Religious people tend to be healthier than non-religious people, and live longer. The evidence for that is beyond dispute, though it is only a trend, and there can be exceptions. In this blog I want to explore why religious people are healthier.
It is tempting to assume that religion actually makes people healthier, but that isn’t necessarily the case. It could be that the kind of people who become religious also tend to be healthier, for other reasons, but that there is no direct causal relationship. Prosperity, for example, could be the key background variable. Being prosperous could make people healthier, and also lead to them being more religious.
This is all quite complicated to sort out, much more difficult than simply showing an association between religion and health. As far as we can tell so far, religion does actually tend to make people healthier, but there are other things going on as well. A causal effect of religion on health is one factor, but not the whole story.
One reason why religion might be good for your health is that religious people probably tend to have healthier lifestyles. For example, they smoke and drink less, and are less overweight. So, they have fewer risk factors for serious and potentially fatal illness.
It may also be to do with coping with stress. Spiritual practices such as mindfulness help people to stay calm under stress. Also, practices such as prayer help people to cope with difficult circumstances, by providing an opportunity to think them through and get a broader perspective on them. Prayer also cultivates gratitude, which is probably also good for health.
There are also social factors too. A good religious community is tightly-knit and supportive, and that can help in various ways. It can provide people with a confidant, and that can be good for coping with stress, and therefore good for health. A religious community can also provide people with practical support when they feel they need it.
That is before you even consider how God might help people with health problems, or answer the prayers of sick people. There are ways in which religion can be good for health that make sense, even to those who don’t believe in God.
We live in a consumerist society in which people always want to ask ‘what is in this for me?’. I don’t object to that; and anyway it is just how things are. You can’t change this consumerist trend just by objecting to it.
I don’t think religion has anything to fear from people asking about benefits, as I think it has some good answers to the question, ‘what is in religion for me?’, including the beneficial effects of religion on health.