Why Attending Religious Services May Benefit Health
Weekly attendance to houses of worship is associated with lower mortality rates and healthier lifestyles.
Religious services at churches, temples and mosques boast various features that can be beneficial to health - meditation, a social network, a set of values that discourage smoking, infidelity and other unhealthy behaviors. Many of the studies have found that the health benefits of weekly attendance accrue more heavily to women than to men, perhaps because women make greater use of religious social networks.
Of course, people who attend weekly religious services are by definition well enough to get out of the house regularly, suggesting that they may enjoy an inherent health advantage. Indeed, studies show no health advantage for people who watch religious services on television.
But it isn't simply that people showing up for church are healthier; they also are more likely to improve their health habits. When compared with nonweekly attendance, "weekly attendance was associated with a statistically significant improvement in quitting smoking, becoming often physically active, becoming not depressed, increasing the number of individual personal relationships and getting married," said one of the examined articles, which was published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine in 2001. That study gathered health and mortality data over a period of 30 years on 2,676 Californians, 26 percent of whom attended religious services weekly.
Not everyone is convinced that religious services account for the more robust health and survival documented in these articles. The same health benefits could be derived from belonging to a bingo club or socializing at the local library, says Emilia Bagiella, a Columbia University assistant professor of biostatistics. Also, she says, "it's hard to correct for the fact that people who go to church may have a better health status" before they arrive.
But the studies supporting a link between religious-service attendance and health come from such secular institutions as the universities of Texas, Michigan and California at San Francisco. And their authors don't necessarily go to church or perceive the mortality benefits of doing so as the handiwork of God. "Being religiously involved can confer certain health benefits, and I don't think there's any divine intervention involved," says Robert A. Hummer, a nonchurch-going University of Texas sociology professor whose studies have shown a health benefit for regular religious-service attendance.