Science of Life
I awoke this morning to the radio announcing that the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education has recommended that vending machines that dispense junk food and sugary drinks in schools should be banned.
We are constantly bombarded with advice through the media on how to foster and maintain good physical and mental health – eat a healthy diet, watch your weight, do plenty of exercise, don’t smoke, drink alcohol only in moderation, practice mindful meditation, cultivate friends and social contacts, take up a hobby and much more.
But one activity – a practice well attested to foster good health, particularly good mental health – is never popularly advocated in this regard. I speak of religion. On the contrary, Catholicism, the religion practiced by most people in this country, is now actively out of favour with official Ireland.
My attention was drawn to this topic of religion and health by an article by Laura Wallace and others in the Journal Social Psychological and Personality Science (June 2018). This study correlated longevity with religious practice using a novel approach.
Over 1,000 obituaries in online newspapers in 42 major US cities were analysed. After controlling for survival benefit conferred by marital status and gender, it was found that those whose obituaries mentioned religious practice lived five years longer than those whose obituaries didn’t mention religious activity.
It is well known that social support/engagement correlates positively with longevity. The authors of this study took religious participation as a marker for social integration and they explain their results in this way. Social support is certainly at least part of the answer. Long-term involvement in any group activity fosters more social relationships and this will act to reduce stress.
But apart altogether from social integration there are other reasons to expect that the practice of religion should benefit health and longevity. Consider Christianity. Christianty asks its followers, who form the Christian community, to love their neighbours, to forgive their enemies, to eschew violence, to be sexually faithful in marriage, to temper physical appetites, not to boast, to help the poor and downtrodden, to be truthful, to respect and care for the elderly, to value family life, to work diligently, to be honest in their dealings, to practice moderation and avoid excess, to be optimistic, not to worry, to live in the present, and much more. All of this is an obvious formula for promoting good mental and physical health and is in line with modern psychological and medical advice.
A book by Andrew Sims, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Leeds and a committed Christian – Is Fate Delusion? Why Religion is Good for your Health (Continuum, 2009) – is typical of many books and research papers that outline how “religious belief tends to be associated with better health, both physical and mental”. Sims points to the majority of scientific studies showing that religious involvement correlates with a whole slew of indicators of good health: enhanced well-being and happiness; greater optimism, even when facing serious disease; stronger sense of meaning in life; greater social support; better handling of bereavement; reduced loneliness; less depression and faster recovery from depression; reduced suicide rates; less anxiety; reduced stress; less psychosis; lower rates of alcohol/drug abuse; less criminal activity; increased marital stability; lower risk-taking and sexual behavior among teenagers; stronger immune system, improving general health, reducing cancer risk and protecting the cardiovascular system; and more.
To take a specific example, Sims quotes one “well-conducted study” in which around 3,000 women, regular attenders at church services, were assessed for health status, social support and habits. When followed up 28 years later their mortality over that period was found to be over one third less than the general population.
And Patricia Casey, Professor of Psychiatry at UCD, reviewed the extensive scientific literature on the health benefits of religious practice in a paper entitled ‘The Psycho-Social Benefits of Religious Practice’ (Iona Institute, 2008). She reports, inter alia, that religious practice reduces the risk of depression and, interestingly, those who describe themselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious” have more depressive symptoms.
But, on the other hand, a study published by Jon Moore and Mark Leach in 2016 in the Journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality reported that the mental health of committed atheists and agnostics is equally as robust as that of committed religious people. More studies are needed in this area but it may well be that having a settled mind rivals social support as a contributor to good mental health.
The health benefits of religion are not, of course, confined to Christianity. For example, a study published in the Journal of Religion and Health, December 2012, by Brick Johnstone and others reported that a greater degree of spirituality was related to better mental health across the five faiths of Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism.
Describing religion as “epidemiological medicine’s best known secret”, Andrew Sims wonders why the undoubted health benefits of religion are not better known: “It is extraordinary and tragic that the findings of this large body of research are not better known. If it were anything other than religious belief or spirituality resulting in such beneficial outcomes for health, the media would trumpet it and Government and health care organisations would be rushing to implement its practice.”
Sims is in no doubt about what would happen if research showed that religion damages mental health: “If it had been found that religion damages your mental health, it would have been front page news on every newspaper in the land.”
So, over to you Simon Harris.
William Reville is an Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at UCC.