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Is religion a good prescription?

Should health professionals push religion?

Some doctors (1) claim that the health benefits are so clear, and so pronounced that they should be prescribing religion! This perspective is a little naïve. After all, wealthy people live longer healthier lives than the poor. Does this mean that physicians should be prescribing wealth? Or how about advising single people to marry?

Moreover, when scientific medicine turns around and involves itself in religion, it begins to look much more like the shamanism of old and much less than science. Secular equivalents of religion's effects, such as yoga and relaxation training are more appropriate for doctors to investigate and recommend.

Health benefits of religion
Despite heated ongoing controversy, the health benefits of religion are hard to ignore (see Kindness in a Cruel World, chapter 6). Greater length of life, better recovery time from operations and from depression point to religious observance as a key ingredient in stress management and health.

With these phenomena in mind, some doctors claim they should advise patients to be more active in their churches in much the same vein as they are advising them to exercise or control their cholesterol level. Yet, they may be getting ahead of the evidence.

Oddly enough, there is no 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 of all of the major world religions are about the same with the qualification that most of the research has looked at Christians and Jews.

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.

Secular equivalents of religion
In conceding that religious people tend to have a more optimistic view of life, one must realize that there is nothing peculiar to religion in this respect. One does not have to be religious to enjoy a sense of purpose in life. The same boost can be obtained from secular activities such as sports, gardening, playing music, painting, political activism, or conducting scientific research.

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 (2).

Health researchers have long known that a substantial part of the health benefit from religion is really social. A religious congregation is, among other aspects, a social support network.

The social benefits and stress-management advantages from attending a weekly religious service also resemble those of a regular singing group, poetry reading, jam session, dance class, or any other such social outlet.

Professionals who are well informed on these matters will recognize that there is no need to promote religion for their clients. Instead, they should focus on secular equivalents that provide the same health benefits but without the baggage of combining secular health-promotion services with proselytism.

1. Koenig, H. G. (2008). Medicine, religion and health: Where science and spirituality meet. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press.
2. 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.