Religion: Miracle Drug or Mere Placebo?

Religion: Miracle Drug or Mere Placebo?

July 26, 2017

Religion: Miracle Drug or Mere Placebo?

A recent study from Vanderbilt University reports that middle-aged adults who attended religious services frequently were half as likely to die prematurely as those who didn’t. This late finding, tailing a long line of research studying the relationship between health and religion, presents many interesting conclusions. But first, is it truly a causal relationship, or more like a placebo? This remains an open question but the truth is probably somewhere in between.

Links between spirituality and health may be as old as homo sapiens. While most of us no longer visit a shaman or medicine man when gripped by illness, all religious persons do bring their faith into the doctor’s office. This has captured the attention of a range of researchers who have formed a sub-discipline in both medicine and religious studies that seeks to understand the links between religion and health. This work has been featured on the covers of leading media outlets, led to books, and last year it was suggested in USA Today that religion may be a miracle drug. The manifold intersections of religion and health have even been featured in a recent film entitled, Your Health: A Sacred Matter. And not surprisingly, it also has its critics.

Spirituality and health are vast and varied industries. You have mental health and public health, oncology and neurology, epidemiology and nursing, and palliative care and pediatrics. Spirituality is just as diverse: divided by religious traditions, denominations within those traditions, and growing population of religious ‘nones’—a good number of which might be called spiritual but not religious. Then you have clergy and laity, chaplains and parish nurses, prayer chains and meditators, and even spiritual healers who offer miraculous cures.

Despite this incredible breadth and complexity, spirituality and health researchers are settling on some conclusions—one of which is the apparent benefits of religious service attendance. The Religion News Service recently offered a nice summary of this work – we know about decreased mortality and better health outcomes connected to regular attendance at church services. A study far larger than the recent one at Vanderbilt focused on women and found 33% lower mortality for women attending religious service more than once per week when compared with women who never attended religious services.  RNS managing editor Yonat Shimron suggests, “As the studies pile up… the literature appears close to conclusive,” but Shimron also points out that “many questions about the association between religious service attendance and health have yet to be answered.”

For example, we don’t know the causal mechanism at play. Is it the prayer, the social support, or coffee and cookies? Is it that regular religious attenders lead healthier lifestyles – eating well, exercising regularly, and avoiding risky behaviors like smoking, drugs, and unsafe sex? The research is inconclusive on these questions but the benefits suggest there might be something to the claim that religion is a miracle drug, at least lowering stress levels in a manner that extends the lifespan.

Nonetheless, we must begin to wrestle with the implications of such knowledge, regardless of the cause.  Should medical practitioners prescribe Sabbath services? Or is the job of chaplains, clergy and congregations to encourage increased participation? And perhaps just as importantly, should our worship services and rituals be treated like a pill, a way to relieve or even cure whatever ails us, or is this a reductive way to think about religion and its benefits? If one only attends religious services for the health benefits, would there be any health benefits at all, or do the benefits have more to do with the beliefs and practices attendance generally represents?

Clearly there’s more research to be done. Check out the links above, or check back here at ORBITER as we follow the data.

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