The title of R.E.M.’s iconic 1991 hit “Losing My Religion” comes from an expression common to the southern United States, which means to be frustrated, desperate, and at the end of one’s rope. According to a new study, the literal and metaphorical meanings of the phrase might be closer than they appear. Institute for Family Studies linked skyrocketing “deaths of despair” among middle-age white Americans—from causes such as suicide and alcohol abuse—to a loss of faith. But two Rutgers–Camden experts believe the truth may be more complicated.
“A lot of research on religion uses frequency of church attendance as the main variable, which leaves out many people who express their faith in other ways,” said Charmé, whose scholarship focuses on the anthropological, psychological, and philosophical dimensions of religious and ethnic identity. “The more important question is not whether a person is religious, but how. For the growing number of people who identify as ‘spiritual but not religious,’ faith is an individual search for meaning rather than a communal practice rooted in history and tradition.”
Nicole Karapanagiotis, associate professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion, echoed that sentiment. Karapanagiotis said that some people may not attend church but instead practice their religion in other ways, such as prayer groups or Bible study. She noted that the study did not account for individual and solitary religiosity, such as listening to a religious podcast.
As for the benefits of religion, Charmé said some research suggests that people who attend religious services regularly tend to be kinder, more altruistic, and more generous. But the protective effect of religious affiliation on mental health and wellness is primarily due to social connection, not religion itself. Participation in a political or social organization provides the same benefit. Some researchers believe there is a correlation between religion and happiness; scholars think this is likely due to the tremendously beneficial sense of community religion provides.
“Any loss of religious group practice would also result in decreased feelings of overall community—a very important contributor to human happiness,” Karapanagiotis said. “It would be interesting to see if a decline in other social groups would have a similar effect.”
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