OK, so that’s not how this new study is being headlined elsewhere (e.g. Religious Feelings Associated with Women’s Lengthier Survival). But that’s essentially what it has shown. Here’s what they did (see below for a reference to the paper).
They used data that have been collected from over 90,000 women who took part in the Women’s Health Initiative, a study that was designed to look at the effects of hormone replacement and diet. But as part of the study, the participants were also asked about their religious lives – their religious affiliation, whether and how often they went to church, and whether religion provided them with ‘strength and comfort’. They tracked the women for around 8 years (on average), and recorded whether they had any heart disease, or whether they died for any reason.
What they found was that women who went to church were actually at a higher risk of dying. Something similar could be seen for religious comfort – women who got comfort from religion were more likely to have a heart attack or die. And women who said that they were ‘affiliated’ to a religion were 50% more likely to die!
The explanation for this is fairly straightforward: people who are sick start to think about death, especially their own, and as a result they start to get religion. It’s called Terror Management Theory. They turn to religion to relieve their anxiety.
But what the study authors wanted to know was whether there was an effect of religiosity on health after adjusting for this, by taking into all the other factors that are known to affect health. So they made statistical adjustments for a whole host of these (such as age, income, health history, behaviour, depression, and life satisfaction).
After making all these adjustments they found that there was no relationship between any measure of religiosity and the chance of getting heart disease. And there was no effect of religious belief or religious affiliation on the chance of dying. But – and this is the key result that made the headlines – women who went to church at least once a week were about 10% less likely to die over the course of the study than other women. They looked at the causes of death, but there didn’t seem to be any pattern.
So what could the cause for for this be. Well, despite the best efforts of the investigators, you can’t rule out the possibility that women who were sicker simply found it more difficult to get to church. In other words, maybe there was something about these women’s health that was not being picked up in the survey, but was still affecting behaviour.
However, it is interesting that it was church going, and not religiosity, that seemed to have the effect. Maybe participating in group activities, like church going, makes people happier, and this has some effect on health. And maybe it is nothing to do with church per se – maybe participating in any kind of activity has this effect.
Precisely that was shown in a study earlier this year (by Dan Ariely and colleagues). What they found was that regular church going did indeed cause a real and sustained increase in happiness. But that other activities, such as taking regular exercise or doing yoga, were just as effective.
Is this, then, the lesson for humanists? That if we are to work for a society free of religion, then we also need to recognize the essential social role that’s currently filled for many people by religion. And do something about it.
Eliezer Schnall, Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller, Charles Swencionis, Vance Zemon, Lesley Tinker, Mary Jo O’Sullivan, Linda Van Horn, Mimi Goodwin (2008). The relationship between religion and cardiovascular outcomes and all-cause mortality in the women’s health initiative observational study Psychology & Health, 1-15 DOI: 10.1080/08870440802311322
D MOCHON, M NORTON, D ARIELY (2008). Getting off the hedonic treadmill, one step at a time: The impact of regular religious practice and exercise on well-being Journal of Economic Psychology, 29 (5), 632-642 DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2007.10.004