Don’t Worry, Be Happy

When film director Martin Scorsese updated the 1962 thriller Cape Fear, he made one significant change: He turned the crazed villain into a Bible-quoting, Pentecostal Christian with a cross tattooed across his back. In a scene where he tries to rape a woman, he shouts, "Are you ready to be born again?" The message is clear: People who believe the Bible are deranged-and even dangerous. Scorsese was giving expression to an assumption common in the secular establishment in the media and academia today: the assumption that religion is harmful to mental health. The idea goes back to Sigmund Freud, who regarded belief in God as a neurosis. But in a recent interview in Christianity Today, Christian psychiatrist David Larson exposes that to be a myth. All through his psychiatric training, Larson says, he was repeatedly told that religious people are more neurotic. But when he examined the empirical data, he found exactly the opposite. He found that religious people are actually healthier than the general population, both mentally and physically. For example, in a literature review, Larson discovered that 19 out of 20 studies showed religion playing a positive role in preventing alcoholism. And 16 out of 17 studies showed a positive role in reducing suicide. Religious commitment was associated with lower rates of mental disorder, drug use, and premarital sex. People who attend church regularly even show much lower blood-pressure levels. One of the most striking differences Larson found is connected to divorce rates. Religiously committed people report much higher levels of satisfaction with their marriage and much lower rates of divorce. That, in turn, significantly reduces their incidence of problems related to divorce, such as stress, depression, and even physical disorders. For example, divorced men show a dramatic increase in cancer rates. As Larson puts it, "The effect [of divorce] is like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for the rest of your life." These are not facts we hear much about. Larson says the empirical data on the positive effects of religion are often ignored or even distorted in professional reports. For example, a recent article in Psychology Today argued that religion has little influence on whether people give money and time to charities. Apparently the author completely overlooked the many studies revealing that most charitable giving in the United States is by religious people. The standard view that associates religion with psychological problems does have one small kernel of truth, however. Larson found that people who believe in Christianity but don't practice it do experience greater stress. People who believe in God but who neglect church attendance and Bible-reading, who are divorced or abuse alcohol, show higher rates of anxiety than the general population. In short, the inconsistent Christian suffers greater stress than the consistent atheist. So the lesson from psychiatry is not what the movie makers think, nor what the mental health profession teaches. The empirical evidence shows that committed Christians are actually happier and suffer less mental illness than the general population. But the positive benefits go only to those who live by their beliefs. The most miserable person of all is the one who knows the truth-and yet doesn't obey it.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary