Religious people, he said, are self-controlled not simply because they fear God’s wrath, but because they’ve absorbed the ideals of their religion into their own system of values, and have thereby given their personal goals an aura of sacredness. He suggested that nonbelievers try a secular version of that strategy.
“People can have sacred values that aren’t religious values,” he said. “Self-reliance might be a sacred value to you that’s relevant to saving money. Concern for others might be a sacred value that’s relevant to taking time to do volunteer work. You can spend time thinking about what values are sacred to you and making New Year’s resolutions that are consistent with them.”
Of course, it requires some self-control to carry out that exercise — and maybe more effort than it takes to go to church.“Sacred values come prefabricated for religious believers,” Dr. McCullough said. “The belief that God has preferences for how you behave and the goals you set for yourself has to be the granddaddy of all psychological devices for encouraging people to follow through with their goals. That may help to explain why belief in God has been so persistent through the ages.”
My first frustration with this is the premise of the doctor involved that religion is inherently untrue, but does provide helpful personal and societal benefits. Our ability to see religion as mythological does not make it untrue. Granted, I might be biased in this arena, but I remain persuaded in the truth of my faith.
Secondly, the benefits of believing in God are not solely for the discipline of a God who remains with you (see Hebrews 12:1-12), but are also in the truth that you are not God, you do not have a cosmological vision or plan and that your salvation is not in your own hands.
The disciplines of religion are not so that one may attain salvation, but so that one may more greatly appreciate the joys of the salvation that has been achieved through Christ. I cannot say that I believe all Christians share this notion or even that I am able to espouse it every day of my life, but I believe this to be the crux of the biblical message.
Martin Luther's understanding of the 10 Commandments was that God gave them to people, not out of a desire to creation strictures, but out of love. Loving rules create freedom. It's a short list (10 things) of what one cannot do and a whole world full of possibilities for what can be done to worship God and help your neighbor.
What non-religious (and some non-Christian) people misperceive is that religion is all about the "should-nots" and that religious people live repressed, pent-up lives of worry and shame. Maybe they do. But it doesn't have to be that way.
Our discipline comes from the God who loves us enough to remain with us in promised and mysterious ways. The God who sends his Spirit to challenge, charge and comfort us. The God whose guidance is freeing and full of grace and truth. That might explain why belief in God has been persistent throughout the ages.