More evidence of the upside of religion . . . and the downside.

June 15, 2009 | By | 3 Replies More

I don’t deny that there is an upside to being “religious.” USA Today recently published “This is Your Brain on Religion,” by Andrew Newberg, a professor of radiology and psychiatry. Here are some of the benefits to religion, in a nutshell:

The research that I have come across, if not definitive, seems clear: Religion and spiritual practices generally have a positive effect on one’s physical, emotional and neurological health. People who engage in religious activities tend to cope better with emotional problems, have fewer addictions and better overall health. They might even live longer than those who lead more secular lives. Indeed, many studies document that religious and spiritual individuals find more meaning in life.

Here’s one of Newberg’s sources for the increased longevity of religious folks.  Lots to consider  here.

Every time I read such studies noting the benefits of religion,  I suspect that it is the greater committed social interconnectedness of believers that accounts for most of the benefits.   I don’t have statistics to back me up here, but consider this.  We have a very fine blogging community here at DI.   Now, imagine one of our authors falling terribly ill for a long period.   What is the likelihood that another co-author or a visitor would commit to providing long-term care for that ill author?  My hypothetical is not meant as an insult, but I would find it surprising if us skeptical/philosophical types would do that.

Now consider what often happens when a member of a congregation falls ill:  other members of the congregation often jump to the rescue, providing food and other care, even to people they don’t know well.  I suspect that this occurs because congregations are flesh and blood gatherings of people who put in the time, week after week, to make displays of their willingness to commit to each other and to their “God.”  I don’t think it’s religion per se that lubricates this willingness to help each other, but that this willingness results from physically rubbing elbows with a specific group of others on a regular basis.   I’ve seen enough studies to be convinced that there are benefits to being religious, but I doubt that it has to do with anything supernatural.   In fact, it relates largely to in-group dynamics, I suspect, and that members of Religion A are far more likely to help each other than to help members of Religion B or to help people who are not religious at all.

On the whole, though, be religious, right?  Not so fast!  Newberg warns that the net effect of religion depends on the type of god in which one believes.

[W]hen people view God as loving, forgiving, compassionate and supportive, this more likely results in a very positive view of themselves, and of the world around them. But when God is viewed as dispassionate, vengeful and unforgiving, this can have deleterious effects on one’s physical and mental health.

The cynical me thinks that people create their own version of God, and that even the people who worship together have dramatically different conceptions of God (just ask people who all worship at the same church and you’ll be amazed.  Since people wield this power to create the version of God that they worship, they ought to each create a benevolent, empathetic God for the sake of all of the rest of us.


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Category: Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Mindy Carney says:

    But don't meditation and yoga and the like also benefit our health and well-being? I don't think religion alone benefits us in these ways. And I would argue that were the DI community meeting once each week in person, we might well be willing to take care of a fellow author should tragedy befall him or her. Communities that focus on positive activity, whether it be for religious reasons or not, benefit the participants all the ways discussed. Whether the activity be educating our children (think about our parent community, Erich, extremely secular and many of whom stepped in to help me with a car to drive, job leads, etc. over the past year), creating (think women's quilting bees old), working for a cause like Half the Sky Foundation ( – I use this because it is strictly secular and I've participated for years) or a cancer support/fundraising group – all of those organizations involve emotional support of fellow human beings outside the scope of religion, and create the same positives in the lives of the participants.

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    "Religion and spiritual practices generally have a positive effect on one’s physical, emotional and neurological health…."

    First, we need to remember that correlation is not causation: perhaps the above-mentioned correlation merely suggests that people who are more physically, emotionally & neurologically healthy tend to be more engaged in spiritual practices. This would make sense because spiritual practices are one of many types of social activity, and certainly it is true that healthy people tend to be more social than unhealthy ones.

    Second, we need to carry the research a bit further: even if there is a causal relationship between spiritual activity and better health, what aspect of the spiritual activity might be responsible for the better health? I ask this question because studies have also shown that people who tend to live longer, healthier lives also tend to be more socially connected. Thus, perhaps spiritual activity per se is not what leads to better health, but rather the social aspect (or some other aspect) of spiritual activity. Who knows, perhaps all the singing of hymns and chanting of Amens strenghtens peoples' pulmonary systems. Many religions also have healthful rules related to everything from diet, to alcohol, to taking a weekly day of rest. Contrarily, some religions have unhealthful rules, such as bans on the use of medical vaccines, condoms, other proven medical practices. More detail is needed to find out what the real linkages are between health and spirituality.

  3. Alison says:

    It's the combination of a stress-reducing mental activity (meditation, prayer, even journaling or talk therapy!) and community. People change churches and even religions when one or both of these two things don't meet their needs. It's the easiest way to get both calmness and community in one package.

    It's not the only way, though. I wouldn't classify many of the things I do to bring peace and happiness to my life as "spiritual", but other people might. And as for community, I've found that in a group of parents who are diverse in their beliefs, but united in their support for their children and the school marching band. We spend a lot of time together, socializing as well as volunteering, and I know that when I come home from the hospital on Friday, I'll be able to count on them to help me and keep me company just as certainly as if it were a religious community.

    So next time someone's doing an experiment on this, measure me and people like me next to the religious, and you won't see quite so much of a statistical difference in health and happiness.

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