Religion may be a miracle drug: Column

Islam and Psychology: A Collection of ArticlesSource: USA Today

By Tyler J. VanderWeele and John Siniff

Church attendance is correlated with longer life and a sense of meaning.


If one could conceive of a single elixir to improve the physical and mental health of millions of Americans — at no personal cost — what value would our society place on it?

Going a step further, if research quite conclusively showed that when consumed just once a week, this concoction would reduce mortality by 20% to 30% over a 15-year period, how urgently would we want to make it publicly available?

The good news is that this miracle drug — religion, and more specifically regular church attendance — is already in reach of most Americans. In fact, there’s a good chance it’s just a short drive away.

Indeed, health and religion are very much connected. Professor VanderWeele’s new research with colleagues at Harvard University — building on more than 20 years of prior work in this area — suggests that attending religious services brings about better physical and mental health. Adults who do so at least once a week versus not at all have been shown to have a significantly lower risk of dying over the next decade and a half. The results have been replicated in enough studies and populations to be considered quite reliable.

This science does not endorse one faith over another or suggest what society is to do with such information. But there are two opportunities — one societal and one personal — for good to come from this work. The news media, the academy and the broader public could use this new understanding to weigh religion’s greater societal value. And for individuals, this research provides a not-so-subtle invitation to reconsider what religion can do for them.

Nearly half of the country — roughly 2 in 5 Americans — reports having attended a religious service in the past week. The draw for many may be meaningful liturgy, perhaps a sense of forgiveness and ultimately, salvation. Few would say they come for good health. Why might attending services improve one’s health? The Nurses’ Health Study finds that social support is critical, yet this accounts for only about a quarter of the effect. Other mechanisms seem to be important as well, possibly due to behavioral norms at services. For instance, those attending are less likely to smoke, or more likely to quit altogether, producing significant health benefits.

Religious service attendance affects mental health, too. The research at Harvard and elsewhere indicates that, possibly due to a message of faith or hope, those who attend services are more optimistic and have lower rates of depression. The research from Harvard has also shown that attendance protects against suicide. Others have found that churchgoers report having a greater purpose in life and developing more self-control — both mechanisms by which service attendance might affect health.

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