Want better health? Go to church

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Be an atheist or agnostic at your own peril.

No, this isn’t about what happens to you in the hereafter. It’s about what happens to you in the here and now.

One of the best things you can do to improve your physical and mental health is attend religious services regularly.

If you don’t, statistically you’ll live an average of seven fewer years than frequent church-goers, according to an academic study.

Atheists and agnostics suffer, on average, higher rates of physical ailments, depression, suicide, alcohol use and drug addiction. They have greater marital instability, weaker parent-child relationships, lower lifetime earnings, lower educational attainment and higher rates of criminal activity.

These aren’t some trumped-up claims made by people with a religious ax to grind. These are the conclusions of many scholars in the sciences and social sciences whose work appears in numerous non-religious scholarly journals including Psychological Bulletin, Journal of Personality and Clinical Studies, Social Science Research, Preventive Medicine, Demography and many more.

Headlines in LiveScience.com — hardly a religious or conservative publication — include “Churchgoers live longer,” “Online prayer helps cancer patients,” “Churchgoers breathe easier” and “Why religion makes people happier.”

Why would preparation for your well-being in the afterlife lead to greater physical and mental well-being in this life?

On the physical side, religious belief often prompts one to view one’s body as sacred and a gift from God, which reduces the likelihood of such factors as smoking, drinking, unhealthy eating, unsafe driving, physical inactivity and substance abuse. Religious persons also tend to have a greater support network of family and friends, which encourages healthier lifestyles.

People prone to anxiousness and depression tend to die sooner than would otherwise be the case, and religious practice often reduces those negative mental conditions. The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index found that very religious persons are less likely to have been diagnosed with depression during their lifetimes than the moderately religious or nonreligious.

The evidence that religion has such a strong positive effect on health and well-being is so compelling that some non-religious mental health professionals even recommend religion therapy for their patients. “Religious therapy resulted in significantly faster recovery from depression when compared with standard secular cognitive-behavioral therapy,” according to a study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

It definitely cuts down on suicide. Last year New York Department of Transportation worker Isidor Suarez talked a man out of jumping off a bridge. After confirming the man was a Christian, Suarez told him, “If you kill yourself, it’s like murder.” The man relented. He must have recalled the Christian teaching that suicide is a sure ticket to hell.

The hell factor I’m sure is just one of the many factors resulting in less suicide among church-goers. An American Journal of Psychiatry study found that they’re significantly less likely to commit suicide than those who never attend religious services. The latter saw fewer reasons for living and had fewer moral objections to suicide.

Another very secular institution, National Public Radio, featured a story that goes a long way in explaining why religion has such a profound positive effect on outcomes and behavior. The perception that someone or something is always watching, evaluating and judging your every move can make a model citizen out of you in no time.

NPR interviewed Jesse Bering, director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen’s University, Belfast, and a committed atheist. He conducted a fascinating study where he divided children into three groups and had them do a game where it was almost impossible to win unless they cheated. One group was unsupervised, another group was supervised and another group was told an invisible magic princess was watching them.

The results? You guessed it — while the unsupervised group cheated the most, the magic princess group was just as likely to not cheat as the group supervised by a human.

The NPR reporter mentioned a similar study with adults showing that people are far less likely to cheat when they think a supernatural presence is watching them.

“God knows what you did. God is going to punish you for it. And that’s an incredibly powerful deterrent,” Dominic Johnson of the University of Edinburgh told NPR. “Everywhere you look around the world, you find examples of people altering their behavior because of concerns for supernatural consequences of their actions.”

The French philosopher Voltaire is said to have banned any talk of atheism around his servants. “I want my lawyer, tailor, valets, even my wife, to believe in God,” he said. “I think that if they do, I shall be robbed less and cheated less.”

People often bad-mouth religion by pointing to wars and other wicked deeds people have carried out supposedly in the name of Christianity or other religions. But in those cases, the perpetrators are religious frauds. I remember as a kid hearing about Christian militiamen in Lebanon committing a massacre, and puzzling over their description as “Christian.” If you massacre people, you’re not a Christian, I thought. You’re the opposite thereof. The same is true for Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, described by many in the media as Christian. If you do what he did, you’re anything but.

Islam gets a lot of bad PR for similar reasons, but the benefits of that religion are apparent — as long as one doesn’t go the militant route. The recent riots in the U.K. included relatively few Muslims. Birmingham University education dean James Arthur attributes this in part to their religion. “They have clear family values. They have a code of honor and a morality … They could recognize these virtues more readily because … their religion brought them up in the discourse of these values.” To be sure, Muslims have rioted elsewhere such as in France in 2005, but in that case, indications are that many if not most of the rioters were not very devout.

What if you’re an atheist or agnostic who’s convinced that church is a good thing, but you just can’t bring yourself to believe?

Go to church anyway. As reported by LiveScience.com, a study in the American Sociological Review concluded that the social networks one forms at church are a big factor in boosting well-being. People with more than 10 friends in their congregation were almost twice as satisfied with life as people with no friends in their congregation. And who knows — you just may come around to believing.

If you still can’t be a believer, raise your kids to be, if you have any. While it’s no guarantee, chances are that it will help them live longer and be happier.

And, as predicted based on the magic princess example above, religious kids are more likely to be better behaved and adjusted, according to a study. (Although the opposite could happen if parents regularly argue over their faith at home, the study found.) Another study concluded that religious children have higher self-control and lower impulsiveness, and do better at delaying gratification and social adjustment.

Non-religious people often say they’ll let their children decide whether to be religious when they get older. But if you’re not instilled with religion when you’re young, it’s a lot harder to become religious later on. Better to instill it in them first, and then let them decide.

All of this begs the question: Would the noted atheist Christopher Hitchens be in his current state of ill health, had he not embraced atheism?

Not necessarily. If it was smoking and drinking that led to his throat cancer, turning toward religion certainly may not have tempered his preference for booze and tobacco. There are plenty of unhealthy church-goers who die before their time, and lots of healthy atheists who live long and fruitful lives.

Statistically, however, the religious outdo the atheists when it comes to longevity and satisfaction.

Another French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, urged atheists to make a wager. Embracing religion means you have everything to gain in the afterlife if there’s a God, and nothing to lose if there isn’t a God.

But it’s not just the afterlife. When it comes to being healthy and happy, embracing religion means you have everything to gain and nothing to lose in this life, too.

Patrick D. Chisholm is founder and creative director of Accentance, Inc. and blogs at PolicyDynamics.org

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