Do religious believers have better health and wellbeing, like, really?

March 18th, 2015 in Life. Tags: , , , , , ,

Wellbeing

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:

  1. “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.”
  2. “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.

Graph

We can immediately see two facts:

  1. There is a correlation between life expectancy and church attendance.
  2. 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)

Some quotes

  • “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)

Take-home messages

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.

Photo Credit: realize_photo via Compfight cc

19 Comments

  1. You have shown no evidence that this research controls for either of the two effects I have mentioned. Nor do I think these effects, which I shall call the Nazi party effect and the herd instinct effect, were even mentioned by researchers.

    It is true that the apparent bad effect I have mentioned is only a correlation. But I could have gone on to mention other correlations which show religion in a bad light.
    In societies where religion is very high you get:
    More crime
    More communal and ethnic violence
    More bigotry
    Less educational attainment
    More societal dysfunction
    More poverty
    More corruption
    More superstition
    More misogyny
    Higher infant death rates
    Less freedom of conscience
    Less democracy
    Less freedom of expression
    More rejection of scientific findings
    More homophobia

    I don’t doubt that religion gives comfort to some people and provides purpose and motivation to others but to represent it as a net good thing because of these positive effects is disingenuous.

  2. Well, this one is a no-brainer for me! Is good health directly correlated with being a believer? YES, YEAH, YAH, AND AMEN TO THAT!

    I could have been dead seven times, but here I am. Yes, I have had many close to death events in my life, but the Bible says that we have guardian angels, and I believe what the Word of God says. I would stake my life on it, my dear friends.

    Well, that’s probably just coincidence you say. So, let’s take a look at some previous events in my life and in the life of others, so you can see what prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit does. Please remember that Jesus told us in John 14:12, “You shall do greater things than I.” Yes, with the Power of God, in the Power of the Holy Spirit in us, we can do all things in Him.

    1) Several years ago, in Phoenix, AZ, I ruptured FOUR, that’s right four, discs in my back. It literally brought me to my knees and to the floor. I could not get up for three days. Long story short: I was healed very quickly after several friends came over, anointed me with oil, as it says to do in Scripture, and prayed over me. The doctor called with my results and told me that I should be in excruciating pain, yet I had NONE! Why? Obvious! The Holy Spirit of God!

    2) Last year in town, I met a young man who turned his life over to the Lord. He was an alcoholic and had some other issues. We talked. He threw his last beer across the street and got down on his knees, crying out to the Lord to save him form his sin. It was at night, and it was absolutely pouring out. He didn’t care. His life totally changed. No more alcohol problem or the other problem that he had. He was one happy dude! He always had a smile on his face until one day…………

    He and his friend met me downtown where we do a free-lunch ministry. He was crying uncontrollably. He told us that he had just come from the hospital, since he had been having worse and worse headaches. They told him that he had a brain tumor the size of a tennis ball, and that he had SIX MONTHS TO LIVE. Not good news. I anointed him with oil and we prayed over him, yes, as it says to do in Scripture. In three months, the headaches were going away, so he went back for more tests, and they told him that the tumor was shrinking. No chemo-therapy or medication, mind you. Shortly thereafter the headaches were gone, he went back for further testing, and the tumor was all gone. He should have been dead a year ago, last March.

    3) One more….. I have so many it would take days to write to you. My neighbor was in the hospital with a large tumor in his intestines. Yes, I anointed, and we laid hands, and very shortly the tumor was all gone.

    YES, THE LORD JESUS CHRIST, GOD, AND THE HOLY SPIRIT STILL HEAL, and they always will. You can suffer and die if you like; that is your choice. I choose good health and life, thank you!

    Peace to y’all in the precious name of Jesus our Lord and Savior.

  3. Hi Gordon, that’s quite a long list there – but not a reference to be seen. I am sure you can find some references to bad effects of religion, because I have always said that there are some. But there are many more good effects!

    So I await a list of references to well-designed studies that show all the effects you have written about. In the meantime, here are a few more references for you, just posted on the Science on Religion blog today.

    A summary of the overall data by a scientists of religion (it looks like it’s not on that topic but it gets around to it). Note this statement: “the data that religion has social and individual benefits is so overwhelming that saying that religion has no benefits is active science denial. Do you want to be an active science denier?

    Is religion good or bad for the world?. Even sceptics who look at the evidence agree that religion has a positive effect!

  4. It is true that the apparent bad effect I have mentioned is only a correlation. But I could have gone on to mention other correlations which show religion in a bad light.

    How could correlations show religion in a bad light? An analogous case would be violent crime which correlates with a working class background. Wouldn’t it be bigotry to claim that this puts the working class in a bad light?

  5. @Ignorantia Nescia

    How could correlations show religion in a bad light? An analogous case would be violent crime which correlates with a working class background. Wouldn’t it be bigotry to claim that this puts the working class in a bad light?,

    If you get a sufficient number of adverse correlations it becomes reasonable to suspect causation also. This is especially true when you can work out reasons why suspicion of causation may be valid.
    For instance, you only have to read the scripture of the Abrahamic religions to form the opinion that the correlation between these religions and misogyny may well also indicate causation.

