Why Religion Might Make You Better Behaved and Happier

University of Miami researchers David McCullough and Brian Willoughby have issued a report claiming that religion promotes self-control, described in this recent New York Times article.  The article, written by a non-religious person, evaluates the claim backed up by other research that religion makes people better-behaved and overall happier that non-religious folk.  The most fascinating part to me was that McCullough and Willoughby do not conclude that the success religious people enjoy is attributed to  obedience to external rules imposed by a religious belief system, but rather to an internal strength that religious people have: “Brain-scan studies have shown that when people pray or meditate, there’s a lot of activity in two parts of brain that are important for self-regulation and control of attention and emotion,” McCullough said. “The rituals that religions have been encouraging for thousands of years seem to be a kind of anaerobic workout for self-control.”  I think an alternate explanation may be what Aquinas calls “infused moral virtues.”

In Thomas Aquinas’ system, a moral virtue is a good habit by which a person is disposed to act well as if it were second nature.  A virtue is formed by acting well over and over again.  He thinks that the development of  virtue is something that both believers and non-believers can do.  In other words, there is nothing specifically religious or theological about the moral virtues.  Anybody can theoretically discipline their passions to be virtuous, though in practice, the development of virtue is difficult and frequently unsuccessful.

However, there is another category of virtue which Aquinas calls “infused moral virtues.”  The infused moral virtues are not caused by acting well over and over again.  Thomas says that the moral virtues must ordinarily be “acquired” through the arduous process of habituating ourselves to the good.   Rather, the infused moral virtues are implanted  in us by God through grace.

Infused moral virtues are similar to their acquired counterparts.  We can still speak of infused and acquired temperance, for example, and both are habits that perfect the concupiscible appetite which is the appetite for things like food, drink, and sex.  However, there are two major differences between acquired and infused virtues, besides how they are caused.  The first difference is the matter with which the virtues are concerned, what Aquinas calls the object (materia circa quam):

the object of temperance is a good in respect of the pleasures connected with the concupiscence of touch. . . it is evident that the mean that is appointed in such like concupiscences according to the rule of human reason, is seen under a different aspect from the mean which is fixed according to Divine rule. For instance, in the consumption of food, the mean fixed by human reason, is that food should not harm the health of the body, nor hinder the use of reason: whereas, according to the Divine rule, it behooves man to “chastise his body, and bring it into subjection” (1 Corinthians 9:27), by abstinence in food, drink and the like” (I-II, Q. 63, art. 3).

So the object of acquired moral virtues is some earthly good like health according to what human reason dictates, whereas the object of the infused moral virtues is obedience to the command of God.  The second difference is that the infused and acquired virtues are directed towards different things.  The acquired virtues are directed towards are directed towards earthly goods that make people good “citizens of earth,” whereas the infused moral virtues are directed toward spiritual goods that make one a good “citizen of heaven.”

We need the infused moral virtues because human beings are given a supernatural end of eternal happiness (beatitude), which we cannot reach by our own effort, as well as a natural end of happiness in this life, which we can achieve based  on our own effort and cultivation of virtue.  Just as the acquired moral virtues habituate us to behave virtuously  and flourish in this life, the infused moral virtues habituate us to flourish in the next life as well.

We receive the infused moral virtues through grace.  We receive grace by going to church and worshiping collectively, by receiving the sacraments, and by praying.  Their source is religious in nature–Thomas does not think that pagans can receive the infused moral virtues.

The infused moral virtues could explain why religious people tend to be better at self-control as well more successful and happier than their non-religious counterparts.  Virtue is very difficult to acquire and most people are unsuccessful.  If a person through grace is infused with temperance, this will still manifest itself as self-control towards food and drink, even if on their own, they  were unsuccessful at developing temperance through acquisition.


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