There are all kinds of way to get healthy. You could spend time jogging, doing yoga...or going to church. New research from Emory University finds regular attendance at religious ceremonies can improve one’s health and lower mortality. We talk about this idea with the lead author on that study, Ellen Idler. She’s a Professor of Sociology at Emory University. We also chat with Harold Bennett, Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Morehouse College.
Adam Ragusea: What’s your take on this research [religious health]?
Harold Bennett: I am concerned about not just the business of being in a religious service as much as it is the communal aspect. The whole group aspect and what happens with the group dynamics might be the agents that may be responsible for people having their lives “extended.” And I put that in parentheses, but I think that the communal piece is so important to any kind of causal factor.
Ragusea: So if you were to argue any kind of causal factor, what might that be?
Ellen Idler: Well actually we dug in that a little bit and I would say Harold really put his finger on the important finding because there were several ways that we looked at religion. One of them was about attendance at religious services that really had the big payoff. There was another question about how important is religion to you. That didn't protect people from mortality at all. So, kind of being in your head about religion has no protective effect on health, but the communal dimension that Harold mentions is really where the big effect was. And so we were able to find out maybe what are the characteristics of people who attend services more often. We were able to find out in the Health and Retirement Study that just as many other studies have shown that people who attend services more often are less likely to smoke cigarettes and they exercise more. They also go more often for health screenings. When you adjust for those things, it reduces the impact of just the “plain out religious attendance measure”. It reduces it a little bit. It doesn't eliminate it by any means, but if people who show up for services also smoke cigarettes less, they're going to have a better health outcome.
Ragusea: Could the correlation between health and socialization be achieved by being a member of a bowling club or a bridge club? Is it just about being a member of an extended social organization or does the faith element matter here as well?
Bennett: Well, great questions. I think that the whole idea of being able to get out and get involved and engage in meaningful relationships clearly can be met through other types of organizations. I would not just say that the church has a monopoly on that kind of thing or let’s say whether it’s in a mosque, or visiting the synagogue, or you’re involved in a Buddhist community; whatever or however you want to classify that gathering that has some faith piece to it. I would say that community does not monopolize that type of experience. However, I think there is something to be said about being involved in those faith kind of communities because again, a lot of the networks you’re probably more comfortable with. I think there might be even a little more freedom to explore an authentic expression of who one is. I think in these religious kind of gatherings, people often have these life altering moments where they are actually challenged with decisions with which they’re confronted with and it could have something to do with their health or mental well-being.