The health benefits of religion: Are non-religious parents short-changing their kids?

© 2010-2015 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

For decades, we’ve heard about studies confirming links between good health, life satisfaction, and participation in religion.

And some claims seem uncontroversial.

Who would argue against the idea that certain religious practices--like prohibitions against smoking or heavy drinking--protect health (Whooley et al 2002; Hoffman and Bahr 2014)?

Or that many people derive a sense of comfort from their religious beliefs? That religion can offer some people a way cope with stress?

What’s more contentious is the idea that religion is intrinsically or uniquely beneficial for a person’s health and sense of well-being.

The idea that faith causes people to enjoy better health. That prayer heals. That ritualized worship makes people happier or more satisfied with life.

These claims have been used to argue that families should be encouraged to practice religion. Some people have even suggested that doctors should prescribe religious activities to their patients.

But is the science compelling? Not really. Because most studies linking religion with health and well-being report correlations only. They don’t tell us that religious practice causes health or happiness.

We might suppose the causation works the other way. Maybe healthier people have an easier time participating in religious activities. Maybe happier people are more motivated to maintain religious ties. As Richard Sloan and his colleagues have argued (1999), many studies have failed to rule out these alternatives.

And there are obvious complications. What if there is religious discord within the family? When parents clash over religion, kids may be more likely to develop mental health problems (van der Jagt-Jelsma et al 2014).

But let’s assume that something about religion causes improved health and life satisfaction. Does it follow that it's the doctrine or ritual that makes people feel better?

No. In fact, two recent studies suggest the contrary. The psychological perks and health benefits of religion may stem from the social support offered by religious communities.

For example, researchers Chaeyoon Lim and Robert Putnam (2010) re-analyzed data collected on the religious activities of American adults.

The researchers found a connection between attending religious services and a self-reported sense of well-being. But the effect seemed to depend on friendship.

People who expressed greater certainty about their religious beliefs did not express greater personal satisfaction. Nor did people who prayed or conducted religious services at home.

What seemed really important was a combination of factors:

  • expressing a strong religious identity,
  • meeting frequently with a religious congregation, and
  • having close friends in that congregation.

People who met all three criteria were more likely to say they were "extremely satisfied" with their lives.

But religious attendees who lacked close friends in the congregation were not more likely to be "extremely satisfied" than were people who said they didn’t attend services at all.

As Lim notes in a public statement, "To me, the evidence substantiates that it is not really going to church and listening to sermons or praying that makes people happier, but making church-based friends and building intimate social networks there."

And what about health?

Amanda Nicholson and her colleagues (2010) published a study that analyzed the relationship between religious participation and self-reported health among Europeans.

The researchers reviewed data on people from 23 different countries. They found that frequent attendance of religious services was linked with better self-ratings of health. But that was not true of prayer. The more frequently a person prayed, the less likely he was to report good health.

Perhaps that's because unhealthy individuals were more motivated to pray. But the results are also consistent with the hypothesis that it's the social aspects of religion that improve quality of life.

A recent study of Americans corroborates the idea. When Jibum Kim and his colleagues tracked more than 30,000 adults over a period of 15 years, they found that members of certain religious groups (including Catholics and Jews) had a lower risk of death.

But when the researchers examined specific aspects of religion, the only one that predicted improved survival rates was religious attendance. None of the other measures of religiosity -- strength of religious affiliation, frequency of praying, belief in an afterlife, or belief in God -- were linked with lower mortality (Kim et al 2015).

Does this mean that religious people shouldn't claim that their faith makes them feel healthier or happier? Of course not. Religions can provide believers with a sense of meaning, and certain religiously-endorsed behaviors (like acts of forgiveness, expressions of gratitude, and mindfulness) can boost health and well-being (Worthington et al 2007; Gu et al 2015; Jackowska et al 2015; O'Leary and Dockray 2015).

But individuals can find meaning -- and develop healthy coping mechanisms -- outside the domain of religion. For now, it's not clear that participating in religion makes people any healthier or happier than participating in secular activities. Not if those secular activities feature frequent social contact, friendship, and a sense of belonging.

References: The health benefits of religion

Gu J, Strauss C, Bond R, and Cavanagh K. 2015. How do mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction improve mental health and wellbeing? A systematic review and meta-analysis of mediation studies. Clin Psychol Rev. 37:1-12.

Hoffmann JP and Bahr SJ. 2014. Parenting style, religiosity, peer alcohol use, and adolescent heavy drinking. J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 75(2):222-7.

Jackowska M, Brown J, Ronaldson A, and Steptoe A. 2015. The impact of a brief gratitude intervention on subjective well-being, biology and sleep. J Health Psychol. 2015 Mar 2. pii: 1359105315572455. [Epub ahead of print]

Kim J, Smith TW, and Kang JH. 2015. Religious Affiliation, Religious Service Attendance, and Mortality. J Relig Health. 54(6):2052-72.

Lim C and Putnam R. 2010. Religion, social networks, and life satisfaction. American Sociological Review 75(6): 914-933.

O'Leary K and Dockray S. 2015. The effects of two novel gratitude and mindfulness interventions on well-being. J Altern Complement Med. 21(4):243-5.

Nicholson A, Rose R, and Bobak M. 2010. Associations between different dimensions of religious involvement and self-rated health in diverse European populations. Health Psychol. 29(2):227-35.

Sloan R, Bagiella E, and Powell T. 1999. Religion, spirituality, and medicine. Lancet 353:664-667.

Whooley MA, Boyd AL, Gardin JM, and Williams DR. 2002. Religious involvement and cigarette smoking in young adults: the CARDIA study (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults) study. Arch Intern Med. 22;162(14):1604-10.

Worthington EL Jr, Witvliet CV, Pietrini P, Miller AJ. 2007. Forgiveness, health, and well-being: a review of evidence for emotional versus decisional forgiveness, dispositional forgivingness, and reduced unforgiveness. J Behav Med. 30(4):291-302.

Content last modified 10/2015

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