The health benefits of religion: Are children from religious homes better off?
© 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.
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 research indicates special conditions under which religiosity can contribute to negative outcomes. For instance, when parents clash over their religious beliefs, their children may be more likely to develop mental health problems (van der Jagt-Jelsma et al 2014).
But let’s assume that something about religious affiliation causes improved health and life satisfaction. Does it follow that it's the doctrine or ritual that makes people feel better? 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) 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.
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 no more likely to be "extremely
satisfied" than were people who said they didn’t attend services at all.
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? 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
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
Does this mean that religious people are wrong if they believe 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
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mindfulness-based stress reduction improve mental health and wellbeing? A
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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.
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Content last modified 10/2015
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