The necessity of religion has probably never been questioned as much as it has been in the 21st century. For the majority of humanity’s time on Earth, the existence of God(s) was by and large seen as a given, but the movement that’s come to be known as New Atheism—the push backed by “The Unholy Trinity” of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris—has been focusing on one burning question: Why be religious at all?
As it turns out, there are many reasons religion has survived since humankind’s inception. Sure, parents nearly always pass their religion on to their children and hey, there’s a good chance that spirituality is simply innate. But there’s another reason that might have slipped past our radar: Religion can be healthy.
The Religious Habit: Physical Benefits
The effect religion will have on a person’s health depends entirely on how profoundly it changes his or her life, but there are links between heightened religiosity and better physical health.
One of the most clear-cut examples can be found in the relationship between faith and mind-altering substances. While a lot of religions are tolerant of sipping some wine with dinner, religions tend to see excessive intoxication as an easy route to immorality and a way to fog the connection between humans and God. The dictum to not go overboard seems to work fairly well: Studies have shown that, regardless of which faith is being followed, simply being religious carries a lower risk of substance abuse and might even help people to resist unhealthy food.
For those who do manage to stick to a restrictive lifestyle, the payouts can be significant. For instance, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (better known as the Mormon Church) forbids the use of alcohol, tobacco, most drugs, and even caffeine (they’re also advised to fast once a month). The result? A 25-year study of Californian Mormons showed they live nearly 10 years longer than non-Mormons, and the difference is most pronounced among those who are strictest with abstaining from alcohol and cigarettes.
Of course, it’s the abstaining, rather than God, that’s keeping believers healthy, but the religious motivation is noteworthy. It can be challenging to consistently say “no, thanks” with willpower alone, so it’s tremendously helpful to believe that one’s God supports the choice to lead a less indulgent life.
Even those who imbibe now and again may reap physical benefits from practicing religion. One study of Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and Christians found that following any of those faiths can speed recovery from illness and injury—particularly among those whose religion provides them with “strong congregational support” (the community aspect is important here; more on that later). The study’s authors emphasize that there was no difference between the religions in terms of health benefits, and they suggest that spirituality is really a personality trait that helps people cope with stress and existential anxiety—y’know, all those “What’s the point of it all?” questions.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy: The Mental Benefits
Speaking of existential anxiety: What's the effect of religion on mental health? Well, not only are religious folk less likely to commit suicide, they’re also more likely to recover from depression. Now, whether or not religion itself helps prevent depression is a matter of some controversy, but some research has shown that people are less likely to suffer from the condition if they regularly attend religious services.
In fact, attending services and being involved with one’s religious community might be the most significant link between religion and health. There’s evidence that attending services can reduce stress (and even lower blood pressure), which is helped by the fact that many services promote love, forgiveness, gratitude, and optimism—all of which are linked to emotional health and happiness.
This is all to suggest that, by and large, it’s community, rather than doctrine, that makes religious people healthy. Religious or not, many studies have shown that a support system is super important for maintaining both mental and physical health. That’s why leaving a particularly tightknit religious group can cause a decline in health—because it amounts to losing one’s support network.
While spirituality may play a role in our well-being, religion’s biggest strength (in terms of health) may be the way it brings people together and provides them with a supportive family of friends. In short: If something makes people feel happy and loved, it makes them healthier.
The benefits of a supportive community aren’t unique to religion, but they’re a good reminder that we’re social animals—humans need other people to be healthy. For those of us who aren’t religious, this means it’s important to find something larger than ourselves to be a part of. That might mean finding the right job, playing a team sport, joining a political group, taking a cooking class, or volunteering. Socializing with people who have similar goals and mindsets is one of the best ways to avoid loneliness and anxiety and maintain your own health.
If there’s one lesson to be learned, it’s that our health and happiness are better when we know we’re in this together.
Has religion played a role in your health? Share in the comments below!