Why religion is good for you

Many medical studies have shown that strong religious faith is correlated with good health and long life.  Is there a scientific reason why this should be so?

One explanation for this is that religion makes you more optimistic, happy and serene, and these qualities have a beneficial effect on health.  But I don’t think religion necessarily makes you happy or serene.  I would be very anxious if I believed in the possibility of going to Hell and suffering eternal torment.  Samuel Johnson, the great 18th century English literary figure, lived in fear of death for precisely this reason.  Robert Thurman, translator of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, mocked religious skeptics who think that death is equivalent to a restful sleep.  They will be astonished when they come face to face with Yama, king of the underworld and judge of the dead, and suffer the consequences of their karma.

A better explanation of religion’s benefits came from psychologists Michael E. McCullough and Brian Willoughby of the University of Miami in a 2009 study.  Michael Shermer reported in the December issue of Scientific American that they found that religious people are more likely than irreligious people to have good health habits—to refrain from tobacco, alcohol, recreational drugs or risky sex, to eat healthy food and exercise, and to visit dentists and doctors regularly.

It has long been known that members of certain religious sects are longer-lived than average.  One of the first clues to the risks of smoking came with studies showing the low mortality rate from lung cancer and emphysema of Seventh Day Adventists, who refrain from tobacco as well as alcohol and meat.

Sticking to a religious practice—Zen meditation, fasting during Ramadan or Lent, attending church, synagogue or mosque, chanting Hebrew psalms or Hindu mantras–takes will power, Shermer noted.  Brain scans of people engaged in religious rituals show strong activity in areas associated with self control and paying attention.

The will power and self control required to live by the teachings of a higher religion carry over into other aspects of life.   Shermer said brain scans of people engaged in religious rituals show strong activity in the areas associated with self-regulation and attention.

He quoted from Willpower by Roy Baumeister, a Florida State University psychologist, and John Tierney, a science writer, which cited research that young children who delay gratification (giving up one marshmallow now for two later) get higher grades in school and are better adjusted later on.  And that religiously devout children are rated low in impulsiveness by both parents and teachers.

I don’t think this motivation is based mainly on hope for reward and fear of punishment in the afterlife.  I think the belief that God knows and cares about what you do is a more powerful influence.  The 19th-century American Universalists believed in universal salvation; they believed that eventually “the last sinner will be dragged kicking and screaming into Heaven.”  But contrary to what their opponents charged, Universalists did not sink into depravity.  Love of God is a more powerful motivator than fear of God.

I don’t believe in the Gospel of Prosperity, the idea that you can have anything you want by having faith that you will get it.  I think this idea does a lot of harm.  But I do think that people who live according to a religious discipline improve their odds of attaining the good things in life—even though that is a side effect, not a goal, of religion.

Click on Sacred Salubriousness for Michael Shermer’s full article.

Click on Henry Morton Stanley’s Unbreakable Will for an excerpt from Roy Baumeister’s and John Tierney’s Willpower in Smithsonian magazine, illustrating their ideas through the life of the great 19th century African explorer.

2 Responses to “Why religion is good for you”

  1. dlgl33 Says:

    While I like and agree with much of this blog there certainly is a dark side to this with religious zealots and power freaks who use violence and social controls to oppress others. I have also known people who, being born into a strict religious sect, have suffered from depression, fear, anxiety, social deprivation and inhibition resulting in a low quality life experience or in extreme cases, suicide.


  2. dlgl33 Says:

    I must add that I have no way to directly connect cases of extreme unhappiness that I have witness to religion. Maybe these were people who would have had problems with anxiety and depression whether they were religious or not. However, in these cases religion did not solve the problems.


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