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.