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How's Your Health, Skeptics? PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Christina Stephens   

Medical literature frequently reports finding that strong religious belief or spirituality has a positive effect on health outcomes with regard to longevity, measures of mental health, recovery after illness, and other health measures. Generally, findings show that people who attend religious services once or more per week have fewer physical and mental illnesses, recover more quickly from illness, and have lower mortality rates than individuals who attend less frequently or not at all. [1-3]

Naturally, it is easy to infer from the abundance of literature linking religion to positive health outcomes that people who are less religious or nonreligious are less healthy and more mentally and physically ill, I.E. -that there is something wrong with us. Yet it is important to note exactly to whom these religious individuals are being compared.

Religious affiliation in health-outcome studies typically use three-class (Catholic, Jewish, Protestant) or four-class (Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, none) taxonomies when classifying groups for study [4], while rarely using five or more class taxonomies that might include varying religious sects, minority religions, or the various flavors of the ever nebulous "none". For example, studies resulting in positive outcomes of mortality and religion look at mortality rates among Jews or conservative Christian groups with strict dietary and lifestyle proscriptions (I.E. proscriptions against smoking, alcohol or certain food consumption, sexual practices, etc.) while comparing them to groups of "nonreligious" individuals. It is difficult to ascertain whether mortality rates are due to lifestyle and diet differences rather than differences in a particular belief.

It is this "none" or "other" with whom the strongly-religious are typically compared. "other", however, is quite a heterogeneous group, which may include individuals of minority religions, apathists, agnostics, atheists, deists, etc.  I find it telling that "skeptics", for example, have never been studied as a health population in medical literature and atheists/agnostics are rarely studied or used as a comparison group. When researchers compare very religious individuals to "other" individuals, they are not comparing two groups of individuals with a relatively concurrent level of conviction, but one group with relatively strong convictions to another group with heterogeneous convictions.  Thus, while strong religious convictions may lead to positive health outcomes, the mechanism of those outcomes is unclear. It may be related to strong convictions, differences in lifestyle, coping mechanisms or increased social participation rather than religion per se. Conversely, the "other" in these groups may be experiencing decreased health outcomes due to being part of a minority group or for other sociological reasons.

Is it possible for a cohesive group of "others" to experience the same positive health outcomes associated with cohesive religious groups? All of the studies I have read on religion and health admonish the reader and the scientific public to conduct more research on the relationships between religion and health. Rarely do they suggest further study with specific groups of non-believers.

References:

  1. Ellison CG. Race, religious involvement, and depressive symptomatology in a southeastern U.S. community. Social Science and Medicine, 1995;4:1561-1572.
  2. Koenig HG, George LK, Cohen HJ, Hays JC, Blazer DG, Larson DB. The relationship between religious activities and blood pressure in older adults. International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine. 1998;28:189-213.
  3. Hill PC, Pargament KI. Advances in the conceptualization and measurement of religion and spirituality: Implications for physical and mental health research. American Psychologist, 2003;58;64-74.
  4. McCullough ME, Larson DB, Koenig HG, Lerner, R The mismeasurement of religion in mortality research 1999;4:183-194

Christina Stephens, OTD/s blogs at www.ziztur.com

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written by stacyhead, July 02, 2009
In researching longevity in relation to being a believer or non-believer, there are many schools of thought. The placebo effect, dietary restrictions of certain religions, non-believers don't bother with consequences and believers are lying hypocrites. There just isn't enough evidence that non-religious subjects have been studied outside the realm of being included with religious affiliated participants. Depending on what institution is doing the studying, these numbers can be skewed.
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written by SilverTiger, July 02, 2009
We travel around the country a lot, and love exploring towns and villages. We often come across the local church and - guess what - the graveyard is always full of dead believers. Believer or skeptic, we all cop it in the end.
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Postponing heaven
written by Johan Stuyts, July 02, 2009
Don't forget that they found that very religous people wanted to delay going to heaven for as long as possible by starting with more treatments which also had bad side effects.
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written by luisclaudio, July 02, 2009
My health suffered a mild blow after I was informed that Richard Dawkins is in Brazil for a literary fair and I missed.
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written by MadScientist, July 02, 2009
I died once, but then I got better. The church told me that doesn't make me a saint because I need to perform two miracles on other people and I also need to be dead. I was also told that I need to be catholic and that there is no such thing as a godless saint.

