Want to Live Longer? Go to Church

When I was growing up, I was a kid. My friends were kids, too. As I kid when I thought about my kid friends, I viewed of us all as roughly social equals. Sure, one friend could run faster, 2404125449_7a9472d8dcand another was smarter, and another more good looking, but these differences were dwarfed by our common statuses. We were all children in families and students in school and watchers of the same several television shows the night before (a time before cable television). Somewhere in my young mind, I just assumed we would all grow up to be about the same. Fast forward several decades, and every class and family reunion brings new realizations of different social outcomes. One friend has been happily married with four kids, while another is on their third bad marriage. One has a steady, mostly-satisfying job, another has had endless temporary lousy jobs. A common starting point, but such different outcomes.

Now the same thing is happening with health.

In my thirties and forties, my peers all had pretty good health. Sure, there were occasional maladies, mostly overcome, but our base rate was functional and our outlook optimistic. Now, though, at 52, I am starting to see signs of health stratification. One friend goes on 100 mile bike rides, while another moves slowly with an awkward walk. One friend hasn’t seen a doctor in years, while another regularly posts pictures of himself in the hospital on social media. In twenty years, some portion will be dead or disabled.

As a sociologist, how do I respond to the unfolding demise of my friends? How else but to start wondering about why some people live longer than others. There are lots of factors, of course—genetic, dietary, health care, and simply luck—but one factor that’s often overlooked is religion.

It turns out that religious people live longer, a lot longer, than none religious people. One study followed 22,000 adults for eight years. Those who never attended religious services were 1.9 times more likely to die in the period than those who attended religious services once a week. Using statistical projections, the researchers calculated that if you have two twenty-year-olds, one attends church weekly during his life and the other never does, the church goer will live 7 years longer. Seven years! That’s a long time. (That’s almost as big an impact as not smoking, for cigarette smoking shaves 10 years off of life).

Another study summarized data from 42 different samples and found a robust association between religious involvement.

But, perhaps my favorite study on this issue just came out. An undergraduate at Ohio State University, for her honors thesis, looked at obituaries from 50 different areas of the country. She tallied up how long the person lived as well as if the obituary listed religious involvement. Sure enough, obituaries that mentioned a religious organization eulogized lives that were 8 years longer (83 years vs. 75 years for no church).

So, it’s clear that church involvement is linked to longer lives. The following, and more involved, question is why. It might be that people who would have lived longer anyway are drawn to religion. However, there is good reason to think that religious involvement itself adds years to life. Most religions lead people into healthier behaviors such as doing less drinking and drug use (though I’m not sure how snake handling fits in here). Religion connects people with other people, and social ties are great for living long. Religion gives people a sense of purpose, which itself is linked to longevity.

So, if you’re going to church each week, it’s probably adding years to your life. Just think, you’ll have more time with your grandchildren to look over the church bulletins that you collected over the years.

If you’re a church leader, you’re doing maybe as much good for the physical health of your congregants as a public health official. Add that to your resume!

In thinking about all this, and how it affects my life, I suppose that I should be extra nice to my friends at church because it looks like we’re going to be together for a while.

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(Originally posted at brewright.com)

If Physicians Acted Like Sociologists (or, Why We’re Mostly Irrelevant)

Imagine a physician seeing a patient who has been diagnosed with cancer. If that physician approached matters as sociologists do, the physician would sit the patient down in their office and start by presenting several general theories regarding why cancer occurs. For example, maybe one theory might explain why cancer rates have changed over the decades. Another might link cancer to environmental factors, such as air pollution. Still another might link cancer to lifestyle choices, such as smoking and diet.

8295609984_a14536efe8_oAfter that, the physician would go into a long description of how rates of cancer vary by types of people, paying particularly close attention to race, class and gender. Perhaps people in some racial groups are more prone to this particular type of cancer. Maybe men get it earlier in life than women. The physician might also add [Read more...]

Marti and Ganiel’s The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity

The Emerging Church Movement (ECM) is making a big splash in American Christianity, and so the release of The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity by Gerardo Marti and Gladys Ganiel (Oxford Press, 2014) is noteworthy.

This book tackles the difficult task of defining the ECM. Most definitions of religious groups focus on organizational membership, such as denominations, or religious identity, such as being charismatic. The ECM doesn’t fit well with either of these. Marti and Ganiel describe it as a social movement guided by various themes, including being anti-institutional, ecumenical, using young leaders, being experimental and creative, and avoiding being traditionally church-y. They label it as a religious orientation aimed toward the practice of deconstruction (p. 6). In one sentence they write: “The ECM is a creative, entrepreneurial religious movement that strives to achieve social legitimacy and spiritual vitality by actively disassociating from its roots in conservative, evangelical Christianity. (p. ix)”

On the upside, this is about the clearest definition I’ve seen of ECM. On the downside, I’m still not exactly sure what it is. Certainly most Christian groups are not part of the ECM, some clearly are, but there’s a continuum of churches between them. As far as I can tell, this reflects nature of ECM, not any problems with the definition, per se. In several places, Marti and Ganiel describe facets of ECM group organization as “messy,” and to them I would add the simple identification of ECM.

The authors used the gamut of qualitative research methods—participant observation, interviewing, focus groups, and textual analysis, to convey both the experience and organization of ECM. Topics include the nature of ECM congregations, the focus on individual deconstruction, the role of dialogue, and the role (or lack thereof) of missions. They conclude that the significance of ECM, from a sociological perspective, is that it reflects the broader societal trend toward “religious individualization” (p. 195).

The book gave me not only a better understanding of the beliefs and practices found in the ECM, but also a greater appreciation of the sophisticated, responsive nature of the religious market in the United States. The 1990s saw a rise of the religious “nones”, which is well documented. Along with them were many Christians who didn’t want to leave the faith altogether but wanted a less traditional, more individual-focused group experience of it. Up pops ECM, catering to these needs, and providing yet another outlet for religious expression. It’s like a new store opening up at the mall, and you don’t appreciate the pent-up demand for it until you see it packed with customers.

The ECM narrative emphasizes revitalizing spirituality. I would bump it up one level of analysis and say that the driver of spiritual vitality is not ESM itself but rather the religious marketplace that produces movements such as the ESM. This thoughtful and well-written book describes and analyzes this recent, perhaps important offering of this market.

How Christians Vary in their Awareness of God

The SoulPulse study has taken two years and a bunch of money to develop, and the figure addresses an obvious first question of the study: Do Christians’ vary in their awareness of God. As show, the answer is a resounding “yes,” but this raises more questions than it answers.
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