Religiosity improves psychological resilience, study says

Written by William C. Duncan

October 28, 2021

As the COVID-19 pandemic lingers, so do concerns about long-term effects on the economy, mental health, and community morale. The psychological concept of resilience is more and more highly valued. The American Psychological Association explains: “Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress – such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors.”

A recent report from a diverse group of scholars provides an important clue to a significant source of resilience.

The authors of the study describe the background:

Lower socioeconomic status (SES) harms psychological well-being, an effect responsible for widespread human suffering. This effect has long been assumed to weaken as nations develop economically. Recent evidence, however, has contradicted this fundamental assumption, finding instead that the psychological burden of lower SES is even greater in developed nations than in developing ones. That evidence has elicited consternation because it suggests that economic development is no cure for the psychological burden of lower SES.

They then propose a hypothesis, that since poorer countries tend to be more religious, religiosity might lessen the psychological burden of poverty. In other words, perhaps “developed nations lack religious norms that may ease the burden of lower SES.”

The study examines large surveys across more than 150 nations to test this hypothesis and concludes that “national religiosity can explain why the psychological burden of lower SES is amplified in developed nations” and “there is firm evidence that national religiosity is key to understanding why lower SES is less harmful to well-being in developing nations than it is in developed nations.”

This raises, the authors explain, a problem because “the Western world has witnessed a marked decline in national religiosity over the last decades.” Given the findings of the study, “this decline suggests that the harmful effects of lower SES on well-being should be more severe now than they were in the past.” If, as predicted, “religious decline may even accelerate in the decades to come … lower SES may well exert particularly harmful effects on well-being in the future.”

Since poverty “is harmful to psychological well-being” and “has huge costs for the economy and society,” an accelerated decline in religiosity could exacerbate “a pressing humanitarian problem.”

The authors mention in passing the possibility of a substitute for religion. This sounds like a long shot – and religious devotion cannot be forced as a matter of policy. Thus, perhaps the best policy is to allow religious groups to pursue their work unimpeded, recognizing the good it may be doing. Civil society can also help to publicize these types of findings as a way of helping religious and nonreligious citizens alike recognize the good religion does for people, regardless of economic status.

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