Lonely religious people see God as a friend replacement, study finds

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Lonely religious people feel less isolated than lonely atheists because God substitutes as a friend, a new study has found. Relationships are key for us humans to feel motivated, connected, and to give us a sense of purpose. New research by psychologists at the University of Michigan show that, among those who do feel lonely, those who believe in a religion are less likely to lose the will to live because their faith fills that void.

According to doctoral student Todd Chan, the lead author, God comes to be seen quite literally as a friend. However, religion was still hardly enough to replace all the qualities that come from human interaction.

For the socially disconnected, God may serve as a substitutive relationship that compensates for some of the purpose that human relationships would normally provide,' Chan said.

This is Chan's conclusion from three separate studies involving 19,775 people, the last of which was published last week in the Journal of Personality. Each person was surveyed on their friendships, religious beliefs, feelings of loneliness and sense of purpose.

For those that weren't lonely, faith didn't have a significant impact on their levels of happiness, sense of belonging or purpose.

However, those who felt that they didn't have many friends strongly benefited 'from leveraging religion and turning to God as a friend ... when they lack supportive social connections.'

Co-author Nicholas Michalak, a psychology graduate student, added: 'Our research suggests, given two people who feel equally disconnected, the individual who feels more connected to God will have a better sense of purpose in life.'

However, even with God as a friend, it is not enough to combat a lack of human contact.

'These results certainly do not suggest that people can or should rely on God over people for purpose,' said co-author Oscar Ybarra, professor of psychology and faculty associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research. 'Quality human connections still remain a primary and enduring source of purpose in life.'