Concern for our health is normal, but what do we actually need in order to live long and healthy lives? Diet, exercise, and moderation don’t seem to be enough. Mental well-being has been gaining recognition as a key element to healthy living, though there is some disagreement as to what best contributes to mental health.
Religious advocates say, and some surveys suggest, that religion is good for health. But what is really being identified are the health benefits of humanity’s social nature, which are then ascribed to mainstream religion. Religion, however, shouldn’t be able to take the credit for human instinct. It turns out that, when handled correctly, health can improve without the assistance of religion.
To make this clear, we first need to step back and review the religious claims. Harold Koenig of Duke University argues in his 2001 book, The Link Between Religion and Health: Psychoneuroimmunology and the Faith Factor, that a battery of studies that poll for religious data show a correlation between church attendance and good health. According to a 1999 article in the New Republic, the studies recorded demographic data on participants, including questions regarding religious faith and frequency of church attendance, and monitored their health over several years.
However, Koenig’s findings only use the data from religions that have no built-in health risks. For example, Christian Scientists don’t factor into the results because they shun medicine. Furthermore, there weren’t enough Muslims in the study to provide conclusive statistics about the benefits or liabilities of Islam.
It’s possible, of course, that practicing a religious faith with certain features could have certain health benefits. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that these faithful will live longer lives and have better health than their nontheistic counterparts. Another study, conducted in England, looks into other factors in a person’s lifestyle that may prove salutary.
John Drury, in a recent unpublished study conducted at the University of Sussex, suggests that social or political protesting can be good for you. The benefits derive from the power of “collective action” which arises when a group of people gather for a common cause and act in unison for a purpose. In the case of a protest or demonstration, activists intend to improve a community, and that sense of purpose provides feelings of happiness and fulfillment.
Drury relates protesting to events unrelated to activism, such as a New Year’s Eve gathering where collective action empowers the participants. “The main factors contributing to a sense of empowerment were the realization of the collective identity, the sense of movement potential, unity and mutual support within a crowd,” said Drury.
The report doesn’t mention the role of religion in the benefits of protesting. It would be unfair to claim that protesting is only for nonreligious people and that they can be the only ones to experience the euphoria of protesting or demonstrating for a cause. Conversely, the report doesn’t take into account the darker side of collective action. While well-meaning people gather every day to improve their communities, there are others who gather for purposes which, if uncontrolled, could have highly negative effects. Instead of a peaceful demonstration, a mob mentality could prevail, which has been the cause of soccer riots, sexual assaults, and abortion clinic violence. So, while collective action can be used to energize people with a common cause for a positive purpose, a sense of moral and social responsibility must be part of any protesting effort in order to prevent ill effects.
But an important insight to be gained from Drury’s report is that, when it comes to the health benefits of group action, community involvement is the driving force, whether it is a local or global community and whether the motivation is secular or religious.
Healthy living, therefore, isn’t a benefit that only religion can offer. Religion can’t lay claim to social interaction and the origin of the community. Rather, those are aspects of humanity that have been part of our genetic blueprint for longer than today’s religions have existed. Therefore, studies that correlate a healthful life with religion take for granted the social structure that religion provides, as if to claim that religious affiliation is the only way one can enjoy this social structure or that specificreligious beliefs are necessary for a sound mind and body.
Nonetheless, to the credit of mainstream religions, they have centuries of experience creating committed communities. And within a church congregation exists a social structure that features established rituals and accepted behaviors. Thus, when someone joins a church, she or he is soon expected to perform those rituals and adhere to those behaviors. But this doesn’t mean that the same health benefits are unavailable to others. One can also participate in a community that doesn’t require the worship of a deity yet still provides the social structure of a congregation. Liberal churches and humanist groups are two examples. But participation in a charity or activist organization also can provide the necessary ingredients. Indeed, in almost any group of people with a common interest that is acting to improve a community, social interaction and a sense of purpose develop. The health benefits, therefore, should naturally follow.
But there’s an unamusing irony. A recent Gallup poll indicates that Catholic church attendance has dropped in the wake of the pedophilia scandal that has garnered so much media attention. We can therefore ask how healthy regular church involvement has been for the victims of priestly misconduct. And we can also ask, if church attendance grants good health, but regular attendance at Catholic churches continues to drop, will the health of those Catholics who now abstain from church services suffer as a result?
Clearly, rather than pin hopes for a healthy life on religion, it would be better for us to choose a philosophy and lifestyle for the sense it makes. Then we should keep in mind that what the health-religion studies suggest is that if we live in relative solitude we won’t be able to reap all of benefits available. For humanists, an excellent approach to life enhancement would be to find a worthy, moral cause and volunteer. There’s nothing to lose. But what can be gained is a sense of purpose, a community, and all the health benefits that come with them.