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Defining Religion

Many subjects, including philosophy, theology, sociology, and psychology, define religion. In a philosophical sense, people often explain religion through the argument about the existence of God. Epicurus once stated there is a natural conception of god as a blessed and immortal anthropomorphic being. He is a conception shared by all human beings, even though in most, humans obscure him by a veneer of false beliefs. For example, people recognize that gods are vengeful or that they govern our lives, turn the heavens and so on (Sedley, 1998). Epicurus stated that people grant god with their own moral values, especially the competitive values of political society (Sedley, 1999). By the same means, the Epicurean reversion to the true conception of divinity as tranquil and detached is also a rediscovery of the natural human goal - tranquility (Sedley, 1999). This philosophical explanation shows the relation of religion to a person’s mental state. However, it discards the bias that religion can only influence positive attitude and behavior to a person. Based on Epicurus’ philosophy, when an evil man creates a god, the god will in turn be evil; while a good man creates a good god, where he can identify his own good values and beliefs. For Epicurus, all imagination consists in understanding images which enter us from outside (Sedley, 1998). Thus, a god or gods may only be ordinary inventions of humans, locally created in the likeness of their images (Sedley, 1998).

Kant also tried to explain the mysteries of religion. However, unlike Epicurus, Kant’s interpretation of God is not purely ethical, but also cosmological, physico-theological and ontological (Rossi, 2004). With this belief, Kant argues that within every human, there is the potential of realizing the ‘highest good’. The highest good lies on the claims about the relation between people’s way of leading a virtuous moral life, and their satisfaction of need for happiness (Rossi, 2004). Thus, Kant also defends that religion or religious beliefs may produce positive results for the person depending on what the religion is teaching, or on how strong the faith of that person is.

However, while there were those who tried to define religion, we cannot deny that all explanations still need improvement or growth, because it still cannot pinpoint what religion is and if God exists or not. As mentioned by an earlier writer, there is no word more difficult to define than religion (Clark, 1958). The three reasons for this are: people individualized religion; the strong feeling of the person for his or her religion; and the different purposes of the person defining religion. But with the effort to generalize the definition of religion, scholars brand and define it simply as a worldview that includes beliefs and experiences. They also link it with organized and nonorganized practices often related to a supernatural being or power (Levin and Vanderpool, 1991; Mickley et al, 1995). It is an organized set of beliefs, practices, and symbols designed to promote closeness to a higher power and include the understanding of one’s relationship with and responsibility to others (Larson et al, 1997). Similarly, Davis (2004, p.2) defined it as a formal way individuals in groups gather to worship God. People culturally influence its dimensions, which creates different beliefs and practices (Simpson and King, 1999) on different areas of human concern such as health, for instance, whether mental or physical. We can see this as a fact, as  we can notice the state of mind of people from different religion differs from one another. They differ in the way they see reality, and on handling, accepting or noting ideas. Often, religious beliefs can subject the person into a dogmatic disposition, whereas the person automatically rejects all ideas or beliefs outside the core of his or her religion. While there are some who are open to other ideas, the person usually defends his or her religion. Such actions show person’s attitude and behavior, thus, showing the influence of religion to that person’s way of thinking. Given these conditions, and because of the key fact that people base religion on their own view and understanding, researchers assume it to produce psychological implications, increasing the interests to find out the link between religion and psychology (Saroglou, 2003). The psychology of religion is the discipline that studies religion and religious phenomena using psychological theories, ideas, and methods (Saroglou, 2003). The focus of such discipline is on how religion interacts with personality, biology, and culture and with the multiple dimensions of human being and its development in society, for instance, on cognitive, affective-emotional, relational, social, and moral dimensions (Saroglou, 2003).

Definition of Mental Health

Mental health may not be as complex to define as religion. The Health and Welfare Canada (1988) define mental health as the capacity of the individual, the group and the environment to interact with one another. They engage in ways that promote subjective well-being, the best development and use of mental abilities (cognitive, affective and relational), individual achievement and collective goals consistent with justice and conditions of fundamental equality attainment and preservation.

Similarly, but more simple, the World Health Organization (2001, p.1) define mental health as an individual’s state of well-being in which he or she realizes his or her own abilities. Mental well-being means the individual can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to contribute to his or her community (WHO, 2001). Thus, mental health is the foundation for well-being and effective functioning for an individual and for a community (WHO, 2004). WHO associates it with behavior at all stages of life (WHO, 2004). Thus, they also associate it with physical health, with evidences from studies that social problems associated with mental ill-health include alcohol and drug use, crime, and dropout from school (WHO, 2004).

Studies on the Relation between Religion and Mental Health

Many studies have explored and confirmed the positive link between religion and mental health. One study is Koenig, George and Titus’ (2004) investigation on the effect of religion and spirituality on social support, psychological functioning, and physical health in medically ill hospitalized older adults. The participants subjected in the study were 838 consecutively admitted patients aged 50 and older to a general medical service. Registered nurses who were willing to help the researchers interviewed the participants. In the study, the researchers measured both religion and spirituality. They measured the religions of the patients through organizational religious activity (ORA), nonorganizational religious activity, intrinsic religiosity (IR), self-rated religiousness, and observer-rated religiousness (ORR). They also looked into and measured the demographics of the patients with the use of regression models. Social support, depressive symptoms, cognitive status, cooperativeness, and physical health (self-rated and observer-rated) were the dependent variables. The results of the study showed and confirmed the positive link between religion and mental health. They found that religiousness and spirituality consistently predicted greater social support, fewer depressive symptoms, better cognitive function, and greater cooperativeness. They confirmed religion’s association with greater social support, better psychological health, and to some extent, better physical health.

