Religious people are better off than their atheistic counterparts in many ways - having greater discipline which is critical to success and being better at pursuing and achieving long-term goals.
They also tend to have lower rates of substance abuse, better school achievement, less delinquency, better health behaviours, less depression and longer lives.
Michael McCullough, professor at the University of Miami, evaluated eight decades worth of research on religion, which has been conducted in diverse samples of people from around the world.
He found persuasive evidence from a variety of domains within the social sciences, including neuroscience, economics, psychology, and sociology, that religious beliefs and religious behaviours are capable of encouraging people to exercise self-control.
"The importance of self-control and self-regulation for understanding human behaviour are well known to social scientists, but it has not received much explicit attention," said McCullough. "We hope our paper will correct this oversight in the scientific literature."
Among the most interesting conclusions that the research team drew were the following: Religious rituals such as prayer and meditation affect the parts of the human brain that are most important for self-regulation and self-control.
When people view their goals as "sacred", they put more energy and effort into pursuing those goals, and therefore, are probably more effective at attaining them.
The fact that religious people tend to be higher in self-control helps explain why they are less likely to misuse drugs and alcohol and experience problems with crime and delinquency, said a Miami university release.
Among the study's more practical implications is that religious people may have at their disposal a set of unique psychological resources for adhering to their New Year's resolutions in the year to come.
The paper will appear in the January 2009 issue of Psychological Bulletin.