Religion and Health, With Data from the Sciences

Religion and Health, With Data from the Sciences October 2, 2020



Duke's Medical Center
The entrance to the Medical Center at Duke University, where Drs. Harvey Cohen and Harold Koenig have their principal appointments.  (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


I’ve often had occasion here and elsewhere to mention the prolific Alister McGrath, an Anglo-Irish theologian who earned his doctorate in divinity from Oxford before earning an Oxford doctorate in intellectual history but after earning an Oxford doctorate in molecular biophysics.  Between pages 235 and 267 of Eric Metaxas, Life, God, and Other Small Topics: Conversations from Socrates in the City (New York: Plume/Penguin, 2011) there is a transcript of a New York City speech by Dr. McGrath bearing the provocative title “The Twilight of Atheism.”  Here’s a passage from it:


But let’s look at another argument that we often hear, which is that in some way, religion is pathological.  In other words, it is bad for people. . . .

Since about 1990, there’s been a huge amount of empirical research trying to ask, “What impact does religion have on people’s well-being?”  Again, you need to be aware that this is an ongoing research field [certainly continuing beyond late 2006, when he spoke these words!] and that there are all kinds of problems involved in the research.  For example, what counts as being religious?  What counts as well-being?  The answer generally is longevity and speedy recovery from illness.  Let’s agree that there are all kinds of difficulty here, but the work has been done and continues to be done.

In a very important survey of 2001, Harvey J. Cohen and Harold G. Koenig looked at a hundred evidence-based studies — not one hundred people, but one hundred peer-reviewed studies.  Here is what they found: 79 percent of these studies showed at least one positive correlation between religious involvement and well-being.  Then, twenty either showed no pattern or a mixed pattern — a little bit good, a little bit bad, but nothing conclusive.  And one showed a negative correlation between religious involvement and well-being.  Now, we must not overstate this point.  This does not prove there is a God, and as the research is still ongoing, we mustn’t say, “That how things are; that’s the end of it,” because clearly the work is still being done.  There are two points to make here:

Number one, if people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris were right, shouldn’t those figures actually have been the other way around?  Shouldn’t they have shown that, in some way, religious involvement actually was having a negative impact on people’s well-being, because of psychological damage?  But that is not seen.

And secondly, a major issue here in the United States:  If a person’s religious commitment and spirituality are implicated in well-being and are implicated in speedy recovery, doesn’t that have implications for public health-care policy in this nation?  Again, a very sensitive, but very interesting, issue to raise.  (253-254)



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