God and Self-control?

John Tierney’s column in the N.Y. Times Science pages (12/30/08) describes the new psychological findings that people who are religiously devout have more self-control than others. It’s old news that "religious people tend to do better in school, live longer, have more satisfying marriages and are generally happier." The self-discipline religious effect, however, only appears among intrinsic true believers and not among the socially conventional or extrinsically motivated religious.

Self discipline is also stronger among those engaged in religious institutions, more so than those reporting themselves to be generally "spiritual" and believing in a "spiritual force greater than any human being." But why? How do you explain the greater inner strength and self control among the more strongly engaged institutionally committed religious believers?

Psychologist Michael McCullough who has done the research, theorizes that it may be the belief that God has preferences for your personal behavior that strengthen one’s ability to follow through in everyday practice. Fear of God’s wrath doesn’t seem to be the cause, but rather the fact that the devout internalize their faith’s "sacred values." McCullough calls these institutionally "prefabricated" values, but Catholics would see them as infused with the Divine authority of Tradition.

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My own explanations of the new findings focuses in on the fact that intrinsic religion involves constant efforts to stay attentively present within a loving relationship with God and neighbor. This repeated directing of my conscious attention involves imagining the Other while simultaneously imagining God attending to me.--a double consciousness that intensifies my identity as a self-in-relationship. A strong continuing consciousness of self strengthens the power of self-directed acts of will.

Consciousness of being a member of a supportive group also strengthens my capacity to act as I want to act, despite resistance. With the evolved human brain’s abstract capacities, I can carry the group around with me in memory, as William James and St.Paul knew. This cloud of witnesses--present, absent, human and Divine-- strengthens my efforts to act. Always we find that small worshiping communities, and self-help groups like AA, call forth and empower an individual’s power to change.

Paul writes in Galatians that "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, SELF-CONTROL." (Gal5:22-23) The more I can attend to and live in God’s Spirit, the more I can receive the gift of acting on the desires God inspires me to value. The good news is that in and through Christ’s saving act we too are members of the Trinity.

For his part, self professed heathen John Tierney is offering to award Mike McCullough’s new book on forgiveness to the reader of his blog who can best answer the question: "Are there any religious or spiritual activities that help build your self self-control, or your child’s?" What do our readers have to say?

Sidney Callahan

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9 years 9 months ago
Members of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step spiritual programs (which borrowed just a bit from the Spiritual Exercises) report that they do not experience greater self-control so much as God removing not only their addiction but also their defects of character. This is true even for those who recognize only the 12-step group as their higher power, while remaining avowed atheists. As to atheists out of the recovery, the so called terrible trio of athiesim (Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens) seem to profess atheism for alturistic reasons, regarding religion and religious government as somewhat of a kleptocracy and a device for controling others rather than self. Of course, with love of humanity as their motivation, it could be argued that they are indeed God's unwilling instruments. They correctly point out that many professed atheists are quite moral, perhaps more so because they do so for philosophic reasons rather than out of a desire for eternal reward, while many professed believers, especially those who believe in "cheap grace" can be downright dastardly in their conduct. This seems to prove what our Lord says about purity of intent.

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