Clay Routledge Ph.D.

More Than Mortal

Is religion good for your health?

Is religion good for your health?

Posted Aug 31, 2009

Despite the fact that Nietzsche declared the death of God over 100 years ago and scientific research and discovery increasingly decrease the need for theological explanations of natural phenomena, religious faith is still thriving in many parts of the world. Why? One explanation offered by some is that religion is good for our physical and psychological health. Is this true? It may be. Let's consider the ways religion may offer health benefits.

Religion is a source of hope and optimism
Research in psychology indicates that positive attitudes are good for our health. For example, people who are optimistic about their chances of recovery from major diseases tend to better adhere to medical treatment plans, be less bothered by disease symptoms, and have better recovery rates. For many people, religion is a major source of hope and optimism.

Religion promotes feelings of belongingness
Humans are social animals and meeting belongingness needs is good for our psychological and physical health. Despite the assertion by many American Christian sects that religion is about a personal relationship between an individual and God (or Jesus), religion has always been and continues to be largely a social activity. For example, even in the United States, the more religious one claims to be, the more likely he or she is to attend church services (a group activity).

Religion can boost self-esteem
Like optimism, self-esteem has been shown to be a predictor of good physical health. We gain self-esteem from feeling as if we are people of value. Religion can offer a particularly potent and resilient sense of self-worth because God's love is often (but not always) perceived as non-contingent. In other words, many religious traditions assert that God, like a good parent, loves and values us no matter what we do. Many sources of self-esteem (e.g., beauty, success, popularity) are not so reliable.

Religion provides protection from existential threats

As intellectual animals, we humans are uniquely able to ask existential questions. Where did we come from? Why are we here? Is there any meaning to our existence? What happens to us when we die? Many scholars think that the capacity to ask such questions is why religion exists at all. For many, it is not satisfying to accept the possibility that human existence is by chance, and people are no more significant or enduring than any other organism. Religion offers feelings of existential meaning, purpose, and transcendence. Research supports this assertion as increased religiosity is associated with increased feelings of meaning and decreased existential anxieties.

So it appears that religion can offer physical and psychological health benefits. Does this mean religion is always good for us? Like many things, the relationship between religion and heath is complicated. Therefore, in my next blog entry I will turn my attention to the question: Is religion bad for your health? Stay tuned.

About the Author

Clay Routledge, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University.

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