Thursday, December 15, 2011

Religion Makes You Live Longer By Making You Behave?

(Image adapted from Energizr on Flickr)
Back in 2000, psychologist Michael E. McCullough and colleagues published a meta-analysis of several dozen studies indicating a strong correlation between religiosity and lower mortality. For the pious, this seemed to be proof that God had their backs and that their belief was paying off. To the rational minority, this data was a curiosity that begged deeper analysis. What other aspects of these individuals’ lives were also correlating with longevity? Could it be something other than their belief in God that was responsible?

MCullough did not rest on his laurels,. Rather, he did another meta-analysis in 2009 with his colleague Brian Willoughby, this time looking at hundreds of research papers, revealing that religious people are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, like regularly visiting the doctor or dentist, and they are less likely to smoke, drink, take recreational drugs and engage in risky sex, Michael Shermer reported in this month’s Scientific American. This healthier behavior is clearly the more likely explanation for the longer life span.

Shermer, who writes the monthly Skeptic column for SciAm, went on to suggest that religion reinforces positive behaviors and rewards self-control by providing a tight social network and by promising Heaven and other delayed rewards. However, he suggests that we are all capable of this without belief in God or participation in organized religion. Meditation, for example, can help people exercise greater self-control and change bad habits. Parents and teachers try to reinforce impulse control and delayed gratification for children so that they will focus longer on the task at hand and refrain from disruptive behaviors.

Of course this notion of living a healthier lifestyle seems implausible in light of the high profile examples of religious leaders engaging in promiscuous sex and drunkenness and the Catholic Church’s ban on condoms. It also seems unlikely in light of the fact that the Bible Belt is the most obese region of the country and has among the highest smoking rates.

Nevertheless, let’s assume the data is valid, that most pious people do engage in healthier behaviors like visiting the doctor more regularly.  Does this mean that their religious affiliations are the cause of this health consciousness? Isn’t it possible that religious people are more likely to have health and dental insurance? It would be interesting to examine the data to see if pious people do in fact have better health plans or, for that matter, higher paying jobs. While the latter seems unlikely—we all hear about how religious the poor are—it is possible that the average wealth of religious people is actually higher than it is for the nonreligious, even including the religious poor.

Regardless of one’s religiosity, the biggest influence on one’s health and longevity is wealth and social status (see here, here and here). Being poor and/or black dramatically increases the odds of having a stressful, low-paid highly demanding job, food and housing insecurity, and lack of access to healthcare and leisure time. It also dramatically increases the chances of developing diabetes, cancer, heart disease, hypertension and an early death.

The debate about whether religiosity or faith improves one’s health is a red herring. If we really cared about improving health outcomes for all, we would focus on ways to improve the wealth and social status of all. Universal health care, for example, would significantly reduce the rate of preventable deaths in the U.S.

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