Let’s make it clear. Religion is responsible for dozens of millions of death, from the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades and the calls for jihad. And that’s just the tip of iceberg. A wrong gesture or sentence can get you killed or your hand chopped off in a few countries.
Religion can definitively bring the worst of humans out.
Many of us are also put off by the official dogma. It’s hard to reconcile evolution theory (or physics) with religion. Or the ideals of democracy with the autocracy that many religions promote.
Yet, religion seems also to have a curative effect. A 2003 study shows church attendance lowers by 25% risk of mortality. Researchers have found that weekly attendance at religious services is associated with 2 to 3 additional years of life expectancy. In another study, women aged 50 and up were 20% less likely to die in any given year if they attended religious services weekly.
What to make sense of it?
A basic explanation is that weekly church attendance lowers overall stress.
In modern hectic societies, this makes sense. Doing more with less is promoted, and there is little on what your mission is. Most workers become stressed and overworked. Coupled with poor diet and physical activity, this becomes a dangerous cocktail that leads to the worst chronic diseases.
Those who are not religious might ask themselves for days and sleepless nights what’s next for them. Most religions ask you simply to put faith and your destiny in a Supreme Being, thus alleviating mental suffering. This world view is simpler, and it comes often with easy to understand rules. Indeed, there is less stress, depression and anxiety in those attending weekly services. There is also better self-esteem and sense of belonging.
Regular church attendance also sustains a healthy, sustainable social network. Friends are made, trust is built, and new connections are made. A good social network correlates with better employment, having a stable family and more friends. This social network can also be a safety net. They will comfort you when you go through a hard episode and congratulate when you’ve done something good. Most of us need this from time to time.
Active church attendance also promotes weekly physical activity. This might sound minimal but most North Americans do not simply get the recommended 90 minutes of weekly physical activity.
Religion can also show the way to a better diet. Fasting observed in Islam or Christianity resets our body, detoxifies and can improve overall metabolism. Others like buddhism encourage to stay away from animal protein.
Of course, it goes without saying that the act of praying is a form of meditation, with all the health benefits associated with it.
Should we all become religious?
This is a tricky question. Studies show there is no correlation between the degree or depth of religiosity and life expectancy.
It seems health benefits are merely limited to the act of weekly attendance.
Religious people struck by acute illness also experience greater mortality than those who are not religious. The same effect is observed by those who experience acute grief such as loss. “I am deeply religious, why did I have a stroke?”. “I dedicated my life to religion, why did I lose my job and my home? “. These questions can be profoundly unsettling, impacting mental health and overall health outcomes.
Other studies show that religion can create religious discrimination, associated with depression, distress, sub-clinical paranoia and decrease life satisfaction.
Finally, when people practise religion due to external pressures, and not due to their own freewill, life expectancy is lower.
- If you are overly stressed with symptoms of depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, going every week to the local church or buddhist temple can bring you calm.
- But secular involvement in civic and caritative groups can help as well. And so does going regularly to a brazilian jiu-jitsu class. Look into it.
- Relying on a religion to fix your cancer, kidney failure or job loss can lead to even worse disappointments. Work on your diet, exercise plan, stress management and sleep tracking.
- Daniel E. Hall, MD, MDiv. Religious Attendance: More Cost-Effective Than Lipitor? The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine 19:103-109 (2006).
- Eliezer Schnall; Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller; Charles Swencionis; Vance Zemon; Lesley Tinker; Mary Jo O’Sullivan; Linda Van Horn; Mimi Goodwin. The relationship between religion and cardiovascular outcomes and all-cause mortality in the women’s health initiative observational study. Psychology and Health. 17 November 2008
- Religion and spirituality: Linkages to physical health. Powell, Lynda H.; Shahabi, Leila; Thoresen, Carl E. American Psychologist, Vol 58(1), Jan 2003, 36-52
- R. Hummer, et al. (1999). `Religious involvement and U.S. adult mortality’. Demography 36(2):273-285.
- Exline JJ, Yali AM, Lobel M. When God disappoints: difficulty forgiving God and its role in negative emotion. J Health Psychol. 1999;4:365-379.
- Astin, John A. (1997). Stress Reduction through Mindfulness Meditation: Effects on Psychological Symptomatology, Sense of Control, and Spiritual Experience