An active faith may hold the key to a longer, healthier life
By *Elisa Di Benedetto and *Larbi Megari
Khadija, an older Algerian woman, at first seems not to understand the question when asked about the role her religion and beliefs play in her well-being.
She instinctively relied on Islam as a young woman living in remote villages in the Berber mountains during the fight for independence from France in the 1950s and early 1960s,
Today, living with her husband and a daughter in an apartment in the Algerian capital, Khadija spends much of her time near her radio or television listening to the Quran.
After much reflection, she shifts her focus from those memories to look directly at her interviewer, her eyes mixed with emotion and resolve, and declares: “Religion provides a massive feeling of comfort and reassurance. Nothing made me so strong and emboldened me in the face of all the hard times l have been through during my lifetime. Faith stands for health.”
Shaking her head from left to right, and allowing a small smile on her face, Khadija concludes the interview by saying, “I cannot conceive of life without religion.”
She is not alone.
Social and medical sciences are increasingly finding evidence to support how religion promotes better health, including living longer.
Religion and Health: Findings from Three Studies
- The key finding of a study of nearly 15,000 individuals in the 2003–2015 Mexican Health and Aging Study is that older Mexicans who participate once or more per week in religious activities tend to exhibit a 19 percent reduction in the risk of all-cause mortality than those who never participate. All-cause mortality measures the death rate from all causes of death for a population in a given time period.
- In a U.S. study of nearly 75,000 women from 1992 to 2012, frequent religious attendance was associated with a third lower all-cause mortality compared with women who had never attended religious services.
- A study analyzing three waves of older populations in Taiwan found religious attendance and private devotions were related to longer lives.
Why would religion promote better health and longevity?
There are several reasons, researchers suggest.
They range from the networks of supportive close friends that religious communities can provide to faith teachings discouraging risky behaviors to the assurance that a loving deity is by their side.
There are limits. No one is saying religion can predict longer health in individual cases.
It is also true that there are many aspects of religious life that can endanger public health, such as decisions by some houses of worship to hold large gatherings that place entire communities at risk during the coronavirus epidemic.
But this voluminous new wave of research is helping both religious communities and medical professionals to understand the promises and pitfalls of the faith-health connection.
In the end, the potential for science and religion to work together for the common good holds great promise for improving global health during the pandemic and beyond.
Religion and Health: The benefits of faith
In Limana, a small town in northeastern Italy, Giorgio Fornasier serves as a tenor and organist in his Catholic parish, where he is also organizing the church archives.
“I strongly believe religion improves the quality of life. I am evidence myself,” Fornasier says. “Real faith is linked to serenity and helps you cope with and overcome the challenges that life brings.”
His own faith was challenged early on when his son, Daniele, was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder known as Prader-Willi Syndrome. In response, Giorgio Fornasier later would become president of the international non-profit organization.
At 72, with more time and fewer distractions, he said practices such as praying the rosary and being active in his parish community have resulted in a significant maturing and a deeper consciousness of faith.
While he often thinks about death, Giorgio said it does not frighten him. Referring to God as “the great director,” he adds: “the only bank acknowledging your benefits is up above, and it does that when you least expect it.”
It is not just believers finding evidence for a faith-health connection.
With decades of expanding research, many scholars on religion and health are confident in saying that there is strong evidence that religious practices and beliefs are benefiting large segments of the population.
Religion and Health: Four reasons
You are not alone: While research on loneliness is documenting the potential mental health dangers of a dearth of human contact, the vibrant social networks religious communities can offer members can be a major health advantage, particularly for older persons. A recent study analyzing data from the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing found as frequent religious attenders reported larger social networks, the less likely they were to report signs of poor mental health.
Having a loving God by your side also makes a difference: Numerous studies find that an association between an image of God as just and merciful with benefits such as a good night’s sleep, greater self-esteem, a lower likelihood of being anxious or depressed and having a greater sense of optimism and hope even while facing stressful situations.
Prayer, worship, meditation and inner peace: Personal spiritual practices are also strongly linked to health. “Prayer can help reduce anxiety,” says professor Julian Hughes, an authority on dementia and a member of the clinical advisory board of the Journal of Medical Ethics. “There is a similarity and there is evidence that mindfulness does us good. When you are not thinking about anything else going on in your life, you are sort of calm. The act of praying might itself be calming and helpful to you.”
Promoting health through Scripture and tradition. Most major faith traditions treat the body as a divine gift and preach against behaviors such as alcohol or drug abuse, gluttony and promiscuity. Highly religious individuals, including adolescents and young adults, tend to take these teachings seriously, research shows. “The correct religiosity gives people good health and makes their life even longer,” says Samir, a middle-aged architect in Algeria. “This is logic, when you have a religion that guides you through your life to be clean, to eat healthy, to do everything that keeps you fit, even daily prayers, going forth and back to mosques on a daily basis, fasting during one whole month.”