  6. Peace to y’all! I have a short post for you, today, March 20, 2015. I had my seventh colonoscopy yesterday, and the results were perfect; no sign of polyps, and everything is good to go! Praise the Lord. So, why am I writing this post? The simple answer is that God told us what to eat, He gave us the kosher food laws, and He knows how we are made and what is good and bad for us.

    Two colonoscopies ago, I had a few polyps, that they removed, and found to be non-cancerous, thank God! I started eating kosher, according to Leviticus 11. That was about five years ago. Since then my two recent colonoscopies have been totally clear and clean! Maybe God knew what He was talking about when He told us what to eat and how to live!

    When we live according to the life and example of how Yeshua/Jesus lived, then we have peace, healing, health, joy, and everything that goes along with a good life in Christ. My life is awesome. I know that everything that happens to me has a purpose. I may not choose to have some of the things that happen to me happen, but they shape me, test me, guide me, and form me into a better person, so I can understand and help those in need around me. It’s all good. I wish everyone could know Jesus as their Lord, Savior, and friend; He is awesome and life is awesome. When we pray, “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in Heaven,” well for me it is here. I try my best to live as Jesus did. I try to love and care for people. I try to surround myself with others who believe and live the same way. IT IS WONDERFUL and health-giving to me. I highly suggest it to y’all.

    I like to tell people that I am in the LIFE ASSURANCE business, the good life, the loving and caring life, that extends from here to all eternity with God in Heaven! Whoah! Nice! God bless y’all! Dave………..

  7. Dear Gordon Hide:

    You have this list on your post. Please see brief comments of mine after the dash – below:

    More crime
    – Jesus said not to kill, steal, etc. There would be no crime if we listened to Him and lived as He did!

    More communal and ethnic violence – There would be no violence, but forgiveness and peace!

    More bigotry – Jesus told us that we are all one body in Him. No room for this.

    Less educational attainment – I am a life-long learner. I hunger and thirst for knowledge from the Word of God so I can help and love others.

    More societal dysfunction – because even in church today, we are told that we don’t have to keep the law anymore. Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments. That is profound!!!

    More poverty – We are all called to share what we have in Christ. There should be no poverty, especially if we all tithed and shared what we have; I do!

    More corruption – Jesus said to love and forgive. He told us to pray for our enemies. He told us to love thy neighbor as thyself. No room for this corruption, if you follow Jesus.

    More superstition – Yeah, if you don’t follow the Bible, the Word of God.

    More misogyny – (this means to have a hatred for women or girls). Jesus told us to love thy neighbor as thyself. No room for this!

    Higher infant death rates – Maybe if they ate kosher as Jesus did, they would have better nourishment for their babies!

    Less freedom of conscience – Conscience means “with knowledge.” If we know the Word of God, then we do the Word of God, yes, with knowledge. A good follower of Jesus knows what He said and does it. Again, Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” This is total freedom, because He is the one who formed us and He knows what is good for us.

    Less democracy – Correct. It’s God’s way or nothing! for our own good.

    Less freedom of expression – The more we know of what God has for us, the more we express the saving power and way of the Lord! not less!

    More rejection of scientific findings – I love science, but things like the big bang theory and evolution are a lie. I would be glad to further explain if you would like!

    More homophobia – (This means adverse feelings toward homosexuality). God told us “one man and one woman.” God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for the sin of homosexuality. The choice is yours. God said no to homosexuality. If everyone was homosexual, how long would our race on this earth last? Simple, isn’t!

    Be blessed y’all!

    You say that religion seems to cause all these adverse effects on people. You are right, my dear friend! They are religious, but they do not follow Jesus Christ! Anyone can say that they are a Christian, but the proof is in how they live, in what they do, and how they help those around them. Even Jesus said, “Many will say, ‘Lord, Lord,'” but they will not be saved. If I say that I am a Christian, and many people and pastors do, but they do nothing to help the poor, the imprisoned, the needy, the homeless, etc., it’s just lip service. Jesus knew that. I know that. But, pastors and church-goers think that all they have to do is preach and go to church, and, oh yeah, put a few bucks in the plate. WRONG!

  8. Glad that your health check turned out to be all right, David!

    If you get a sufficient number of adverse correlations it becomes reasonable to suspect causation also. This is especially true when you can work out reasons why suspicion of causation may be valid.

    Well, that’s your view. But why do you think it is reasonable to think that anecdotal correlations indicate causation, while the peer-reviewed experiments UnkleE mentioned are suspect?

    For instance, you only have to read the scripture of the Abrahamic religions to form the opinion that the correlation between these religions and misogyny may well also indicate causation.

    “May” is the word. “May not” is another one. I think it may reinforce misogynistic opinions already held, but it will influence those opinions proscribed by society to a limited degree.

