Taboo #5 – Religion. (Updated August 2019)
Religion – Who needs it? What good does it do?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) discerns four dimensions of health, namely physical, social, mental, and spiritual health. Spirituality is distinct from organised religion in that spirituality does not necessarily need a religious framework, that is one does not necessarily need to follow certain rules, guidelines or practices to be spiritual, but an organised religion often has some combination of these in place. Spirituality and religion ARE different but both would seem to be defined by an individual’s search for meaning and purpose in life, as well as to seek answers to life’s unanswerable questions – the known:unknowns!
Church attendance has been found to increase life expectancy with a life expectancy at age 20 of 83 years for frequent attendees and 75 years for non-attendees. The finding, however, does not prove that religion by its self increases longevity. Some religions claim that praying for somebody who is sick can have positive effects on the health of the person being prayed for, however overall the evidence shows little or more likely no effect.
For individuals scoring low and moderately on religiosity, thinking about the meaning of life is negatively correlated with life satisfaction. For people scoring highly on religiosity, however, this relationship is positive. Religiosity has also been found to moderate the relationship between negative affect and life satisfaction, such that life satisfaction is less strongly influenced by the frequency of negative emotions in more the more religious.
Studies of death rates between religious kibbutzim versus secular kibbutzim show that belonging to a religious collective can have a strong protective effect. This may be because religious people tend to exhibit healthier lifestyles and have a strong support system that secular people would not normally have. A religious community can provide support especially through a stressful life event such as the death of a loved one or illness. There is also the belief that a higher power will provide healing and strength through the rough times and being happier has been shown to lower mortality.
It is possible that religion provides physical health benefits indirectly with those attending church smoking less, having lower alcohol consumption, healthier diets and more positive overall mood, all of which are of course associated with maintaining better physical health. However the finding that religiosity increases longevity could well be mere attribution, as we humans are motivated to assign causes to our actions and behaviours. However, there is evidence however to suggest the relationship between religion and physical health could be causal albeit indirect. Religiosity does it seem reduce the likelihood of some diseases. For example, it may guard against cardiovascular disease by reducing blood pressure and stress. Those with a religious faith, feelings of humility, forgiveness and gratitude etc. may well be happier and we know that happiness confers all sorts of health benefits including improving immune system functioning.
However, religion can be a double-edged sword: Negative religious beliefs, for example, that God is punishing or abandoning you, are linked with harmful outcomes including higher rates of depression and lower quality of life. The existence of ‘religious struggle’ in elderly patients was predictive of greater risk of mortality if they had a previously had a sound religious life. This is possibly due to the belief that God was supposedly punishing or abandoning them and this causes increased stress and lower mood both of which are known to be detrimental to health and well-being.
Religiosity can be a pathway to both mental health and mental disorder. For example, religiosity is positively associated with mental disorders that involve an excessive amount of self-control and negatively associated with mental disorders that involve a lack of self-control. The link between religion and positive mental health may well be due to the social support, security and significance religious groups provide as well as the mainly valuable human relationships they provide. These may well help with coping strategies to deal with life stresses and evidence suggests that those with a higher spiritual quality of life have less depressive symptoms.
It is possible that those who have had negative religious experiences as children via their parents or in early retirement have given up formalised religion by the time they retire so only those who gain from religion will be in the cohort of those with religion in their lives, those with a more positive outlook. Those who have lost religion may never fill the gap left on spiritual, social or community levels so may be somewhat more negative in their outlook.
Those with a religious conviction are often viewed by those without somewhat jealously as they may be perceived as ‘having all the answers’ and faith in that ‘it will all be fine in the end’ – literally heaven help them and if it’s not fine, it’s not the end!
So it would seem that religiosity may well be protective, that spirituality without religion works similarly and that being part of something bigger than you helps sustain health and longevity. It could be that belief rather than blind faith is just as protective for health and well-being, so long as one sticks by ones principles and ethical code? Humanists think so!
Q. Have you or yours had positive or negative experiences?
Q. Is Religion or Spirituality something to be actively sought, or does faith find us?
Q. As we age and transition is Religion or Spirituality an important part of the Time Of Your Life?
Let me know your feelings, ideas and comments!