Coping and adjustment in the psychological stress of aging is one of the main concerns in mental health issues. A survey conducted by the American Healthcare Corporation (1980-1981) on the community-dwelling adults age sixty and over in the United States found that most of their respondents believe that religion helps them in times of stress and unhappiness. Similarly, the Princeton Religion Research Center (1982), found that 58 percent of their sample reported that religion comforts and supports their everyday lives, with adding 29 percent who confirms that their attitude on religion is most true.

On the other hand, Koenig et al (1988) conducted a negative approach by asking respondents to comment on the statement, “I rely very little on religious beliefs when dealing with stress and difficulties". As expected, most of the respondents or 73 percent of them, disagreed on the statement.

In mental care, mental practitioners also use spirituality as a tool. Greasley, Chiu, and Gartland (2001) conducted a study that explores the issue of spiritual care on mental health nursing. They conducted a series of focus groups, with the aim to gain the views of service users, carers and mental health nursing professionals about spirituality and spiritual care provision in mental health nursing. The study found that spiritual care associates with the person's way of recognizing sense of meaning and purpose to life which he or she may, or may not, express through formal religious beliefs and practices. Also, the study found that religion associates with the quality of interpersonal care in terms of the expression of love and compassion towards patients. It showed that religion is a sensitive issue in performing mental health care, thus stressing the great role that religion’s play the patient’s well-being and recovery.

Similarly, Fawcett and Noble (2004) explored the potential tension between the nature of spiritual care and evidence-based professionalism. However, based on the literatures cited, they found there is no clear description or guidelines on what spiritual care is. It also found there are still many challenges that researchers should address such as exploring religion’s relation with nursing care.

Gartner (1996) found similar positive results. Through an extensive and intensive review of literatures, Gartner (1996) found positive associations between religion-spirituality and well-being, marital satisfaction, and general psychological functioning. Similarly, Sethi and Seligman (1993) confirmed that people who hold fundamentalist religious beliefs are typically more optimistic, hopeful, and religiously involved than those who hold moderate religious beliefs. On the other hand, moderates are more optimistic, hopeful, and religiously involved than those who hold liberal. However, on the contrary, Gartner (1996) also confirmed negative associations with suicide, delinquency, criminal behavior, and drug and alcohol use. In addition, they found that religion associates with several psychopathological issues such as authoritarianism, rigidity, dogmatism, suggestibility, and dependence (Gartner, 1996). Religion can also develop discontentment or anger towards God, which can result in a negative mental state (Gartner, 1996).

Ohm (2003) conducted a systematic assessment of the Islamic faith, with emphasis on the African-American Muslim. Several of the Muslims interviewed confirmed how Islam influences them to live a positive way of life. For them, spiritual dictates cause health protection. They referred to “self-actualization” as a goal consistent with their faith. Muslims also put emphasis on cleanliness of the body, mind, spirit, and environment, which should help prevent disease and emotional or mental confusion, verifying the influence of religion on a positive mental state.

Religion produces or promotes a sense of faith and hope to an individual. Both are two positive human contexts that can be helpful in promoting a positive mental health. For instance, Gangdev (1998) conducted a study to test the positive effect of religious belief in treating obsession disorders. The subject of the study was a 25-year old female with an obsessive-compulsive disorder. The researcher used a Christian style cognitive therapy as the treatment for her condition. After the treatment, the female subject counters her doubts with the conviction that Christ will help her on her every move. The study found that her approach works, at least as long as the researcher can check her progress. Gangdev (1998) concluded that religion or religious faith can have a healing effect and can be compatible with cognitive treatment, thus rapid progress in treating obsession can be possible.

As cited previously, religious beliefs can prevent the substance abuse and other negative practices that may harm both mental and physical health. Wallace Jr et al (2003) explored the relation between religiosity and abstinence. It also explored the extent to which race differences in religiosity may help to explain the consistent finding of race differences in adolescent substance use (Wallace Jr., et al, 2003). The samples used in the study were large nationally representative samples of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders from the “Monitoring the Future” project. The main objective was to examine the relations between religion, race, and abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and illicit drugs other than marijuana. The study found that African-American adolescents are more likely to abstain from substance use and to be religious. They also found religion as a strong predictor of abstinence on White Americans. Wallace Jr et al (2003) concluded that we can use religion as a shield against the thoughts of taking illegal drugs or its abuse. Similarly, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2002) in the US reported in 2002 that youths aged 12 to 17 who base their decisions on their religious beliefs were less likely to use cigarettes, alcohol, or illicit drugs. They are above youths who reported that religious beliefs do not influence how they decide. The same positive results reflect on youth who attend religious services and those who give importance to their religion. 

Apart from substance abuse, several studies also report the positive impact of religiosity on teens. For instance, there were reports about the high levels of religiosity link with avoidance of low levels of delinquency, such as theft or vandalism (Elifson et al, 1983; Donahue and Benson, 1995). Also, being religious or having a strong religious belief can also prevent teens from engaging from sexual activities (Donahue and Benson, 1995; Moore et al, 1995; Shekrat and Ellison, 1999). Researchers also found links between religiosity and preventing antisocial act of teenagers and promoting of positive moral value (Donahue and Benson, 1995; King and Furrow, 2001).


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