Saturday, February 27, 2021

Is it Good for Us to Go to Church?

What will church be like “post-COVID”? (And really, what does “post-COVID” mean?) Moreover, when the effects of the pandemic subside, will it matter if we don't go back to church?

As far as I can tell, it seems like the most important parts of religious life are what COVID is restricting (like being together in the same room), which makes these questions particularly relevant.

(By the way, I chose this pic because "fifty" is misspelled, which brought a smile to my face and reminded me of how many times the slides for worship singing had errors.)

Scripture: It's a bit ambiguous in my reading as to whether Scripture tells us "to go the church" in the way we generally do in 21st century America. This is a huge topic, perhaps to be addressed at another time. 

Nevertheless, I'll affirm that the New Testament does, of course, underscore that the first followers of Jesus met together in worship (Acts 2) and that "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing..." (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Science: In this post, I'm particularly interested in what science says--Is it good for us to go to church, or put another way, to be religiously active? 

Bottom line: Scientific research supports the conclusion that religious life, or being “religiously active,” is good for human health. 

By “good,” I mean that, for individuals, religious life correlates statistically with the following: 

  1. Good for physical health 
  2. Good for mental resilience and happiness 
  3. Good for prosocial behavior 

How about for the society as a whole?
  • Being religiously active can be good via altruism, but it bad by restricting the use of medicine (blood transfusions and Jehovah’s Witnesses) or lead to overpopulation (restrictions on birth control) 
But here's one big catch: Religion can increase prejudice. A few years ago, I heard a talk by Robert Putnam who drew a distinction between "bonding" (in-group), and "bridging" (inter-group), social capital. Attending church per se does not increase “bridging social capital.” Religious life tends to be good at the first but not the second, and that leads to the correlation between religiosity and prejudice (see Robert Jones on the research conducted by PRRI). 

And here's a second catch: Our religiosity (to use the academic term) needs to be “intrinsic” and not “extrinsic”--as I've blogged before--that, it has to be authentic and essentially, not something we do for someone else.

In sum: As far as I can tell, yes, generally there are some positive indications from scientific research about going to church, but how we approach religious life correlates with whether it diverges ultimately into negative or positive outcomes.  

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