Religion: A Middleman to Well-Being
It seems as if a new study is released almost daily showing another benefit of religious belief. As a humanist, these articles used to detract from my positive emotion dimension of well-being because theists would often use this research to attempt to justify their supernatural beliefs. However, as a social scientist, I could not just fall victim to the confirmation bias and ignore the studies that might weaken my humanist position by providing more reasons to adopt a religious world view. With a change in attitude, these articles became an opportunity for understanding. I began to understand that religion turns out to be like an unnecessary middleman hawking products that you can buy direct. Instead of costing you extra money, it costs you a piece of your intellectual integrity, and in some cases, much more. In other words, religion is a means to an end. That end, I will argue, is well-being.
Many middlemen do add value. They wouldn’t survive very long in an open market unless they did. Religion adds value. It is a category consisting of countless prepackaged beliefs that have some form of continuity and internal consistency (i.e., beliefs that are generally consistent with each other, not necessarily with the scientific method, observation, or even reality). This packaged belief system is very attractive to many people, especially those who are much less tolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity than others (Hogg, Adelman, & Blagg, 2010), are more prone to magical thinking (Caldwell-Harris, Wilson, LoTempio, & Beit-Hallahmi, 2011), and/or are unaware of other philosophies that focus on prosocial values. But like with most middlemen, with a little knowledge and a tad of effort, we can bypass them and get a better deal. Positive humanism is that better deal.
A Means to an End
When we say we want money, it is extremely unlikely that we want germ-covered paper with pictures of deceased notables on them. We don’t even want the things the money can buy, such as a new pair of shoes. What we ultimately want is our lives to be better in some way. Well-being theory (Seligman, 2012) and its five dimensions (positive emotion, engagement, relationships, achievement, and meaning/purpose or PERMA) is the one of the best ways we can define in a useful way (i.e., operationalize) what it means to live a better life. The new pair of shoes might increase our positive emotion by buying them, showing them off, and receiving compliments on them. Perhaps we also believe that the new shoes will help increase our chances of finding a romantic partner (relationships). Increasing these two dimensions lead to an overall increase in our well-being. This is one of the key understandings in positive psychology—that our wants and desires can be reduced to aspects of well-being.
When a study names religion as a factor that increases well-being, “religion” is used as a generic term that packages many factors that lead to well-being. A critical look at any of these factors reveals that each factor in itself is a means, not an end. For example, it is well understood now that one of religion’s greatest benefits is the sense of belonging (e.g., Seul, 1999), often realized by community church attendance. This is part of the relationship dimension of well-being. Of course, this sense of belonging can be met in other ways that have nothing to do with religion.
“Proof” That Religion is Just a Middleman
Religiosity and spirituality, in many cases (certainly not all) are contributing factors to well-being, although you will notice that neither is one of the five dimensions of well-being. In psychology, “dimensions” of a construct such as well-being are not chosen ad hoc or selected based on a cute acronym (although PERMA is pretty cute). There is a scientific process called factor analysis that is used to identify as few necessary dimensions as possible while eliminating the unnecessary ones. The reason religion, spirituality, or “God” did not make the cut is because aspects of all these are subsumed under one or more of the five dimensions of PERMA. In a way, this is scientific evidence that neither religiosity nor spirituality is a significant part of well-being.
Positive humanism explores the many alternatives to religious belief that lead to well-being. There is no need for “faith” (i.e., believing in something disproportionate to the evidence), no need to accept beliefs that contradict with our current scientific understanding, and there is no authority figure or authoritative texts to follow. If your goal in life is well-being, than even positive humanism is just a means to an end—it’s just the more direct route, and an awesome ride!