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Is God Good For Us? Sociology Researchers Explore the Health Implications of Religiosity

As a graduate student at Duke University in the late 1980s specializing in politics and economic development, Dean’s Distinguished Professor of Social Science Christopher Ellison noted a significant omission in sociology studies. His undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and his upbringing in the religion-saturated South highlighted the surprising fact that only a limited body of research had been conducted on the influence of religious practices and institutions in the U.S.

“This piqued my interest,” he recalls. The observation brought about a sharp course correction in his academic trajectory at an auspicious time when, less than a mile down the road, researchers at Duke Medical Center were beginning to explore the health implications of religion from a physiological perspective. “I was very fortunate to find myself at ‘ground zero’ for the emergence of this multidisciplinary field. Once I began to explore these issues carefully, I became convinced that this was an important direction for my future work.”

Skip ahead to 2005, when Associate Professor Gabriel Acevedo launched a promising career at UTSA. The young professor, armed with a PhD and two master’s degrees from Yale, brought a unique perspective to his new environment: “As an undergraduate I double majored in sociology and theology and have always had an interest in religion. Once I got into my graduate studies in sociology, focusing on religion just seemed natural.” Surrounded by fresh influences, he began to develop an interest in health that proved a logical complement to his longstanding work on religion. Influencing this new direction was the proximity of the resource-rich UT Health Science Center and the prominent work of a certain Christopher Ellison at UT Austin – the same Duke graduate who, years before, helped establish the field that now captured Acevedo’s imagination.

Today, these parallel paths have intersected to form an exciting research synergy in COLFA’s Department of Sociology, where the two professors – now colleagues – are investigating multiple and complementary aspects of the religion-health connection to uncover fascinating new insights. Primary among their findings is compelling evidence that communal forms of religious worship can dramatically increase the health of practitioners, often providing stunning results that argue for the consideration of religion as a powerful form of health management.

Christopher Ellison

“In a sample of more than 22,000 U.S. adults,” says Ellison, “we found that persons who attend religious services more than once per week have a risk of death that is approximately 20 percent lower than those who do not attend services at all.” He points out that the difference held true among subjects closely matched in characteristics such as age, background, and prior health status. “This means that on average, frequent religious attendees can be expected to live roughly seven years longer than non-attendees.” Even more surprising, the increase in life expectancy among African Americans was roughly 14 years – approximately twice as substantial as that of the general U.S. population’s.

As promising as their findings are, the pioneering sociologists have resisted the temptation to fixate on a highly specific research area, opting instead to consider religion’s effect on health from multiple, nuanced perspectives. This approach has led to conclusions that have been overlooked in previous research. In a study carried out by Acevedo, a clear distinction in health effects was established between collective religious devotion and private practices such as personal prayer, meditation, and exposure to religious media.

“My findings on a sample of Texas residents indicate that public forms of practice have the greatest benefit on overall health, while private religiosity may actually negatively impact mental health functioning,” he says. The study suggests that the link between religion and health may be more closely related to the collective nature of public worship than to its religious elements.

Ellison is careful to note that religion is not always a positive factor in people’s lives. He stresses that many religious individuals struggle with chronic doubts about their faith brought about by personal crises, world events, or a perceived lack of response to their prayers.

“For some people, especially those who are most religiously committed, these struggles can be extremely troubling and can actually become sources of stress and trauma.” Even in its collective form, he says, religion can play a negative role: “Religious communities are not always warm and supportive. Indeed, they can be sites of significant conflict over everything from theology to politics to local church affairs. They can even be places in which petty jealousies and non-religious disagreements are played out.”

Unmistakable Benefits

Even in the face of its imperfections, both researchers agree that the health effects of religion are too significant to ignore. Importantly, these benefits can become available to non-religious individuals who take part in caring, responsible social groups that offer emotional support, practical aid, and encouragement of healthy life choices. Secular activities such as meditation, exercise, and stress reduction techniques can also bring about effects similar to those traditionally associated with life-affirming religious beliefs. “There are non-religious ways of finding meaning and purpose, and alternative value systems that can promote forgiveness, gratitude, humility, and other character strengths that have been shown to be correlated with mental and physical well-being,” says Ellison.

Gabriel Acevedo

“I would never argue that God ‘blesses’ people with positive health,” says Acevedo. “Rather, our research tends to indicate that active religious participation translates into useful social networks and positive lifestyle choices, which then translate into positive health outcomes. I would hypothesize that immersion in such positive institutional settings, religious or secular, could have positive effects on mental health.”

So should doctors recommend activities that emulate health-enhancing religious practices? While optimistic about the role of religion in health care, Ellison argues for a cautious way forward. “It would be ill-advised for individuals to turn to religion and spirituality mainly to seek better health. And it would be inappropriate, practically and ethically, for health care providers to recommend or prescribe religious or spiritual practices to patients.” Rather than prescribe religion outright, he suggests, health care providers and mental health professionals might gather information about the religious beliefs and communities of patients. “These factors could influence attitudes and preferences with regard to treatment,” he says. “They could also affect the kinds of spiritual issues that may arise for patients, as well as the coping resources and support systems to which they have access.”

When proper health care is less accessible, such as in underserved communities where religious involvement tends to be higher than in more affluent areas, congregations can play an important role by serving as conduits for health education and disease prevention programs. The research findings could also be put to use by clergy and counselors who wish to enhance the health and quality of life of their community members, and are applicable as well in a larger societal context. “I believe church leaders, congregants, and policy makers all have an interest in better understanding these effects,” says Acevedo.

While potential applications of the researchers’ discoveries are almost dauntingly – and excitingly – broad, Ellison believes one effect of his and Acevedo’s work will be to facilitate a greater understanding of religion’s social dynamics. “The findings may serve to enhance public appreciation for the role that religion and spirituality play in the lives of many individuals, and in contemporary society in general,” he says.

“Religion will continue to be a major force in contemporary society,” agrees Acevedo. “Islam is growing around the world, while immigration is changing the religious landscape of many American cities. Finally, the growing ‘megachurch’ phenomenon, as well as continued ties between religion and politics in the U.S., are just a few of the factors that will continue to interest scholars and the public at large.”