Religion Is Good for You—or Is It Really that Simple?

Yet another round of research shows that religion is good for you. Or so it seems. But is that quite what’s being proven?

In a studypublished by the American Journal of Epidemiology, Ying Chen and her team at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health demonstrate yet another positive correlation, if not causation, between religion and well-being. What’s particularly interesting about this study is that it measures the effects of both church attendance (a social activity) and prayer or contemplation (a private activity)—and both correlate highly with “a wide array of psychological well-being, mental health, health behavior, physical health, and character strength outcomes in young adulthood.”

More particularly, both forms of religious observance correlated with positive outcomes regarding “volunteering, forgiveness, marijuana use, early sexual initiation, and the number of lifetime sexual partners.” They were also at least “possibly associated” with “fewer depressive symptoms and lower probabilities of probable posttraumatic stress disorder, cigarette smoking, prescription drug misuse, history of STIs, and abnormal Pap test results.”

Several asterisks—or maybe just one big one—need to be attached to this study. First, the sample group was not a truly representative cross-section of the American population but was skewed toward white women of middle and upper incomes. Second, the criteria for wellbeing clearly were loaded in a Western Christian direction. Not all cultures and religions would think it a categorical good for women to avoid teen sex and childbearing and not all individuals would think ill of early use of marijuana and other drugs. Third, given that the sample came mostly from people one could presume to be at least somewhat affiliated with, and shaped by, the Christian religion (people mostly from the midwestern and New England states, white, and well-off) and wellbeing was measured by generally Christian mores, it is not astonishing that practicing this religion yields outcomes judged positive by this religion.

One can conclude, therefore, that Christianity tends to produce the effects it advertises. That’s not an insignificant finding, especially in view of the tiresomely repeated complaints of New Atheists that Christianity and the religions that resemble it are horrible viruses (Daniel Dennett) and are responsible for most of what’s gone wrong in the world (Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, et al.).

One must be careful to note, however, that “religion” is never clearly defined in the report. But the considerable demographic limitations in the sample mean that we don’t know what behaviours would be produced from regularly attending, say, a Sikh gurdwara, or Hindu temple, or Wiccan coven, nor do we know the effects of religious practices quite different from those analyzed in this study. Since “religion” is a very big conceptual basket that historically has included such ceremonies as sati (the ritual execution of widows), temple prostitution, infant sacrifice, self-flagellation, and other horrors, it would be well not to extend the implications of these findings to just any and all religion.

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