In my previous post I made the following comment: “Religious believers, overall and with many exceptions, have better health and wellbeing, are more prosocial and less antisocial than non-believers.”
A reader questioned this statement, in two ways:
- “I see that despite my previous prompting about the silly “religion is good for your health” surveys. You are still coming up with that rubbish.”
- “Perhaps you would like to explain why then the tables showing life expectancy by state in the US …. have a more or less reverse correlation with the tables showing degree of church attendance.”
I thought these suggestions merited some investigation and thought.
How not to do science
I plotted life expectancy vs church attendance using the data in Wikipedia, and obtained this graph.
We can immediately see two facts:
- There is a correlation between life expectancy and church attendance.
- The r2 = 0.39 (r is the correlation coefficient). This means that church attendance explains 39% of the variation in life expectancy (or vice versa), and other factors explain 61%.
Correlation is not causation
This truism applies here. There is a correlation (significant though not high) but what can we say about causation?
- It could be that church attendance indeed reduces life expectancy.
- It could equally be that people who are less healthy and have a lower life expectancy attend church more.
- Or it could be that some other factors explain both outcomes. For example, similar Wikipedia data shows that church attendance decreases with wealth, but life expectancy increases, so wealth could be the cause of both results.
This data doesn’t allow us to draw any of these conclusions. There are a multitude of factors that differentiate between the states – wealth, ethic mix, crime rates, types of work, unemployment rates, diet, exercise, political beliefs, etc. It is impossible to decide on this data which if any of these might be a contributor to life expectancy.
How to do science
For these reasons, science operates differently than my commenter. This information would be enough to form a hypothesis that then requires testing. Testing requires keeping other factors constant and varying just church attendance and life expectancy.
Thus comparing between states brings in too many other factors. We need to compare between two groups that are as alike in every way as possible, except in the two factors we are measuring.
This is how scientific studies are done. And the studies have been done, and the results are quite clear.
The science of religion and wellbeing
There have been many scientific studies of health and wellbeing, including on the contribution religious belief or attendance makes. I have listed almost 40 studies on religion and wellbeing in Studies of medicine and religion and outlined the conclusions of these studies in Faith and wellbeing.
The results are not black and white, but the overall conclusions are very clear. Religious belief and religious practice are associated with higher than average levels of physical and mental health and wellbeing, and higher levels of prosociality. Often religion is found to be a significant cause.
Some study conclusions
- People who attend religious services, or who feel they are spiritual, experience lower levels of depression and anxiety; display signs of better health, such as lower blood pressure and fewer strokes; and say they generally feel healthier (though the reason for this isn’t clear). (WebMD)
- Religious practices are generally beneficial for mental, physical, and spiritual health and improve how our brain functions, but fundamentalist beliefs can increase prejudice and damage our brain. (How God changes your brain)
- Religious beliefs can protect psychological well-being during stressful experiences (American Psychological Association).
- Praying brings people peace and happiness that is worth about $50,000 per year in monetary terms. (TT Brown)
- “People who attended religious services at least once a week were 46 percent less likely to die during the six-year study” (Harold G. Koenig, MD, Duke University Medical Center)
- “empirical evidence supports a generally protective effect of religious involvement for mental illness and psychological distress” Religion and Mental Health: Theory and Research
- “Religious affiliation is associated with less suicidal behavior in depressed inpatients.” (American Journal of Psychiatry)
- “There’s no shortage of research on religion and health. Most of it suggests that the religious not only live longer, but are also likely to live better.” (Jonathan Morgan)
1. The studies referenced here are not “silly surveys” or “rubbish” but properly designed medical studies carried out by competent medical and psychological researchers and reported in respected scientific journals.
2. The overwhelming evidence is that religious belief and practice, overall and with many exceptions, lead to better than average health and wellbeing and a higher than average degree of prosociality.
3. The causation and mechanisms are not always clear. Possible explanations have been proposed but in most cases the jury is still out.
4. Correlating data may be useful in developing a hypothesis to be tested, but cannot be used to infer causation if there are multiple factors involved.
5. None of this “proves” God exists, and I haven’t seen any researchers would claim that. But it is consistent with belief in God.
6. This evidence is broadly contrary to the claims of some atheists that religion causes great harm.