This page in brief ….
A large number of medical and psychological studies are showing that spirituality, religious faith and practice have a definite positive impact on people’s wellbeing. Belief in a loving God, prayer and meditation, and attendance at religious meetings have been shown to lead to improved physical and mental health, including lower levels of worry, stress, depression, suicide and destructive behaviour.
In some cases, these practices lead to changes in the structure of the brain that improve cognitive and intellectual functioning – sometimes also in unbelievers who take up the practices or who have similar social commitments and behaviours.
This page is a summary of the findings. (Details of the studies and links are at Studies of medicine and religion.)
Religious and spiritual people who participate in religious activities such as prayer, meditation and attendance at religious meetings tend to have better physical health than non-believers.
The strongest indicator here is that chronically ill believers have below average mortality rates and pain levels. Religious people also have better cardiovascular health, they are less likely to suffer from heart disease, die from cirrhosis of the liver, or have high blood pressure. They have enhanced immune function and they recover more quickly from surgery and cancer.
The nature of religious belief makes a difference. People who believe in a loving God have dramatically better response to HIV/AIDS than those who have a harsh view of God, and spend less time in hospital recovering from heart disease.
Prayer reduces the pain and the ability to cope with pain of those suffering chronic back pain. The effects of prayer on health are very complex, and are summarised at Can prayer assist healing?.
Some studies indicate that definite atheists have similar high level of physical health to committed religious believers, and higher than non-committed believers and more agnostic non-believers.
Many different causes have been found for these outcomes for believers, often varying for different health issues. But it seems that social networks, church attendance, participating in religious rituals, greater self discipline, fewer risky behaviours, positive attitudes, a positive view of God and self, and personal behaviours such as prayer and meditation, can all be important and positive factors for the religious and spiritual.
The strongest positive impacts of religion are seen in the various areas of mental health. Thousands of studies have shown that believers tend to have better mental health than non-believers and are less vulnerable to mental disorders, but the effects can vary considerably. Factors that seem to be most conducive to good mental health include an emotional religious life, intrinsic religious belief, positive convictions and a benign image of God, positive involvement in a religious community and having an agreeable, conscientious and open personality type. Spiritual but not religious people did not always share in these benefits but. Non-believers may have better mental health than the uncommitted.
Worry and stress
Believers tend to worry less and are more tolerant of life’s uncertainties and setbacks. Religious faith improves a person’s ability to cope with being widowed, raising developmentally challenged children, divorce, unemployment or disability. However those who focus on an authoritarian God can make themselves more fearful. The benefits can come from social support, enhanced hope, positive attitudes and trust in a benevolent God. “Thinking about religion makes you calm under fire.” says researcher Michael Inzlicht.
Depression, anxiety and suicide
Religious people suffer less from anxiety and depression. This is particularly true of those coping with the uncertainties of major illnesses such as cancer, or recovery after major surgery. As a result non-religious people are 4 times more likely to commit suicide than are religious people. The studies seem ambivalent about the role of spirituality on its own, but when there are good results when it is combined with religious practice.
Destructive and anti-social behaviour
Actively religious people are much less likely than irreligious people to become delinquent, to abuse drugs and alcohol, commit crime or behave antisocially. Religious communities generally have lower rates of crime, although sometimes this isn’t the case. Belief in a benevolent, personal God and participation in religious activities seem to be important factors in the spiritual wellbeing that leads to better social health.
Happiness and mental health generally
Religious people, especially “religiously active people”, tend to be happier all over the world. In stressful marital situations, those who pray for their spouses tend to behave in more positive ways. Religious people tend to have better emotional health, especially after trauma, than non-religious people. In cancer patients, spiritual well-being is associated with less anxiety, depression, or distress.
Increasingly, health researchers and practitioners are seeing people holistically – physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual – and treating patients accordingly.
One study examined 600 scientific papers which showed that religious and spiritual people tend to be healthier, both mentally and physically, and tend to respond better to treatment when they are not well.
A report by the Mayo Clinic pointed out: “Most studies have shown that religious involvement and spirituality are associated with better health outcomes, including greater longevity, coping skills, and health-related quality of life (even during terminal illness) and less anxiety, depression, and suicide.” It recommended “discerning, acknowledging, and supporting the spiritual needs of patients”, regardless of the beliefs of the doctor or psychiatrist.
The structure of our brains can be altered by our thought, a property known as neuroplasticity. People who pray or meditate can alter and strengthen parts of their brains in ways which reduce depression and anxiety, and improve mental health. This explains some of the positive connections between faith and wellbeing.
It appears that non-believers who practice meditation can gain many of the same positive results
It is well established that some religious practices have great benefits. It isn’t clear how big a part belief also plays in these positive results. It may also be that there is some other coincidental causes such as social support systems. Many studies are clear that while they can establish correlation, it is harder to demonstrate mechanisms. But psychologist David Larsen writes:
If a new health treatment were discovered that helped reduce the rate of teenage suicide, prevent drug and alcohol abuse, improve treatment for depression, reduce recovery time from surgery, lower divorce rates and enhance a sense of wellbeing, one would think that every physician in the country would be scrambling to try it.
Neuroscientists Andy Newberg and Mark Waldman are not believers, but they
appreciate and encourage religious and spiritual development, and conclude that
even minimal religious participation is correlated with enhancing longevity and personal health.
Does this say anything about God and the truth of religious belief?
It is possible to interpret these findings in two ways:
- There has been an evolutionary advantage, to the individual or to the social group, in holding a religious belief and participating in religious practices, and therefore these are common and beneficial in most societies. If this is true, then claims by some atheists that religion is “poisonous”, harmful and “delusional” go against all the evidence.
- If God created the human race via evolution, then the social and wellbeing benefits of religious belief and practice can be seen as a demonstration of God’s existence and part of his plan for us.