By Mark Hartwig, Ph.D.
What would happen if scientists found something that could lengthen people’s lives, speed their recovery from serious injuries, increase their sense of well-being, enhance their marital satisfaction and lower their risk of depression and suicide?
The media would celebrate the discovery. Congress would subsidize its development. Families would share the news with friends and neighbors. And businesses would compete for marketing rights.
Well, scientists have made such a discovery, but it isn’t getting much attention. You haven’t read about it in your daily newspaper. And Congress won’t allocate a dime for it.
What is this neglected breakthrough?
Scientific studies suggest that religious commitment offers some major health benefits.
Psychiatrist David Larson is a senior government researcher who worked nearly 10 years at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). One of his specialties is studying the effect of religion on physical and mental health. In reviewing his own research and that of others, Larson has found that religious commitment seems to have an
overwhelmingly positive effect on people’s lives.
Indeed, when he tallied up the findings, the results were remarkable.’ In the area of psychiatry, 92 percent of the findings showed that religious commitment produced some kind of beneficial effect. In the area of family medicine, 83 percent of the findings demonstrated a beneficial effect. And in the health literature, 81 percent of the findings were also positive.
“When I show this to people, they’re blown away,” said Larson. “They just don’t expect it to be so beneficial.”
Here are some of the benefits that religious commitment seems to confer.
Religion and mortality
Larson and several colleagues have systematically reviewed many studies dealing with religion and mortality. In nearly every study they reviewed, Larson and his colleagues found that, as a group, religious people lived longer than non-religious people.
“The religiously committed, the church attendees, live longer than the non-committed, even when you [take into account] other risk factors, such as weight, age and smoking,” said Larson.
In one classic study, Yale researchers studied a group of elderly people for two years. As part of their investigation, the researchers asked each person how religious they considered themselves to be, how often they attended religious services and how important their religion was as a source of comfort and strength.
At the end of the two years, the researchers found that people who were less religious had mortality levels that were twice as high as people who were more religious. This was true even when the researchers took into account such important factors as age, marital status, education, income, race, gender, health status and previous hospitalizations.
Other studies have shown that the risk of dying from arteriosclerosis, emphysema, cirrhosis of the liver, suicide and other common conditions was substantially lower for church attendees than non-attenders.
Religion and sickness
In addition to lengthening your life, religion can also help lower your chances of getting sick.
In 1987, researchers at the University of Texas carefully examined 27 studies on church attendance and health. The studies looked at a wide range of illnesses, from heart conditions to cancer. In all but seven studies, the researchers found that frequent church attendees were healthier as a group than less-frequent attenders. Four of the remaining studies were also positive, but not strong enough to rule out the effects of chance.
“It seems clear that frequent attendance is a protective factor against a wide range of illness outcomes,” the researchers said. In fact, the researchers suggested, “infrequent religious attendance should be regarded as a consistent risk factor for morbidity and mortality of various types.”
Other studies have found much the same thing. In a more recent review, Larson and his colleagues remarked that the “unanimity” of published research was “impressive.”
To bring this down to earth, let’s look at a particular example: high blood pressure. In a study titled The Impact of Religion on Men’s Blood Pressure, Larson and several colleagues found that even smokers benefitted from religion. Smokers who rated religion as not very important were seven times more likely to have an abnormal diastolic
pressure than those who said it was important. Likewise, smokers who seldom attended church were four times more likely to have abnormal diastolic pressure than those who attended weekly or more.
Diastolic pressure is the pressure in your arteries when your heart relaxes between heartbeats. Because the diastolic pressure occurs during this “rest” phase, a high diastolic means that the pressure in your arteries is not going down as far as it should between contractions. This higher sustained pressure can damage your circulatory system-increasing your risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Non-smokers also reaped important benefits from religion, but the effect was most pronounced for smokers. In fact, smokers who attended church had the same blood pressure as non-smokers who did not.
Larson, one of the studies’ authors, says he likes to tell people, “If you’re going to smoke, make sure you go to church.”
This study is far from unique. When researchers reviewed the other studies that had been conducted, they concluded that “hypertension is a common and serious problem which appears to be mitigated by religion.”
There are also indications that religion can help you recover from serious injuries. In yet another study, Larson and some colleagues from Northwestern University investigated the affect of religion on how elderly women recovered from broken hips.
According to Larson, serious hip injuries can frighten and depress elderly patients which can affect their recovery.
