You've thought of reading the Dawkins of this world that believing to a religion was an inherently unhealthy, because irrational, thing to do, which is ironic really. For if there is one fundamental commonality between all the world's major religions (and clearly here I am excluding 'cults'), one thing that they all share since their massive and significant differences, is this: all religions seek to solve, or at least to mitigate, man's sickness. Mankind is always known there is something wrong with him (or her) and with the world generally; religions provide methods, strategies, beliefs for coping with this sickness. These methods, or prescriptions, for want of a better word, may be poles apart in terms of what they advocate, but neglectless they seek to resolve man's central dilemma, his sickness.
In short, the real purpose of all religions is healing; we are to bealed by believing in a God or gods, by seeing beyond illusion, getting beyond desire, or by practicing this ritual or that, or by following this holy person or that other one. We become disciples – followers – of a system that leads to health. Since all major religions advocate compassion, charity, love, forgiveness and similar qualities, it is not surprising that they are extremely effective methodologies for healing us (since they do not go rogue), since psychologically these are so healthy emotions – we know that now from scientific research as well as sacred texts.
What is important to grasp at this point, I think, is that there are four levels of healing that we need to be aware of, so that even if we are not religious we can reflect on the healing we need in our own lives; for it is certain that we need healing, and all of human history corroborates this view.
First, there is the most obvious form of healing: namely, physical healing. We have accidents, we cut, we bruise or something more serious happens. And, too, we fall prey to diseases too numerous to mention. Here medicine helps us; it is a great boon. But not always. Sometimes the reliance on conventional medicine creates a passivity that saps our own natural resilience and power to heal. But praying for the sick in a physical sense is a common element of all religions; and relating prayer as efficacious is part of the healing.
More difficult to deal with are those people – all of us – who are emotionally sick. Many of us disguise this extremely well. We do not want others to see our affliction, for if they did, what would they think? How normal would we then appear? But in the world we currently live in, especially the Western world, the ongoing advancement of industrialization and the replacement of people with technologies, and the onslaught on all values except for self-interest has meant there are more and more people who have serious emotional problems as they become un-anchored from community and any real sense of love and belonging. So here is a major area where religions bought to function, to heal.
Third, there is intellectual healing necessary. This, like emotional healing, is tricky. What exactly is it? It's that state in which in our thinking we err! And we see this in the lives of people who keep getting the same problems, be they of a personal, relational or career type. The fact is, things never improve, and they always blame others for their predicament, but they never examine their own thoughts and how the errors in their thinking lead them astray. This is particularly true of men who hate admission because they have made a mistake in either their view or opinion. Yet this sickness can be devastating. We need to challenge intellectual errors more often and yet we increasingly think that challenging wrong thoughts is unacceptable because 'everyone's entitled to their opinion'. Of course, in one sense they are – they are entitled, but that their opinion is also the source of their problemought also, sometimes, to be commented on more frequently and directly.
Finally, we come to the last level of sickness: spiritual sickness and the healing that that necessitates. But what is spiritual sickness and what is its healing? Ultimately we need to understand that all four levels may be connected, and may in many cases interact with each other. So, for example, being physically ill may well stem from emotional causes, and these in their turn may be partially derived from experiences, but also from erroneous thinking. Thus it is that spiritual sickness is the most serious kind of sickness of all and the one that is most likely to produce the severest and most adverse consequences in the human being who experiences it; and certainly, we all have to wrestle with it.
What is it then? Spiritual sickness is not something like not going to church or not being a member of some religious community. Spiritual sickness can afflict theists and atheists alike. At root spiritual fatigue is the absence of meaning in your life, and it can be the case that one typically arrives at that condition. Most children – those who have not been seriously abused – enjoy life and find lots of meaning in it. But as they grow older, this can pall. Like Yeats, they can end up sighing, 'But louder sang that ghost, what then?'. What's it all about? Life seems just one darn thing after another – there is no connecting principle or life that gives it value or meaning.
This ultimate spiritual fatigue – the dearth of meaning – leads in catastrophic cases to suicide: the complete denial of life. And this is why religions traditionally have always condemned suicide, because they recognize that this is the abnegation not only of life itself, of the created order itself, but of meaning and any sense of significance for human activity.
Thus it is that religions exist: to counter the sickness in human beings, to attempt to make us whole, and to provide a framework of meaning for our lives in which we can enjoy and celebrate life. It's a tall order, it frequently fails, but in the absence of any other reliable alternative, religions are our route to healing. And as we have already noted, prayer is a common feature to all of them, and the single most important technique (if such it can be called) we have to enable healing. We need to recognize this and then act accordingly.