Religious devotion, as news reports constantly remind us, can inspire everything from empathy for the poor to horrific violence. But whatever its impact on society, divine belief has widely been seen as beneficial to individuals, as it has also consistently been linked with better-than-average mental and physical health.
Newly published research from Germany strongly challenges that latter contention. After examining data from 59 countries, University of Cologne psychologist Olga Stavrova concludes that "the health and longevity benefits of religiosity are restricted to highly religious regions."
In the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, she adds this is also true within the United States, with previously reported links between health, faith, and churchgoing confined to areas where religious belief and attendance are the norm.
The results suggest any protective effect of religion is the result of fitting in comfortably with one's surroundings—not the religious preference of those surroundings per se—and the reduced stress levels this alignment produces. For those who live in more secular societies, the impact of religion on health appears to be small to none.
Stavrova describes two studies—one international in scope, the other focused on regional differences within the U.S. The first features data on 85,748 people from 59 nations, compiled as part of the World Values Survey in 2000-01 and 2005-06.
Any protective effect of religion is the result of fitting in comfortably with one's surroundings—not the religious preference of those surroundings—and the reduced stress levels this alignment produces.
Participants rated the importance of their religion in their lives (on a one-to-four scale), as well as how often they currently attend religious services (on a scale from "more than once a week" to "never"). They also described the current state of their health, on a four-point scale from "very good" to "poor."
Stavrova then calculated the "social norm of religiosity" in the nation where each participant lived. This number combines national levels of religiosity and the degree to which religion is perceived to be a necessary trait of a valued person. (The latter was measured in part by responses to the question "politicians who don't believe in God are unfit for public service.")
After taking into consideration such factors as income, education, age, and gender, she found that "the stronger a country's norm of religiosity, the stronger the association between religiosity and health."
Stavrova got similar results looking at the U.S. on a region-by-region basis. Using data on 32,830 Americans from the General Social Survey, she compared answers to the questions "How often do you attend religious services?" and "Would you say your own health, in general, is excellent, good, fair, or poor?"
Once again, after taking socioeconomic effects into account, she found "the higher the regional level of religiosity was, the stronger the positive association between religion and self-reported health."
Death records confirmed this trend. "Religious individuals were less likely to die throughout the observation period (until 2008) than their less-religious counterparts were, regardless of how old they were at the time of data collection," she writes. "However, this protective effect of religiosity had regional boundaries, and it was present in religious regions and absent in more secular ones."
The real buffer promoting good health is the stress-reducing effect of living in supportive surroundings.
Stavrova sees no mystery as to why fitting comfortably into a religion-centric environment (such as the American Deep South) could convey health benefits. She notes that "individuals who are in tune with their cultural norms" more easily form strong bonds with their friends and neighbors.
"Social support, in turn, is considered a powerful factor that promotes health outcomes, such as through its stress-buffering effect," she writes.
Of course, the feeling of being watched over by a benign deity can, in itself, reduce tension. On the other hand, if one is seriously ill, the thought that God has abandoned or is somehow testing an individual could result in highly conflicted emotions, with problematic effects on physical health.
The point is if faith was truly protective of health, its effect would presumably apply across the board. The fact that it is far stronger in religious cultures suggests the real buffer promoting good health is the stress-reducing effect of living in supportive surroundings.
And while a house of worship is a fine place to find caring, like-minded friends, God knows there are countless alternatives.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.