In my last post, I considered the numerous ways that religion may be advantageous for psychological and physical health. This poses the question: Is it possible for religion to be bad for your health? The short answer is yes. Religion can compromise your health. Let us consider how.

Religion can be distressing

Everyone knows that stress and anxiety can compromise health and well-being. Perhaps ironically, religion, which can help reduce anxiety, can also cause it. The reason is that many (but certainly not all) religious beliefs are at odds with scientific knowledge. For example, if a person strongly desires to believe the traditional Biblical view that God created humans in their present form but is confronted with an increasing amount of evidence that another perspective (evolution) is more accurate, this individual may be distressed.

A rich tradition of research in cognitive dissonance theory indicates that people are distressed by these types of situations and go to great lengths to resolve them in some way. This explains what appears to be a thriving pseudo-scientific industry of creationist-based theories that seek to challenge, dismiss, or reinterpret the overwhelming amount of converging data that exclusively supports an evolutionary perspective. In short, when beliefs are at odds with facts, but people strongly desire to maintain those beliefs, the result is often negative emotion.

Religion can direct people away from conventional medical treatment

Everyone has seen the news stories of people refusing medical treatment for themselves or their children because of religious beliefs. In some of these cases, people deny medical treatment because the treatment is believed to be prohibited by their particular faith. In other cases, people deny medical treatment because they believe that turning to medicine instead of relying on God answering their prayers for healing would show a lack of faith or confidence in God.

Some of my colleagues and I were interested in this particular issue. In a series of experiments, we sought to investigate the extent to which religious fundamentalism played a decisive role in people choosing faith over medicine. The results of these studies were astonishing. We had participants come into the laboratory and complete a number of questionnaires, including a measure of religious fundamentalism. Then we asked some participants to think about their own death (something that is often on one's mind when making health-related decisions), and other participants to think about unpleasant topics unrelated to death. Finally, we assessed whether they favored faith (i.e., prayer) or medical-based treatments for disease. This preference was assessed differently in each study. For example, in one study we had participants read a court case about a sick boy that had been taken away from his parents because they refused life-saving medical intervention for religious reasons. We asked the participants whether or not they supported the position to deny medicine and rely on faith alone. In another study, we asked the participants to what extent they themselves would rely on faith alone when dealing with an illness. The results were always the same. The participants that were asked to think about death, relative to those asked to think about other things, chose faith over medicine, but only if they ranked high in religious fundamentalism.

In short, when death is on your mind, having a very rigid and dogmatic approach to religion (fundamentalism) can be hazardous to your health because it motivates a reliance on faith instead of conventional medicine. It is worth noting that people who are not fundamentalists, but are religious, are more likely to rely on conventional medicine, even if they also rely on prayer. That is, they use both, and using a combination of medicine and faith is not problematic for health as long as the religious component does not push one away from relying on conventional medicine.

Religion can be a form of avoidant coping

Avoidant coping is when people engage in efforts to avoid dealing with an unpleasant situation or simply try to deny that it exists. In the case of illness or disease, obviously, avoidance is bad for your health. As discussed in my last post, religion can be a psychological strength and can thus help people adaptively cope with illness by giving them the courage and strength needed to confront health threats. However, religion can also offer people a way to avoid the problem. That is, people can say things like "It is in God's hands" or "It must have happened for a reason". In other words, if people want to avoid confronting a health problem, they can pass the buck to God and this approach serves as a barrier to maintaining and improving health.

In sum, religion can be good for your health. But it can also threaten your health. To the extent that religion serves to bolster feelings of hope, optimism, self-esteem, belongingness, and meaning, it may be an important psychological resource for many people. It is worth noting that many people do not turn to religion for these psychological and social resources but instead rely on romantic relationships, friendships, social groups, and other meaningful personal and cultural investments. And these secular investments work just as well. However, when religious beliefs are at odds with scientific facts, are extremely dogmatic or inflexible, or provide people a way to avoid taking responsibility for their health, they can be deadly.

Further reading

Vess., M., Arndt, J., Cox, C., Routledge, C., & Goldenberg, J. L. (2009). The terror management of medical decisions: The effect of mortality salience and religious fundamentalism on support for faith-based medical intervention. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 334 -350.

About the Author

Clay Routledge

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

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