by Savannah Webb-
Religion and health are often kept separate, but studies show there is more overlap than might be expected.
“Religious involvement is related to virtually every single aspect of health — mental, social, behavioral and physical,” said Harold Koenig, director of Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health. “Literally every health outcome is in some way connected to religious involvement.”
Koenig has over four decades of research experience studying the health effects of monotheistic religions like Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
“It’s really about devoutness,” Koenig said. “To what extent is a person’s attitudes and lifestyle driven by their religious beliefs? If it doesn’t affect the way they make their decisions and the way they treat other people and think about themselves, it’s not going to help.”
Positive mental health benefits such as lower levels of anxiety and lower risk of suicide are associated with religious devotion, and Koenig explained that religious involvement also lowers risk of cardiovascular disease.
“If you have a sense of purpose and meaning and you feel that you’re in control, because God is in control, all of that lowers your stress level,” Koenig said. “It makes perfect, logical, rational sense that you would then be at lower risk for high blood pressure, stroke or a heart attack.”
The Harvard School of Public Health has found similar results with larger research samples, specifically in women. While there’s no foolproof explanation for this gender disparity, Koenig offered insight on the phenomenon.
“I think religion is a little bit easier for women to engage in because they’re more social, and they’re more in touch with their emotions,” he said. “It’s harder for men. There’s a general tendency for them to not be as social or in touch with their emotions.”
While gender seems to play a part in the relationship between religion and health, Koenig said the research indicates there is another factor at play — locus of control.
An individual with an internal locus of control believes their health is heavily influenced by their behavior and decisions, whereas an external locus of control places an individual’s health outcomes in the hands of fate or God. Surprisingly, Koenig has found that greater religious involvement is related to an internal locus of control.
“People who have strong faith actually have a greater sense of control, but it’s an indirect control through their dependence and belief in God,” he said. “They believe they can do things to influence God’s actions — like prayer — and in giving up control, there is actually an increase in control. It’s extraordinary how it all psychologically works.”
Finally, Koenig’s research indicates that the extent of psychological and physical relief from anguish depends on how long a person has been practicing religion.
“The people who benefit the most are those who are younger, because they have their entire lifetime to reap the benefits of that religious faith,” Koenig said. “Religious involvement protects you from drug and alcohol abuse, cigarette smoking, and stress levels — all of which keeps you healthier.”