10 fascinating findings on the relationship between religion & health


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Religious or not, you’ve probably wondered about how a belief in God, or a lack of belief in God, affects one’s health. Research suggests links do exist between one’s spirituality and both physical and mental well-being, and some of the findings might surprise you.


1. Jews and Mormons are the healthiest.

An enormous Gallup poll of more than 676,000 Americans found that Jews and Mormons scored the highest on overall well-being, with scores based on participants’ health ratings in such categories as overall quality of life, emotional health, physical health, healthy behavior habits, job satisfaction, and access to doctors and other health resources.

Based on scores of the “very religious,” religious groups ranked from highest to lowest in overall well-being in the following order: Jewish, Mormon/Latter-Day Saints, Muslim/Islam, Roman Catholic, another non-Christian religion, Protestant/another non-Catholic Christian religion and none/atheist/agnostic.

If you’re thinking that socioeconomic status might have played a role here, think again. The researchers actually controlled for such factors as age, gender, race and ethnicity, region and state of the country, socioeconomic status, marital status and childbearing status. People who considered themselves to be “very religious” scored the highest within each religious group, and nonreligious people scored higher in physical health than Protestant/other non-Catholic Christians and Roman Catholics.


2. Being diagnosed with cancer doesn’t change one’s religious belief.

Among life-changing events that could shake someone’s faith, a cancer diagnosis has to be up there, right? Surprisingly, no. An October 2012 study found that this devastating news won’t cause religious people to stop believing, and it won’t make nonreligious people rethink their beliefs either.

The study, based on interviews with 21 young cancer patients shortly after the diagnosis and during cancer treatment, found that the news can actually strengthen their current feelings about religion.

“The cancer patients do contemplate existential issues, but that does not mean that they suddenly start praying or going to church if these religious practices were not already part of their lives,” said Nadja Ausker, a sociologist of religion from the University of Copenhagen, on ScienceDaily.com. “Several patients said it would be hypocritical of them to change practice and faith because of the diagnosis.”


3. Religious thoughts reduce stress in believers, increase it in nonbelievers.

A study published in the August 2010 issue of Psychological Science used brain waves to detect distress in respondents and investigate whether or not that emotion was affected by religious thinking. Some participants were prepped with an activity that put God-related thoughts in their head, and some weren’t.

Both groups took a test known to produce a high rate of incorrect answers, and the brain scans showed that, among those who believed in God, those who had been given the religious-thought exercise had less distress in a particular area of the brain. Among atheists, however, those prepped with religious thoughts showed an increase of activity in that area of the brain. Researchers hypothesized that they experienced more distress because the God-related thoughts conflicted with their beliefs.