How Much Comfort Does Religion Really Provide?

In past posts, I’ve argued that we shouldn’t specifically target the beliefs of people in dire straits who rely on their religion for comfort. But there’s an underlying assumption that at the very least deserves examination: Does religion actually comfort people in desperate circumstances? Does it make them feel better than they otherwise would?

This seems like it should be obvious, but things that are obvious aren’t always true. Take this study reported on Science Daily, which examined the link between superstition and uncertainty about the future. The researchers found that superstitious beliefs give people a reassuring sense of control over outcomes that they otherwise thought of as beyond their power, and that superstition was more common in people who didn’t believe they were in control of how their lives were going. No surprises there, of course. The surprising finding is that, after they were asked to contemplate their own death, people’s levels of superstition went down.

Possibly, the explanation for this is that people use superstition as a coping strategy because they believe it will help them avoid undesirable outcomes. But since we know that death is unavoidable, superstition’s value as a coping strategy is decreased. Although the study didn’t directly address religious beliefs, the implications are obvious.

On a similar note, there’s this study from 2009, on the correlation between religious beliefs and end-of-life care. Since we’re always told that theists have faith in salvation and an afterlife, while atheists have no other existence to look forward to after death, you might expect that the atheists were the ones who’d demand the most aggressive, expensive medical care to extend their lives for as long as humanly possible. But in fact, the results were the opposite:

Terminally ill cancer patients who relied on their religious faith to help them cope with their disease were more likely to receive aggressive medical care during their last week of life, a study shows.

Patients who engaged in what the researchers called positive religious coping, which included prayer, meditation, and religious study, ended up having more intensive life-prolonging interventions such as mechanical ventilation or cardiopulmonary resuscitation….

The patients who reported a high level of positive religious coping at the start of the study were almost three times as likely to receive mechanical ventilation and other life-prolonging medical care in the last week of life as patients who said they relied less on their religious beliefs to help them deal with their illness.

A high level of religious coping was also associated with less use of end-of-life planning strategies, including do-not-resuscitate orders, living wills, and appointment of a health care power of attorney.

The reporters wrote, in a masterpiece of understatement:

It is not entirely clear why terminally ill patients who report relying more on their religion would choose more life-prolonging medical interventions.

Now, the obvious explanation is that this is because of religious opposition to euthanasia – that believers feel obligated not just to refuse any measure that might shorten their life, but to accept all treatment so as not to even give the impression that they want to hasten their own death. But even going by this reasoning, one might expect that the rates of aggressive end-of-life care among believers and nonbelievers would be at best equal – not that they’d be higher among believers, and much higher at that. Shouldn’t there be some subset of believers who don’t choose the aggressive option, who are content to “leave it up to God” whether they live or die? Why doesn’t that effect show up in the data?

I’d like to propose an unorthodox explanation: Is it possible that religious believers, or even just a subset thereof, aren’t as absolutely confident in their beliefs as they so often claim they are? Is it possible that faith unsupported by evidence isn’t as helpful or as reassuring as its advocates claim – even, dare I say it, that some of these people doubt the very things they profess to believe? And if that’s true, might it also be true that these believers aren’t as immune to rational argument as we often think?

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