Religious Engagement Predicts Health—But Why?

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“Hundreds of studies” have found an association between religiosity and health or well-being, observes Harvard biostatistician and epidemiologist, Tyler VanderWeele in a forthcoming chapter. But “only a very small number” have rigorously examined causality. If people who worship regularly are healthier or less depressed (which they tend to be), is that because religious engagement promotes health and well-being, or because healthy, buoyant people more often leave their homes to worship?


group prayer faith holding hands

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To discern causality, new studies are assessing people’s health, their religiosity, and other health predictors, and then following them through time—for 20 years among 74,534 women in one Nurses Health Study. When controlling for various health risk factors, those who attended services more than weekly were a third less likely to have died than were non-attenders. In another analysis, the same comparison yielded a “5-fold lower rate of suicide.”


These and other such findings lead VanderWeele to conclude that “religious participation . . . is a powerful social determinant of health.”


But why? Unpacking the religiosity variable, VanderWeele and his colleagues, in the mortality study, report that social support explained 23 percent of the religiosity effect, not smoking explained 22 percent, less depressive symptoms explained 11 percent, and optimism 9 percent. People who are active in faith communities experience more social support, smoke less, are less depressed, and  are more optimistic than are those not active in such communities.

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see