There is a body of literature of which many people, including health professionals, are unaware. It has to do with scientific evidence for positive health outcomes among people of faith vs. those who are non-religious. I intend to summarize this data for you briefly. For more information and to find citations to professional articles in this area, I would like to direct you to Medicine, Religion, and Health: Where Science and Spirituality Meet1 by Dr. Harold G. Koenig.
A Few Preliminaries…
Before looking at the results, we need to review three basic ground rules:
- Know your definitions.
Researchers need to be clear about how they define what they’re measuring. Unfortunately, the definitions used for spirituality and religion can be somewhat fuzzy.
Today, people commonly call anything spiritual if it is involved in the search for meaning, purpose, or transcendence. Traditionally, however, spirituality is founded in the faith practice of religious believers.
Here is Dr. Koenig’s working definition:
“Religion may be defined as a system of beliefs and practices observed by a community, supported by rituals that acknowledge, worship, communicate with, or approach, the Sacred, the Divine, God (in Western cultures), the Ultimate Truth, Reality, or nirvana (In Eastern cultures).”2
From the definitions, you can see that the research does not look at spirituality or religion from the Christian tradition only. On the other hand, you will find the majority of participants in the U.S. studies are Christian.
- The research is secular.
This means scientists start with the assumption that they cannot prove or disprove what is supernatural. This inability to show what is unseen doesn’t mean, however, that outcomes don’t have a supernatural cause.
- The research can show a relationship between religion and health outcomes, but it is less capable of demonstrating the cause of the results.
To establish cause, we have to precisely determine a mechanism or pathway leading from the research variables to the result, while eliminating all other confounding influences. Some people may be surprised to know our inability to definitively show cause is quite common in science, particularly in medicine and behavioral health, and even in astronomy. While we may not be sure about how something happens, it doesn’t mean we can’t say something useful about what occurs.
Religious involvement correlates with positive health outcomes in six areas.
A) The immune and endocrine functions
Religious involvement correlates with improved immune functions (both cellular and humoral).
B) The cardiovascular system
Religious involvement correlates with lower blood pressure, decreased rates of coronary disease, and lower rates of recurrent myocardial infarction.
C) Mental health
- There is an inverse relationship between religious involvement and depression.
- Religious persons have a greater sense of well-being, optimism, and hope than the non-religious.
D) Stress and behaviors
- Religious involvement correlates with the quantity and quality of social support people receive, decreased crime and delinquency, lower recidivism following incarceration, less alcohol and drug use, smaller numbers of people having sex outside of marriage, greater satisfaction in marriage and lower rates of sexually transmitted infections.
- Altruism and volunteerism, which highly correlate with religious involvement, have positive effects on both mental and physical health.
E) Physical disability
Those with increased religious involvement have a decreased risk for future disability.
Religious involvement correlates with increased longevity.
Positive health outcomes don’t seem to apply to those with a non-religious spirituality.
The data are not invincible.
What do I mean by invincible? While a majority of those practicing religion have better health outcomes, you are not automatically assured you will not have a heart attack, live longer, etc. On the other hand, the odds are in your favor.
Health care providers should care about their patient’s faith.
There is a slew of reasons why this is true, not the least of which is that it can make a difference in the health outcomes of patients. And while the majority of health professionals would agree with this statement, less than one third do something about it. I’ll talk about this more in the next blog.
Patients (that’s us!) should care about their faith, too.
We should care about our faith because for many reasons, with our happiness and eternal destiny being up at the top of the list! But scientific investigation should give even the non-religious person cause to think.
Ask your physician what he or she believes. Give him or her the “green light” to incorporate faith into your care. If he’s not sure about his religious beliefs, challenge him to look at the data, because it’s vital to your health and the health of the rest of his patients. That may seem rather bold, but realize that while some physicians would be willing to bring the spiritual dimension into the management of their patient’s care, the anti-religious sentiment in our country has made them hesitant.
Finally, if I were an atheist or someone who had a self-centered spirituality, I’d be concerned. Sure, you might write off the research results as due to psychosomatic mechanisms that have nothing to do with God and that the religious folks are only deluding themselves. Even if we are, we’re a healthier bunch because of it. Perhaps the quality of one’s health is not sufficient reason to believe, but it is evidence that demands consideration. You have nothing to lose if you choose to believe and there is no God, but you can both spiritually and physically lose a great deal by casting faith and religion aside.
Faith, Science, and Wellness is the second in a five-part series on spirituality and physical and mental health.
1 Koenig, Harold G., M.D. Medicine, Religion, and Health: Where Science and Spirituality Meet. Templeton Foundation Press: West Conshohocken, PN. 2008. Kindle edition.
2 Ibid, p.10.