© 2021 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Studies link religion with health benefits, but that
doesn’t mean that being religious makes us healthy. What’s more likely is that religion is one of many ways that people can find social and emotional support, and discover a sense of meaning and purpose.
For decades, we’ve heard about studies confirming links between good health and participation in religion.
Some claims seem uncontroversial. Who
would argue against the idea that certain religious practices — like
prohibitions against smoking — protect health? Or
that many people derive a sense of comfort from their religious
beliefs? That religion can offer people a way cope with stress?
What’s more contentious is the idea that religion is intrinsically or uniquely beneficial for a person’s health and well-being.
The idea that faith causes
people to enjoy better health. That prayer heals. That ritualized
worship has a direct, protective effect against illness or disease.
These claims have been used to argue that families should be encouraged to practice religion. Some people have even suggested that doctors should prescribe religious activities to their patients.
is the science compelling? Not really. Because most studies linking
religion with health and well-being report correlations only. They don’t
tell us that religious practice causes health or happiness.
might suppose the causation works the other way. Maybe healthier people
have an easier time participating in religious activities. Maybe
happier people are more motivated to maintain religious ties. As Richard
Sloan and his colleagues have argued (1999), many studies have failed
to rule out these alternatives.
Moreover, we should keep in mind that religion can sometimes contribute to negative outcomes. For instance, when parents clash over
their religious beliefs, their children may be more likely to develop
mental health problems (van der Jagt-Jelsma et al 2014).
let’s assume that something about religious affiliation causes improved
health and life satisfaction. Does it follow that it’s the doctrine or
ritual that makes people feel better?
No. And if we dig into the evidence, the more likely explanation is that it’s the emotional and social aspects of religion that matter.
Religion and psychological health
Suppose we surveyed thousands of adolescents — kids around
the age of 15 — and asked them if they attended religious services at least
once per week.
Years later, when these young people reach adulthood, we check
back in. What are their psychological health outcomes?
Researchers did this with thousands of people —
predominantly White, middle class Americans — between the years of 1999 and
2011. And they found was this.
Adults who had attended religious services at least once per
week as adolescents were more likely to say “yes” to questions like
- “Over the past month, have you felt happy, satisfied or please with your personal life?”
- “Over the past month, did you
feel relaxed and free of tension?”
These adults were also less likely to say they felt depressed (Chen and Vanderweele 2018).
So religious attendance was related to
better mental health outcomes. And so was another practice — engaging in prayer or meditation. People who prayed or meditated between 1-6
times per week as teenagers reported more positive emotions and emotion processing
strategies as adults.
But why was adolescent religious behavior linked with better psychological outcomes?
Prayer and meditation often include thoughts of gratitude,
and gratitude is independently linked with well-being. People who feel more
gratitude tend to experience more positive emotions, and they are less likely
to feel hostile or depressed (Wood et al 2010).
Similarly, prayer and meditation can focus one’s thoughts on
forgiveness, which has known, beneficial effects on psychological well-being
(Akbar and Barlow 2018).
So maybe that’s why prayer and meditation was linked with
better psychological outcomes: These activities may have included elements that
are effective therapies for maintaining good psychological health.
But what about attending religious services?
It’s hard to
know, because the researchers didn’t collect any details. However, I think it’s
a good bet that the benefits of religious attendance had something to do with social support.
To see what I mean, consider an earlier study, one that took a more nuanced look at religious participation.
Chaeyoon Lim and Robert Putnam analyzed data collected from American adults, and they found a link between attending religious services and a self-reported sense of well-being.
In particular, religious attendees were more likely to say they were “extremely satisfied” with their lives.
But the effect seemed to depend on social ties and camaraderie.
Being “extremely satisfied” was not linked with feeling greater certainty about one’s religious beliefs. Nor was it linked with praying or conducting religious services at home.
What seemed really important was a combination of factors:
- expressing a strong religious identity,
- meeting frequently with a religious congregation, and
- having close friends in that congregation.
met all three criteria were more likely to say they were “extremely
satisfied” with their lives.
By contrast, religious attendees who lacked close
friends in the congregation were no more likely to be “extremely
satisfied” than were people who said they didn’t attend services at all (Lim and Putnam 2010).
