Religion and wellness

Editor’s note: The premier benefit of working for a college is the opportunity to take classes. This semester, I am taking a theology class, and to the extent that my written submissions are deemed canonical and pertinent to Motu Proprio, excerpts will appear here under the TH200 tag after submission and grading. Formal errors both accidental and deliberate—such as the mandated use of “MLA style”—will be corrected, but the substance will be presented intact.

Religion, we are told, promotes good health. Frank Newport’s God is Alive and Well argues that carefully-controlled professionally-performed polls demonstrate that “very religious” people are happier and more healthful than non-religious people. In response, we are asked to consider this notion and whether it “seem[s] convincing … that religious faith would contribute to a person’s overall wellbeing,” including their psychological and emotional health. I will suggest that there are several reasons to be skeptical of the proposition in the abstract, and of Newport’s thesis in particular.

We will first consider the question at a more abstract level, and then circle back to Newport.

I.

One can certainly propose a nexus between health and religion. Many of the commandments of the Law turn out to be remarkably prescient where health is concerned, especially health in extreme conditions. Provisions such as Leviticus 15:4-12 anticipate modern virology and bacteriology by millennia and helped keep the Israelites alive, especially in the long march through Sinai. 1 In support of the proposition that a Christian ought to seek physical health, one could cite St. Paul’s admonition that “your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you…. For you were purchased at great price. Therefore glorify and bear God in your bodies.” 2 The supplied Living Healthier video observes that substance abuse instigates or exacerbates many health difficulties 3; religion can be a major spur to heal addiction, 4 and, indeed, to avoid addiction-forming behaviors in the first place. 5 There are plenty of scriptural scraps from which to make a collage.

But it doesn’t follow that because these things could prompt good health that they will produce healthy believers. They may be unknown, ignored, or interpreted in ways that deprive them of practical existence. For example, one could read the verse from 1st Corinthians to enjoin tattoos (graffiti on the temple wall, it might seem), and yet many Christians happily conform themselves to the spirit of the current age by getting tattoos, 6 presumably having read that passage as posing no obstacle. And while virtue can be a spur to physical health, so too may vice: Sin, whether directly (vanity) or indirectly (lust) may produce the same result.

Let us turn briefly to psychological health. Our Savior bade the apostles peace: “Peace I leave you, my peace I give you.” 7 At every Mass, this same peace is proclaimed to us through the successors of the apostles and their assistants, the priests: “Pax domini sit semper vobiscum.” And yet, that which Watchman Nee called the “ordinary christian life” is hardly one of peace; to the contrary, the Christian is at war with the world and with himself. 

He is at war with the world because the Enemy is enthroned as the prince of this world. 8 Our purpose, as I have suggested before, is to conduct a rescue mission; we are not commanded simply to announce the gospel, but to disciple the world, that is, to proselytize the world. 9 We are marines sent to free the hostages taken by the Enemy: “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death.” 10 Christians are “born for combat,” 11 and John Henry Newman captured the smoke of battle nicely when he preached:

“Oh, what a dreadful state, to have our desires one way, and our knowledge and conscience another; to have our life, our breath and food, upon the earth, and our eyes upon Him who died once and now liveth; to look upon Him who once was pierced, yet not to rise with Him and live with Him; to feel that a holy life is our only happiness, yet to have no heart to pursue it; to be certain that the wages of sin is death, yet to practise sin; to confess that the Angels alone are perfectly happy, for they do God’s will perfectly, yet to prepare ourselves for nothing else but the company of devils; to acknowledge that Christ is our only hope, yet deliberately to let that hope go! O miserable state! miserable they, if any there are who now hear me, who are thus circumstanced!” 12

So-called “battle fatigue” is bound to set in at some point, and when we are not in fight, then at least flight, for the same enemy “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking souls to devour.” 13

More importantly, the Christian is at war with himself. In the beginning, all that God created was good, but the Fall corrupted man; there is no good within us, and even for the Christian, everything that is good within us is Christ acting in us. 14 Like St. Paul, we must constantly struggle to resist what the technical vocabulary of Catholic theology has called “concupicense,” and Father Robert Barron has helpfully suggested that we might instead call our addiction to sin. To be saved from death is not, alas, to be saved from a life in which our hearts are unruly, fainthearted, and weak. 15

The tension between the peace promised by Christ and the struggle prompted by it is nettlesome. One resolution might be to suggest that what was meant was the notion that through Jesus we make our peace with God; we may obtain peace in the hereafter, even though it brings war in this world. 16 But there are serious difficulties with that interpretation, and, happily, we need not resolve them here. Rather, I raise the point merely to suggest that the tension’s existence and lack of obvious resolution must, surely, impose emotional and psychological stresses on the believer from which the unbeliever is entirely free.

