The Grapevine

Belief In God Gives Lonely Religious People A Purpose In Life

Religious people who experience loneliness and poor social connections in their life turn to god as a substitute, according to new findings. Researchers from the University of Michigan (UM) revealed how these individuals lean on their belief system to deal with a lower sense of purpose in life.

The paper titled "When God is your only friend: Religious beliefs compensate for purpose in life in the socially disconnected" was published in the Journal of Personality on Aug. 5.

The findings of this study build upon previous research from UM suggesting that people who experience social disconnection in their lives are more likely to see human-like qualities in things like pets, imaginary beings and God.

"For the socially disconnected, God may serve as a substitutive relationship that compensates for some of the purpose that human relationships would normally provide," said lead author Todd Chan, a doctoral student in the UM Department of Psychology.

The researcher team looked at responses from nearly 20,000 people over three studies. The participants described their purpose in life, their levels of loneliness, the quality of their friendships and of course, their religious beliefs.

People with a poor social life generally seemed to derive comfort from having a religious belief system, almost as if to serve as a "substitute" for a friend. They may leverage these beliefs for comfort until they were able to reconnect again. The idea of having a God who valued them offered a sense of a purpose, which would normally be strengthened by human relationships. 

But those who had a relatively better social life did not enjoy much of an additional benefit for their purpose in life when they viewed their God as a friend. "In other words, people mostly benefit from leveraging religion and turning to God as a friend only when they lack supportive social connections," Chan explained.

There was no implication that socially disconnected people were more likely to become religious if they were not already, the researchers emphasized. Previously, a 2016 study on Romanian migrants also revealed how seeing God as a best friend appeared to have a protective effect for lonely older adults in this group.

One of the migrants in the study, a 70-year-old named Ileana, described how she felt disappointed with friends but felt "understood" by her God. While the new findings illustrated how religion and God could compensate for loss of purpose among the lonely, they were not able to restore purpose to the extent comparable to those who were socially connected.

"These results certainly do not suggest that people can or should rely on God over people for purpose," said co-author Oscar Ybarra, professor of psychology and faculty associate at the UM Institute for Social Research. "Quality human connections still remain a primary and enduring source of purpose in life."