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Resolutions and Religiosity

December 31, 2008

Even though I know that New Year’s Resolutions are rather popular in certain circles, I’ve never seriously made them. Of course we’ve all made a few, but then again, for me it was with the same energy that I paid attention to a few horoscope readings — it’s just things to we do casually.

I was intrigued when I read on Nine Moons about relating New Year’s Resolutions to a uniquely Mormon interpretation of eternal progression, except I was too hung up focusing on the “new year’s resolution” part and not on the eternal progression part (why wait until January 1st?)

But the central idea to this is that we can change…and that we are changing constantly. We don’t need an arbitrary time of the year or date to make these commitments.

…But I can agree to this without necessarily bringing any religion to this. I’m possibly negating the eternal part of eternal progression by doing this, but there’s no skin off my nose, right?

It certainly surprised me to find out that the New York Times suggested otherwise:

[Michael McCullough] and a fellow psychologist at the University of Miami, Brian Willoughby, have reviewed eight decades of research and concluded that religious belief and piety promote self-control.

I had a few sirens going off, because there’re a few things that these kinds of researchers generalize that they shouldn’t generalize or fail to mention that they should mention. But I kept reading:

These results have been ascribed to the rules imposed on believers and to the social support they receive from fellow worshipers, but these external factors didn’t account for all the benefits. In the new paper, the Miami psychologists surveyed the literature to test the proposition that religion gives people internal strength.

OK, so the article addresses external social functions of religion. But what of this internal strength that can make people get through with resolutions and other matters of self-control?

Subsequent studies showed that religiously devout children were rated relatively low in impulsiveness by both parents and teachers, and that religiosity repeatedly correlated with higher self-control among adults. Devout people were found to be more likely than others to wear seat belts, go to the dentist and take vitamins.

This part went flat on me…not because I deny any kind of correlation, but because 1) correlation does not equal causation, and 2) this variable of “religiosity” seems very shadowy. I can think of a number of things that tend to correlate with the religious people I know (but then again, I’m biased living near a military base, 🙂 ) that would lead to people having more self-control. And these are social things.

But which came first, the religious devotion or the self-control? It takes self-discipline to sit through Sunday school or services at a temple or mosque, so people who start out with low self-control are presumably less likely to keep attending. But even after taking that self-selection bias into account, Dr. McCullough said there is still reason to believe that religion has a strong influence.

This was about the time when this started to be my kind of argument. I’ve talked about the discipline it takes to sit through long boring church meetings before, so I felt a kinship to this research.

Yet, this doesn’t convince me that the research has found anything intrinsic to religion… A paragraph that described how only religious people had this benefit, but merely spiritual people did not didn’t help my doubts — the major difference I see between religion and mere spirituality is the organization — which is a temporal thing that I already acknowledge has benefits.

The end of the article came through for me though:

Does this mean that nonbelievers like me should start going to church? Even if you don’t believe in a supernatural god, you could try improving your self-control by at least going along with the rituals of organized religion.

But that probably wouldn’t work either, Dr. McCullough told me, because personality studies have identified a difference between true believers and others who attend services for extrinsic reasons, like wanting to impress people or make social connections. The intrinsically religious people have higher self-control, but the extrinsically religious do not.

So what’s a heathen to do in 2009? Dr. McCullough’s advice is to try replicating some of the religious mechanisms that seem to improve self-control, like private meditation or public involvement with an organization that has strong ideals.

See, it says (without saying) something that I’ve suspected before…there’s a personality trait of deeply religious people that some people have and others don’t…so you can’t “fake” religiosity. You can’t “fake’ belief. You have faith or your don’t. I’ve been curious about people who genuinely have faith — it could be that this faith is just an abstraction of a completely natural cause, but really, whether faith is natural or supernatural is not the issue…the issue is, can it be useful, whatever it is, for those who have it? I think it can be in certain instances.

And of course, a beautiful ending: you can still reach these ends through secular strategies.


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