More than a century ago, when the social sciences were just beginning to study the relationship between religion and health, elite scholars such as sociologist Émile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche repudiated religion consonantly, claiming that it had a toxic effect on individuals.

Since then, however, the scientific community has changed its perspective to a great extent. The refinement of methodology and the rigorous application of the empirical imperative have outlined a profile so favourable to religion that they have turned earlier criticism into a weak echo of the past.

One-hundred-and-twenty-two years after 1897, the year when Durkheim vehemently articulated that the suicide rate in a nation is largely dependent on the religious practices of the population, or that Protestants have more emotional issues than Catholics because the former do not seek to integrate adequately in society, the number of studies accumulated by the scientific community has far exceeded the boundaries of sociological institutions.

In academia, today, there aren’t many who would compare religion to childhood neurosis, as Freud did in The Future of an Illusion (1927). Among philosophers, to describe Christianity as a “disease”, as Nietzsche did, would perhaps pass at most as mere intellectual infatuation and nothing more.

The 21st century has come with a wave of research at the intersection of religion and health, which has brought with it a huge amount of evidence to support the idea that religion is beneficial for individuals, both psychologically and physically. Today, scientists generally agree that religion has a well-defined role in people’s response to challenges and that its effects on health can be distinguished from the effects of other factors. It is truly noteworthy that researchers have come to this conclusion by strictly mechanistic analysis, unable to dissect the subjective side of the relationship between people and God.

Polarization of effects

In the Handbook of Religion and Health, Professor Harold G. Koenig, of Duke American University, summarizes the most relevant studies in the field. According to his analysis, religion is positively associated with the most important vital vectors: life satisfaction, happiness, and morale. More precisely, 175 out of 224 studies (78%) support this.

Religion is also associated with:

  • better (self-perceived) health (27 out of 48 studies – 56%), 
  • a lower rate of coronary heart disease (12 out of 19 studies – 63%), and 
  • fewer signs of psychoticism, characterized by the author as “risk-taking and lack of responsibility” (16 of 19 studies – 84%).

There are, of course, studies that have not been able to establish any obvious correlation between religion and good health, just as there are studies that emphasize the association between religion and the negative aspects of health. For example, several studies have found that religious people tend to have a higher body mass index. Cardiologist Matthew Feinstein of Northwestern University conducted a study of no less than 5,500 Americans, concluding that both participation in religious services and spiritual experiences, in general, are associated with a higher incidence of obesity.

However, there is a class of effects that depend on the particularities of religion and cannot be generalized: people who have a gloomy perspective on humanity and participate in the divine services of religious communities that constantly highlight the sinful nature of people are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.

People who have a negative image of God and those who see God predominantly in terms of His punitive power have stronger symptoms of depression, anxiety, paranoia, obsession, and compulsive behaviours. These negative images of God can change religion from a potential resource for dealing with problems to a cause of spiritual disorders. Faith can bring down, but it can also lift up a suffering individual. For an outside observer, such as a psychologist, the difference between the two seems to depend on the meaning that the religious person gives to the experience they are living.

Some religions or denominations lead to poor physical health because of certain behavioural rules they promote: Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, oppose blood transfusions (some even at the risk of loss of life), while other religious groups, such as the Amish or certain Orthodox Jewish communities, oppose vaccination for religious reasons.

Sociologists recognize the existence of limits

One limitation of these studies is that most of them were conducted in the United States, Canada, and Western European countries, which prevents them from generalizing their findings into a truly global portrait of religion.

Sociological research on the impact of religion often recognizes its limitations in the face of the ambitious goals it pursues. Most of the currently available research is based on small study samples, while large sample studies usually choose respondents from categories that are not representative of the general population. Examples may include studies done only on older adults, only on women or only on men, only on members of the clergy, or exclusively on members of certain denominations, or nations.

Another shortcoming of research in the field is that too few studies have focused on the relationship between religion and physical health, while most have assessed the psychological impact of religion.

Still, the two most important disadvantages of researching the relationship between religion and health are that most studies used data collected at one point in time, without a follow-up, and the very definition of correlational studies implies that they cannot distinguish between the effects of religion on health and the effects of health on religion. For example, we cannot correctly come to any conclusion on the effects of religion if we don’t take into account “crisis religiosity”.

In other words, it is very likely that in the case of an illness, some people will adopt the habit of praying regularly, even if they have not practised religion before. A study that would therefore combine prayer and poor health could not say which of these two elements causes the other and therefore could lead to wrong conclusions.

When applying measurements at a single point in time, studies can yield questionable results. For example, the correlation of poor health with a low rate of participation in the divine services of a church does not imply that disease prevents sick people from attending church and that, in their absence, only healthy people seem to attend. So, if we conclude only based on this information that church-goers are healthier than others and that religion is the cause of this condition, it is very possible that we will not have a well-founded conclusion.

This is one of the limitations of the latest Pew Research Center analysis, which correlated statistics from the United States and dozens of other countries and found that people who are active in church tend to be happier and more civically engaged than religiously unaffiliated people, and, more interestingly, even more than inactive church members.

Religious people are less inclined to destructive behaviours such as smoking or drinking alcohol. However, the authors note that religious activity is not associated with a higher frequency of exercise or a lower incidence of obesity. Moreover, when they removed variables such as age, education, and income from the statistical equation, sociologists found that there was no statistical link between being religiously active and generally having better health.

However, those from Pew made an observation: for many categories of religious people, habits such as smoking and drinking alcohol are seen as sinful. These behaviours, easily placed under the occasional “don’t…” ban, may be easier to assimilate than a broad philosophy of a preventative lifestyle, which would include, in addition to abstinence from harmful behaviours, a proactive search for those behaviours that positively cultivate health.

Seeing is believing

Studies such as the one conducted by Pew Research will continue to appear, thus broadening the spectrum of the role of religion in our daily lives. Perhaps, in the future, sociologists will be able to improve their methodology enough to establish not only correlations but also causal relationships between religion and health. Until then, however, the huge volume of studies already conducted shows that the subject is still far from being fully explored. Moreover, these studies, as limited as they are, call into question the memorable statements about the alleged damage that religious faith is said to do to the human psyche.

If the positive portrait of religion that science is beginning to shape becomes more and more clearly in line with reality, we can only imagine how beneficial it would be to regain religion, in a context of freedom, as a source of personal and social well-being. Nevertheless, the worrying implication of this image is that societies with declining levels of religiosity are at risk of declining personal or social well-being. The stakes seem to remain the same as Pascal’s old bet: if religion tells the truth and we don’t believe it, then we have lost everything.

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