Is Religion Good For You?

There is some evidence for an association between religious practice and positive mental health in the Irish context.  In a study of mothers coping with a child or adolescent or indeed adult with autism Patricia Coulthard and myself found that carers who sought comfort in prayer had significantly better mental health than those who did not.  There are many forms of prayer, one type is petitionary prayer, but all have the acknowledgement of a supreme being in common. Therefore not only is the person praying physically carrying out an activity, praying, they are also in some sense handing the problem on, by deferring to a higher authority.  This may lessen feelings of guilt and responsibility. This change of attribution away from the self, combined with the physical activity of doing something may aid the carer to cope more adequately.


In the Irish context in this study carers reported significantly more support from their personal beliefs than from organised religion.  The formal churches to which they belonged did not help them to cope and were rarely there as a resource.


The various clergymen did not seem to know how to relate to a mother who suddenly has an autistic child diagnosed. The churches to which the participants in our study belonged did not have an outreach to these isolated families with a child with autism.  The clergy seemed to need to be educated on how to manage this crisis situation and as to the spiritual support they could give to these families with an autistic or disabled child.  This may be just the occasional visit to acknowledge the existence of the child with autism in the family.  These children with autism have been baptised into their church and are just as valid members as the rest of the parish.


Around the time of the diagnosis of the child with autism 23 of the 60 mothers studied prayed to deal with the stress.  When the children were at the primary school age 37% of the families used prayer as a coping resource and indeed in some situations the mother’s faith kept her going.  At the time of adolescence 17 out of the 60 mothers sought comfort in their religious beliefs or prayed as a coping mechanism.  When these children with autism were adults 6 out of the 60 parents still prayed for a magic cure.  In all approximately half of the mothers used prayer as a coping strategy.  Those who sought comfort in prayer had statistically speaking better mental health.


Prayer was both a resource and a coping strategy.


In another study conducted in Ireland in the 1980s by Professor Hannah McGee and myself and published in Pathways to Child Hospitalisation which was about the home versus hospital care of children with gastroenteritis.  We found that statistically far more of the mothers who were able to manage their child at home and didn’t need to have their child in hospital often attended religious services and indeed often did this accompanied by their partner.  Clearly this association between religious practice and mental health needs to be teased out more in the Irish context.  There is no such thing as a ‘god gene’ indeed the concept is absurd but there is a personality predisposition to spirituality.


Geoffrey Kluger in an article Is God in our Genes?  Time, October 25th, 2004, Page 62 – 72 discusses the Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI).  ‘Among the traits that TCI measures is one known as self-transcendence, which consists of three other traits: self-forgetfulness, or the ability to get entirely lost in an experience; transpersonal identification, or a feeling of connectedness to a larger universe; and mysticism, or an openness to things not literally provable.  Put them all together and you come as close as science can to measuring what it feels like to be spiritual’.  “This allows us to have the kind of experience described as religious ecstasy” says Robert Cloninger.  Hamer studied spirituality using ‘Cloninger’s self-transcendence scale, placing them on a continuum from least to most spiritually inclined.  Then he went poking around in their genes to see if he could find the DNA responsible for the differences.  Spelunking in the human genome is not easy, what with 35,000 genes consisting of 3.2 billion chemical bases.  To narrow the field, Hamer confined his work to nine specific genes known to play major roles in the production of monoamines – brain chemicals, including Serotonin, Norepinephrine and dopamine, that regulates such fundamental functions as mood and motor control’.  He found ‘a variation in a gene known as VMAT2 – for vesicular monoamine transporter – seemed to be directly related to how the volunteers scored on the self transcendence test.  Those with the nucleic acid cytosine in one particular spot on the gene ranked high.  Those with the nucleic acid adenine in the same spot ranked lower’.  Twin studies have shown similarities in their spiritual feelings. Thomas Bouchard stated ‘whether we are drawn to God in the first place is hard wired into our genes’.  He also stated ‘it is completely contradicted my expectations’.  Michael Persinger states that the god experience ‘is a brilliant adaptation.  It is built in pacifier’ for example to do with the contemplation of our death. This is the opposite to novelty seeking. It is possible though that religious ecstasy might be more closely linked to novelty seeking.  A book on the topic is called God Gene:  How Faith is Hard Wired into Our Genes, Doubleday, 2004 by Dean Hamer.  In personality traits such as discussed here multiple genes of small effect are operating