It makes sense to have religious beliefs, if only for psychological reasons!

Religious beliefs good for psychology

Our resident psychologist, Dr Rick Norris has been at it again, putting his thoughts down for our perusal. Thanks Rick.

Aims of this article:

  • Explore the psychological benefits of religion
  • Learn the Serenity prayer
  • Identify the key concepts

It might seem an odd title for a blog – not quite as snappy as Woody Allen’s quote about money (“I’d rather be rich than poor, if only for financial reasons.”) but it makes just as much sense when you break it down.

One of the key tenets in CBT is to understand how we channel our energy most effectively; or as I put it in Think Yourself Happy – to work out what we can control and to let go of what we can’t. If we try to channel our energy into issues over which we have very little influence we will feel frustrated, exhausted and a failure.

I frequently have clients telling me how miserable they are in their job but they don’t see why they “should be forced” to move. This mind set is fairly common when a change programme is being implemented. No-one likes change but some individuals seem particularly resistant to the change and actually believe that if they continue with their resistance somehow ‘the machine’ will allow them to carry on operating as if the change doesn’t affect them.

They are in danger of becoming extremely stressed over a situation that they have virtually no control over yet they expend huge amounts of energy into trying to stop the machine.

In many different types of situations where the individual has very little control over a negative situation I’ve noticed that those people who have religious beliefs seem to find it easier to let go. They focus much less on “Why does this have to happen to me?” and they are much more likely to focus on “How can I successfully deal with this?”

As one client recently told me when I was explaining the concept of control versus letting go; “Oh you’re talking about the serenity prayer, yes that makes complete sense.” For those who are unaware of the serenity prayer it’s a simple prayer that makes great psychological sense:

Serenity Prayer

God grant me the Grace to accept the things I cannot change,

the Courage to change the things I can,

and the Wisdom to know the difference.

St Teresa of Avila

But it’s not just Christians; all people of faith seem to cope with stressful situations better. A Muslim consultant anaesthetist recently told me that there was a particularly dangerous procedure he had used with a patient which if it had gone wrong could have resulted in him being sued or even struck off (several of his colleagues had refused to consider the procedure). Fortunately, he was successful and when I asked him why he had decided to utilise this procedure his answer was simple “I had to relieve the excruciating pain this patient was in and I knew God wanted me to try to help this woman; if I had refused to try to help her I would not have been doing my duty to God.”

The humbling experience I had working with a Christian lady from the Caribbean whose 30-year-old son was found dead in bed from a heart attack was another example of the power of religious beliefs. In such circumstances, many people would have been full of questions as to why this young man had died but her simple answer was “It was his time to meet God.” This lady did not spend hours torturing herself with the question of why her son had died and this significantly improved her ability to move through the stages of grief so that she was able to get to the final stage of acceptance and hope much sooner than those with no faith.

But what if there is no God? Well it doesn’t really matter so long as you believe there is a God; if you have faith you will cope with the death of a loved one better, you’ll have the courage to try procedures that no-one else will, you’ll stop fighting battles that you can’t win.

Triple jumper Jonathon Edwards, who won many medals in his career including the Gold medal at the 2000 Olympics, was a committed Christian who carried a tin of fish with him to every athletics meeting because a fish is the sign of Christianity. He believed that as long as he had trained as hard as he could he would win each competition if it was God’s will; so, there was no point in getting worked up and suffering from performance anxiety which is often the reason really talented athletes ‘choke’ and fail to perform well. After his athletics career, he went on to present Songs of Praise but then he had a crisis of faith and decided that he no longer believed in God. In reality Edwards’ success was not reliant on God’s existence, it was his steadfast belief in God when he was competing that was the significant factor in his ability to perform without anxiety and therefore significantly increase his chances of winning gold medals.

Even on a day to day level there is so much to be gained psychologically from following religious principles. Most world religions have similar views on key issues such as forgiveness.

Other religions and psychology

Forgiving someone doesn’t mean saying that what they did was ok; it means you no longer hold their actions against them – you’ve let go. Whilst this fits the ideals of most religions it also makes psychological sense. If we fail to let go when someone has wronged us we hold onto the hurt, anger and bitterness for years; which of course damages us far more than the person who wronged us.

Or what about altruism? Again, most world religions would subscribe to the idea that helping those less fortunate than ourselves is the right thing to do. The psychological benefit we get when we do a kind act is that we feel better about ourselves, both parties benefit from an act of altruism.

Having a belief in God (whoever your version of God is) offers a type of psychological advantage that helps to sustain believers in even the most trying of situations. And what if they’re wrong and there is no God? Well they still get the psychological benefits from their beliefs. And what if they’re right and there is a God…double whammy my friends, no embarrassing moments with St Peter at the Pearly Gates!

In a world where many people are only too quick to point out the negative side of religion such as fundamentalist terrorism or supposedly dogmatic beliefs (which often has little to do with religion or is a distortion) there are far more benefits to be had than most people realise from having religious beliefs.

And in case some of you might be wondering, yes, I do believe there is a God…but I’ve come to realise he’s not a Portsmouth FC fan.


Thank you so much for taking the time to read Dr Rick’s article on faith and psychology. Please comment below.

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