Religion, Atheism and Health
God and health
We have seen that religion and religious adherence are positively correlated with crime and teen pregnancy. What about health? Are more religious people healthier? Do more devout societies produce longer lives? We will look at American and international data to find the relationship between religion and health.
Religion, healthy lifestyles and wellbeing
Gallup conducted a very large study that indicates that very religious Americans (defined as those who attend religious services frequently and who take religion as an important part of daily life) tended to have healthier lifestyles than the moderately religious or nonreligious. Specifically, they smoke less, eat more fruits and vegetables and exercise more regularly.
At the same time, less religiously devout Americans tend to have higher overall wellbeing than more devout groups*. Specifically, Jews have the highest overall wellbeing (and, of all religious groups, are the least devout within their tradition). The second highest overall wellbeing is enjoyed by the nonreligious/ atheists/ agnostics, and the third-highest by Roman Catholics. Protestantism had the lowest wellbeing of all, whilst having one of the highest percentage of "very religious" adherents.
Even some people in the "nonreligious" grouping in the study attend religious services regularly, and have religion as an important part of their daily life. Thus although these people may not believe in God, following a religious lifestyle seems to have a positive effect in their lives. No doubt it is the discipline, regularity and dependability of that lifestyle that contributes to their wellbeing, along with the regular and sustained social interaction. Since this is a lifestyle assessment, there is no indication that specific beliefs lead to better health outcomes.
Gallup has updated the data in this study, and it now indicates a positive relationship between religious devotion and overall wellbeing. The updated study is here. Despite this overall trend, Jews still have the highest wellbeing overall, even though they are the least religious as a group (as the subtitle of Gallup's article points out). This major wrinkle in the data points to a more complex relationship between religious adherence and health than we may initially expect. Mormons have the second-highest overall wellbeing, and are a very devout group. Meanwhile, Roman Catholics have higher wellbeing than Protestants, although they tend to be less devout than Protestants. This all indicates anything but a clear positive relationship.
Religion and health by state
Among the American states, there is an extraordinarily strong correlation between religious adherence and negative health outcomes. To see this, we can consider three measures:
- State rates of church and synagogue attendance in 2006, according to Gallup.
- The importance of religion in people's daily lives, by state, in 2009, according to Gallup.
- A ranking of the states according to a comprehensive set of health indicators for 2010, by America's Health Rankings. The health measures include rates of smoking, obesity, binge drinking and high school graduation.
Using Microsoft Excel, I created the charts below showing the relationship between religiosity and health by state. The highest ranking states on health include Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Massachusetts. These are also some of the least religious states. The lowest ranking states on health include Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas. These are also some of the most religious states. States that go against the trend include Utah (religious and healthy) and Nevada (nonreligious and unhealthy).
Nevertheless, the data demonstrate the very strong correlation between negative rankings on health, and religiosity in a state.
Health and religious attendance
Health and religion in daily life
Religion and health around the world
Internationally, there is a negative correlation between religiosity and health. Considering life expectancy at birth as used in the UN Human Development Index, we can see that the highest life expectancy is generally seen in the least religious countries, and vice versa. The top countries in life expectancy include Japan, Australia, Sweden, Norway and Canada. The bottom include Sierra Leone, Senegal, Malawi, Tanzania and Afghanistan.
The former group have among the highest proportion of people for whom religion is not important in their daily life (all greater than 50%, ranging from 55 to 78%), and the latter have among the lowest (2 to 3%).
Religion and health: conclusions
There are a variety of reasons why religion and health might have a negative relationship. People going through health difficulties, as well as their surrounding network of friends and family, are some of the most likely to seek comfort and promise in higher or supernatural powers. Like other social maladies, bad health is tied to poverty and poor education, both of which are, in turn, positive influences on religious adherence.
In addition, religion itself can directly impact health in a negative way if religious beliefs or practices create unhealthy situations. The Catholic practice of the Eucharist involves dozens or hundreds of people drinking from the same cup at the same time, as well as sharing germs in other ways. More dramatically, Jehovah's Witnesses are against blood transfusions for purely religious reasons, directly resulting in untold deaths and injuries. Many Muslims believe that a Muslim woman should ideally be treated by a Muslim woman doctor. A lack of Muslim or female doctors in a community may cause difficulty and negative health outcomes for such believers.
Many religious people may believe that praying or increasing their devotional practices is enough to heal a loved one or improve their health, and thus ignore more scientific and secular medical options. Even some medical professionals may withhold medical treatment for religious reasons.
On the other hand, religion and health do sometimes have a positive relationship. Religion can give people a strong sense of purpose, direction and security in their lives. The discipline, order and regularity that religious membership confers often has positive health effects, particularly in the psychological realm. In addition, regular social interaction and renewing of a community spirit has been shown to have a very positive effect on people's health, and religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam feature community activities prominently.