Carter: Could young people use more religion in their lives?

Here’s a column I never thought I would write: Maybe young people, particularly who suffer from anxiety, could use a little more religion in their lives these days.

Let me preface this a little bit, recognizing I’m putting myself and my personal beliefs out there isn’t going to win me a lot of fans. I’m not the least religious person I know, but I’m probably pretty close. I went to church a few times as a kid, but it wasn’t something I ever really latched on to and my parents never really pressed the issue. I had lots of questions about religion growing up that adults couldn’t really give me a straight answer about.


I’m not an atheist — I don’t doubt there is a God — but I’m not sure I believe he created man in his own image or looks anything like us. I kind of identify with the ancient religions that worshiped the sun. The sun gives us life, and if it ever burns out, we’re in big trouble. I think it’s healthy to believe there is something out there bigger than you that keeps the world in order.

However, I’ve always understood the message behind organized religion, regardless of denomination. Essentially, be a good person. Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t kill. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Help the less fortunate. Take responsibility for your actions.

What really rubbed me the wrong way about religion is how people who believe so strongly in their own faith believe it is the only way and that other religions are wrong or inferior. Over the centuries, those attitudes have been twisted and resulted in wars and murder. Few, if any, religions can say their hands are clean in this matter.

With that in mind, you hopefully can understand why I never thought I would be advocating for young people to take up religion. But I had a little bit of a revelation that other day, after I read and edited Frank Batavick’s recent column “Are you happy? Probably not,” then did a little more research about what might be affecting people’s happiness.

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I was fascinated by an article that appeared in Psychology Today by Nigel Barber, an evolutionary psychologist, titled “Are religious people happier?” The answer: Yes, but also no. The United States is considered a religious country, and people here who are religious describe themselves as happier. In countries like the Netherlands or Denmark, which are relatively godless, religious people report they are less happy.

However, as Frank’s column noted, these godless countries are also generally considered the happiest nations in the world, while the U.S. is farther down on the list. Also, within the U.S., states that are considered the most religious are also found to be the least happy. So what gives?

Barber explains that residents of highly developed countries are happy because their qualify of life is better — they expect to live longer without fear of extreme poverty. Because of that, they tend to have less need for religion. He expounds a bit on what Batavick had touched on: societies with a welfare state that redistribute income have less chance of falling into poverty and therefore, “have less need of religion as a salve.” Meanwhile, the U.S., which Barber writes still has gaps in government safety nets, remains more religious than Europe despite similar levels of economic development.

Third-world countries where living conditions are poor are likely to be more religious. Why? Because the basic function of religion, Barber argues, is coping with anxiety.

All of that is interesting, but the part that blew my mind was when Barber explained that there is good scientific evidence that prayer and other religious rituals have the same effect on our psyche — it slows your heart rate and shows other signs of physiological calming — as when a child uses a security blanket. He equates the effects of prayer on the brain as the same of anti-anxiety drugs.

In 2010, according to research by Medco Health Solutions, more than 1 in 5 Americans took medications for anxiety or depression. That’s 20 percent of our country. That’s a 22 percent increase since 2001. More recent studies show that number may have dipped slightly to 1 in 6, but that’s still a lot of people. And according to that research, approximately 80 percent of those individuals reported long-term use.

People, particularly younger generations, are becoming more anxious but less religious. Without advocating for one particular brand of religion, it sort of begs the question: wouldn’t it be healthier, not to mention cheaper, if young people turned to prayer and faith — in something, whatever it is — instead of just popping pills to cope? Just some food for thought.