Religion and SpiritualityScienceSkepticism

Religion and self-control

Many people often say that religion can provide benefits to its practitioners. But what is there, other than a sense of community and support? (Can’t you get that from a non-religious community?)

A recent article highlights one possibility: it allows people to practice self-control. A review of psychology studies on the subject concludes that the religious have more self-control. People who were religious for extrinsic reasons (wanting to impress others, etc.) or merely spiritual were not as conscientious.

Does this mean that we should support religious beliefs? It’s strange that unreasonable faith in specious things can produce so many benefits–order, social stability, happiness and a fulfillment that can seem so hard to attain. Sometimes I think religion just provides a scaffold for the human behaviors that are most difficult to attain. It provides a route for self-improvement that does not come so easy to the heathen.

John Tierney notes this in his article and writes, “What’s a heathen to do in 2009?” He seems a little jealous that there is no paved route to self-control and psychological well-being for the secular person. I, too, am a little jealous: it’s hard to figure out everything for yourself, including how to exercise self-control and why and how community can be so nourishing and helpful. (And then to use the self-control and find a community that will benefit you in the long run.)

But I don’t think, ultimately, that we should support religious beliefs for these benefits. There are plenty of downsides to religion–namely, that it overrides reason and critical thinking–that aren’t going to convert me to religion anytime soon.

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Vy is a recent graduate working in a neuroscience lab with children and monkeys. She likes sewing, knitting, lifting weights, and reading in her free time. Especially reading about science!


  1. December 31, 2008 at 5:46 am —

    What we need is a set of atheist/skeptic ten commandments that we can indoctrinate/innoculate our children with.
    When they’re old enough we can teach them why those commandments are what they are.
    And when they’re even older they can learn how to work out for themselves whether they’re good commandments or not.
    Also we need to get togheter every Sunday to discuss what we’ve done on the internet the previous week.

  2. phlebas
    December 31, 2008 at 6:17 am —

    Interesting article. I’m finding it a little vague on specifics, though. Sort of like those essays claiming that science has proved that prayer lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, when you can get the same effect through sitting quietly reading or listening to music for 30 minutes.

    Still, I guess it’s not surprising, if you define “self control” as “doing what you’re told” or “not asking questions” or something. To be a religious person, you have to be willing to follow orders, while non-theists often tend to question authority to the point of seeming contrarian or being anarchists.

    The seat belt thing surprises me, though.

  3. December 31, 2008 at 12:54 pm —

    And what about the resounding failures of virginity pledges? Don’t those count as pretty darn important examples of religion not instilling self-control?

    Tierney patters through a whole rosary of peripheral and borderline irrelevant items — swear words? daily vitamins? — merrily cherry-picking instances where religion helps and ignoring those where it hurts.

    But then, this is par for the course where he is concerned.

  4. December 31, 2008 at 12:56 pm —

    Oops. My previous comment is trapped in the moderation queue. Perhaps if I were religious, I’d have the self-control not to include hyperlinks to back up my statements.

  5. vreify
    December 31, 2008 at 2:10 pm —

    I wrote a post about John Tierney awhile ago, about his poor reporting.

    This time I decided to steer away from that because of the other interesting questions. But to give him credit, he does link to the original paper. I didn’t read the entire thing, and there are some questions I have about consistent methodology among the studies and control groups (how many non-believers did they have? I assume they’re harder to find than believers. And skeptics know that heathens can vary far and wide in their personality and beliefs.)

  6. December 31, 2008 at 3:00 pm —

    Interesting idea. I think you can also learn self control by going to the gym and working out even if you hate it. But actually, I think religion is anti-self control because it is all about other people controlling you through peer pressure.

  7. kayla_unkempt
    January 1, 2009 at 3:18 pm —

    I don’t know… some of my religious friends can be real potty mouths, whereas I don’t swear. I think self-control might have more to do with how your parents brought you up rather than if you go to church or not.

    Though if religious people think that god is watching them, they might behave better. But the same can be said for children who know their parents are watching them. It’s not because they’re religious, it’s cuz no one likes getting in trouble. ; D

  8. January 1, 2009 at 3:31 pm —

    hahah ^_^ That is the same case with me and my brother. I don’t swear, he does, sometimes a lot.

  9. January 2, 2009 at 10:55 am —

    One analysis, from the British Humanist Association:

    [W]hat the actual evidence (rather than the theory) seems to show is that people with high levels of spiritual belief who also have high self control tend to turn to organized religion – and that this is the primary driver of the link between religiousness and self control.

    Now this doesn’t mean that religion doesn’t increase self control. It’s just that the most important effect is probably in the reverse direction. And this has important implications for the conclusion. It’s not enough to show that religion could, in theory, have an effect on self control. If you want to draw the sorts of conclusions drawn by the NY Times reporter, you have to show that the magnitude of the effect is meaningful in the real world.

    And here’s the other thought. McCullough & Willoughby think that this provides a rationale for an evolutionary basis to religion. In other words, they argue that religion enhances reproductive fitness by increasing self control, and that this means that religiousness is selected for by Darwinian evolution.

    But to argue this, you would have to show that there is something specific about religion, as opposed to mystical beliefs or secular institutions, that enhances self control. And studies conducted mostly in the US, where the major institutional route to civic participation is religion, are not going to be able to tease these things apart.

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