It’s clear that stressful situations can bring out the religious in people. What’s not clear is whether turning to religion actually helps to relieve anxiety.
Even less well understood is which, if any, aspects of religion are effective. Does the social support that comes with attending religious meetings help, or some other religious activity, or is it some facet of belief itself?
Terrence Hill, at the University of Miami, and colleagues have looked at this using data from the US General Social Survey. Basically, they were looking to see what aspects of religion correlated with anxiety (health warning: these are just correlations. The effect could go either way).
Unfortunately they don’t tell us whether religious people are more or less anxious than the general population. But they do show that, after correcting for other factors that can affect anxiety (gender, wealth, ethnicity, etc), more religious people are a little bit less anxious
(Even after including a number of demographic factors in their model, including religion, they could still only explain about 12% of the variation in anxiety between people – so clearly the major causes of anxiety lie elsewhere.)
What they found was that church attendance was linked to a very small reduction in anxiety. Belief in the afterlife was linked to a somewhat larger reduction.
However, people who believe that human nature is fundamentally perverse and corrupt (as opposed to basically good) tended to be slightly more anxious.
With prayer, the results were more complex. What they found, first of all, was that people who prayed more often were neither more nor less anxious than people who don’t pray.
Digging a bit further, they found that prayer has different effects in different people. In people who have poor health, or whose finances have recently worsened, prayer significantly decreased anxiety. In people without these problems, prayer was linked to more anxiety.
There was a similar interaction with belief in the afterlife and financial decline. Remarkably, however, belief in the afterlife did not reduce anxiety more in people whose health was poor. Perhaps they were not looking forward to meeting their maker!
On a more serious note, this supports other evidence which suggests that religious beliefs are particularly valued by people looking for support in this world, rather than by hopes for a happy afterlife.
Ellison CG, Burdette AM, & Hill TD (2009). Blessed assurance: religion, anxiety, and tranquility among US adults. Social science research, 38 (3), 656-67 PMID: 19856703