:
Edward B. Larson (1947–2002), an epidemiologist and psychiatrist, noticed a curious fact some years ago:
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) used many case examples that characterized religious patients as “psychotic, delusional, incoherent, illogical, and hallucinating,” suggesting a general psychopathology that misrepresented clinical experience.
He observed that “the same scientists who were trained to accept or reject a hypothesis based on hard data seem to rely solely on their own opinions and biases when assessing the effect of religion on health.”
He did a great deal to change that. Meanwhile, Shermer:
This McCullough and his then Miami colleague Brian Willoughby did in a 2009 paper that reported the results of a meta-analysis of hundreds of studies revealing that religious people are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, such as visiting dentists and wearing seat belts, and are less likely to smoke, drink, take recreational drugs and engage in risky sex. Why? Religion provides a tight social network that reinforces positive behaviors and punishes negative habits and leads to greater self-regulation for goal achievement and self-control over negative temptations.
Sorry, wait a minute: People decide whether or not they wish to accept the guidance and restrictions. The question is not whether making a bunch of health rules would help but how we can get actual, willing cooperation.
Shermer believes that a secular supportive network can accomplish the same thing, advising
… surround yourself with a supportive social network that reinforces your efforts. Such sacred salubriousness is the province of everyone—believers and nonbelievers—who will themselves to loftier purposes.
The reason Shermer’s approach won’t usually work is that the people who need the help don’t even want to “will themselves to loftier purposes.” That’s just the problem.
Once you ask, what causes people to will themselves to loftier purposes?, you realize that willpower alone will not generally do it. The person needs to believe that there is a loftier purpose, a greater reality, and want to be a part of it. In other words, to want spirituality.
See also: The Spiritual Brain.
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