Health and Church Attendance

Dale A. Matthews, M.D., of Georgetown University, reported at the 1996 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Baltimore on the results of his review of 212 studies exploring the relationship between religion and health. According to Matthews, three fourths showed a positive relationship between the two.

Dr. Matthews is quoted in The American Medical News [3/4/96 page 35] as saying that it appears that religion has benefits in cases of drug and alcohol abuse, depression, cancer, hypertension, and heart disease. Also according to the article:

Clearly, therefore, the assumed independent variable is church attendance and not belief in religious superstition as such. Moreover, the effect does not seem to depend on which church is being attended. The same benefits appear to be reaped alike by the believers in the One True Faith and by the heretics, which one would not think would be the case if divine intervention were involved. Finally, the disorders that show a beneficial effect are those which are most closely linked to lifestyle factors that are known to play an important role in their genesis, detection, and successful treatment. No studies exist, for example, which show a higher rate of successful immunization (that is, antibody production after administration of a vaccine) or a greater cure rate for infectious diseases treated with antibiotics among religious believers as compared to unbelievers. Yet a given adherent of a religious faith can be depended on to insist that scientific studies have proven divine intervention.

In reality, church attendance does not necessarily reflect people's strength of religious faith. It could as easily be argued, for example, that believers who are filled with doubt attend church more regularly than those who do not in order to bolster their weak convictions. In addition, church attendance is a poor independent variable because it both reflects and implies a number of unrelated factors. It would seem likely that more sociable people, for example, are more likely to attend church. Whereas people who tend to be depressed tend to withdraw from social contact. Church attendance also provides social contact and reinforces sociability by providing a network of friends and, often, opportunities for participation in many activities.

No scientific studies have tried to take into account the selective effects of churches, both positive and negative. Many church communities, for example, are known to exclude those that they consider undesirable. Homosexuals and the divorced come to mind. And although many churches endeavor to minister to the needs of their members who fall ill, where some churches and some illnesses are concerned this is very far from being the case.

It may very well be — it certainly should come as no surprise — that the social interaction and involvement of church attendance has beneficial effects on human health. It is very well known, for example, that single and widowed people have less longevity than married people. Other measures of social isolation versus social involvement would be expected to show the same correlations. With regard to church attendance, this is more likely to be the case when the data is not heavily influenced by sects whose teachings are likely to have adverse health consequences, such as those that urge reliance on prayer instead of medical science. There are numerous individual cases where adherence to irrational religious beliefs proved damaging or even fatal.

The American Medical News article concludes by noting that Kenneth Pargament, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Bowling Green State University, "said he sometimes recommends that his patients talk to their clergy and do religious reading ... [and that] he and others recommended that doctors take religion more seriously as a way of keeping people healthy." A more accurate recommendation would be that physicians and other health care professionals should encourage their patients to keep up as high a level of social involvement as may be practical. In many cases this may be the religious organization of their choice. But there are other opportunities as well. To ignore these, to simply say to people "you should go to church to stay healthy," may very well please priests and ministers. But it is not truthful counsel, nor is it good advice, particularly for the many individuals — approximately 10% according to most polls — who are conscientiously unable to endorse religious supernaturalism.

Other opportunities for social involvement include civic groups, clubs that focus on any number of special interests, hobbies, and the like, ethnic or cultural societies, and even many forms of volunteer work. There tend to be more choices in large population centers, but even elsewhere some of these other outlets are available.

In the Fort Worth/Dallas area, The North Texas Church of Freethought endeavors to provide social opportunities for and foster the acceptance and affirmation of the religious views of unbelievers. That is, the NTCOF offers the social, emotional, and personal growth opportunities which are generally available from faith-based churches, but free of the superstitions that unbelievers cannot conscientiously accept. Comments from NTCOF's members overwhelmingly support the notion that this is, indeed, the primary need which this unusual project is satisfying.

Like feelings of hunger or thirst, virtually no one likes to feel all alone. Social isolation is very likely both a cause and a result of diminished mental and physical well-being. Church attendance, therefore, would be expected to correlate with better general health. But church attendance does not necessarily imply a belief in God, in reincarnation, or in any other superstitious doctrine. At least, it doesn't for the members of the North Texas Church of Freethought.

© 1996 by Tim Gorski