Finally, we should not leave this section without remarking on the question’s presupposition of our immediate context in time and space. Perhaps the martyrs went to the grave in unshakeable psychological serenity, but Christianity was certainly not good for their physical wellbeing. To confess Christ in the first and second centuries was to risk not merely whipping and execution, but unspeakable tortures—crucifixion, drowning, burning, dismemberment, application of red-hot metal plates, breaking of teeth, being gradually submerged in boiling oil or pitch, or being placed in nets before enraged animals, for example. 17 These horrors were so ghastly that even some of those tasked with carrying them out were converted by the willingness of their victims to suffer for their faith, whence we say that the blood of martyrs becomes the seeds of the Church. 18 And, alas, the age of martyrs is not over. To say nothing of regimes such as China, North Korea and Iran, it will suffice to note that in the last few months alone, the self-proclaimed Islamic State has visited a terror on Christians that would make a Roman emperor blush:

[M]ilitants have been ‘systematically beheading’ Christian children in Mosul. According to the Anglican vicar of Baghdad, ISIS terrorists cut a five-year-old boy in half, and another witness said ISIS tore a woman in two after tying her to two vehicles. Other reports say ISIS has buried women and children alive….” 19

In sum, it seems quite precarious and context-specific to make a claim for religion’s health benefits, at least in the abstract. With these things in mind, let us now turn back to Newport’s specific claims.

II.

Newport argues that very-religious Americans are healthier than their non-religious counterparts, and that they tend to exhibit more of the behaviors that lead to (or are at least consistent with) good health. 20 He and his colleagues conducted a study of 676,000 participants. Participants scored their health in several categories, and were divided by the researchers into three religious categories: “Very religious” people, who reported attending Church “at least every week or almost every week” and who said religion is an important part of their daily lives, “non-religious” people, who seldom attend services and who said religion is not an important part of their daily lives, and “moderately religious” people, i.e. everyone else. 21

I confess a sense of overwhelming doubt about these classifications, but I will stipulate them for present purposes, because that is not the principal problem with Newport’s thesis. What he wants readers to focus on is the headline difference between the very- and the non-religious. “The average score on the wellbeing index for Americans who are very religious … [and] those who are non-religious” has a “3.9-point difference, which is highly statistically-significant.” 22 The very-religious are also less likely to have been diagnosed with depression or to be worried or to experience stress than those who are non-religious. 23

But Newport is playing Three-card Monte with us: The numbers on which he invites the reader to focus are correct, but his thesis would be derailed by what he doesn’t encourage readers to notice. If religion correlates positively to health, we would expect its correlation to be linear. Newport makes precisely this claim, saying that “highly-religious Americans have higher wellbeing and are healthier than those who are less religious.” 24 According to this thesis, lots of religion is great, and no religion is bad; it must follow that more religion should be better, and less should be worse. That is not, however, what the data show. In virtually every example that Newport provides, it is the moderately-religious who are the worst-off. While the very-religious American has 3.9 points on the non-religious American in the wellbeing index, she has 5.5 points on the moderately-religious American. 25 The very-religious have the lowest incidence of depression at 15.1%, which is much lower than the non-religious at 17.4—but the moderately-religious come in dead last at 20.5%. 26 Of the six sub-indices of general wellbeing, the very-religious lead the pack, but the non-religious leads the moderately-religious in four, and ties for a fifth. 27 Of the sub-indices for the experience of negative emotions, the very religious does best, but the non-religious person is doing better than the moderately-religious in four out of four. 28 That result that is incomprehensible to Newport’s thesis, which, as I have said, necessarily implies a linearity that is defeated by his own data.

