What is faith?

by Mario Bonfrisco

 

We can count roughly 4000 religions around the world. However, the four most popular and professed ones are: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism

Religiosity has always been a discussed topic in many fields of study, trying to understand what is behind the various beliefs of these religions that are different but to some extent have a similar basic mindset, given their non-rational nature. Although science has had some success in explaining the social process of religiosity, it has failed in explaining some believers’ deeds such as sacrifices or religion experience – visions or feeling the presence of a powerful entity.

Religions have played a crucial role in the history of humanity. They have created communities, given hope, mobilised masses and sadly, generated wars.  Today, after thousands of years of evolution and progress, this has not changed much.

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People all around the world are committed to a certain religion and every day this commitment reflects on their lives conditioning their routine and behaviour. Stating that religious beliefs are non-rational, I referred to those beliefs that lack of scientific proves, such as the actual existence of God, Paradise or Hell. The internal inconsistency, for instance, viewing humans as free to create their own destiny, but at the same time, sad or happy moments are seen as signs of God, increase the level of irrationality and consequently the value of the believers’ reasoning for unhesitatingly sticking to their faith. The evil factor is another dilemma, ‘how can God be all-powerful and wholly good?’[1].

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In 1935 Dr Thouless, conducting a study about religious beliefs, found that the majority of the participants did not believe that tigers were found in China while they were pretty sure that Jesus Christ was the son of God[2]. Hence, these results are a further confirmation that believers are not in search of evidence and neither they need it in order to mature their faith.

Many surveys in Britain showed that 69% of the population believe in God, 55% in the life after death and 28% in Hell[3]. These are significant numbers for a developed country and it can mean that such beliefs may have influential effects even on the economy and health of the entire population.

Psychology has often tried to give some explanations for this most influential phenomena ever existed, which makes individuals be devoted, in most cases for their entire lives, to what we could call “schools of thought”.

Sigmund Freud, in his totem and taboo[4], described religion as an infantile illusion that is based on the view God as the father figure. He thought that faith is a dysfunctional and alienating trait of the personality and treating it as neurosis. On the other hand, Carl Jung has interpreted religion in a more positive way. He considered it as a fundamental part of humanity since believing in a God entity is rooted in the collective unconscious of past generations. In 1999, inspired by Jung’s theory, Dr Ramachandran suggested that religion could be a product of natural selection and our brain may have a place responsible for religious experiences.

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More recently, the psychologist Michael Argyle[1] approached faith as a kind of attitude and doing so, analysed it through the three common components of all other attitudes: cognitive, emotional and behavioural. He linked faith to marriage or the event of falling in love because in these cases too there is a ‘leap of faith, since, as mentioned earlier, there is a lack of proves and therefore there is a need to invest a high effort to make it work. Taking religion experiences as other normal emotions may give an idea about their process and thus, to have a religious experience you need to be in the right physiological state, the right environmental setting and also have had the right religious socialisation. The social aspect represents the behavioural component. Most religions involve a set of verbal and non-verbal rituals such as praying, going to church or communities’ events, which often include music and interaction with other individuals that have your same interest. All these factors are highly social and establish a sense of conformity.

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When we take into account these components, trying to comprehend how people treat the irrationality of religious beliefs is not very difficult anymore. After all, emotions in most cases are not rational.

How religion affects the population?

Despite the yet unclear nature of faith, it has been proven that who regularly follows thoughts, rituals and behaviour guidelines set by a certain religion, has significant positive effects on his mental and physical health.

Several studies have shown that believers report a greater level of happiness due to social support offered by religious communities. A crucial effect was found on how people cope with life events, having an optimist view of existential certainty thanks to the belief of a life after death, which lowers the fear of death and reduces the experience of depression and stress toward the future. Statistics also shows the predisposition to avoid dangerous behaviours such as unsafe sex, drinking alcohol and smoking[5]. Nonetheless, prejudice, dogmatism and rejection of those who beliefs are different are also experienced between religious people[6].

In conclusion, in spite of fewer negative consequences, religion appears to be an important and positive aspect of people’s lives when these do not fall in extremism. However, there are still a lot of unsettled questions that need further research in order to understand and interpret the logic of faith, not to belittle believers, but to apply its concepts to non-believers that are in need of help and thus, improve the general quality of life.

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Reference 

[1] Argyle, M. (2002). State of the art religion. Psychologist15(1), 22-26.

[2] Thouless, R.H. (1935). The tendency to certainty in religious beliefs. British journal of Psychology, 26, 16-13.

[3] Greeley, A.M. (1992). Religion in Britain, Ireland and the USA. In G. Prior & B. Taylor (eds.)  British social attitudes: The 9th report (pp.51-70) Aldershot: Dartmouth

[4] Freud, S. (2003). Totem and taboo. Routledge.

 

[5] Hummer, R.A., Rogers, R.G, Nam, C.B. & Ellison, C.G. (1999). Religious involvement and US adult mortality. Demographic, 36, 273-285.

[6] Rokeach, M. (1960). The open and closed mind. New York: Basic Books.

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