Studies of medicine and religion

This page in brief

Medical researchers are showing an increasing interest in how religious faith affects our mental and physical health, and general wellbeing. Here is a summary of well-established conclusions plus some more recent studies (many are taken from the Science on Religion blog).

Some definitions

People’s religiosity can be described as intrinsic or extrinsic. Extrinsically religious people participate in religion for ancillary benefits such as social connections, while the intrinsically religious consider religion to be something personal, pursued for its own sake. People who score high on both extrinsic and intrinsic religion are considered indiscriminately pro-religious.

Some studies probed the difference between being religious (following the teachings of a particular religion) and being spiritual (a sense of there being more to life than the material). Of course, some people are both.

Holistic health (physical + mental)

Findings Report
A review of 600 published papers concluded: “A large volume of research shows that people who are more R/S have better mental health and adapt more quickly to health problems compared to those who are less R/S.” (R/S = religious or spiritual). These mental health problems “have physiological consequences that impact physical health, affect the risk of disease, and influence response to treatment.” The paper points out “the need to integrate spirituality into patient care.” Religion, Spirituality, and Health: The Research and Clinical Implications (2012). Harold Koenig, Duke University. These conclusions are updated in Religion, spirituality, and health: a review and update (2015).
“Although the effects sizes are moderate, there typically are links between religious practices and reduced onset of physical and mental illnesses, reduced mortality and likelihood of recovery from or adjustment to physical or mental illness.” Spirituality and health: What we know, what we need to know George, Larsons, Koeing, McCullough. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology (2000).

Physical health

Findings Report
Church attenders tend to be healthier compared to non-attenders – they are almost half as likely to suffer from arteriosclerotic heart disease, a quarter as likely to die from cirrhosis of the liver, they have lower blood pressure and they recover more quickly from surgery. “God: the evidence” by Patrick Glynn.
Chronically ill believers have below average mortality rates and pain levels. People who attended religious services at least once a week were 46 percent less likely to die during the six-year study. Harold Koenig, medical researcher, author of “The Healing Connection”, many other books, and 200 medical research papers, in Web MD.
Faith can give a person a more positive mental outlook that can significantly help their recovery from heart surgery ….
…. and from cancer.
Religious Beliefs May Affect Psychological Recovery After Cardiac Surgery, and
Researchers Study Health-Faith Connection.
Religious beliefs can have a dramatic effect on HIV/AIDS patients. Those who believed God is loving and forgiving had significantly slower disease progression over 4 years than did those who viewed God as harsh and punishing (for them the disease progressed 5 to 8 times faster based on the two measures used). University of Miami, reported in the Science on Religion blog.
Prayer reduced the pain felt by patients suffering from chronic back pain, and also improved their ability to cope with the pain, but only if the patients had a previous religious commitment or identified with a religious group. Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium), reported in the Science on Religion blog.
People who feel connected to a higher power (God) and who find comfort in faith or spiritual beliefs had better cardiovascular health, as measured by a range of indicators, including blood pressure and cholesterol. They were also less likely to experience stress or depression. The connection between spirituality and these factors remained even when the effects of other factors was removed. Brigham Young University, reported in the Science on Religion blog.
People suffering advanced heart disease and who experience negative feelings about God, their spiritual life, or the religious tradition they belong to (even if they are highly religious), and thus have difficulties reconciling themselves to their beliefs or to God, spend more time in hospital than do those who are at peace with their religion. University of Connecticut, reported in the Science on Religion blog.
Following the Twin Towers terrorist attacks, both spiritual and religious people had better physical health over the next 3 years. University of Denver, reported in the Science on Religion blog.
Patients recovering from open heart surgery who were spiritual in a secular way had shorter hospital stays than either the religious or the fully secular. The same trends were found for depression. University of Pittsburgh, reported in the Science on Religion blog.
“Patients reporting greater overall religiousness and spirituality also reported better physical health, greater ability to perform their usual daily tasks, and fewer physical symptoms of cancer and treatment.” Religion, Spirituality, and Physical Health in Cancer Patients: A Meta-Analysis Heather Jim et al.

