Scientific Study of effects of Religious Belief

The 1st September 2007 issue of the New Scientist magazine has an article about a scientific study into religion. This article has some interesting results, which have some relevance to Hinduism.

A study by Daniel Baston compared non-religious people with religious people grouped into three classes. What he termed extrinsic religious people, who attend religious functions for social reasons; intrinsic religious people who were motivated by their beliefs to attend religious activities; and finally what he calls quest religious people, who question and explore their beliefs and spirituality.

Baston found that the extrinsic religious people were even less helpful to people from different backgrounds than overt non-believers. By contrast those with intrinsic religious beliefs showed greater compassion and reduced prejudice when compared to non believers or those with extrinsic beliefs. The quest believers also had greater compassion and lack of prejudice. These quest believers were likely to show intolerance of behaviour which was considered immoral, but were the most tolerant and helpful to people exhibiting this behaviour. Another study saw increased generosity and cooperation with others from intrinsic believers and quest believers when compared to both non-believers and extrinsic believers.

How is this relevant to Hinduism? Well, I am sure that all religions have some believers in each of the above categories, but it seems to me that Hinduism encourages spiritual development, so that followers are encouraged to become intrinsic and quest believers. Hinduism, and other Dharmic religions, see spiritual progress as an individual’s responsibility.

In contrast, the Abrahamic religions see salvation as being the responsibility of God. The follower of these religions has only to “accept” the religion to be “saved”. This means that there is less encouragement to seek spiritual advancement. Indeed, there may even be discouragement, as any expression of ideas that don’t follow the cannon will be seen as heretical.

Another study mentioned in the article found that there was a correlation between a dualistic view of religion, with strong belief in a God and a devil, than in countries where the predominant view is monistic, with strong belief in God but no particular belief in the devil. Though this study looked at different Christian denominations, I think that statistics show that it can also apply to other religions. For exaple the homicide rate in India is lower than that in the United States (from nationmaster statistics), which has a high belief in the devil (In the USA 96% of the population believe in God and 76 percent in the devil).

Do these statistics reflect on a religion’s value? I think in a way they do. If a religion professes to encourage morality and a belief in a good God but the followers of the religion show more prejudice than non believers, this points to some failure. The fact that Hinduism actively encourages the type of belief that correlates with improved tolerance is yet another pointer to its value. Of course this is only a secondary affect of spiritual advancement, not a direct aim in itself, but I see the results as encouragement to Hindus.

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