Sunday, July 06, 2014

Religious commitment and health, well-being, quality of life

In Hinman's recent book, The Trace of God, he cites studies that compare religious and non-religious people and their quality of life. Here he relates a study by Gartner and Allen:
The Reviews identified 10 areas of clinical status in which research has demonstrated benefits of religious commitment: (1) Depression, (2) Suicide, (3) Delinquency, (4) Mortality, (5) Alcohol use, (6) Drug use, (7) Well-being, (8) Divorce and marital satisfaction, (9) Physical Health Status, and (10) Mental health outcome studies ... The authors underscored the need for additional longitudinal studies featuring health outcomes. (Hinman p 89, citing J. Gartner, D.B. Allen, The Faith Factor: An Annotated Bibliography of Systematic Reviews and Clinical Research on Spiritual Subjects Vol. II, emphasis added)
Here I want to focus on a distinction that Gartner and Allen make. While most of Hinman's book focuses on religious experience, here Gartner and Allen trace the health benefits of religious commitment. And Hinman's book then tries to determine how much of the health benefit of religious commitment is due to the rules and behavioral norms of the religious group (what Hinman terms "sin avoidance"), how much is due to social factors, and how much is due to other factors.

Given Hinman's approach, he reviews the academic studies from the social sciences that work to separate the "sin avoidance" aspects of religion, the "social connectedness" aspects of religion, and the remaining aspects of religion. For example, the studies might compare religious and non-religious people, controlling for people who likewise don't smoke, or are regularly involved in social settings. Hinman's focus is on the "remaining aspects of religion" that are left over after controlling for "sin avoidance" and social connectedness. But I'd like to take the other path there, and consider that religious commitment calls for both "sin avoidance" and "social connectedness", and the effects that will have on health, well-being, and quality of life.

Let me first tackle some objections: Why is that worthy of consideration? Why couldn't an unbeliever just adopt the same "sin avoidance" (healthy life-choices) rules, and build the same social connectedness? In theory they could; in practice they generally don't. The difference between groups is such that the studies had to correct for it and control for it: religion promotes certain healthy behaviors, and atheism has no mechanism to promote the same, so there will be a difference. This difference is worthy of consideration because it is a legitimate way in which organized religion (which might as well be the bogeyman, according to some) actually sets up the social structure to ensure long-term health benefits and improve the quality of life. In the same way that Hinman argues that the long-term personal benefits of religious experience are what you would expect if God were involved, likewise the long-term, society-wide benefits of religious commitment are what you would expect if God were involved. (More will be said in an upcoming post about the usual atheist charges that organized religion is a cesspool of evil. For now I will simply say: If that were really so, why would the studies show that religious commitment is associated with higher ratings of health, well-being, and quality of life?)

Couldn't someone argue that conventional morality was adopted by the various religions simply because it works well and produces these benefits? Well, you certainly could argue that, but that does amount to arguing that organized religion is responsible for promoting society-wide programs to improve health and quality of life -- and that these positive benefits were attributable to the dreaded so-called "authoritarian" rules of the religion. (It also amounts to admitting that the modern determination to throw out these quality-of-life measures is hardly "progress".) Is it merely ideology that says the "sin avoidance" aspects of religion aren't worth considering when looking at religious benefits? It is through those much-maligned rules that religion achieves a measurable portion of the benefit of health, well-being, and quality of life. A similar argument could be made for social connectedness: many religions actively promote social connectedness along with related items like stability of marriage and harmonious relationships with other people. All of that is part of the quality of life. If health improvement and quality of life are built into the religious system, why should those benefits be discounted simply because they come from a disapproved method (religious rules, norms, or gatherings) rather than from an approved source? If someone has religious experience alone, without commitment, they may still be missing the real and measurable benefits that come specifically from religious commitment.

On a possibly-related note, Hinman's book mentions that the people who had religious experiences sometimes had long-term positive effects (it was life-changing), and sometimes did not. I would be curious what caused some people to have longer-lasting positive effects than others. Did it matter whether the people had (or found) a religious framework that could help them interpret the experience? Did religious support, religious commitment, or religious community make any difference to whether that experience was perceived as important, and had a lasting effect on their lives?

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