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Sharon Badiei
Clarence Duff
PSYC 150
January 15, 2018
The Psychological Effects of Religion
For decades, social scientists have recognized that religion is a complex phenomenon, and the degree of religious involvement in each person has a direct result on their mental health. One’s relationship or opinion on religion is unique and dependent on factors such as their upbringing, their own morals, the morals of their community and those around them, etc. This research report will begin by examining the negative psychological effects of religion by way of cases including the mass suicide-murder of the People’s Temple of Guyana; and religious extremists found in the form of organizations such as ISIS and the Westboro Baptist Church in addition to research findings. It will also analyze the beneficial effects of religion on mental health, and end with a conclusion and summary.
Religion is as old as mankind, yet there has only been an increased interest on the effects of religion and spirituality on mental health in recent years. In the past, religion was thought to have a primarily negative influence on mental health, though now recent research suggests the relationship is more complicated. However, there is sufficient evidence that suggests group influence and group polarization can induce adverse consequences among communities bound by religion; this will be further analyzed.
On November 18, 1978, Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones ordered all congregants living in Jonestown, Guyana to commit mass suicide by cyanide poisoning. Over 900 people died that day, including over 200 murdered children. Forty years later, social psychologists continue to examine how Jones came to command such enormous influence over his followers’ thoughts and actions; the answer can be understood in terms of basic social-psychological concepts.
Jones has been credited with utilizing excellent techniques of persuasion. Members were gradually convinced through long sermons and taught to distrust contradictory views, while at the same time outside information was reduced. Jones appeared to have derived some of his techniques from social psychologists’ research, raising questions about research ethics and the future direction of cult research, says Philip Zimbardo, PhD, psychology professor at Stanford University. Zimbardo had found that Jones quite possibly learned his ability to persuade from famous social thinker George Orwell. 
Another factor that lead to the events at Jonestown was the effect of group influence. Many people were drawn to the concept the Peoples Temple presented: a communist ideology while preaching against discrimination and racism. As such the Peoples Temple attracted African-Americans especially. It can be argued that a group of people coming together not for reasons of genuine companionship or likeness but because they share common values or morals, emphasis is placed on those ethics and members may be pressured or influenced to act in accordance with them. Having the group relocated from an urban American environment to a remote jungle in Guyana may have made members feel uncertain and vulnerable, heightening group influence and groupthink. Jones convinced his followers that the American government was coming to murder them and torture their children, which ultimately resulted in group polarization as members of the Peoples Temple willingly committed suicide under Jones’ direction.
The phrase “religious extremism” describes faith-based actions that are deliberate attempts to cause harm to other people. While applicable to any religion, acts of oppression and violence from extremists are predominantly seen from Christianity and Islam. 
The Westboro Baptist Church, from Topeka, Kansas, is an infamous baptist church known for its use of derogatory hate speech: specifically against Muslims, Jews, LGBTQ+ people, America, etc. Founded by attorney Fred Phelps and composed of 70 members, the church is labeled as a hate group and is known to picket and protest at military funerals, celebrity funerals, and public events. Likewise, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, prominently known as ISIS, is a terrorist militant group that follows a fundamentalist doctrine of Sunni Islam. ISIS are generally known for killing dozens of people at a time (usually via public execution), crucifixions, as well as taking responsibility for various terrorist attacks around the world (suicide-bombings, mass shootings, etc.) The questions bears asking: How is one influenced to the point of religious extremism?
In a series of studies by York University, approximately 600 participants were placed in neutral or anxiety-provoking situations and then asked to describe their personal goals and rate their degree of conviction for their religious ideals. This included asking participants whether they would give their lives for their faith or support a war in its defence. 
Across all studies, anxious conditions caused participants to become more engaged in their ideals and extreme in their religious convictions. In one study, mulling over a personal dilemma caused a general increase toward more idealistic personal goals. In another, struggling with a confusing mathematical problem caused a spike in radical religious extremes. In yet another, reflecting on relationship uncertainties caused the same religious zeal reaction. 
Conclusively, researchers found that religious zeal reactions were most prominent among participants with bold personalities, who were already vulnerable to anxiety, and felt most hopeless about their daily goals in life.
Studies on the influence of religion on physical health suggest that religion usually, but not always, plays a positive role. A positive influence has been found in research involving subjects of all ages, both genders, and a variety of religions (i.e., Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims). Respondents from a number of regions and ethnic groups have been used in a broad range of research designs that measured religiosity in a variety of ways.
 Of physical health, religiousness was related to decreased smoking and alcohol consumption, as well as positively effecting heart disease and blood pressure. In the case of the elderly, physical health supported religious activities, more than the other way around. Religious commitment and participation seemed to affect longevity as well, especially in men. Suicide rates were consistently found to have a negative correlation with religiosity. Suicide ideology was also lowered, as well as more disapproving attitudes towards suicidal behaviour. 
An interesting finding was that church attendance was a major predictor in suicide prevention, even more than employment. There is a negative correlation between drug use and religiousness. Church attendance was found to be more of an indicator of drug abstinence than parents’ religiosity or feelings about religion. Most research findings support that religious affiliation, especially participation, lowers the rate of alcohol consumption.
Religion is indeed proven to have psychological effects on people, subject to one’s extent of religious involvement. The more appropriate question to pose is whether these effects are adverse or beneficial. In the case of Jonestown and religious groups such as WBC and ISIS, it can be argued that the negative psychological impact of religion is a result of group influence. On the other side, studies have proven that religion boasts a multitude of positive effects on mental health, including a decreased use of alcohol, drugs, and smoking. Conclusively, whether religion will have a positive or negative psychological effect is dependant on the individual and the situation; nevertheless, there is no denying that there will be one.

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