Can Our Friends Make Us Sick?

I was listening to an interesting discussion on NPR yesterday about friendship. In the course of the interview, author Carlin Flora said that not having enough friends has the same health impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. According to her research, we should all have 5 good friends. (Introverts need fewer, but stronger connections, and extroverts need more connections.) These social connections— friends, relatives, neighbors, colleagues—improve our quality of life as well as our odds of survival.

One small part of this conversation about friends really caught my attention. Flora was asked if friendships made in churches are the reason the religious seemed happier. And she replied, “Yes. Churches are really in the friendship business.” According to Flora, friendship is the secret ingredient that keeps people coming back.

While churches bring the like-minded together for social networking, we know that they also provide validation for ideas that cannot stand on their own outside of religion, reinforcement that members are “good, Christian people” and relief from solipsistic loneliness and fears of the unknown. Not only is the person sitting next to you a potential friend and spiritual cheerleader, but you’ve also got an unconditional friend in God and his son (for Christians), who both live inside your head and hear and/or answer your prayers. Ironically, outside of a religious context, we would label this behavior as a mental health concern.

This brings together the confluence of two ideas, religion as friend-finder and religion as illness. In Daniel Dennett’s book, aptly titled “Breaking the Spell,” he likens religion to a cultural parasite. Like germs released through a sneeze, religions “…exploit similar mechanisms, such as irresistible urges to impart stories or other items of information to others, enhanced by traditions that heighten the length, intensity, and frequency of encounters with others who might be likely hosts.”

Friends can infect and re-infect each other, and the virus attempts to spread to others in the community through various forms of outreach. The germs are passed on to offspring at birth, too, and reinforced throughout childhood. We cannot, then, as both Dennett and Peter Boghossian have mentioned, feel anger or hostility towards people who do not realize they’ve been infected with a parasite. We can only accept them and try to help them help themselves. In other words, we cannot cure them if they do not understand they have an illness.

The world is full of people infected by religion. How did it take hold? More importantly, why are some of us not infected? How have we been cured? For those born into faith, it seems that there must be some sort of anti-dogma tendencies in our hard-wiring.

Perhaps the answer is just simply that, at one point in our development as a species, we needed god. And now that we don’t, we are, as a whole, slowly evolving, moving away from the need for god to comfort and to provide “explanations.” Maybe it’s no longer in our genes. As more of us befriend each other, as we come out to our religious friends that we are not believers and raise our children without dogma, we are slowly eradicating the religious virus. We still need our friendships, but fewer of us will make our friends sick.


25 responses to “Can Our Friends Make Us Sick?

  1. Thanks for pinpointing why I’ve often felt envious of churchgoers… even though I reject religion. Being big into the bike culture (and mountainbiking, specifically) as well as music, I’ve never had problems making new friends, but there’s something about the regular Sunday gathering and all the church-ey talk in coffee shops that makes me feel a bit left out. Not enough to jump aboard this delusional party train though… As always, thanks for the great post! I still want to see you more active on Twitter. 😉

    • Thanks, Trevor. Hope all is going well with your music! I am still a little overwhelmed by Twitter! I get what you’re saying about church…There is warmth in a community of people that share similar values and interests.

  2. Very interesting post, Deborah.

    The social pressure to remain in the fold can be intense, as you well know.

    When we left the church, people thought there were all kinds of terrible reasons why we made our decision. Was our marriage in trouble? Was one of us addicted to drugs? It was quite an ordeal to assure everybody that we were just happier outside of their community.

    But we did recognize very quickly that social connections dried up very quickly. We never realized the number of people we normally socialized with at or after church. There were our kids’s former teachers, our former students, people from the other side of town, etc.

    Once we no longer attended church, we no longer had regular contact with all kinds of people.

    That was the passive pressure. The active pressure came in “casual” comments in town: “We haven’t seen you in ages!” or “We miss you at church” or “Don’t worry about the doctrine or dogma, just come back for the community.”

    First of all, if you miss us, you can pick up the phone or send us an email. Second of all, I miss you too, but I don’t miss church. And finally, I can’t tacitly condone doctrine or dogma just so it’s easy to hang out. Can’t we just get a coffee or something?

    I think church makes it easy–too easy–to build a social network, and one sees how fragile that network is once you remove the church element. We probably have lots in common with these people, but we never get past the church element, and that’s a pity.

    • deosullivan3, Interesting experience. It says a lot about the church community. I find it particularly interesting that the assumption was that you and your wife had personal problems…Hopefully, you’ve found some like-minded friends where you are? I was just having this discussion with another friend today–she said Boulder, Colorado, seems to be the place to go if you want to meet a lot of nonbelievers!

  3. 10 years ago when we moved back to this community after some time overseas, I tried to do the church thing. Being “new” in town, I figured this was a way to get re-integrated and make some new friends (for all of us). As far as the religious aspect of it, that fell under fake-it-til-you-make-it. I rousted all 4 kids every Sunday morning, and dragged them to church. We sat through the service, and went home. Every time. I was rarely approached by anyone, other than a brief hello from folks I already knew. I never did feel any sort of connection to the sermons, the church, or anyone in it. It might have been that particular church, or maybe I was giving off some sort of non-believer vibe? I was already leaning away from any religious convictions I might have ever had, and this just confirmed it all for me. We stopped going and there was no more pressure for any of us to endure something that none of us really cared about.

    (is your page snowing…?)

    • Theresa, Yes! WordPress adds snow this time of year! (You are not going crazy!)

      I think I know the church you’re referencing, and it’s cliquish anyway. I think Catholic churches tend to be like that, too….