In challenging times such as the coronavirus epidemic, all of these factors also contribute to a sense of meaning and purpose that can promote a sense of peace despite the fears surrounding the virus.
Religion and Health: Crossing barriers for a brighter future
Consider this story of the peace an African refugee felt on a dangerous trek to Europe.
For 10 months, in a journey from his home country in Gambia, Bubacarr said the same daily prayer from the Quran the first thing in the morning and the last thing he did before falling asleep.
The words, “I seek refuge with the Lod and cherisher of Mankind” sustained the teen as he traveled from West Africa to the Niger, across the desert, and up to Libya, where he was detained before crossing the Mediterranean Sea on an inflatable boat packed with people until he made it to the Italian coast in 2016.
“I would have never been able to get here without my faith and my religion. It kept me alive,” said the devout young man who asked not to be identified. “This body was given to me by Allah and it is my responsibility to keep it healthy and if I follow His teachings I will live longer.”
Religion and Health: There are dangers as well
Research is not only discovering the protective benefits of religion, but is shedding light on ways religion may imperil health.
As scholars delve deeper into the factors supporting or undermining a healthy spirituality, they are finding diverse characteristics such as an individual’s image of God or scriptural interpretations or their relations with other community members can impact their health.
So, for example, while believing in a loving, merciful God has protective health benefits, belief in a distant, judgmental God is associated with addiction, greater stress and anxiety and mental health issues such as depression.
And while treating one another with compassion and respect strengthens positive social networks that provide support and comfort, overly judgmental religious leaders and members can increase fear, shame and guilt and tear apart communities.
What a growing number of studies are calling for are ways for science and religion to work together in applying new discoveries in medicine and other fields that have the potential to relieve suffering and provide more years of better physical and mental health.
Religion and Health: ‘Holistic Approach’
Several studies suggest the best outcomes in many cases occur when science and religion cooperate, with, for example, religious communities educating their communities about subjects such as the need for social distancing during an epidemic and doctors recognizing how beliefs play a major role in the health of their patients.
An “holistic approach” was the advice given by many of the health care workers and religious experts attending the “Religion and Medical Ethics Symposium”, co-hosted by the World Innovation Summit for Health and the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life in Rome last December.
“There is no doubt that religiosity provides positive outcomes,” said Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the pontifical academy. “The Gospel reminds us that man does not live on bread alone. Man lives especially on love and where love is there are bigger energies, potential, there is a growth process, producing love relationships and not conflict.
“And when love grows life lengthens.”
*Elisa Di Benedetto, co-managing director of the International Association of Religion Journalists, is also a freelance writer based in Italy.
*Larbi Megari, co-managing director of the International Association of Religion Journalists, is a freelance writer based in Algeria.
Association of Religion Data Archives: Search some 1,000 surveys and find citations for several hundred journal articles for comprehensive information on topics such as heaven and Hell.
ARDA National Profiles: View religious, demographic, socio-economic and public opinion data for all nations with populations of more than 2 million. Public opinion tab includes data on beliefs regarding life after death.
The ARDA’s YouTube Channel – How Religion and Science Can Work Together for the Common Good: What happens when you bring together respected social scientists who for many years have gathered significant data on the relationship between science and religion? A humble dialogue offering new pathways to cooperative efforts on issues from climate change to eradicating disease.
The International Association of Religion Journalists: The IARJ offers critical resources for worldwide reporting on religion.
Al-Yousefi, Nada A., Observations of Muslim Physicians Regarding the Influence of Religion on Health and Their Clinical Approach. This study assessed “Muslim physicians’ beliefs and behaviors regarding religious discussions in clinical practice,” and the factors that influenced the discussion of religion in clinical settings.
Megari, Larbi. GlobalPlus: Religion and death. How worshippers, and secular individuals, face the great existential question of the meaning of life in the face of mortality can make a major difference in areas from mental health to preventing terrorism and promoting more generous, compassionate societies.
Takyi, Baffour K., GlobalPlus: Ebola, religion and health in Africa. Before the coronavirus, global scientists and medical workers faced and learned much from dealing with diseases such as Ebola and AIDS. This overview sheds light on the complexities of religion and health in Africa.
Zimmer, Zachary, Jagger, Carol, Chiu, Chi-Tsun, Ofstedal, Mary Beth, Rojo, Florencia, and Saito, Yasuhiko. Spirituality, religiosity, aging and health in global perspective: A review. The article research points “toward a requirement and even an obligation on the part of the scientific community to explore the connection between religiosity, spirituality and health in order to more fully understand the determinants of quality of life in old age and in so doing suggest ways for improving human health and the human condition.”
Koenig, Harold, Religion and Mental Health: Research and Clinical Applications. The book summarizes research on how religion may help people better cope or exacerbate their stress, covering its relationship to depression, anxiety, suicide, substance abuse, well-being, happiness, life satisfaction, optimism, generosity, gratitude and meaning and purpose in life.
This column was originally published at the ARDA website.