As I get older my health gets gradually worse despite the weekly homeopathic and chiropractic treatments and those enema and chelation sessions. I'm thinking of seeing my astrologer more frequently but it might be cheaper to just ring up my psychic and ask what my astrologer will say. Next week I'll start on my magnetic treatments, exfoliation, defoliation, detoxification, intoxification, rehabilitation, addiction, fibrillation, and contrition and also start on my levitation classes at the Maharishi Institute.

Despite all that I'm still alive, so some things haven't gone too wrong yet.
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written by BillyJoe, July 03, 2009
Perhaps it's only because the sick are unable to get to church.

But I aqgree with Johan...
Why are they so keen on delaying going to heaven?
I suspect that deep down they don't really believe that $#!+

BJ
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WTF?
written by Michael K Gray, July 03, 2009
Medical literature frequently reports finding that strong religious belief or spirituality has a positive effect on health outcomes with regard to ... mental health

Hold it right there, Dick Tracy!
Just how the 'hell' are they measuring so-called mental health?

It must exclude excruciating and life-long guilt.
Just ask any Catholic.

It must exclude any notion of self-worth.
Just ask either a Christian or Muslim female.

It must exclude any conceit to independent thought.
Just ask ANY theist of any stripe.

Oh I get it, they define 'mental health' as 'self-reported satisfaction under duress of potential excommunication from one's social cohort'!
Abso-bloody-lutely worthless.
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written by CasaRojo, July 03, 2009
I've often wondered about the research, and still do.

Remember that there's No Laughing In Heaven ----> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bsd_P1s6DOE
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written by pxatkins, July 03, 2009
I always feel a bit vulnerable when citing a study without being asble to direct folks to it (particularly you lot) but I recall reading that the best communities to live in were those where people 'belonged' to things: church, scouts, Silver-Threads, coin-collecting clubs, Shriners, Greenpeace, Philatelists-R-Us, ... it didn't matter what the group was, just that people were social. It stands to reason that in a close community you are more likely to be 'kept an eye on' thus health concerns would be more likely to be recognized early and addressed. Kinda like people in urban areas tend to have a longer life expectancy that ruralites - turns out to be the proximinty of the hospital not the quality of the air.
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written by stacyhead, July 03, 2009
Hold it right there, Dick Tracy!
Just how the 'hell' are they measuring so-called mental health?

It must exclude excruciating and life-long guilt.
Just ask any Catholic.

It must exclude any notion of self-worth.
Just ask either a Christian or Muslim female


Exactly! Most of these studies (I have been involved with several as an RN) loosely define health. Non-religious is also loosely defined in these studies. Non-religious needs to be more clearly defined. The studies I have been involved with limited the subjects as "Christian or Jewish", leaving out Islam, Buddhism (which could also be classified as non-believer in certain schools of thought), and many others. Other variables are often overlooked, depending on how the researchers belief as well. I can say with certainity, none were approached from a skeptical viewpoint.
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written by ziztur, July 03, 2009
You guys are right on target with my point of this article: all of these studies concluding that religious people are healthier have serious flaws due to the way they define "other" or "none" and the methodology by which they collect data.

I can imagine that religious people taking a survey on religion and their health might be more included to report positive mental health outcomes due to social desirability bias (even though the "social" in this context is both the researcher and their god, who they think is watching.)
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written by Willy K, July 03, 2009
But golly gee-willikers granpa... whatever happened to those believers who's outcome with serious heart problems were not helped one iota by prayers from their fellow believers? You 'member that study granpa? The one where a religious group was all enthusiastic about in the beginning of the study but when it turned out there's no benefit to prayers they copped an attitude like "prayers work we say, the study is wrong!"

Now what was that logical fallacy y'all told me about gramps? The one were you only look for evidence that confirms your belief? smilies/tongue.gif
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written by tctheunbeliever, July 03, 2009
Of course, some religious people will use these types of studies to try to get you into church whether you believe or not. They'll just say it's just another good reason to worship.

It's kind of like Pascal's Wager--bet on Heaven because being wrong has no consequences. I always wondered what Pascal planned on telling his god about the sincerity of his faith.
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written by BillyJoe, July 03, 2009
I always wondered what Pascal planned on telling his god about the sincerity of his faith.
Or how stupid he would have felt when he realised he could have slept in all those Sunday mornings or gone for a run through the mountains.
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written by God's delusion, July 03, 2009
Written by Michael K Gray:
Hold it right there, Dick Tracy!
Just how the 'hell' are they measuring so-called mental health?

