Having a religion, faith, spirituality or a belief in the supernatural seems to be an advantage when it comes to developing resilience. The range and variety of ways psychological well being is supported by belief is so great it is at times hard to understand the lengths some atheists are prepared to go to dissuade people from their (admittedly unscientific) beliefs.
Additionally all human societies have some form of religion or spiritual belief system, (although within them there always individuals with no belief,) and the degree to which an individual is religious is significantly genetically influenced
This is not about whether people who have a faith, religion, spirituality or a belief in the supernatural are right or wrong. It just means they experience a range of benefits. There is also significant anecdotal evidence that having a religion can be harmful, particularly if it emphasises shame and guilt.
Some of the advantages conferred are not a direct result of the specific beliefs of the individual or the religion, and can be replicated without subscribing to either.
- Having a religion usually means meeting other people once a week, for religious practice. This provides social relationships and support, both of which have frequently been demonstrated to enhance resilience to a degree where the helping professions invariably include levels of social support in any assessment of an individual’s vulnerability. There are numerous ways to access this kind of support without any religious affiliation, by joining a special interest group like a political party or campaigning group, a choir, or signing up for evening classes.
- People with religious beliefs have a formula for making sense of the world. Whether it is God’s will, a test of faith, or the price of free will, religions often have responses to random misfortune. For the non-religious, this search for meaning may be just as important and potentially therapeutic. People will reflect back on bad experiences that they would not change them: “It has made me who I am and changing it would be like saying I want to become another person”.
- Self help literature often recommends making a list – of things you would like to achieve – of how you see your life developing, where you want to be in five years, ten years. A religious approach might be to ask God for what you want but both require you to think about where you are going and where you want to be in the future. It is a lot easier to arrive at a destination if you know where it is.
- Having a religious background has also been demonstrated to help with pain relief. These benefits are associated with religious practice, such as prayer and meditation. The new fashion for mindfulness has taken the religious practice of meditation and made it secular, and researchers have documented it’s usefulness in relation to managing chronic pain.
After the loss of her daughter in a tragic accident, Ruth, an atheist, commented “What would this be like for someone who believed in God? To imagine that there was a being who could have prevented this, but didn’t.”
And Barbara, who does not subscribe to any organised religion: “ At my lowest ebb my husband was dying, I was looking after the children without any breaks or extended family to support me. I was exhausted, but carrying on working. I woke in the night feeling dreadful I remember praying ‘God, please help me, I have nothing left’. I don’t believe in a God who is like a person. Sometimes I don’t know what I believe in, but that night as I lay there in the dark I felt filled with a beautiful light. It didn’t solve my problems, or cure me, but in that moment it made me feel more than better. And the experience gave me hope, which was enough.”
 Koenig L B, McGue M, Krueger R F, Bouchard T J. “Genetic and environmental influences on religiousness: Findings for retrospective and current religiousness ratings” Journal of Personality Apr 2005 73(2) 471-488 Doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00316
 Wiech K, Farias M, Kahane G, Shackel N, Tiede W, Tracey I. “An fMRI study measuring analgesia enhanced by religion as a belief system”. Pain. 2008 Oct 15;139(2):467-76. doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2008.07.030. Epub 2008 Sep 5.