During my seminary internship days, I had to learn how to visit congregants in the hospital or at various recovery facilities—including once as the on-call chaplain for a couple of weeks. I had to connect with folks I had never met, where our only point of connection was the church and our shared Christian tradition.
I distinctly remember one visit with a woman in her 90s who had a multitude of maladies, including severe dementia. I was trying to connect with her by referring to her pastor and members of the church; no luck. I tried to talk about her day, how she was feeling, recent visitors, the rain outside, and other small talk. Still no connection.
Then I prayed.
I could sense a change, and when I began “Our Father” and she was right there with me by the “Who art in heaven.” That was my first experience of the power of faith in the midst of ill health.
The religion-vs.-science narrative persists in our wider culture, but that’s clearly a false narrative when it comes to the interface between religion and health. Study after study shows positive connections between health and things like church attendance, religiosity, and religious coping.
Effects and Causes
There are too many studies to outline here, but you’ll find some of them linked in the Dive Deeper section below. Suffice it to say one Harvard researcher calls religion—especially in the form of regular church attendance—a “miracle drug.”
A Mayo Clinic review article notes that “religious involvement and spirituality are associated with better health outcomes, including greater longevity, coping skills, and health-related quality of life (even during terminal illness) and less anxiety, depression, and suicide. Several studies have shown that addressing the spiritual needs of the patient may enhance recovery from illness.”
Still, there are certainly critics of this work—a reminder that we must not overstate the claims. For example, what exactly is causing the benefits? That is not at all clear in the research. Many studies point to the power of regular church attendance. But what part of church? Is it worship? Or social support? Or is it that regular attenders engage in less risky and unhealthy behaviors such as drug use or risky sexual behavior? Or is it actually God at work?
That is to say, these studies largely are identifying correlations and not necessarily causations. Certainly, God can be the cause, even indirectly (divine causation is not opposed to entirely natural occurrences)—but that stems from our faith commitment, not a finding from science. This applies in my experience praying the Lord’s Prayer with the women suffering dementia. We know dementia ravages short-term memory more than long-term memory, but that does not mean God is not at work in such moments.
Furthermore, many studies focus heavily on benefits to mental health, like how religion can decrease anxiety and depression. They show how religious persons engage in lower risk behavior and are better at following up on treatment.
So despite all the research and positive correlations, the causal mechanism eludes us.
- Science says religion is good for your health.
- It may even be a miracle drug.
- RNS summarizes the research and its limitations.
- I discuss the issue of causation at Orbiter.
- The critics make a number of good points as we seek to follow the best science.
- Our view of God may impact how beneficial belief is to our health.
- Are religion’s health benefits an antidote to scandals driving folks away?
- Support the doctors in your congregations; they make a difference.
- Here is a recent documentary for those wanting to go deeper.
- It’s complicated to be a caregiver for someone in medical need, and the church has a role in supporting them too.
But We Already Knew This, Right?
Scientists may not know the causes, but regular churchgoers have a pretty good idea. For centuries, we have been following the call to help the sick and suffering. The church has long been involved in founding hospitals, supporting doctors, visiting the sick, taking parishioners to their doctor visit, and praying with and for the infirm. Bringing our faith and its benefits to the sick is what we do.
As a result, there is a so-what aspect to all this research. We know faith is beneficial, and we are intentional in our care for the sick. Research isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know. Yet the value of this research is immense. Modern medicine has not always recognized the power of faith or encouraged it as a means of supporting health and well-being. Solid empirical evidence can shift that – maybe even to the point where doctors begin prescribing church attendance in addition to medication, rest, and other traditional therapies.
Wouldn’t it be ironic if science—in the form of religion and health research—resulted in a boost to weekly attendance? If Tyler VanderWeele and John Siniff are correct, it might at least provide a reason to keep some folks from leaving. More importantly, whether or not it helps attendance, it affirms what we do in serving the sick and the suffering.