The most religious places in the world are by far the sickest. Think sub-Saharan Africa with its plagues of malaria, parasites, dengue fever, cholera, diarrheal diseases, HIV/AIDS and many others.
Indeed, the load of various infectious diseases in a country predicts how religious it is both in terms of belief in God and stated importance of religion (1). Evidently, the presence of many serious chronic illnesses, and the expectation of an early death distresses people and pushes them to seek relief in religion.
The religion prescription
Yet, the health-religion question is most often posed in a very different way. Now we compare religious people in the same country – typically the U.S. where a lot of health research is conducted – with their less religious compatriots. In this case, the answer is very different. Some researchers are so confident in the health benefits of religion that they argue it should be dispensed as a medicine (2).
As a group, people who attend church regularly are healthier than stay aways. They lead longer lives, have more robust immune systems, lower blood pressure, and better recovery times from operations, although these claims have been disputed (2, 3). Given, the strength of some of these effects in published research, it is striking that there is no clear evidence that religion per se provides any health advantage.
In other words, religious people benefit from church membership but they do so irrespective of the doctrinal content, religious practices, or even health behavior, advocated by their particular belief system. We know this because the health advantages for various religions are about the same despite differences in lifestyle. Seventh Day Adventists are more clean-living than Episcopalians, for instance, but they are not healthier.
However inconsistent mainstream religions are in their practices and rituals, they may nevertheless promote the conviction that our existence is purposeful and our lives worthwhile. Such optimism carries a substantial health premium. Optimists are healthier. Their immune systems are more robust and they are more long-lived according to abundant research in the field of positive psychology.
One does not have to be religious to enjoy a sense of purpose in life, of course. The same boost can be obtained from secular activities such as sports, gardening, playing music, painting, political activism, or conducting scientific research.
Apart from giving people a sense of purpose, religious communities comprise a social support system and this accounts for some of the health benefits of religious participation.
Another beneficial feature shared by all religions is prayer and ritual that help members to manage stress.
Researchers at Duke University found that religious rituals function as an anti-stress mechanism (4). They demonstrated that individual prayer, as well as church services, reduce blood pressure, high blood pressure being a reliable index of psychological stress. Elevated blood pressure causes heart disease and heart disease is the number one killer in many developed countries.
Any practice that lowers blood pressure on a regular basis, whether it is pleasant social interactions with friends, or physical exercise, reduces the risk of heart disease (4). By this logic, prayers and rituals can contribute directly to health and long life.
It might seem that we have finally zeroed in on a health benefit that is peculiar to religious practice. Yet, this is not true. Even prayers and rituals have their secular counterparts that may produce the same stress-management benefits. Secular meditation counteracts stress in much the same way as prayer, for instance, according to experiments (4).
What it all means
To summarize, the claim that religious people are healthier does not stand up when we compare secular countries with religious ones. The secular countries are much healthier because they are more economically developed and reap the associated benefits of improved healthcare, sanitation, and public health programs (1). Religious people do seem to be healthier than their more secular compatriots, however.
Yet, these health benefits probably have nothing to do with religion as such. Religious people likely benefit from better social support and having a sense of purpose in their lives. They also benefit from stress reduction techniques inherent in prayer and ritual.
All of this makes religion seem effective as health promotion. However, each of these benefits can be derived from entirely secular equivalents.
The bottom line is that religious people are fond of giving religion the credit for their health advantages. By similar logic, religion would also assume the blame for terrible health in places such as sub-Saharan Africa where religion is at its strongest.
1. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B00886ZSJ6/
2. Koenig, H. G. (2008). Medicine, religion and health: Where science and spirituality meet. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.
3. Sloan, R. P., and Bagiella, E. (2002). Claims about religious involvement and health outcomes. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 24, 14-21.
4. Paul-Labrador, M. D. et al. (2006). Effects of a randomized controlled trial of transcendental meditation on components of the metabolic syndrome in subjects with coronary heart disease. Archives of Internal Medicine, 166: 1218-1224.