Are there benefits to religious belief and participation?

Introduction

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, who collectively are often called the “new atheists” [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 other benefits from religious beliefs or participation [Stenger2013].

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 the atheist 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.

And 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]:

However, for every one of these grand tragedies there are ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good that go unreported. … 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:

  1. 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].
  2. 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].
  3. 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].
  4. 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].
  5. 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 confirmed, not surprisingly, that the LDS members had much lower rates of tobacco, alcohol and drug usage than the non-LDS group, since these substances are strongly discouraged by the Church. The study 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. Interestingly, however, the study noted that differences in rates of tobacco use explains only about 1.5 years of the 7.3 year gap for males, and only 1.2 years of the 5.8 year gap for females. The author suggests that this additional gap may be due to better overall physical health, better social support and other lifestyle practices [Merrill2004].

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].

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].

Conclusion

In summary, contrary to claims of some religious detractors, there are real and measurable benefits to religious belief and participation. 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 Atheists and Religion fade away.

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