What Is It About Religion That Keeps Us Healthy?
This is not the opening salvo of some evangelical sermon, but the opinion of an increasing number of doctors and medical researchers alike.
“Medical care… does a good job of taking care of us once we get sick, but it doesn’t have a lot to do with whether we get sick in the first place,” said Dr. David Williams, an authority on social influences on health during a recent interview with California Health Report’s Daniel Weintraub. “Whether we get sick in the first place has a lot more to do with where we live, learn, play, work and worship.”
Dr. Richard Besser, chief medical editor for ABC News, takes this idea even further, drawing attention to the curative rather than the merely preventative aspects of religion. “A support system based on shared faith,” he writes in a column posted on ABC’s web site, “can be extremely helpful in the healing process.”
To be fair, neither Williams nor Besser consider religion as an absolute requirement; a convenient supplement, perhaps, but not essential since it is generally assumed that the reason churchgoers are so healthy is because they tend to engage in less high-risk behavior like smoking and drinking; prayer and meditation are often associated with lower levels of stress and the support afforded by regular interaction with like-minded folks can do a world of good for our mental and physical well-being – none of which require any particular religious commitment.
But this is not the complete story. Referring to research published in Health Psychology, David Carreon, a medical doctor and researcher at Stanford University, believes there is ample evidence to suggest that even after allowing for such variables, religious involvement, in and of itself, still has a meaningful effect.
“Stop looking for this effect to go away,” he said during a recent visit, “and don’t do another study just to see whether it’s there. It’s probably there. Let’s start looking into the mechanism.”
Resistance to engage in such an exploration lies in the fact that any so-called mechanism resides in the spiritual realm instead of in matter, making it difficult if not impossible for the average researcher to track or even define. But just because it can’t be explained doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or is unworthy of further inquiry.
At its best religion encourages a deeper, more practical understanding of the Divine and a corresponding love for our fellowman. While church attendance alone does not and cannot bestow such knowledge or make us more loving, it can and often does provide much-needed encouragement. “We love,” the Bible says, “because he [God] first loved us,” implying that our capacity to be compassionate, forgiving and so on has its source in something a lot more reliable than mere human desire.
Perhaps this is why religion is so good for our health. While smoking less and praying more are great, nothing can beat discovering the presence of a decidedly divine love that, as religious reformer, Mary Baker Eddy, observed, “annihilates pagan and Christian idolatry, – whatever is wrong in social, civil, criminal, political, and religious codes; equalizes the sexes; annuls the curse on man, and leaves nothing that can sin, suffer, be punished or destroyed.”
Eric Nelson’s columns on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California. Follow him on Twitter @norcalcs.