Mental health

Findings Report
Intrinsically religious people tend to have positive mental health and well-being, and hence improved cardiac health. However the ‘pro-religious’ tend to have low levels of physical and psychological health. University of Colorado, Denver, and Brigham Young University, reported in the Science on Religion blog.
A study of mostly religious African-American women suffering from cancer found that religious belief didn’t seem to have any benefits for their physical health, but religious activities such as attending church and prayimng did improve emotional wellbeing. University of Maryland, reported in the Science on Religion blog.
Religious people were less traumatised by the Twin Towers terrorist attacks and had better emotional health over the following 3 years. Spiritual people were initially more traumatised than average, but recovered very quickly. University of Denver, reported in the Science on Religion blog.
It is almost a given that religious people have better mental health, but this study found that this was primarily because of personality type – as measured by the variables Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. The study found that Agreeableness and Conscientiousness were related to Religiosity, while Openness was related to Spirituality. Thus it is argued, people with the given personality traits are likely to be both religious/spritual and have good mental health. Cornell University, reported in the Science on Religion blog.
“hundreds of medical, neurological, psychological and sociological studies on religion [show] …. even minimal religious participation is correlated with enhancing longevity and personal health….Activities involving meditation and intensive prayer permanently strengthen neural functioning in specific parts of the brain that are involved with lowering anxiety and depression, enhancing social awareness and empathy, and improving cognitive and intellectual functioning.” How God changes your brain page 149, A Newberg & M Waldman.
“faith-based positive religious resources can protect psychological well-being through enhanced hope and perceived social support during stressful experiences, like undergoing cardiac surgery. Furthermore, having negative religious thoughts and struggles may hinder recovery.” Amy Ai, University of Washington, and Crystal Park, University of Connecticut, reported in the American Psychological Association.
“Spiritual well-being was, unsurprisingly, associated with less anxiety, depression, or distress …. the emotional aspects of religion and spirituality were more strongly associated with positive mental health than behavioral or cognitive aspects of religion and spirituality.” A Meta-Analytic Approach to Examining the Correlation between Religion/Spirituality and Mental Health in Cancer.” John M. Salsman et al.
“Higher levels of spirituality and private religious practices, but not quality of life, are associated with slower progression of Alzheimer disease.” Kaufman, Anaki, Binns, Freedman M. Cognitive decline in Alzheimer disease: Impact of spirituality, religiosity, and QOL (2007)

Worry & stress

Findings Report
Those who believe in a benevolent God tend to worry less and be more tolerant of life’s uncertainties than those who believe in an indifferent or punishing God. The lead author, David H. Rosmarin, recommends that psychiatrists take more account of patients’ religious beliefs. Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital.
When believers think about God they feel less distressed; for example, they take setbacks in stride and react with less distress to anxiety-provoking mistakes. “Thinking about religion makes you calm under fire.” says researcher Michael Inzlicht, “there is some evidence that religious people live longer and they tend to be happier and healthier.”. 2010 study by University of Toronto Scarborough.
Religious commitment correlates with lower stress, lower depression and greater ability to cope with stress. “God: the evidence” by Patrick Glynn.
Religious faith improves a person’s ability to cope with being widowed, raising developmentally challenged children, divorce, unemployment or disability. Psychology and Christianity, page 70).

