Is Religion Special? A Critical Look at Religion, Wellbeing and Prosociality

Is religion good for your health and wellbeing? Does religion promote prosociality? While positive stereotypes prevail in these domains, studies also typically answer these questions in the affirmative[1] and as such, it is easy to think that there must be something special, sui generis, or even perhaps supernatural at work, which increases psychological health and drives charitable behavior. However, regardless of whether or not a deity may be at work, the Devil is certainly in the details. Recently, methodological critiques have been proposed (Galen, 2012, in press) and empirical studies are accruing (Galen & Kloet 2011; Moore & Leach, 2015) that cast doubt on whether there is anything “special” about the possible effects of religiosity on wellbeing and prosociality.

In this podcast, psychologist Dr. Luke Galen provides a critical assessment of the literature linking religiosity to wellbeing and prosocial behavior. The interview begins with a short review of Galen’s past research and current projects. Next, he presents an overview of how researchers currently conceptualize the wellbeing and prosociality link before discussing some of the measurement limitations present in these studies. Further, Dr. Galen covers recent priming studies that suggest both religious and secular primes achieve equal ends in terms of behavioral monitoring. In closing, he discusses whether or not there is anything unique to the religion, wellbeing, and prosociality link that couldn’t be accounted for through general naturalistic mechanisms.

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References

  • Galen, L. (in press) Atheism, Wellbeing, and the Wager: Why Not Believing in God (With Others) is Good for You. [Special issue] Shook, J. R., Hood, R. W. Jr., & Coleman, T. J. III, (Eds.) Science, Religion & Culture.
  • Galen, L. (2012). Does religious belief promote prosociality? A critical examination. Psychological Bulletin, 138(5), 876-906. doi:10.1037/a0028251
  • Galen, L., & Kloet, J. (2010). Mental well-being in the religious and the non-religious: evidence for a curvilinear relationship. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 14(7), 673-689.      doi:10.1080/13674676.2010.510829
  • Koenig, H. (2011). Spirituality & health research. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press.
  • Moore, J., & Leach, M. (2015). Dogmatism and Mental Health: A Comparison of the Religious and Secular. Psychology Of Religion And Spirituality. doi:10.1037/rel0000027
  • Norenzayan, A., Shariff, A., Gervais, W., Willard, A., McNamara, R., Slingerland, E., & Henrich, J. (2014). The Cultural evolution of Prosocial Religions. Behavioral And Brain Sciences, 1-86. doi:10.1017/s0140525x14001356

[1] (for a review of religion and health see, Koenig, 2011; for a review of religious prosociality see, Norenzayan, Shariff, Willard, Slingerland, Gervais, McNamara & Henrich, 2014)