Religious beliefs reduce physical and sexual aggression, but they don’t appear to prevent domestic violence

Religious beliefs reduce physical and sexual aggression, but they don’t appear to prevent domestic violence

Recent research sheds light on how spirituality can yield social and mental health benefits, particularly by curbing violent behaviors outside of the family setting. 

Religion plays a multifaceted role in societies and cultures, offering guidance for personal choices to many individuals. People engage with religion in several ways, or they may not engage with it at all. Yet, scientific studies increasingly affirm the positive social and mental health effects associated with spiritual connections. 

With this in mind, a new study carried out in collaboration with the D’Or Institute for Research and Education (IDOR), aimed to explore whether spiritual connections correlate with a reduction in interpersonal violence, particularly physical aggression directed at others. To delve deeper into this topic, the researchers examined over 12,000 articles published in English, Portuguese, and Spanish, focusing on the connection between religion and violence. They specifically honed in on articles discussing physical and sexual aggression and domestic violence, with their findings published in the Brazilian Journal of Psychiatry. 

Different Approaches to Religion 

The study highlights that it’s not religion that reduces violence but rather spirituality. Religion typically embodies an organized set of practices and established doctrines, while spirituality entails a profound connection to life’s purpose, exploring existential or even transcendent questions that may not align with a strict dogma. It’s worth noting that one can be an atheist and still possess spirituality – or even be an atheist while adhering to a non-theistic religion, such as Buddhism. Conversely, one can be religious and have varying degrees of developed spirituality. 

In most cases, affiliation with a religious belief system encourages a connection to moral principles. However, some individuals may engage with religion in less beneficial ways, sometimes fostering intolerance or fundamentalism. In this study, the authors specifically examined religions for their spirituality aspect, considering their impacts on reducing violent behavior. 

Spiritual Connections Promote Well-Being and Reduce Violence 

Among the thousands of articles analyzed, 43 closely aligned with the study’s focus and met the required data quality standards. The majority of these articles emphasized physical aggression, while the rest delved into sexual aggression or domestic violence. 

The findings revealed that religiosity or spirituality is closely linked to improved psychological well-being, life satisfaction, happiness, and a reduction in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. In most of the studies examined, religion and spirituality served as a protective factor during conflicts, preventing individuals from engaging in violent acts. 

The reasons behind this relation are multifaceted. People may be influenced by the belief in consequences, such as not gaining entry to the heavens after committing serious sins like violence. Additionally, individuals living within religious communities often experience a sense of belonging, reduced aggressiveness, and increased empathy, stemming from the social support they receive. Religious communities commonly foster an inclusive environment where members provide emotional support during life challenges. Furthermore, a heightened level of social control within these communities discourages undesirable actions, as individuals fear disapproval from their community. 

Religion Fails to Curb Domestic Violence 

Despite the positive effects of religious or spiritual connections on reducing physical and sexual violence, it’s surprising to note that these benefits do not extend to domestic violence. 

The authors suggest that the lack of a beneficial impact on domestic violence is primarily rooted in cultural factors. Some religions tolerate domestic violence to maintain family unity, a stance often supported by spiritual community leaders. Studies included in the analysis support this hypothesis, indicating that fear of isolation may deter women from reporting dangerous and violent relationships. 

Other studies cited in this research pointed out that, in certain Eastern cultures, both men and women may agree that a man can assault his partner if she refuses to have sex or retaliates during an argument. In Western cultures, some religions even condone corporal punishment as a means of disciplining children, leaving the intimate space, which should be the safest, devoid of the positive effects religion typically fosters in external situations. 

The study also highlighted that six of the analyzed studies reported instances where religion served as a risk factor, leading some individuals to commit acts of violence, with five of these studies focusing on domestic violence. In these cases, the relationship between the perpetrators and religion was not beneficial, as religious doctrines were often internalized under pressure from internal or external factors like fear, guilt, or societal expectations. This concerning data underscores the need for public policies and healthcare professionals to be vigilant and provide support for victims of domestic abuse. 

Religion’s Potential in Clinical Practice 

Despite its limited effectiveness in addressing domestic violence, the knowledge that religiosity or spirituality can reduce physical and sexual aggression remains crucial for healthcare professionals. Many studies have developed protocols for doctors and psychologists to discuss this aspect with their patients during clinical interactions. However, this approach is more commonly employed with terminally ill patients, indicating a need for more widespread training in healthcare teams. 

Training should emphasize the importance of analyzing a patient’s values and beliefs, their interest in exploring this aspect, and the potential positive or negative impacts on their well-being based on their personal relationship with religion. 

This study, the first systematic review of research exploring the relationship between religiosity/spirituality and various forms of interpersonal violence, concludes that spiritual connections generally enhance individuals’ mental health and reduce aggressive behaviors. The exception is domestic violence, which requires dedicated efforts to address its cultural roots. Nonetheless, the authors stress that these positive findings hold significant potential for clinical interventions, and healthcare professionals, especially those working in the field of mental health, should not overlook them. 

Psychotherapy: A Path to Healing Trauma 

Life often presents us with challenging moments that leave a lasting impact. When these difficulties stem from abuse—whether physical, sexual, or psychological—the resulting scars can be profound, often leading to mental health disorders, even when the connection may not seem direct. 

For individuals who have experienced or are experiencing abuse, acknowledging, recalling, or discussing these experiences can be tremendously challenging. That’s why professional guidance is vital, allowing for a delicate approach that respects the patient’s boundaries. This is where psychotherapy comes in, offering a safe, neutral space for individuals to explore and work through uncomfortable issues, even if they don’t perceive them as severe problems. 

There are more than a dozen types of psychotherapy, each offering a unique approach that may be better suited to each patient. In the IDOR Psychology program, students gain a comprehensive understanding of their future profession, including topics often overlooked in other courses, such as hospital psychology, which focuses on providing psychological support to patients in clinics and various healthcare settings. 

Written by Maria Eduarda Ledo de Abreu 


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