In Maclean's, Colby Cosh asks: "What if the 'organized' bit in 'organized religion' is actually the useful half?"
Cosh's article was inspired by a University of Saskatchewan paper which found, among other things, that:
plugging in the religious-identity variable instead of the attendance variable, there is no benefit left. Doing religion is linked with a lower risk of depression; being religious isn't. This echoes a finding made by Baetz's team in 2006, when they found that "worship frequency" was negatively associated with a range of psychiatric problems—depression, mania, panic disorder, social phobia—but spiritual identity was positively associated with most of them.
In other words, it's not enough to say you're religious, or even actually believe in religion A or B. You must do religion.
This isn't surprising news to anyone familiar with Cardus. We've been talking about the importance of "church" (as opposed to mere spirituality) for quite some time. Search for "church" on the Cardus website and you'll get over a thousand matches.
But that's not really the interesting part of Cosh's article. He notes that "the apparent psychic benefits from going to church don't seem to inhere in the beliefs or attitudes inculcated there—but the model also factors out purely social effects of churchgoing." He then wonders what would happen if you "make a bunch of atheists turn up in person someplace every seven days, to perform various non-believing rituals and maybe have some coffee, and contrast those who stick closely to the regimen with equally assiduous church attendees."
It's a great question, and I'd love to see the results. But I wonder, why is it that we would have to "make" the atheists do this? Why is there not a sample of atheists who do this type of thing on a regular basis which we can measure; why no atheist church?
Cosh notes that Alain de Botton has been advocating for the "uses of religion" for some time and has even written a book about it. This isn't a new idea. The godless republicans of the French revolution tried that way back in the 1790s with their Temple of Reason. Why not study attendees at the godless temples? Are there any? It's a good question.
My hunch is that the answer to that question actually sheds light on the relationship between belief, practice, and community. Perhaps the benefits of religion can't quite be reduced to getting together to perform rituals and drink coffee. After all, there are plenty of places where atheists (and agnostics, and religious folk) get together to perform rituals and drink coffee. The baseball stadium, the House of Commons, political party conventions—you name it. Are there benefits from these as well? How do they compare to getting together to worship a god? Again, it's an open question—perhaps there are great benefits of getting together to cheer on the Jays or Justin Trudeau. But it seems to me that the motivations for getting together in the particular way that religious people do, matter, and it seems to be unique, and it might have more to do with, you know, God.