How Did Religion Affect The Lives Of The Puritans – Praying at dawn near Our Lady of the Rock, a church in the Mojave Desert, California. Photo by Zackary Canepari/Panos
A philosopher and scientist who studies human development. His writing features in Greater Good magazine, and his blog, The Practical Philosopher.
How Did Religion Affect The Lives Of The Puritans
Religious belief fosters a sense of meaning in life – and it may take more than ‘social glue’ to double the effect
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Theologians sometimes argue that, without God, life would be meaningless. Some secular people agree. For example, in his book
(2011), the philosopher Alex Rosenberg claims that, since the visible physical universe is all that exists, human life
No meaning. Whether you accept this philosophical claim or not, the fact that many people seem to believe that God or other supernatural entities are necessary for life to be meaningful suggests that, psychologically, there are some important connection between religious belief and the meaning of life.
Although psychologists are divided on exactly how to define perceived meaning in life — some suggest it’s about understanding one’s life, others that it’s about seeing its value and significance — they often examine the meaning of life simply by asking how strongly people agree. statements like: ‘Right now, I find my life very meaningful.’ And research continues to support the idea that perceived meaning in life is closely related to religion. A study from the 1970s found that nuns scored higher on such measures than lay people. More recently, a study published in 2021 found that theists reported experiencing more meaning in life than atheists. Several other studies have found that religiosity is positively related to perceived meaning in life. There is also some experimental evidence that, when presented with a threat to their sense of meaning, people show more belief in miraculous events – suggesting that they turn to religion to bolster their beliefs. the meaning of life.
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Of course, the observation that religion can be a source of existential comfort is not new. Since the 19th century, philosophers (eg, Friedrich Nietzsche), novelists (eg, Fyodor Dostoyevsky) and sociologists (eg, Émile Durkheim) have speculated that social trends away from religion will lead to a crisis of meaning. Since the latest data shows that people around the world are becoming less religious, it is natural to wonder if a secular society can replicate the existing benefits of religion. In order to do this, we must understand how, exactly, religious faith makes life meaningful.
Religious belief helps people feel that they matter not only to others, but to the grand scheme of things.
One possible explanation has to do with the way religion acts as social glue, drawing the faithful into similar communities. People often find social support and a sense of belonging within such communities, which can be a powerful source of perceived meaning in life. Imagine, for example, the close personal relationships one can find in a Bible study group. Therefore, one route from religion to feeling that life is meaningful can be through this feeling that one is important to others. We can call this explanation the ‘social mattering hypothesis’.
Another possibility is that religious belief helps people feel that they matter not only to others, but in the grand scheme of things. The visible universe is inconceivably vast and ancient: it is estimated to be 93 billion light-years in diameter and c14 billion years old. Against that backdrop, it’s easy to see why some consider humanity less important. As Stephen Hawking once said, science tells us that humanity is ‘just chemical scum on a medium-sized planet, orbiting a very ordinary star in the outer suburbs of one in a hundred billions of galaxies’. That’s not a particularly uplifting thought. In fact, in the experiment mentioned above, the ‘threat’ used to reduce the meaning of the participants was an essay about the smallness of human life in the vastness of time and space.
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(1973) that religious belief prevents people from concluding that humans are less important by connecting us to an eternal being. Many religious traditions have stories about the origin and purpose of the Universe. Many claim that humanity has some kind of essential relationship with a higher power, that our lives are part of a grand plan, or even that the Universe was ‘designed with you in mind’. . We see this idea in the Bible:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you set in place, what is the person that you care for them, the people that you care for them ? You … crowned them with glory and honor. You made them leaders in the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet.
The author of this psalm seems to suggest that, despite our small size, humans have a special importance because of God’s love for us. It is easy to see why someone who believes in this perceives their life as having a cosmic meaning and therefore a lot of meaning. We can call this explanation – the idea that religious belief supports the perceived meaning of life by developing a sense of cosmic meaning – the ‘cosmic mattering hypothesis’.
These two candidate explanations are well summarized by Rabbi Harold Kushner. Defending the importance of religion, he wrote:
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Religion offers us a remedy for the scourge of loneliness by bringing us into a community of people with whom we share what is most important in our lives… [R]eligious faith also satisfies another, even more deep human need – perhaps the most basic human need of all. That is the need to know that somehow we are important, that our life has meaning, considered as something more than a momentary explosion in the Universe.
The main reason why religiosity is related to perceived meaning in life is because it is also related to perceptions of cosmic meaning.
To test these hypotheses, psychologists Patty Van Cappellen and Barbara L Fredrickson and I recently conducted four studies involving more than 3,000 participants from across the United States. We use surveys to examine various aspects of religiosity, including attendance at religious services, private practices (such as prayer), and the self-rated importance of religion in a person’s life. . We assessed perceived meaning in life using questions asking how strongly study participants agreed or disagreed with statements such as ‘My life as a whole has meaning’ and ‘I am able to devote most of my time to meaningful activities and pursuits.’ We also assessed perceptions of social and cosmic matter using questions that asked participants how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements such as ‘My life is important to others. man’ (social mattering) or ‘My life matters in the grand scheme of the Universe’ (cosmic mattering).
In these four studies, the results consistently support the social matter and cosmic mattering hypotheses, but also suggest that the cosmic mattering hypothesis is the stronger of the two explanations. In other words, the correlation between religiosity and the perceived meaning of life is considered statistically in two forms of perceived importance – but perceived.
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The reason is the greater proportion of that association. This suggests that the main reason why religiosity is associated with perceived meaning in life is because it is also associated with perceptions of cosmic meaning.
It is worth repeating that these studies were conducted in the US, where most religious people are followers of Abrahamic monotheism (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). Things may look very different in other cultures. But, if these findings are correct – at least in this Western context, where religiosity usually means belief in a creator God – they raise the question of whether secular Western society is in a position to replicate of the existing benefits of religion.
Unfortunately, the data suggest a negative answer. If religiosity is associated with perceived meaning in life because of the social resources that come from religion, then new forms of social organization may develop to work for the religious. In fact, several ‘atheist churches’ have been established with this goal in mind. Such communities tend to be very beneficial for their members. Yet our research suggests that these secular substitutes may be less powerful sources of perceived meaning than religious belief because they may not support perceptions of cosmic significance.
Is it possible to develop a sense of cosmic meaning without adopting religious beliefs? One can contribute to science (for example, trying to understand the Universe), or work to protect the Earth from the climate crisis or other global threats. These are very important and good things to do in one’s life. However the effects of such efforts are limited to the relatively low scale of our planet – which, again, is a small part of the overall universe. Furthermore, even if one’s efforts are successful, these secular sources of significance tend to require a large amount of hard work, dedication and opportunities that are not available to everyone. Therefore, religion can be a
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