Anxiety, depression and suicide

Findings Report
Those with faith were less likely to experience depression or anxiety after a major operation. American Psychological Association Research Shows How Religious Beliefs Can Protect Psychological Well-being during Stressful Experiences.
An Australian study of young adults found that alternative spiritualities tended to lead to lower levels of mental health and higher levels of depression, anxiety and anti-social behaviour than those who believe in God. New religious beliefs focus too much on self
Religious peope are much less likely to suicide than non-religious. Religious Affiliation, Atheism and Suicide.
Those who don’t attend church are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than church attendees – in fact church attendance is the biggest single predictor of suicide, more important even than unemployment. About a dozen studies show referenced in “God: the evidence” by Patrick Glynn.
Cancer patients who were both spiritual and religious had the highest levels of wellbeing and suffered the least depression. Those who were spiritual but not religious also had good wellbeing. Those who were neither religious nor spiritual were more likely to be depressed, and the religious but not spiritual fared worst of all. Indiana State University, reported in the Science on Religion blog.
Intrinsically religious Jews who were physically ill did not suffer significantly from depression, whereas the extyrinsically religious did often get depressed. Columbia University, reported in the Science on Religion blog.
Enthusiastic religious believers deal with anxiety better than non-believers. They show less anxiety after failing at a task, and as a result perform better at the next task. This occurs because failure causes people to feel their sense of purpose and meaning has been threatened, but religious belief acts as a buffer to this feeling. University of Toronto, reported in the Science on Religion blog.
Some types of prayer (thanksgiving and prayers for others) reduced depression in cancer patients, while other types of prayer (confession and asking God for favours) had little effect on depression. University of San Fransisco, reported in the Science on Religion blog.
“religion or spirituality may have a protective effect against recurrence of depression, particularly in adults with a history of parental depression” Religiosity and Major Depression in Adults at High Risk: A Ten-Year Prospective Study. Lisa Miller, et al. American Journal of Psychiatry.
Religious and spiritual people had a higher incidence of depression, with those whose spirituality wasn’t connected to a religion being most prone. The study recognised this was contrary to the findings of previous studies. Being Religious or Spiritual Is Linked With Getting More Depressed. Huffington Post.

Prosociality vs destructive and anti-social behaviour

Findings Report
In the US, actively religious people are much less likely than irrelegious people to become delinquent, to abuse drugs and alcohol. Psychology and Christianity, page 70.
Religious belief is the biggest single predictor (inversely) of drug abuse; likewise, alcohol abuse is highest among non-believers. “God: the evidence” by Patrick Glynn.
Many studies, reported in Handbook of Crime Correlates show that religious people are less likely to commit crimes.
Many other studies show that crime is less in religious communities and that participation in religious activities was a persistent and noncontingent inhibiter of adult crime.
Handbook of Crime Correlates is referenced in Wikipedia.
Baylor University.
Religion and crime re-examined and 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook.
However a smaller number of studies show the opposite, that crime is higher among religious people, or in more religious communities. Some criminals excuse their crimes because of a belief in God’s forgiveness. Religion, Atheism and Crime and Psychology Today.
Science on religion.
“When we took a closer look, we found that patients with stronger spiritual well-being, more benign images of God (such as perceptions of a benevolent rather than an angry or distant God), or stronger beliefs (such as convictions that a personal God can be called upon for assistance) reported better social health,” A meta-analytic review of religious or spiritual involvement and social health among cancer patients. A Sherman et al


Findings Report
Studies by Inglehart (1990) and The National Opinion Research Centre show that religiously active people who feel close to God report higher than average levels of happiness. Referenced in Psychology and Christianity, page 70,1.
An American study of teenagers also found that religious faith tended to lead to people being happier. For many kids, faith is the key to happiness.
In 2010, Leslie Francis, Professor of Religions and Education at Warwick University, reported on the results of 8 recent studies (1996 to 2004). His conclusion: The empirical evidence demonstrates that overall religious people are happier. However he says no clear causal connection was established in these studies. “Religion and happiness: Perspectives from the psychology of religion, positive psychology and empirical theology”, in The Practices of Happiness.
People who pray for their partners tend to be more cooperative and forgiving towards their partners, especially in hurtful situations, than those who don’t pray, including those who think positive thoughts towards them or who think about God, but don’t pray. Researchers from Brigham Young, Florida State, Kentucky & Georgia Universities, published in the journal Personal Relationships.


Clearly the research evidence is very diverse, and some studies give results that appear to conflict with others. But the following broad conclusions can be drawn:

1. People with intrinsic religious belief, or who are both religious and spiritual, tend to have better physical and emotional health than those whose belief is more extrinsic, or those with no belief.

2. Sometimes the immediate cause seems to be other factors which are part of having deeply held beliefs (e.g. a sense of purpose or the support of a caring community), but other times it seems to be the belief itself.

3. People who pray, or are prayed for, generally have better health and wellbeing than others – praying regularly is better than praying just when a particular need arises.

4. These results can perhaps be explained in purely natural terms, but they may lend support to those who believe that this is what one would expect if God exists and cares for us.

Read a summary of how religious faith affects our wellbeing at Faith and wellbeing.

Photo: MorgueFile.

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