    I think it is interesting you focus on those religions. None of these, to my knowledge, ever advocated a custom like widow burning. Perhaps that suggests more is at work here. That an atheistic society like China’s is also rife with misogyny, should also be considered.

  9. @Ignorantia Nescia

    But why do you think it is reasonable to think that anecdotal correlations indicate causation, while the peer-reviewed experiments UnkleE mentioned are suspect?

    First I think it stretches things to describe correlations of statistical facts as “anecdotal”. They are objective observations about sets of data.
    I don’t think UnkleE’s surveys were falsified I just see no evidence that they controlled for what I have called the Nazi party effect or the herd effect.

    That an atheistic society like China’s is also rife with misogyny, should also be considered.

    That other non-theistic philosophies or cultural practices also exhibit some of the same faults as the Abrahamic religions is neither here nor there. Doubtless Judaism picked up its misogyny from the culture extant at the time of its inception. But its the fact that this fault is embedded in scripture and practice of Abrahamic religions that makes it more difficult for societies so burdened to move on to a better more modern outlook.

  10. “I don’t think UnkleE’s surveys were falsified I just see no evidence that they controlled for what I have called the Nazi party effect or the herd effect.”

    So Gordon, are you saying that scientists publishing about 40 times in peer-reviewed papers and books by academic publishers have made elementary mistakes, while you, who so far haven’t shown any evidence of having read the papers (you made several wrong statements about them) or having any expertise in the subject, have got it right?

  11. First I think it stretches things to describe correlations of statistical facts as “anecdotal”. They are objective observations about sets of data.

    Fair enough, you’re free to. But I had that long list of correlations in mind that you posted. Are those backed by statistics? Do they include corrections?

    There’s still the issue of suspecting causation based on multiple correlations. “UnkleE’s surveys” do better than that.

    That other non-theistic philosophies or cultural practices also exhibit some of the same faults as the Abrahamic religions is neither here nor there.

    That depends. I think it offers a good caution against essentialising.

    Doubtless Judaism picked up its misogyny from the culture extant at the time of its inception. But its the fact that this fault is embedded in scripture and practice of Abrahamic religions that makes it more difficult for societies so burdened to move on to a better more modern outlook.

    I am not sure it does make a burden from a modern outlook – most believers will probably read those more modern and emancipated beliefs into the texts. It can obstruct changes, of course.

    The thing is, zooming in on Abrahamic religions is common and often suggest particularity. I think that is setting oneself up for great disappointments.

  12. “Researchers, including Koenig, say there are limitations to the conclusions anyone should draw from these studies. It could be that people who attend religious services benefit from the social network they form.”

    I think you will find there are numerous studies which show the benefits that social networks provide including but not limited to attending Church.

    Here in the States they would include Masons, Shriners, Elks Club, Moose Club, American Legion, etc. etc.

  13. Hi Ken, all true, but the results still stand – on average, religious believers have better wellbeing than average.

  14. But this might also be true of people who belong to other Social Networks .

    So you are conceding that Muslims have better well being than average ?

    Since you are saying “religious people” , are there certain religious people who experience more well being than the rest of religious people ?

  15. Ken, I’m just saying what the research says.

    “But this might also be true of people who belong to other Social Networks.”

    It might. The wellbeing advantages for religious people come from several sources (if I understand the research correctly) – social networks, prayer and meditation, a sense of purpose, etc. If other people do and believe any of those things, they will get the benefit I presume.

    “So you are conceding that Muslims have better well being than average ?”

    Most of the research is on christians in the US. But some research suggests Muslims get some of the benefits too.

    “Since you are saying “religious people” , are there certain religious people who experience more well being than the rest of religious people ?”

    Yes, definitely. People with intrinsic belief generally do better than those with extrinsic belief. People who have both belief and attendance at church sometimes do better than those who are spiritual only, but sometimes the latter do very well.

  16. Hi Gordon, so you’ve found one study that suggests that religious belief is no advantage in mental health, and so you feel you can ignore all the others? Connor Wood, who is doing a PhD in the scientific study of religion, said this in a recent blog:

    “the data that religion has social and individual benefits is so overwhelming that saying that religion has no benefits is active science denial”

    But you have found one study that says otherwise. Is that what you call an evidence based approach?

  17. @unkleE
    I don’t say that religion has no benefits. I say that there are other ways of obtaining those benefits without the downside of having to believe the absurd. Because, as this latest report indicates, the advantages attributed to religion are in fact due to other causes.

    I didn’t “find one study”. I just happen to have run across it. Whether there are other similar studies I wouldn’t know. I’m not so interested as to spend time on it.

  18. Ah well Gordon, we can agree then. I have never suggested anyone should believe because of the wellbeing and prosociality benefits. I only write about them because some atheists claim religious belief is harmful, when it clearly generally isn’t. I think we should only believe what we think is true. If you think christianity or any other belief is absurd, you shouldn’t believe it. I think it makes sense and atheism doesn’t. So we disagree.

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