How's Your Health, Skeptics? PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Christina Stephens   

Medical literature frequently reports finding that strong religious belief or spirituality has a positive effect on health outcomes with regard to longevity, measures of mental health, recovery after illness, and other health measures. Generally, findings show that people who attend religious services once or more per week have fewer physical and mental illnesses, recover more quickly from illness, and have lower mortality rates than individuals who attend less frequently or not at all. [1-3]

Naturally, it is easy to infer from the abundance of literature linking religion to positive health outcomes that people who are less religious or nonreligious are less healthy and more mentally and physically ill, I.E. -that there is something wrong with us. Yet it is important to note exactly to whom these religious individuals are being compared.

Religious affiliation in health-outcome studies typically use three-class (Catholic, Jewish, Protestant) or four-class (Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, none) taxonomies when classifying groups for study [4], while rarely using five or more class taxonomies that might include varying religious sects, minority religions, or the various flavors of the ever nebulous "none". For example, studies resulting in positive outcomes of mortality and religion look at mortality rates among Jews or conservative Christian groups with strict dietary and lifestyle proscriptions (I.E. proscriptions against smoking, alcohol or certain food consumption, sexual practices, etc.) while comparing them to groups of "nonreligious" individuals. It is difficult to ascertain whether mortality rates are due to lifestyle and diet differences rather than differences in a particular belief.

It is this "none" or "other" with whom the strongly-religious are typically compared. "other", however, is quite a heterogeneous group, which may include individuals of minority religions, apathists, agnostics, atheists, deists, etc.  I find it telling that "skeptics", for example, have never been studied as a health population in medical literature and atheists/agnostics are rarely studied or used as a comparison group. When researchers compare very religious individuals to "other" individuals, they are not comparing two groups of individuals with a relatively concurrent level of conviction, but one group with relatively strong convictions to another group with heterogeneous convictions.  Thus, while strong religious convictions may lead to positive health outcomes, the mechanism of those outcomes is unclear. It may be related to strong convictions, differences in lifestyle, coping mechanisms or increased social participation rather than religion per se. Conversely, the "other" in these groups may be experiencing decreased health outcomes due to being part of a minority group or for other sociological reasons.

Is it possible for a cohesive group of "others" to experience the same positive health outcomes associated with cohesive religious groups? All of the studies I have read on religion and health admonish the reader and the scientific public to conduct more research on the relationships between religion and health. Rarely do they suggest further study with specific groups of non-believers.

References:

  1. Ellison CG. Race, religious involvement, and depressive symptomatology in a southeastern U.S. community. Social Science and Medicine, 1995;4:1561-1572.
  2. Koenig HG, George LK, Cohen HJ, Hays JC, Blazer DG, Larson DB. The relationship between religious activities and blood pressure in older adults. International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine. 1998;28:189-213.
  3. Hill PC, Pargament KI. Advances in the conceptualization and measurement of religion and spirituality: Implications for physical and mental health research. American Psychologist, 2003;58;64-74.
  4. McCullough ME, Larson DB, Koenig HG, Lerner, R The mismeasurement of religion in mortality research 1999;4:183-194

Christina Stephens, OTD/s blogs at www.ziztur.com