Saturday, January 10, 2009

Religion and Self-Control

A study by a University of Miami psychology professor found that religion is a significant contributor to health, longevity and achieving goals in life. Findings such as these are not new, as other studies have demonstrated the measurable positive benefits of religion. The author of this particular study, Michael McCullough, suggests that the reason for religion’s benefits is that religion encourages self-control. In another article he's quoted as saying, “The importance of self-control and self-regulation for understanding human behavior are well known to social scientists, but the possibility that the links of religiosity to self-control might explain the links of religiosity to health and behavior has not received much explicit attention.”

Self-control is, of course, an important characteristic in Scripture. It’s listed among the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians, and is one of the seven qualities that are highlighted in 2 Peter 1:5-7 as being of integral importance to developing a life that bears fruit. The big question is what is self-control if naturalism is true? For if naturalism is true, then our behavior is determined by the complex inner workings of our brain, completely beyond our control. In fact, under naturalism there is no “we” (or “I”) to control anything. There is no “ghost in the machine” (to cite Gilbert Ryle’s famous put-down of the belief in the soul), there’s just a machine. Whatever self-control is under naturalism, it’s not a self that controls the body’s urges and desires, or chooses to behave in ways other than what those desires dictate.

The classical view is that we are more than just our bodies, and hence we are able to make choices that are contrary to our physical desires and urges. If McCullough is correct that self-control is the essential trait that religion develops and that results in positive benefits to adherents, then one wonders how he would explain what self-control actually is. McCullough’s aim seems to be to study religion from an evolutionary standpoint, which is to say from a naturalistic standpoint. My guess is that he’s simply assumed a commonsensical concept of self-control without asking whether that concept is compatible with a naturalistic view of the world or not. It’s not, but that doesn’t seem to come into his thinking. Self-control only makes sense if there is more to us than our brains and bodies, if there is a ghost in the machine. Otherwise the machine just runs by itself, however its wiring or programming dictates.

So one problem for the naturalist is how we can have self-control if we are nothing more than complex biological machines. But there is another problem. How can something which is (from the naturalistic standpoint) not true be so beneficial? From the naturalistic standpoint it appears that it’s better to have false beliefs than true ones. But if this is so, then how can the naturalist account for an evolutionary development of things like science if we aren’t wired in such a way that true beliefs are advantageous to us? In other words, if evolution has given rise to creatures which survive and thrive better with false beliefs, then how can a naturalist trust his or her own belief-forming faculties with regard to things like evolution? It’s a conundrum from which naturalistic philosophers have been unable to extricate themselves, though many seem blissfully unaware of the problem.

In his book God: The Evidence, former outspoken-atheist-turned-theist Patrick Glynn also pointed out that religion has huge positive health benefits. For Glynn, it became impossible to square this with a naturalistic worldview. The mind and the body appear to be designed to function best with a religious worldview. This is perfectly consistent if the religious worldview is true. But to suggest that homo sapiens has evolved to function best with a religious worldview even though naturalism is true requires a lot of creative explanation that ultimately seems forced and contrived. It also undermines confidence in any of our beliefs, including the naturalist's belief in evolution. And there’s still no way to coherently account for something like self-control, let alone how such a thing can have positive benefits for anyone, if naturalism is true.

In an interesting twist, McCullough found that only people who were outwardly religious (as in being involved with religious institutions and behaviors) showed higher self-control. Just having a “spiritual” view of the world didn’t help promote self-control. It also doesn’t seem to help if one just attends church but isn’t really a believer. It’s only the true believers (what McCullough terms “intrinsically religious”) who show higher self-control, not the “extrinsically religious” who just go to church for perceived social benefits or out of habit or tradition.

McCullough suggests that secular people could get the same results even if they don’t believe, which is a strange suggestion since it seems to contradict his own findings. But he says, “People can have sacred values that aren’t religious values. Self-reliance might be a sacred value to you that’s relevant to saving money. Concern for others might be a sacred value that’s relevant to taking time to do volunteer work. You can spend time thinking about what values are sacred to you and making New Year’s resolutions that are consistent with them.”

Umm, okay. Except this is obviously rubbish. McCullough seems to think that it doesn’t matter what values you pick: just pick anything that’s important to you, call it “sacred” and watch as the self-control magically develops. It’s hard to see how this sort of intentional self-deception would work, especially since McCullough’s own study appears to indicate that it doesn’t. In such a case the person is only substituting his/her own preferences for a divine moral standard. How about if someone’s value is maximizing their physical pleasure or becoming wealthy while doing as little work as possible? Would these values promote self-control? Even in principle how could such a standard help develop self-control when it’s simply the person giving their own desires and interests the status of being sacred? The very idea of self-control presumes that one is denying their own immediate desires for a higher goal or purpose. It seems clear that the person has to believe that value or purpose has come from a higher source, even if their belief is mistaken. But to just make up your own "sacred values" seems pretty useless.

Never mind that McCullough could have discovered the importance of self-control just by reading a New Testament. But modern psychology seems to have a way of demonstrating that what those ancient writers had to say so long ago is a timeless wisdom that occasionally even modern unbelieving scholars are forced to notice when they’re paying attention.

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My ministry in Hungary involved teaching theology and training Hungarian church planters. I have a great interest in apologetics as well as missions.