Religion in sickness and in health

One of the goods emerging from the debate over health care in the United States is all the healthy information emerging amid the often polarizing political rhetoric.

As we contemplate the rising costs and relative effectiveness of health care, Americans are being asked to consider the social and personal costs of our actions, from diet, exercise, alcohol and tobacco use to the moral dimensions of expensive end-of-life care with limited chances of success.

Slowly, the majority of Americans are being weaned away from what for most will always be a mythic ideal: the notion that I, like the wealthiest few in the nation, should have the finest health care money can buy. (Of course, that doesn’t apply to my neighbor if it means raising my taxes.)

Research on religion and well-being can play a key role in the conversation on public and private health issues. Many studies have shown a positive relation between religious practice and belief and physical and mental health.

Some new research sheds light on mortality rates and religion, where religious consumers turn to in moments of crisis and the growing number of Americans unaffiliated with religion who say they want their funeral to be a secular affair.

Explore Opinions on Government Health Insurance Using the 2007 Religion and Public Life Survey in the ARDA’s Data Archive

Wealthy, wise and United Methodist?

Who lives longest? It helps to be a well-off, highly educated, nonsmoking Presbyterian who attends church regularly.

In a study on “Mortality Differentials by Religion in the U.S.,“ Allison R. Sullivan of the University of Pennsylvania found that mainline Protestants and Jews have the longest life expectancy at age 55, while black Protestants and those with no religious affiliation have the highest mortality rates.

The life expectancy at 55 was an additional 29.3 years for mainline Protestants, 27.7 years for Jews, 26.9 years for evangelical Protestants, 25.9 years for Catholics, 23.9 years for those with no religious affiliation and 21.5 years for black Protestants.

Much of the disparity can be attributed to income and education, according to the analysis of some 16,500 participants in the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study beginning in 1992 of non-institutionalized adults over age 50. Groups with higher incomes and more education will have lower mortality rates. For example, Catholics would have similar life expectancies to mainline Protestants and Jews if the 22 percent of Latino Catholics were excluded.

And the larger proportion of smokers among black Protestants and those with no religious affiliation had a negative effect on life expectancy.

What significantly helped members of all religious groups, and black Protestants in particular, was religious attendance.

Her conclusion: “Morality differentials by religion exist beyond socioeconomic status, and that the psychosocial support that practicing members of a denomination receive has large effects on mortality.”

Explore Responses to Self-Reported Health Using the 2008 General Social Survey in the ARDA’s Data Archive

When bad things happen to good believers

Most believers will stick with their religion when stricken with health misfortunes such as diabetes, arthritis or a stroke.

But what about when they are diagnosed with cancer or a mental illness with relatively unknown causes and uncertain cures.

That’s when believers are more likely to convert, Adam Hogan of Middle Tennessee State University found in his study of the “Economics of Religious Conversion” presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Religion, Economics and Culture.

Hogan analyzed data from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Nearly 13,000 people ages 14 to 22 were surveyed in 1979, and the study followed up with participants in 1982 and 2000 with questions about their current religion.

He found 18 percent of the 402 people diagnosed with a mental disorder sought a different religious path. Among the 12 people who reported being diagnosed with cancer, 10 converted.

Why are people diagnosed with mysterious diseases more likely to lose faith in their religious organization? One theory is that greater hope may lie in a belief system the afflicted individual does not associate with the illness.

“A person’s confidence in their religion will decrease to the degree that they experience undesirable effects attributed to the supernatural – explaining why being diagnosed with an alien disease may cause religious conversion,” Hogan proposes.

Taking secularism to the grave

They may have been baptized, but many among the nation’s growing number of people with no religious affiliation do not plan to leave this world with a religious service.

A study of life cycle religious rituals among more than 6,000 participants in the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey found that 80 percent of Catholics and 77 percent of other Christians expect to have a religious funeral or service. The percentage is even slightly higher than the reported three-quarters of Christian respondents who said they were married in a religious ceremony,

But for people with no religious affiliation, the drop-off over the life cycle is dramatic, reports Ariela Keysar of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College. Fifty-five percent of “nones” said they had a religious initiation ceremony and 43 percent were married in a religious ceremony.

However, only 20 percent said they expected to have a religious funeral or service.

Given the rise in people reporting no religious affiliation, from 8 percent to 15 percent from the 1990 American Religious Identification Survey to the 2008 study, that could mean a reduced role for houses of worship in an important ceremony in the lives of families and communities, Keysar says.

Explore Religious Affiliation Data Using the ARDA’s QuickStats.


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