  4. As a point of clarification, especially since you mentioned Boghossian, I think it’s better to see faith as the virus or parasite, not religion. Faith is about ideas, beliefs and epistemology. Religion is family, culture, friends, etc.

  5. Debbie, I’m going to reply to your last comment on the previous thread here because it fits so well with this topic. Atheist is still a dirty word in the U.S., so lots of people avoid using it by calling themselves non-religious. Spiritual can mean almost anything from atheist-full-of-wonder to theist who doesn’t like attending regular services.

    I attended church for years as an atheist because I loved the people in the community. It was only when the sermons started turning to politics and my kids were old enough to be bothered by them that we quit going. I asked my students why people go to church, and they had all kinds of answers that had nothing to do with belief in God or doctrine.

    Here is a sampling of their answers: to promote the family business, to support a believing spouse, to avoid disappointing or angering family members, for the food down in the church hall following services, because many of their friends go, because they are lonely, they like the music, they are hedging their bets (Pascal’s wager).

    Admitting you are a non-believer is like coming out of the closet in many ways. For many people, it is much easier to call themselves unaffiliated than to deal with the haters.

    • Great comment, Patti.

      I had this conversation with my editor a few months ago–what do we call ourselves? Over twenty years ago, designating yourself as “atheist” didn’t have near the stigma it does now. And the definition of what it was to be an atheist was much more simple. As a woman, I really don’t like to label myself atheist because the associations with the word now mean belligerent, arrogant, hostile, without morals. There’s been a cultural and political backlash. It’s why I prefer humanist, naturalist, non-theist, non-believer or agnostic. Hopefully we will get to the point where not believing is the norm, and people will not be afraid of those who don’t believe. But for now, as you said, “For many people, it is much easier to call themselves unaffiliated than to deal with the haters.”

      The response from your students is interesting and really shows the shifting attitudes and views of our young people. So many of their answers, too, show that the relationship aspect of attending church is what’s important.

  6. Is it wrong to say that some of the friends I’ve had made me want to smoke 15 cigarettes a day…or take a dozen shots? I do think most go to church for the companionship; my very anti-religion husband once confessed that he had considered joining a church because he was lonesome. I found that revealing — I joined a church once, but to look for the divine, lol! Silly me, not a wonder it didn’t last eh? I am an introvert and didn’t care at all for the social aspects of religion; tho’ I did like the political pursuits of a Jesuit community in sheltering immigrants and feeding the poor.

    • @syrbal-labrys LOL. That’s very funny! Maybe you need to “quit” those friends who make you want to smoke. I can see people wanting to attend church for the social aspect, but I’m an introvert, too, and I’m more of a loner. The idea of helping the poor and down-trodden is also appealing to me. Too bad helping in the name of Jesus oftentimes comes at a cost.

      • I have quit those friends, lol! Tho’ I admit to taking a few shots first…

        And yes, religious political/social work does have a cost. To be fair the St. Leo’s community of Tacoma Washington is unlike any other parish in my experience; when Pope John Paul II announced his word trumped conscience, the Jesuit priest took his iron balls to the pulpit of St. Leos, refused to read the Papal Bull and preached a homily about the abuse of authority instead.

        I still miss that place and the courage I saw there; if only it had been a dominant view in the Church I chose as my Christian experience/experiment, I might have stayed. But ultimately, the tide of stupid misogyny and casual ignorance about poverty in the larger Catholic domain sent me on my solitary way.

  7. Lanning (on Police Recording): Ever since the first computers, there have always been ghosts in the machine. Random segments of code that have grouped together to form unexpected protocols. Unanticipated, these free radicals engender questions of free will, creativity, and even the nature of what we might call the soul. Why is it that when some robots are left in darkness, they will seek out the light? Why is it that when robots are stored in an empty space, they will group together, rather than stand alone? How do we explain this behavior? Random segments of code? Or is it something more? When does a perceptual schematic become consciousness? When does a difference engine become the search for truth? When does a personality simulation become the bitter mote… of a soul?

    ~ I, Robot

      • We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled that 60’s. That was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him seriously… All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their loss and failure is ours too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped create… a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody… or at least some force – is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.

        ~ Raoul Duke – “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

  8. I watched and noted this behavior in my youngest son. As a firm atheist I didn’t raise either of my three sons to be religious, but to think critically. My youngest though always challenged me. Whatever I said, or thought, or advised he would do the opposite. Worse, he refused to think critically, or take advice that was well meaning. He found a close friend during his early teens, and whatever that friend did my son was right there with him. There was no dangerous behavior, but there was silly, ill advised behavior. The friend found a girlfriend, and from there it was a slide for both boys into religion.

    I discovered, and so agree, that their religion was basically a “friend” oriented form of behavior. The people they became to know and relate to all encouraged each other…It was like a country club, or any other type of “club” which we all know and recognize…Eagles, Moose, Masons, etc.
    Humans are social creatures. They seek out others, and join with them to form various groupings, and social orders. It’s in our nature. Horse lovers seek out and join with horse lovers. Dog lovers do the same, as do car lovers, baseball lovers, art lovers, bikers, and on and on.

    My Son is one of the “Born agains”, and there is no logic, or rational argument that is able to sway him. It saddens me and as I am a social scientist there is now a wall between us that seem impenetrable.

    • @Denny Thanks for sharing your story. It is interesting that you raised your children without religion or belief, and yet one became a born again xtian. As you said, we are social creatures, but you wonder why he didn’t choose some other club. Again, it makes me wonder about our hard-wiring…Just curious–what sort of work or study does your son do now?

  9. Hey Debbie,
    ( On my cell)
    i see that the DFW area is going through the same weather system we are here in west Tennessee. I hope that you are safe and warm, as well as all your readers who are in its path.
    Take care.

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