Organised religion often gets a bad press. It is held responsible for corruption, intolerance, fanaticism, exploitation, declarations of holy war and rigid thinking. Ironically, peaceful existence of large numbers of people was first made possible by organised religion. It created society, solidarity, a sense of belonging and made agriculture, education and literacy possible. It inspired our laws and as a patron of the arts, creativity. People sometimes prefer to refer to themselves as spiritual rather than religious, but attending a religious service has surprising benefits, whether we are religious or not.
The main benefit is the sense of acceptance and identity. There is plenty of evidence that social contact and the feeling of belonging prolongs life. Rituals known and loved by a large group of people may not be seen as “useful” by non-religious folk, but what they do is enable synchronisation. This form of group cohesion is achieved by brains locking in to a common theme. When a song becomes a hit, millions of brains around the world synchronise. The internet has provided a new way for people to align without even being on the same continent, but actual physical presence increases this further. Emotion, movement, chanting and the recognition of patterns and rhythms have a powerful effect on the body and mind.
Recently ‘mirror neurons’ have been discovered in the brain. These are cells that respond to the actions of others as if one were carrying out the action oneself, thus provoking empathy. If music is involved in a religious service, the effect is enhanced. Singing together synchronises our heartbeats. Swedish research has found that joining a choir not only increases oxygen in the blood but triggers the release of oxytocin which lowers stress levels and blood pressure. Making spine-shivering harmonies with others seems to cause a cascade of deep, healing emotion in the singers and their audience. 60% of people with mental health issues see a distinct improvement a year after joining choirs, and many no longer meet the criteria for clinical depression; symptoms of other diseases (Parkinson’s, lung disease) also improve as well as posture, confidence and breathing. There is something unique and powerful about producing music with others.
“I don’t know what it is about sitting listening to a sermon,” said Agnes a 42 year old parishioner in South Wales, “But irrespective of the content, it makes me feel good. Many of the congregation are strangers to me, but we are all one community, and I like that.”
In the Christian religion, when the priest holds up his hand to bless the congregation, The Peace of the Lord be with you always, this promotes a sense of bonding, and triggers the all-important relaxation response. This is true of all organised religion.
Ritual is an extremely powerful force. The appeal of organised religion is not just intellectual and emotional, as those outside it may believe, it is physical. It taps into the sense that those who have been to the edge of death and back often speak of: the sense of the connection of all things, the universality of human consciousness. Such people often report feeling they were connected to all people everywhere, and all living things in nature, strongly contradicting the sense of separation and individuality many of us feel most of the time.
Though we are many, we are one body……