Religion and Virtues: Why Practicing Makes a Difference

Jonathan Morgan

Hands crossed in prayerLast time I wrote about indexing, or how our actions allow us to point to and access deeper aspects of experience and reality.  It was a pretty heady conversation, so it’s worth grounding it in some data.  If what we do makes a difference in how we experience the sacred, then that should show up, right?  We should be able to notice the difference in some tangible ways.  No single study will prove this point, but to get an idea of the type of study I’m talking about, check out this research from Germany.

Two psychologists from the university of Zurich, Anne Berthold and Willlibald Ruch, set out to see if people who practiced their religion were more satisfied with their lives than those who claim a religious affiliation but don’t practice.  They were also testing whether such differences also showed up in people’s kindness, gratitude, forgiveness, and what made people happy.  As you might guess, practicing made a big difference. In fact, those who were affiliated with a religion but don’t practice didn’t differ at all from those who weren’t religious.  But, like most of these studies, we can’t just take these findings at face value.

Studying things like satisfaction with life, kindness, gratitude, and happiness is a pretty recent phenomenon within the field of psychology.  I know – it’s bizarre that a discipline devoted to understanding our psyche would neglect such virtues. But until about 20 years ago, psychological research was fixated on the ways our minds could go wrong, at the expense of all the wonderful ways our minds can go right.  The history of this change goes back further than 20 years, but the current poster child of studying strengths instead of weaknesses is Martin Seligman.  He’s founded the field Positive Psychology and spearheaded a whole new trajectory of research into character strengths and virtues (if you’re interested, you can check out some of his research here).

Which brings us to the latest research from Germany.  Berthold and Ruch are positive psychologists, so they’re interested in studying the parts of our lives that foster or inhibit character strengths.  For example, does being religious influence people’s kindness, gratitude, or persistence?  Given the way religion is often described as a storehouse for a culture’s virtues, this would seem to be a reasonable guess.  But the results from previous studies haven’t been so straightforward – some studies find positive correlations between religiosity and various character strengths while others find the reverse.

As is so often the case, religion is treated as a single and simple thing in these studies, so parsing out the actual relationship is really tricky.  For example, is it belonging to a tight community, saying daily prayers, dietary restrictions, or having faith that relates to higher levels of compassion?  If these things aren’t equally distributed in a different study, then the relationship may tilt in the opposite direction because it’s tracking totally different relationships beneath the same moniker of ‘religion.’*

Berthold and Ruch aren’t much more sophisticated, but they at least thought to track whether or not there’s a difference between those who practice their religion and those who are just religiously affiliated.  And as you might guess, it does make a difference, a really big difference.  Compared to their religious counterparts who don’t practice, those who do were significantly more attuned to gratitude, love, and appreciation of beauty.  And when those who practice were compared to non-religious individuals, the relationships with those virtues above became stronger, and kindness, teamwork, leadership, forgiveness, modesty, and hope were added to the list.  In other words, practicing their religion made a big difference in how people adopt and live out certain virtues.  The most dramatic sign pointing to the importance of practice is that there were no significant differences, on any of the measures, between those who were just affiliated and the non-religious individuals.

Along with character strengths, the team also analyzed people’s orientation to happiness.  As part of positive psychology, Seligman suggests that there are three paths to happiness that people tend to choose:

  • Hedonistic, or finding happiness in pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain.  That’s great as far as it goes, but it’s notoriously fleeting when pleasure is attached to comfort, tasty snacks, good feelings…you get the idea.
  • Engagement.  If this is your preferred path towards happiness, then you probably find it intensely gratifying to become absorbed in some activity that you’re good at, whether it’s rock-climbing or solving difficult programming problems.
  • Pursuit of meaning, where happiness is found by discovering the virtues that are important to you and cultivating those virtues, often in the service of some higher purpose.  While it sounds quite religiously laden, this final path isn’t necessarily religious – the atheist who has dedicated herself to the work of social justice would be an ideal of this third path.

There’s plenty to complicate this way of thinking about how people pursue happiness.  For one, we’re often all involved in a blend of each of these.  Say I’m drinking delicious and pleasurable coffee while engaged in writing for a purpose that I belief in; how should we categorize that experience?  Or, how do we think about the pleasure attached to an experience of deep empathy?  Despite the wrinkles within this framework though, it seems to capture something very true about how people organize their lives and the type of satisfaction derived from different paths.  And in the case of religion, it seems to be one of the only social institutions that consistently urges people towards the third path. According to Berthold and Ruch, those who practiced their religion were way more oriented toward meaning than the non-practicing affiliated and the non-religious.  This effect size was almost three times stronger than any of the differences in character strength described above.

The importance of religious practice for driving these differences really comes into view when we realize that there were no significant differences in character strengths or orientation to happiness between those who are affiliated, but don’t practice, and those who aren’t religious at all.  In other words, these groups were indistinguishable on all of the measures – just being affiliated with a religion didn’t make a difference in terms of values, character strengths, or orientation toward happiness.  Practicing religion seems to be what makes the difference.

One important caveat to these results: it’s not necessarily the religious character of these practices that’s making the difference.  This study may just be tracking coherence between action and value.  Maybe people who are oriented to meaning act on what they believe.  By picking out the religious people who practice their religion, the study has selected out a subset of people who have this coherence between belief and action.  They can then be meaningfully compared with those who are religious but don’t practice, but this distinction is collapsed among those who aren’t religious.

But, even if that’s the case, the point remains that practice is making a big difference in what people value and how they live out those values.  Remember my indexing argument?  I suggested that action points to and opens up dimensions of experience that we otherwise can’t access.  This study would seem to suggest that moral layers of reality are just like that: talking about gratitude doesn’t make you grateful, and belonging to a community that advocates for kindness doesn’t make you kind.  But practicing just might.


*If you haven’t yet picked up on this, religious studies scholars spend most of their professional lives arguing that religion is complicated.

3 thoughts on “Religion and Virtues: Why Practicing Makes a Difference

  1. Richard A. Fericy

    Jonathan, I always enjoy reading your writing, keep it up, I’d like to be able to read a book of yours one day.

    1. Jonathan Morgan Post author

      Thanks Richard, that’s encouraging to hear. I’ll keep you posted on the book, but don’t hold your breath!

  2. Pingback: The Good Life | Exploring My Religion

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.