Research seems to indicate that religious belief is associated with higher levels of life satisfaction and happiness, and lower levels of depression, suicidal thoughts and drug abuse.
On the same token, a recent study shows that religious belief in children is correlated with less altruistic behaviour.
I have a hypothesis about the positive effects of religion. While religious entities are fictional, the everyday application of the concepts still have a positive benefit to people’s lives, because that’s how our brains work.
In clinical psychology a technique called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is often used to treat unhelpful behavioural and thinking patterns, such as depression, eating disorders and addiction. In CBT the patient is encouraged project and externalise the unhelpful pattern of behaviour on to an external entity, a ‘demon’ if you will.
This allows the patient to separate themselves from the pattern of behaviour, and also allows them to recognise the pattern when it presents itself. Both of these factors then make it easier to manage the behaviour when it presents itself.
What important to note here, is that even though the entity the patient is a fiction, and even though patient them self is aware that it’s a fiction – the projection is still a helpful way to ‘trick’ the brain.
Religious belief can be seen in the same light. For example a religious person who believes that a craving for alcohol is the devil at work, is thinking in very much the same way that a patient of CBT is.
A second way that religious belief can be beneficial is the establishment of routine. Religious people, and in particular Muslims who have a five time a day prayer routine, have a routine of religious rituals of prayer and self-reflection.
I would argue that the irrational (read: genuine belief in entities for which there is no strong evidence) religious belief are not necessary in order to produce these positive effects.
Religion has been effective in producing these positive effects, because religion is already well established and well funded. But a government or school program to teach and encourage mindfulness, and other positive psychology techniques like Three Gratitudes would confer all the benefits and without the irrationality and bigotry that often comes with religion.