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.
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?