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Are there benefits to religious belief and participation?
David H. Bailey
Updated 5 January 2018 (c) 2017
Recently several books written by prominent authors have been published that attack religious belief as a pernicious delusion. The four most prominent authors are Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens [Dawkins2006; Dennett2006; Harris2006; Hitchens2007]. In his book, prominent biologist Richard Dawkins asks us to imagine "a world with no religion ... no suicide bombers, no 9/11 no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as 'Christ-killers,' no Northern Ireland 'troubles,' no 'honour killings,' no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money" [Dawkins2006, pg. 23-24]. Christopher Hitchens declares that religion is "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children" [Hitchens2007, pg. 56].
Along this line, physicist Victor J. Stenger, in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis, reviews numerous claims for God's existence, including "intelligent design" arguments, claims for God's influence in biology and the claimed effects of prayer. He finds these wanting, and thus concludes that God does not exist [Stenger2008]. In this work and other writings, Stenger specifically rejects claims that there are any health or social benefits from religious beliefs or participation.
Setting aside for a moment the arguments by these writers and others for and against the existence of God, and setting also aside claims of supernatural effects, what do we make of these writers' claims regarding health and social benefits from religious belief and participation?
Benefits of religion
To begin with, while there certainly are valid points in the writings of these scholars, they have also drawn considerable criticism, not just from religious fundamentalists and apologists, but also from some very knowledgeable scholars in the field of science and religion, writers who in many cases are not particularly religious themselves. For details, see Atheists.
Among the specific criticisms that have been leveled at these authors is that they completely ignore the many benefits bestowed by religion throughout history, particularly their role in fostering social cohesion and moral training. For example, historians Will and Ariel Durant (neither of whom were particularly religious) wrote that "Even the skeptical historian develops a humble respect for religion, since he sees it functioning, and seemingly indispensable, in every land and age. ... There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion." [Durant1968, pg. 43, 51].
Along this line, Michael Shermer, a well-known skeptic who has criticized claims of religion and supernatural effects on numerous occasions, has noted that religion has its undeniable positive side [Shermer2000, pg. 71]:
However, for every one of these grand tragedies there are ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good that go largely unreported in the history books or on the evening news. Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot be reduced to an unambiguous good or evil.
Other, more recent studies, by numerous scholars have amply underscored benefits of religious belief and participation:
In an April 2013 New York Times column, Stanford scholar Tanya M. Luhrmann summarized some of these results, and then added her own observations. In evangelical churches she has studied as an anthropologist, she found that people really do look out for one another, showing up with dinner when friends are sick, or simply talking with them when they are unhappy. They are relatively more generous, often in private contributions, when others are in need. She mentioned that when one member of an evangelical group cried at needing a $1500 dental procedure, yet had no money, her friends, many of whom were students with very limited funds, covered the cost by anonymous donations [Luhrmann2013].
- Numerous studies have found that those who practice religion are significantly less likely to abuse alcohol or drugs. Interestingly, these effects remain even for those whose religious denomination does not specifically forbid the consumption of alcohol or illicit drugs [Amoateng1986; Cochran1988].
- A 1988 study found that U.S. mothers who rated themselves as "not at all religious" were much more likely to bear a child out of wedlock than those who rated themselves as "very religious" -- three times as likely among whites, 2.5 times as likely among Hispanics, and twice as likely among blacks [Abrahamse1988].
- A 1997 study of 5286 weekly church attendees in Alameda County, California found that these persons were 25% less likely to die than infrequent church attendees. These results were attributed in part to better health practices, expanded social involvement, exercising more, and remaining married longer [Strawbridge1997].
- A 1997 study found that marriages in which both spouses attend religious services frequently are 2.4 times less likely to end in divorce than marriages in which neither spouse worships [Call1997]. Similarly, 60 percent of U.S. married couples who attended religious services at least monthly perceived their marriages as "very satisfactory," whereas only 43 percent of those who do not attend or attend less often [Bahr1985].
- In a 1998 study of 1931 elderly adults (55 years and older), weekly church attendees experienced the lowest rates of mortality in the study group, while non-attendees experienced the highest rates. This study also showed that volunteer work in addition to church attendance contributed to even longer life expectancy [Oman1998].
- A 1999 study, which involved a nine-year follow-up analysis of 21,000 American adults, found that religious attendance of at least once per week resulted in seven additional years of life expectancy. What's more, this effect mostly remained in place even after adjusting for various social factors and health behaviors [Hummer1999].
- A 1999 study of 4000 seniors (64 years and older) found that the death hazard was 46% lower for frequent church attendees, compared with infrequent church attendees. As noted in other studies, frequent church attendees were physically healthier, had better social support, and displayed a set of healthier lifestyle behaviors [Koenig1999].
- A 2004 study comparing Utah residents who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) with those who are not LDS found that life expectancy was 77.3 years for LDS males versus 70.0 years for non-LDS males, and 82.2 years for LDS females versus 76.4 for non-LDS females [Merrill2004].
- Two 2013 studies of Jewish communities in Israel and the U.S., conducted by researchers at Baylor University, found that adults who attend synagogue regularly, pray often, and otherwise consider themselves to be religious are significantly healthier, happier and report greater satisfaction with life, compared with other adults in the study [Levin2013].
- In a 2014 analysis of 7000 middle-aged persons in the U.S., even small increases in a "sense of purpose" were associated with large decreases in the risk of dying over a 14-year period. A separate study of 9000 British persons over 50 found that those who scored in the highest 25% in an assessment of "purpose" had a 30% lower risk of death over a ten-year period. Other studies have found that a higher sense of purpose cuts heart disease risk by 27%, stroke risk by 22% and Alzheimer's disease risk by 50% [Burrell2017].
Luhrmann argues that any faith which demands that you experience the world as more than just what is material and observable, as something that is good, may well transfer to other aspects of life. For example, she observed that those who were able to experience a loving God vividly were mentally healthier (as measured by a standardized psychiatric scale), and this may lead to better overall physical health as well [Luhrmann2013].
Along this line, researchers have found that grandparents who care for their grandchildren on average live longer than grandparents who do not, based on an analysis of over 500 people aged between 70 and 103 years.
The researchers were also able to show that this positive effect of caregiving on mortality was not limited to help and caregiving within the family [SD2016c].
In summary, contrary to claims of some, there are real and measurable benefits to religious belief and participation, and, more generally to living a principled, purposeful, charitable life. These benefits have been documented in study after study over many years. There is no suggestion in this data of supernatural effects, but the natural effects are real enough!
For additional discussion, see
Religion fade away.