Australian atheists were recently prevented from running a series of ads on buses with the message, “There’s probably no God, so sleep in on Sundays.” It was a funny ad and should have been permitted, and if the Bureau of Statistics A Picture of a Nation report is anything to go by, there’s a generation of young people who don’t need convincing. According to the latest figures young Australians are increasingly secular with the proportion of people stating ‘no religion’ on their census form up from 6.7% in 1971 to 19% in 2006; the younger generation leading the charge to the beach on Sunday mornings (or perhaps staying under the doona). 23.5% of 15 – 34 year-olds did not specify a religion compared with 7.9% of Australians 65 and older.
No doubt this finding will be good news to those who believe religion has only paranoia, superstition, violence and hypocrisy to contribute to society, and there are plenty of them. Freud famously articulated the notion that religion is a neurosis. Likewise, Psychologist Albert Ellis saw only the pernicious effects of religion on individuals, claiming that ‘Religiosity … is in many respects equivalent to irrational thinking and emotional disturbance.’ (Ellis, 1980, 67)
But the latest scientific data on the effects of religiosity on health, might give us reason to pause. In 2001 Duke University researchers conducted a large survey of 100 evidence-based studies of the correlation between religion and well-being and found that 79 reported a positive correlation, 13 no correlation, 7 mixed correlation and 1 a negative correlation.1 The masses of research completed since then has largely pointed in the same direction.
It is the scientists who are telling us that religious involvement is associated with lower rates of a host of stress-related medical conditions
This is a growing field. It reflects a more serious attempt to integrate ‘whole-person care’ in medical areas that previously gave little importance to the spiritual side of patient management. Of the 141 medical schools in the U.S. and Canada 70% now offer courses on religion, spirituality and medicine.
This is largely a response to the vast amount of data emerging over the last eight years that reveals positive correlations between commitment to religion and better outcomes for dealing with depression and anxiety, strength of immune systems, cardiovascular health and even longevity.
It is well accepted that stress and depression have serious adverse health impacts and studies that show religious coping improves outcomes in this area need to be taken seriously. It is the scientists who are telling us that religious involvement is associated with lower rates of a host of stress-related medical conditions including cardiovascular disease, stroke, immune and endocrine functioning, cancer—especially gastrointestinal, breast and oral—and better outcomes for cancer in general.
It is worth quoting some research to give a small taste of the sort of data being reported:
- A 2003 Meta study of 147 studies found statistically significant average negative correlations between religion and depression.2 The results reflect a similar difference to rates of depression between genders. (Women are more likely to get depression).
- A Stanford University study of 2001 examined the relationship between religious involvement and immune function in women with metastatic breast cancer. It found positive associations between religious expressions and numbers of cytotoxic T and NK cells, both of which act to destroy and limit cancer cells spreading.3
- A 2006 study had tracked the progress of 100 HIV patients over four years. Patients who reported an increase in their religiousness/spirituality after diagnosis had significantly less decrease in their CD-4 counts (important in warding off viruses) and better outcomes in terms of the viral load. Of all the predictors of CD-4 cell preservation and viral load, change in religiousness/spirituality was the most powerful.4
- Lastly, in 2000, a meta-analysis of 42 studies involving 126,000 people examined the impact of religious involvement on survival. Results indicated a 29% increased survival rate for religious involvement, with a particularly strong association with religious attendance.5
It probably didn’t need expensive and detailed experiments to tell us that being involved with a religious community is associated with reduction of risky behaviours including dangerous sexual practises, cigarette smoking and reckless lifestyles, but the data are there. Add lower rates of alcohol and drug abuse, less crime and delinquency and better grades in school, and we begin to see a picture that at the very least challenges those who give only a negative picture of religious adherence.
The research referred to here comes from peer-reviewed, ‘serious’ medical journals. It involves sophisticated statistical analysis of results. Many are from some of the most prestigious universities. It is important to note that none of these studies is claiming anything supernatural—that would obviously not fall into the domain of this type of scientific research.
It’s hard to ignore the wave of research that lends weight to the notion that being involved in religious communities can, in a myriad of ways, be good for you
Researchers stress that the way in which religious involvement is thought to affect physical health is through psychological, social and behavioural pathways – mainly through helping people to cope with stress, increasing their social support through community involvement, and encouraging healthier lifestyles.
There’s no doubt that there are many people whose experience of religion has been anything but healthy. In some cases it has been deeply unhelpful and damaging to not only their health, but their whole identity. It would be easy to oversimplify this type of information in a way that does not account for the harmful impacts religion sometimes has. Indeed some of the studies reflect this. One leading researcher estimates around 5 – 10% of studies report a negative correlation.6
Overall however, it appears clear that compared to the rest of the population, those who are involved in religious practice use fewer health-care services because they are healthier, are more likely to have intact families to care for them and have greater social support.7 It’s hard to ignore the wave of research that lends weight to the notion that being involved in religious communities can, in a myriad of ways, be good for you.
When I was discussing this research with a colleague he wondered out loud whether we might one day be answering questions about belief in God on our life insurance forms! Probably not, but nonetheless, politicians and economists might do well to pay attention to this information. The cost of a generation only ever ‘sleeping in on Sundays’ could ultimately be very high not only economically, but socially as well.
Simon Smart is Head of Research and Communications at CPX
1. (Harold Koenig and Harvey J. Cohen, [Duke University] The Link Between Religion and Health: Psychoneuroimmunology and the Faith Factor. Oxford University Press, 2001, 101.)
2. Harold G. Koenig, Medicine, Religion and Health – where Science and Spirituality Meet (Templeton Science and Religion Series, Templeton Foundation Press, U.S.A. 2008), page 70.
3. S.E. Sephton, C. Koopman, M Schaal, C. Thoreson, and D. spiegal, “Spiritual Expression and Immune Status in Women with Metastatic Breast Cancer: An Exploratory Study,” Breast Journal 7 (2001)
4. Ironson G, Stuetzie R, Flectcher MA (2006). An increase in religiousness/ spirituality occurs after HIV diagnosis and predicts slower disease progression over 4 years in people with HIV. Journal of General Internal Medicine 21:S62-68
5. Koenig, ibid, page 133.
6. Harold G. Koenig, M.D. ‘How Religious Beliefs and Practices Are Related to Stress, Health and Medical Services’ (Paper presented at a Heritage Foundation Symposium on 12th December 08) Washington D.C
7. Harold G. Koenig, M.D. ‘How Religious Beliefs and Practices Are Related to Stress, Health and Medical Services’ (Paper presented at a Heritage Foundation Symposium on 12th December 08) Washington D.C