Karl Marx said, "Religion is the opium of the masses." But according to University of Miami psychologists Michael McCullough and Brain Willoughby, religion isn’t a negative drug that keeps us down. It's a positive structure that helps us stay in line and be successful through self-control. Lacking their own self-control, the researchers hunted down published articles, unpublished data, and email discussion groups on religion and what it does to people. They also handed out questionnaires to students about religion and personality quirks. As they reported in the January issue of Psychological Bulletin, religion seems to promote self-control, influence one's goals, bring awareness of behavior and push for change, which, in the end, produces healthy and mentally strong individuals. In other words, religion does a lot, and it's all good. But they might just be making too much of that good thing. Religion is not so much a life coach as a cultural phenomenon. As such, it usually reflects the times, and its effect on people isn't necessarily permanent. In my lifetime, for example, religion has moved rapidly from one cultural space to another. When I was a kid in the 1950s, everybody went to church, at least everybody I knew. My mother was a Catholic, so every Sunday we would march off to Mass and sit through a ritual in Latin that none of us kids understood. It was a great place to daydream. My siblings and I also went to Catholic grammar school where we were frightened by the nuns, and learned nothing. That seemed perfectly normal to us because all the kids suffered some such religious training and we never felt different, just bored. Religion back then was also nothing private and had nothing to do with anything mental. It was just a name tag. We knew everyone's religion like we knew their last name and we talked about someone's religion as if it were an ethnicity or race, but of course we didn’t know anything about those things either. I'll never forget the day in college when I took an anthropology course on comparative religions and realized that one could be something other than Catholic, Jewish, Protestant or Baptist (I'm not sure how Baptist got into my frighteningly narrow religious view except that my mother went to the Baptist school Meredith College for one year and saved the name for me). By that time, religion had become more hidden, and private. In Western culture these days, what one believes is considered so personal that we often don’t even ask our friends if they worship anywhere, and are often surprised to hear that they do. We're told that America in particular is a highly religious country, but aside from the Christian radio stations, it's hard sometimes to see it. And it's also hard to make the kind of connection between religion and self-control that McCullough and Willoughby found. All the children in my family left the Church, and yet some of us sport that kind of backbone and some of us don't. What also makes the researchers' result so hard to accept is that religion is not just spiritual practice; it's part of a larger cultural mantle that we all wear. What we don't get from religion anymore we probably get from other sources such as family expectations and morals or community pressure. And some might have an inner strength that was always there, and they never needed a nun to make it happen.
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Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link).