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Why You May Want to Get Religion

Being religious can be good for your health.

In 1992, the American alternative rock band R.E.M. won two Grammy Awards for its song “Losing My Religion.” The band explained that they wrote the song about unrequited love. But perhaps it captured the public imagination, in part, because the idea of losing one’s religion had been gaining traction.

In the early 1990s, some 90 percent of Americans identified as Christian; today only about two-thirds do. And Americans, coincidentally or not, are also more lonely, isolated, and atomized today. This prompts the question: Have we lost something by losing our religion? Or perhaps the converse is a better question: What might we gain by returning to religion? It turns out that the benefits of religion are not insignificant.

Religious participation has been shown to improve mental health and decrease one's dependence on substances. When researchers at Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program set out to study the association between religious service attendance and a range of health outcomes, they compared religious people with those who never attended religious services and found that people who attend religious services at least once a week had a 34 percent lower risk of heavy drinking and a 29 percent lower risk of smoking. They also found that individuals who attended religious services reported less anxiety and depression and greater well-being, life satisfaction, and meaning.

Second, religion appears to help you live longer. In a 2016 opinion piece in USA Today, professor Tyler VanderWeele, who directs Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program, and colleagues wrote:

If one could conceive of a single elixir to improve the physical and mental health of millions of Americans — at no personal cost — what value would our society place on it? Going a step further, if research quite conclusively showed that when consumed just once a week, this concoction would reduce mortality by 20% to 30% over a 15-year period, how urgently would we want to make it publicly available? The good news is that this miracle drug — religion, and more specifically regular church attendance — is already in reach of most Americans. In fact, there’s a good chance it’s just a short drive away.

The most recent study from the Human Flourishing Program of which I’m aware shows that all-cause mortality decreases by 26% among those who attend religious services at least one per week, a finding corroborated last year by researchers at the University of Colorado and Lund University in Sweden.

Third, religion appears to be good for kids as well: It may help them cope with life’s challenges and tame their risk-taking behavior. Another study from VanderWeele's lab examined the relationship between the religious involvement of adolescents and various behaviors related to health and well-being. Compared to youth who did not attend any services, kids who attended religious services at least once weekly reported greater life satisfaction and positivity. They volunteered more. They reported having a greater sense of mission and were more likely to practice forgiveness. Those who attended religious service at least weekly also had a lower likelihood of drug use and later sexual initiation.

I can, of course, imagine the pushback to this argument: “Religion’s not my thing,” some might say. “Why would I attend services I don't enjoy just for a chance that I might become healthier or live a longer life?” Researchers acknowledge that “although effect sizes on health may sometimes not be as substantial, other forms of community life certainly also contribute to health.” So there’s no need to fake it; there are worthy communal and social alternatives that could deliver similar benefits.

It’s no secret that since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health issues have skyrocketed and life expectancy has dropped. Recently, New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced what she called a “historic effort” to combat mental health problems. As part of a multiyear, $1 billion commitment, the state plans to provide $50 million for hospitals to expand access to mental health care—a necessary and laudable goal. But what about other, less costly—even free—interventions that have been consistently shown to improve well-being, mental health, and mortality? If the aforementioned data are valid, weekly religious service attendance could deliver such benefits to many at a far lower cost.

Perhaps it’s time for at least some of us to get religion.

More from L.S. Dugdale, MD
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