It must exclude excruciating and life-long guilt.
Just ask any Catholic.

It must exclude any notion of self-worth.
Just ask either a Christian or Muslim female.

It must exclude any conceit to independent thought.
Just ask ANY theist of any stripe.
What a fantastic display of bias and stereotype. And everyone happily nods in assent.

Show me the evidence.
Show me the research that backs up the claim that Catholics suffer excruciating lifelong guilt, or even that they suffer guilt significantly moreso than the average population. Show me the research that Christian and Muslim women have, in general, less self-worth than the average woman; let alone no notion of it at all. Show me the evidence that theists are unable to think independently.

What utter, baseless, tripe. Unbefitting of a skeptic, or any decent human being for that matter.
I guess critical thinking only applies to other people's views.
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written by ziztur, July 03, 2009
I took those comments to be clear sarcasm, similar to the other obviously sarcastic remarks I saw. Lack of response does not mean we are accepting of bias and stereotype.

Assuming that our silence means we are "nodding happily in assent" also baseless.
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Cool down God :)
written by BillyJoe, July 03, 2009
I have to agree with ziztur, God's delusion. Sarcasm, hyperbole, and taking the exaggerated definiton of catholic and muslim as defined in their respective holy books (very few actually follow their holy books to the letter, but if they did...)

BJ
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written by stacyhead, July 03, 2009
But golly gee-willikers granpa... whatever happened to those believers who's outcome with serious heart problems were not helped one iota by prayers from their fellow believers? You 'member that study granpa? The one where a religious group was all enthusiastic about in the beginning of the study but when it turned out there's no benefit to prayers they copped an attitude like "prayers work we say, the study is wrong!"

I'm impressed with the stereotypical southern slang here! If Hee Haw were still on, you could audition for the cast, and maybe they would make you a big star someday. smilies/cool.gif
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written by Kuroyume, July 03, 2009
These types of studies should be ignored out of hand. Much like the 'coffee is good for you' vs. 'coffee is bad for you' studies. For every positive study one can do a million negative studies for which a million-million positive studies can be done for which... (ya get it).

For instance, just to shank these types of studies, did they also consider socio-cultural conditions, local or national traditions, geographic region, genetic dispositions, diet, education, and probably a hundred thousand other variables? Doubtful. Doing a study doesn't make the study valid just as making a hypothesis and testing experiment validate it to a theory (see Cold Fusion). Any good experiment-hypothesis or study needs to be open to dissection and replication by other people. That is why the prayer-for-health study was so vehemently attacked. The design of this study was seriously flawed and biased - and they were caught out, fortunately.

A better study might allow each participant to specify their exact religious affiliation. Either way, this is just an attempt at justifying one's religious convictions more than seeking facts.
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written by Noadi, July 03, 2009
There is one thing you often see with the religious that you often don't with the non-religious that I think is likely to have a benefit: community. People who are regular church goers have a big community that help each other out in varous ways. That seems to be something that would have positive health benefits. There's very good research that shows social isolation has negative health effects.

That is clearly not a good enough reason to join a religion. However it seems to me that what skeptics are doing in getting together more is a good idea. In that case I wonder if I could justify TAM as being for my health? Probably not.
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We don't need commercials here
written by tctheunbeliever, July 03, 2009
If you say it enough times and wish hard enough, it'll happen!
It saved Dorothy and Tinkerbell, didn't it?
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written by stacyhead, July 03, 2009
The third eye concept, the pineal gland, the seat of the soul, Descartes.
More importantly Third Eye Blind, great band!
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written by Brookston John, July 04, 2009
Kuroyume said :
"These types of studies should be ignored out of hand. Much like the 'coffee is good for you' vs. 'coffee is bad for you' studies."

Exactly.

I figure those studies involve first, a study that shows some link between coffee and a health issue. So people reduce their coffee consumption.
Then Juan Valdez buys a congresscritter with oversight of the FDA or some other agency, and the next thing you know "Government studies show a link between drinking 5-6 pots of coffee a day and a sense of well-being..."
And it goes back and forth like that.

Why should a "study" showing religious people, and only members of two of the Big Three, christian and jewish, (contrary to what southern baptists believe, catholics ARE christian)at that!) to be healthier than the poor, unsaved masses be any different?

Follow the Money. It'll lead to some deep-pocketed evangelical group, like "Focus on your Bedroom" or the like.
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written by Willy K, July 04, 2009
written by stacyhead, July 03, 2009
I'm impressed with the stereotypical southern slang here! If Hee Haw were still on, you could audition for the cast, and maybe they would make you a big star someday.

