Religion and Well–being: Assessing the Evidence
Is religion good for ‘well–being’? This report evaluates the evidence from nearly 140 academic studies. (2016)
Live forever, or at least a bit longer, by going to church. Nick Spencer discusses Theos’ report ‘Religion and Well–being’.
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“Experts have pointed to evidence that going to church could also actively help people live longer in the here and now”, according to The Telegraph.
This chimes well with Theos’ new report, Religion and Well–being: Assessing the Evidence. The news comes too late for our own research. We found 139 studies in total but I’m sure there are many more, so missing this one isn’t critical, not least as it largely confirms what most of the rest of them tell us.
According to The Telegraph, epidemiologists analysing the life data of over 74,000 adult women “found that the most regular churchgoers were 33 per [sic] less likely to die during that time than those who never attended services”.
This is a good study, not so much because of its results but because of its large sample size and its specificity of focus, namely “to evaluate associations between attendance at religious services and subsequent mortality in women.”
That “religion” is good for “well–being” is now widely recognised, celebrated by its apologists and grudgingly acknowledged and then qualified by its critics. Ah, it’s not religion, they say, but simply the practice of meeting together. It is mutual support that improves health and wellbeing, not the Bronze Age faith–y bit of the whole thing.
Some studies agree; others don’t. The fact is that there are lots of different studies and, as is the way of the world, they says lots of different things. And so, like some giant game of join–the–dots, we tend to end up seeing only the big picture, namely that religion is good for you.
But that invites the big questions. What do you mean by religion: is this ISIS style or the Quakers we are talking about? And what do you mean by wellbeing: are we thinking general sense of inner warmth or leaping out of intensive care kind of wellbeing?
Our forthcoming report, Religion and Well–being, tracked down the aforementioned 139 studies and then used them to try and disambiguate these terms. What kind of religion is associated with what kind of well–being? That is easier said than done as not all studies have the precision, let alone the sample size, of the one quoted above.
However, blurred lines notwithstanding, we identified five reasonably discrete categories of how religion has been interpreted and ‘measured’ – affiliation, belief, religiosity (i.e. stated importance of religion), personal religious behaviour (e.g. prayer, meditation, scripture reading, etc.), and group religious behaviour (e.g. going to church, public worship, etc.) On the other side, we identified four reasonably discrete kinds of wellbeing – self–reported wellbeing, mental health, physical health and health supporting behaviours (e.g. not drinking to excess, taking drugs, smoking, etc.)
The mathematically–minded among you will have spotted that this leads to twenty possible ‘boxes’, as the different categories along the two dimensions of religion and wellbeing intersect with one another. The results are not quite as exact a science as one would hope, partly because of those blurry categories and partly because some boxes are conspicuously better populated than others. But they are clear enough.
A reasonably clear picture emerges and the report allows us to be a little more precise about how the different dots join together to make the overall “religion = wellbeing” image.
And the results are… well, I fear you will have to wait a few more weeks, as the report will be published in June (do contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to be alerted to its publication.) But it does not spoil the plot to say that the conclusion of this epidemiological study, namely that “religion and spirituality may be an underappreciated resource that physicians could explore with their patients, as appropriate” is pretty much on the money.
Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014).
Posted 1 June 2016
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.