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Religius faith and Health

We have already seen that a number of studies show that religious belief is associated with better health. However, does religious faith cause better health, or is the relationship brought about by other factors? Take this absurd example: over 90% of deaths occur in bed. Does this mean that going to bed causes death? Of course not – in this case, another factor, such as a severe illness, causes the patient both to be bedridden and subsequently to die. Some of the association between faith and health may be related to other underlying risk factors, so called 'confounding variables', such as social class. Solutions to the problem of causality include carrying out observational trials prospectively to prevent false retrospective judgments being applied to data, and by adjusting for known risk factors. But even after these correctives, the benefit of faith remains. On the other hand, faith isn't easy to measure, it is extremely crude. Imagine trying to score the quality of a romantic relationship by measuring how often one partner buys the other chocolates or flowers, when what matters in a relationship is not the externals but the internal quality, which is hard to measure. It's an example of the limitations of quantitative science, where 'if you can't score it, ignore it!'

Christian theology and medicine have constantly been subjected to a potential field of tensions. Throughout the centuries, Christianity possessed two doctrines that were inherently opposite to the purpose of medical practice. The Christian belief, especially since church father Augustine (354-430), proclaimed a strong dualistic view on man, in which the body was considered as inferior towards the divine and immortal soul, which was destined to unite itself with God in heaven after death. Because of this, Christian learning and preaching emphasized the healthy condition of the soul, an emphasis that often went hand in hand with a neglect of the earthly and bodily aspects of human existence. Yet, the primary concern of medicine was exactly the improvement of bodily health, which could create tensions with a religious belief that considered the health of the soul to be more important. A second potential bottleneck was situated in the Christian dogma of a divine Providence that determined all events in the world, even on the level of a person’s individual life. God could realize His will through nature, but the idea of a divine Providence also assumed that He realized His plans in miraculous ways, which could not be traced by the human mind. Especially the latter could clash with a medical science that tried to base its knowledge on a regular and rational course of nature and body functioning.

Recently, researchers have gotten serious about studying the effects of religion on health. For decades, there were abundant studies that seemed to link church attendance with better health and lower mortality, but investigators weren’t sure what those connections might mean. Was religious activity actually causing better health among adherents, or were there other factors in play? As part of current efforts to address questions like these, the Journal of Behavioral Medicine recently devoted an entire issue to exploring the concrete relationship between religion and measures of physical and mental well-being.

Various studies looked at the efficacy of intercessory prayer on health outcomes. These were summarised in a 'Cochrane' meta-analysis, which concluded that overall there was no significant improvement in groups of patients prayed for, although one trial did show improvements in certain end-points including death.

Religious involvement is associated with a reduction in risky health behaviours, for instance problem drinking, smoking and permissive sexual behaviour. This can have dramatic benefits. One study even found that religious attendance was associated with a more than 90% reduction in meningococcal disease (meningitis and septicaemia), in teenagers, a protection at least as good as meningococcal vaccination. Furthermore, religious involvement has been associated with improved adherence to medication.