Well.. thank you kindly maaaamm. Hee Haw was my religion. smilies/wink.gif
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written by God's delusion, July 04, 2009
@ziztur
Assuming that our silence means we are "nodding happily in assent" also baseless.
No, actually, that was based on the 20 or so votes.
And apparently criticism isn't much appreciated, since it just gets voted to obscurity so no one has to think about it. That's exactly what they do at those fundy sites. How disheartening to think that's what we've come to as a skeptical community.

Well, thank you for responding, in any case. And BJ. Some hope yet, perhaps; even if you don't agree smilies/wink.gif
Though, even taken as sarcasm, I think those comments were out of line and unhelpful.
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Yes and no
written by rini6, July 04, 2009
I do think that there may be something said for the social group and close bonding idea. It has been shown that social factors do affect health.

However, you can bond and be part of a close knit group without believing in some ridiculous fantasy of a big daddy in the sky.
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To God
written by BillyJoe, July 04, 2009
No, actually, that was based on the 20 or so votes.
Oops, yes, you're right...sorry, I've given up reading the votes, they rarely make any sense.

And apparently criticism isn't much appreciated, since it just gets voted to obscurity so no one has to think about it.
Your observation agrees with mine, hence the reason why I pay no attention to them.

That's exactly what they do at those fundy sites. How disheartening to think that's what we've come to as a skeptical community.
Again, I agree. If you dare say anything against Randi, for example, even just pointing out what should be for everyone a glaring error, you are pilloried for it. I think all sites have their share of unquestioning acolytes. It's the nature of the game I think.

Well, thank you for responding, in any case. And BJ. Some hope yet, perhaps; even if you don't agree
Well, as you see there is quite a bit of agreement smilies/smiley.gif

Though, even taken as sarcasm, I think those comments were out of line and unhelpful.
I have no problem with sarcasm. But, to quarantee negative votes, you should try humour! That seems to be a completely no go zone.

BJ
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written by tctheunbeliever, July 04, 2009
False dichotomies, overgeneralizations, demonization, appeals to emotion, name-calling, the merciless evisceration of long-dead horses--hopefully that isn't "what we've come to as a skeptical community".
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God's delusion...
written by Zen66, July 04, 2009
seriously calm down buckaroo, your initial comment was sufficient to air your point. There was no need to complain about the criticism of your... criticism. Honestly, if one's critique is sound and made without malice then it should be able to survive some stick poking. Your follow up only made your original post sound whiny. BTW, skeptics do have senses of humor and often make use of hyperbole to expose the narrow, stereotypical views of those who would attempt to marginalize an opposing voice with flawed studies. I think it was awfully unfair to suggest that anyone was being anything other than a descent human being based on a comment left on a very open blog.

Also, I voted you down 'cause you're a doody-head!
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written by ladolphus, July 07, 2009
Sorry, I tend to agree with Noadi. I think all the sarcasm, politics or dietary equivocations miss the point entirely. There is a simpler explanation for this than skewered studies, and everyone can learn from it.

Simple social, personal networking - of any kind - can support physical and mental health. At the risk of ruffling a few feathers here, I honestly don't think even the suggestion of more frequent and widespread skeptic get-togethers will quite have the same effect.

Many churchgoers (certainly not all) generally share some obligations with other members. It may be simple emotional, personal and supportive customs. It could be as basic as bringing food to grieving families, checking up on the sick, babysitting kids, driving the elderly around. etc. Yeah, they may seem benighted, bigoted, and superstitious to outsiders, but those are not the actual things that really make many people want to join or stay with them. When you are "in" with the program, you can expect at least some of the "love one another" ethic being practiced within the normal, "mainstream" faiths.

Honestly, if I'd go to a skeptics meeting, I'd only expect stimulating conversation, insights, maybe activism and a few good magic tricks. But skeptics, by definition, tend to be "Free Thinkers." They pride themselves on NOT blindly following doctrines, beliefs or strict behavioral or cultural codes. They may, as a group, agree on some charitable and ethical standards for themselves. But I'd expect they'd be less willing to codify it or socially pressure each other to follow it. They may individually support extensive government, social or political programs - but these don't always fulfill those basic human needs that personal networks do.

Just being honest here, and I expect some will bring up counter-examples to this argument.
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written by BillyJoe, July 07, 2009
God is dead.
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