“When it comes to the elderly, there are no Bo Jacksons,” said Larson. “These people are thin, not well-muscled, and their bones are demineralized. It’s scary and depressing because of the prospects for permanent disability. And depression, in a way, speaks to how well they’re going to do.”
When they analyzed their results, the investigators found that elderly women who were religiously committed were less depressed, had shorter hospital stays and could walk farther at the time of their discharge than those who were not.
Religion and suicide
Religiously committed people are much less likely than others to commit suicide.
In one study, George Comstock, a highly respected researcher and former editor of the prestigious American Journal of Epidemiology, found that people who did not attend church were four times more likely to commit suicide than frequent church attenders. Similarly, Steven Stack, a respected researcher from Wayne State University, found that as church attendance rates declined nationwide, suicide rates increased. Indeed, the investigator found that the rate of church non-attendance predicted suicide rates better than any other factor including unemployment.”
Other studies have shown that religious people seem to experience fewer suicidal impulses and, not surprisingly, view suicide as less acceptable than non-religious people.
Religion and well-being
Contrary to popular stereotypes, religious people seem to be better off psychologically than non-religious people.
For example, researchers from the University of Akron, in Ohio, showed that prayer seems to contribute to people’s enjoyment of life. People who spent more time absorbed in prayer reported a greater sense of well-being than people who did not pray or prayed very little.
The affect of religion, however, goes far beyond how people say they feel. Other studies suggest that religion helps people ward off the more serious psychological effects of stress.
A recent study, for instance, found that regular church attendees had fewer psychological disorders over time than non-attenders despite reporting similar levels of life stress. This was true even when the researchers took into account other important factors, such as age, education, marital status or race.
Religion and marital satisfaction
Religious commitment is also good for your marriage.
Several studies have demonstrated that regular church attendees have lower divorce rates than non-attenders. And that isn’t just because their religious convictions are keeping them mired in a bad marriage. To the contrary, attenders also report being happier with their marriage. This proved to be true even when investigators used special
techniques to detect whether people were faking their responses. “The thesis is that these religious people are really rigid, nasty and generally harmful to themselves and others,” said Larson. “How in the world can they have a good marriage? That’s the thesis. And so you have to say, ‘Well, were they faking their responses?’ No, they weren’t.”
Interestingly, the satisfaction extends to married couples’ sex lives, said Larson. That flies right in the face of the prevailing wisdom, which portrays religion as being negative toward sex.
Roadblocks to reality
In addition to the areas summarized above, researchers have also reported benefits in the areas of drug abuse, alcoholism and juvenile delinquency.
As positive as most of the research is, however, it’s really only a start. The studies give us good reason for optimism, but none of them really clinch the case that religion itself causes all the good effects. For example, why does church attendance seem to offer such remarkable benefits? Is it because of what happens at church? Or is it merely because you have to be somewhat healthy to attend church in the first place? Studies like the one with elderly hip-fracture patients-where attendees and non-attenders were equally bad off at the start-hint that it’s more than just the latter.
What’s more, most of the studies didn’t consider the content of people’s beliefs-just the question of commitment versus non-commitment. So although these studies refute the secular myth that Christianity and other forms of religion are harmful, researchers still can’t say whether commitment to Christian beliefs is more beneficial than commitment to other religious beliefs.
According to Larson, very little of that work is being done because many researchers have blinders that keep them from appreciating the positive aspects of religion. Academic psychologists and psychiatrists are one such group.
The mental health field has had an anti-religious bias since Freud,” said Larson. “Generally, they feel that religion is something for the immature or is at best neutral. It’s more for the weak of heart or mind, and people would be better off if they could get rid of their faith. That’s both implied and said.”
There’s also a suspicion that any researcher who wants to look for possible benefits has an axe to grind.
“In academia, there’s a sense that the person who is religiously committed is close-minded,” Larson said. “Academics forget the history of science and how some of the most open-minded people have really been very committed in their Christian faith. There’s the suspicion that you really couldn’t be open to the data, and that you would distort it and use it to your own ends.”
Still, the positive results are getting too tough to ignore.
“The field is starting to shift,” said Larson. “There are some people who are starting to say, ‘You know, we’ve made some mistakes. We’ve misunderstood and neglected religion.’ It’s just going to take time to deal with this tradition of anti-religious bias.”
This article is from: Focus on the Family Citizen, June 21, 1993. Christian Information Network. This material is copyrighted and may be used for research and study purposes only.