Newport insists that the data has been controlled for other factors, 29 but the lack of linearity makes his thesis untenable. I would hesitate to guess what is actually driving the numbers; my suspicion is that Newport is right that “something about being religious, or becoming more religious, helps people have higher wellbeing,” 30 and that that something may well be “active participation in a religious community provides individuals with friends, fellow-worshippers, social networks, and social support.” 31 Nevertheless, when the only tool one has is a ruler, there is a temptation to treat every problem as if it were a straight line, and it may well be that the real fire under the kettle eludes quantitative study. 32

* * *

Newport says that “[t]he conclusion that religion is related to wellbeing gains more support the more scientists look into it. Positive relationships between religiosity and subjective wellbeing and health have been very well-documented.” 33 To the contrary, it would seem that his own figures debunk the correlation.

Notes:

  1. See, e.g., Lorna Daniels Nichols, Big Picture of the Bible: New Testament 147 (2009); cf. Frank Newport, God is Alive and Well 63-64 (2012).
  2. 1 Cor 6:19-20.
  3. Living Healthier. http://searchcenter.intelecomonline.net/playClipDirect.aspx?id=CA0143672862737384C4E8116F34B9ECDF61B966E86EA249227E5F8C80973CF900A0D58392AB1B3DB0F3CEB05491D8BD. [Editor’s note: The assignment’s rubric directed that we incorporate at least one reference to this video.]
  4. See, e.g., Religiosity and Addiction Rehab, AlcoholRehab.com, Sept. 26, 2012, http://alcoholrehab.com/addiction-recovery/religiosity-and-addiction-rehab (last visited Oct. 11, 2014).
  5. See Newport, supra note 1, at 55, 61, 65.
  6. Cf. Robin Schumacher, Is Getting a Tattoo a Sin?, The Christian Post, Oct. 21, 2012, http://blogs.christianpost.com/confident-christian/is-getting-a-tattoo-a-sin-12619.
  7. Jn 14:27.
  8. See How is Satan ‘god of this world’?” GotQuestions.org, http://www.gotquestions.org/Satan-god-world.html.
  9. See Simon Dodd, Evangelization is a rescue mission, 2 MPA 138 (2012); Encyc. Rerum novarum, no. 21, __ Acta Sanctæ Sedis __, __ (Leo XIII, 1891).
  10. James 5:19; cf. Col 1:11-13.
  11. Encyc. Sapientiae Christianae, no. 14, __ Acta Sanctæ Sedis __, __ (Leo XIII, 1890).
  12. John Henry Newman, Sermon 13: Love of religion, a new nature, http://www.newmanreader.org/works/parochial/volume7/sermon13.html; contra Newport, at 62.
  13. 1 Pet 5:8.
  14. See Rom 7:18; Gal 2:20.
  15. 1 Thess 5:14.
  16. Cf. Mt 10:35; Lk 12:53.
  17. Philip Moxom, From Jerusalem to Nicea: The Church in the First Three Centuries 192-93, 195-96, 198, 204 (1895). Ridley Scott’s movie Gladiator would have us remember Marcus Aurelius as a good emperor, but he persecuted the Church of God as though he were the Enemy incarnate. See, e.g., Albert Newman, Manual of Church History 156 ff (1899).
  18. Id., at 188, 199. Two recent movies, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and JJ Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness have scenes that offer interesting reflections on the limits of violence as a tool capable of moving a person, and so also with the early persecutions: “At last … the fire of persecution burned itself out. The brute force and raging fanaticism [of the pagan authorities] … could accomplish nothing against the silent endurance of the Christians.” Id., at 214-15.
  19. Anti-jihad ads coming to N.Y. buses: ‘It’s not Islamophobia, it’s Islamorealism’, Examiner.com. Sept. 21, 2014, http://www.examiner.com/article/anti-jihad-ads-coming-to-n-y-buses-it-s-not-islamophobia-it-s-islamorealism.
  20. Newport, supra note 1, at 47.
  21. Id., at 49-50.
  22. Id., at 50-51.
  23. Id., at 52-53.
  24. Id., at 57.
  25. Id., at 50-51.
  26. Id., at 52.
  27. Id., at 51.
  28. Id., at 53
  29. See id., at 51, 56.
  30. Id., at 60 (emphasis added).
  31. Id., at 62.
  32. The rise and fall of Empirical Legal Studies demonstrate the use and limits of data-driven analyses: It was useful for phenomena that can be studied through numbers, but the temptation was always to manipulate and improperly-reduce any phenomenon one wished to study such that it was bent into a shape that could be so-studied. See, e.g., Lori Ringhand, Judicial Activism: An Empirical Examination of Voting Behavior on the Rehnquist Natural Court, 24 Const. Comment. 43 (2007).
  33. Newport, at 54.