Lim notes in a public statement:
“To me, the evidence substantiates
that it is not really going to church and listening to sermons or
praying that makes people happier, but making church-based friends and
building intimate social networks there.”
Religion and risky health behaviors in adolescents
Are kids less likely to engage in risky health behaviors — like substance use — if they are religious?
Researchers in the Czech Republic tackled this question by analyzing the reports of more than 13,000 children between the ages of 11 and 15.
They asked kids how often they attended church or religious sessions. They also asked kids to rate the personal importance of their faith, and to indicate if they participated in special religious activities, like singing in a church choir.
Was religiosity linked with risky health behaviors? Not so much.
The importance of a child’s faith had no apparent connection with risky health behaviors, and church attendance wasn’t very important either.
Yes, kids were more likely to have engaged in early sexual intercourse if their fathers didn’t attend church. But it wasn’t clear that children’s church attendance had any impact on early sexual behavior.
And the same was true of early substance use. Religious kids were not better off than their non-religious peers. They were no less likely to drink alcohol or use cannabis (Buchtova et al 2020).
In another analysis of the same population, researchers found evidence that kids who attended church were less likely to smoke tobacco. But they were not less likely to engage in other, risky health behaviors (Malinkova et al 2019).
The exception was for kids who combined religious attendance with strong feelings of spirituality and well-being (i.e., agreeing with statements like “I feel very fulfilled and satisfied with my life” and “I feel good about my future”). Kids who regularly attended church AND expressed these feelings were less likely to engage in substance use (Malinkova et al 2019).
So it appears that being religious, by itself, didn’t have much of an impact on most risky health behaviors. Something extra was needed — a sense of spirituality that included feelings of purpose and security.
Religion and everyday health complaints in youth
Are religious kids less likely to suffer from everyday
physical ailments, like headaches, stomach aches, backaches, or sleep
Once again, researchers in the Czech Republic looked for
evidence among thousands of young adolescents (aged 11 to 15).
They asked the kids about their physical health. How often
did they experience headache, stomachache, backache, sleeping difficulties, and
other stress-related problems?
They also asked kids about frequency of religious attendance.
And they asked kids to rate their agreement with certain statements about their
The statements about religious well-being made explicit
references to God.
For instance, a child would rate his or her agreement with this
“I have a personally
meaningful relationship with God.”
By contrast, the statements about existential well-being
focused on hope for the future, and meaning in life:
“I believe there is some real purpose for my life.”
After obtaining these answers, the researchers looked for
correlations between health complaints, religiosity, and the two measures of
And what did they find?
- Attending religious services was not significantly
associated with any health variables.
- Religious well-being was not significantly associated
with any health variables, except for nervousness. Kids who scored high on
religious well-being were more likely to suffer from nervousness.
- Non-religious, “existential” well-being was
significantly associated with all health variables, and in a good way. Kids who scored high on
existential well-being were less likely to suffer from headaches, stomachaches,
backaches, sleep problems, and nervousness (Zidkova et al 2020).
Does this mean that religious people are wrong if they believe their faith makes them feel healthier?
Religions can provide believers with a sense of meaning, and, as we’ve noted, certain religiously-endorsed behaviors (like acts of forgiveness and expressions
of gratitude) can boost health and well-being
(Worthington et al 2007; Gu et al 2015; Jackowska et al 2015; O’Leary and Dockray 2015).
Religious membership can also provide people with supportive social networks.
But individuals can
find meaning — and develop healthy coping mechanisms — outside the
domain of religion. They can find social support among people who don’t identify themselves as religious.
So for now, it’s not clear that participating in
religion makes people any
healthier or happier than participating in secular activities. Not if
those secular activities feature frequent social contact, emotional support, friendship,
and a sense of meaning.
What other practices contribute to health and well-being?
One interesting factor concerns our connection with the natural world. Read more about it in these Parenting Science articles:
Copyright © 2006-2021 by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.; all rights reserved.
For educational purposes only. If you suspect you have a medical problem, please see a physician.
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Content last modified 5/26/2021
Portions of this text are derived from an earlier version of this article written by the same author.
Title image of religious symbols by CHARTGRAPHIC / shutterstock
image of three women friends by .shock / istock
image of boy refusing alcohol by Vyacheslav Dumchev / istock
image of girl with headache by chameleonseye / istock