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? Or 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.
But 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.
We 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.
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).
But 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. If we dig into the available evidence, the more likely explanation is that it’s the emotional and social aspects of religion that are influencing health outcomes.
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 what 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.
What about attending religious services? Why would that be linked with better mental health?
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 (Lim and Putnam 2010).
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.
People who 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.
As 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 behavior in adolescents
Are kids less likely to engage in risky health behaviors — like substance use — if they are religious? The evidence here is mixed.
First, let’s go back to that study that tracked American teenagers into young adulthood.
The researchers in that study found evidence that religious behavior in adolescence predicted risky health behaviors in adulthood. In particular, kids who attended religious services at least once per week were less likely as adults to use cannabis or illicit drugs. They were also less likely to have initiated sexual behavior at an early age. The same links were found for praying or meditating at least once per day.
But we’re left with the same “black box” effect. The study can’t tell us what it was about weekly religious attendance (or daily prayer) that might have steered young people aware from substance use or early sexual activity.
And it’s interesting to note: These measures of religiosity were unrelated to binge drinking. In other words, religious teens were just as likely as non-religious teens to end up as binge-drinking adults (Chen and Vanderweele 2018).
So that’s one study’s results with respect to adult outcomes. What about behavior during adolescence? Does religious activity prevent kids from engaging in risky health behavior during the their teen years?
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.
Importantly for us, these researchers didn’t just ask about attending church or other religious activities. They also asked kids to rate the personal importance of their faith. Then they questioned kids on their participation in four types of risky health behaviors — smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol, using cannabis, and engaging in sexual activity.
And what did the researchers find?
Point 1: The importance of a child’s faith had no apparent effect on risky health behaviors.
So there was no evidence that strength of belief, or religious ideology, was keeping kids from smoking, drinking, using cannabis, or having sex.
Point 2: A child’s record of church attendance had no apparent effect on risky health behaviors.
Kids who attended church regularly were not any less likely to smoke tobacco, drink alcohol, use cannabis, or engage in sexual behavior at an early age.
There was only one apparent advantage favoring adolescent religiosity:
If children both attended church regularly AND participated in additional religious activities (like singing in the church choir) they were less likely than non-religious kids to engage in sexual activity (Buchtova et al 2020).
Might religion influence kids if it affects their general outlook on life? Maybe.
In another study of kids in the Czech Republic, researchers found the same pattern of little or no impact of church attendance on health behaviors. Kids who attended church were less likely to smoke tobacco, but they were not less likely to engage in other risky health behaviors. Not on the basis of church attendance alone (Malinkova et al 2019).
But the results were different among 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. They were also less likely to engage in early sexual intercourse (Malinkova et al 2019).
So in this study, being religious, by itself, didn’t have much of an impact on most risky health behaviors. Something extra was needed — like feelings of purpose and hope for the future.
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 difficulties? 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 well-being.
The statements about religious well-being made explicit references to God. For instance, a child would rate his or her agreement with this statement:
“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 well-being.
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 their faith makes them feel healthier?
No. 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:
- Sensitive, responsive parenting: What are the health benefits?
- Green spaces benefit mental health
- Kids who feel connected with nature are happier — and better-behaved
- How to connect with nature: Tips for tuning into the natural world
References: The health benefits of religion
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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