A New Year’s resolution you don’t often see

Start going to church.”

Apparently, you are likely to stick to all the default New Year’s resolutions — lose weight, save money, etc. — if you simply start going to church. At least, that’s what this NY Times article kind of says.

This is an awkward question for a heathen to contemplate, but I felt obliged to raise it with Michael McCullough after reading his report in the upcoming issue of the Psychological Bulletin. He and a fellow psychologist at the University of Miami, Brian Willoughby, have reviewed eight decades of research and concluded that religious belief and piety promote self-control.

I originally saw the article via a buddy on Facebook. And I left this comment:

One of the definitions of religious is to be extremely scrupulous or conscientious. I would say don’t go to church unless there is something truly drawing you. That said, I go to church every Sunday, and not out of habit because my church is 50 miles from my home. :)

Wait a second, you might be thinking. Aren’t you supposed to be one of those people who’s supposed to tell everyone about Christ? You know, like, a Christian does? Yeah, I am. But honestly, I’m tired of people getting into church looking to gain something worldly, like, if they spend X-amount of time at church on Sundays, and an occasional Saturday activity, then I’m going to get the job/house/car I want, the husband/wife I want, and the body of that model. No.

Obviously, there have been countless studies about the benefits of being religious and prayerful. So, of course, the social scientists who have observed this are wondering, what if people just go to church — will they get the benefits of better health, quality of life, love, etc.? You might think so, but even they have to admit it doesn’t work that way:

Does this mean that nonbelievers like me should start going to church? Even if you don’t believe in a supernatural god, you could try improving your self-control by at least going along with the rituals of organized religion.

But that probably wouldn’t work either, Dr. McCullough told me, because personality studies have identified a difference between true believers and others who attend services for extrinsic reasons, like wanting to impress people or make social connections. The intrinsically religious people have higher self-control, but the extrinsically religious do not.

I know from personal experience that there are people who go to church for all sorts of other reasons than God — finding a man or woman, to get clients, to meet some kind of social more. This is part of the reason why I say, stay home if you’re not really looking for something real when you think about going to church. A church is just a building, after all. I guess my opinion on this is heavily influenced by going to a small church, where you really get to know people and why they’re at church. I even knew someone who was religious — but also wanted a paying job in the church. Working for God doesn’t exactly pay the bills. In fact, the more you follow God, the more you find yourself giving of your worldly possessions — your time and your money. But the return is so much greater.

But if you continue into the article, I don’t like how it ends.

Religious people, he said, are self-controlled not simply because they fear God’s wrath, but because they’ve absorbed the ideals of their religion into their own system of values, and have thereby given their personal goals an aura of sacredness. He suggested that nonbelievers try a secular version of that strategy.


“Sacred values come prefabricated for religious believers,” Dr. McCullough said. “The belief that God has preferences for how you behave and the goals you set for yourself has to be the granddaddy of all psychological devices for encouraging people to follow through with their goals. That may help to explain why belief in God has been so persistent through the ages.”

Absorb the ideals of religion into a personal system of values, giving it an aura of sacredness? So, as an example of this, praying for our enemies, giving a feast for the poor and needy and giving your money away is simply taking those ideals of religion, adopting them into our personal system of values to give them an aura of sacredness for our personal goals? Wait, a second. That’s it! None of those examples — praying for our enemies, giving a feast for the poor and needy or giving your money away — really contributes to a person’s personal goals. What now?

1 Corinthians 1:18 — For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

1 Corinthians 1:20 — Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?

1 Corinthians 2:14 — But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nore can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

In the end, I love it how the social scientist is basically quoted, putting down that a belief in God is the granddaddy of all psychological devices.

Good sir, following God is not about following through with our own personal goals. It is about letting go of those goals and letting God work through us. Is that an even crazier statement? I suppose. But God did predict we’d be spouting what sounds like foolishness to the rest of the world.

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