Feature

David R. Williams

is Florence Sprague Norman & Laura Smart Norman Professor of Public Health, Professor of African and African American Studies and of Sociology, Harvard University

Can Religion Affect Health?

What the studies indicate

Scientists have long had an interest in the effects that religious beliefs and behavior have on physical and mental health. Some believed that religion would be a decidedly negative influence on health, while others predicted that religion could enhance health—at least under some conditions.

Today more than 1,000 studies have examined the relationship between some aspect of religious belief or behavior and some measure of health. Most studies have been done in the United States and focused on Christian denominations, but many studies from other countries, and a growing number of studies, have focused on persons from other religious traditions. The vast majority of these scientific investigations have found that persons who are more religious have better physical and mental health than those who are less religious.

For example, research has found that various aspects of religious involvement are associated with lower levels of blood pressure. A study by Dr. Harold Koenig and his colleagues found that individuals who attended religious services, prayed frequently, and studied the Bible regularly had lower blood pressure than those who did not engage in these activities.

Similarly, a study in Kuwait found that devout Sunni and Shiite Muslims had lower levels of blood pressure compared to those who were less religious. Other studies have found that higher levels of religious involvement are also associated with better immune functioning.

Spiritual reflection and other relaxation techniques have been effective in lowering blood-pressure levels.

Religion has also been shown to have positive, protective effects for multiple measures of mental health. Studies have found that religiousness is associated with fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety; less suicidal behavior; lower levels of substance abuse and mood and anxiety disorders; and more positive psychological well-being.

The strongest and most consistent scientific evidence is for attending religious services. More than 100 studies have documented that the more regularly people go to church or to other religious houses of worship, the lower is their risk of death. This pattern exists for many different diseases, but the evidence is strongest for cardiovascular disease.

For example, Dr. Robert Hummer and his colleagues conducted a national study in the United States with more than 21,000 adults who had their health monitored for eight years. The study found that people who never attended services were almost twice as likely to die than those who attended more than once a week. This protective effect of religious attendance translates into marked differences in life expectancy, with individuals who attended services more than once a week living 7.6 years longer, at age 20, than those who never went to church. The life expectancy advantage for African Americans was almost 14 years.

A review of the studies of religious attendance and mortality by Dr. Daniel Hall concluded that attending religious services weekly increases life expectancy by two to three additional years. To put this into perspective, the study showed that physical exercise increases life expectancy by three to five years, and taking statin-type cholesterol-lowering drugs provides 2.5 to 3.5 additional years of life.1

Why Religion Affects Health

Researchers have also tried to understand what exactly it is about religious involvement that leads to better health. This research has identified many aspects of religious belief and behavior that matter for health.

Health behaviors are important pathways by which religion can affect health. Studies of Mormons and Seventh-day Adventists have documented lower risks of heart disease, cancer, and other diseases in these groups than in the general population that are linked to specific health practices. For example, research on Adventists has illustrated the negative effects of meat and dairy consumption in the development of heart disease and specific cancers, as well as the beneficial effects of consuming nuts and maintaining lean body weight.

Research in both adults and adolescents, however, finds that individuals who are religious have a much better profile of many healthful behaviors, including behaviors for which there is no specific religious teaching.

For example, a national study of high school seniors in public and private schools in the United States found that religious students were more likely than their nonreligious classmates to eat breakfast as well as green vegetables and fruit, get regular exercise, wear seat belts, and sleep at least seven hours per night. Religious students were also less likely than their nonreligious peers to carry a gun or knife to school; to get into fights or hurt someone; to drive after drinking; to ride with a driver who had been drinking; to smoke cigarettes; to engage in binge drinking; or use marijuana.

The more regularly people go to church or to other religious houses of worship, the lower is their risk of death.

Social relationships are another pathway. For many individuals, religious communities provide social ties that are an important source of friendships, emotional and instrumental support, and a sense of social connectedness. Research suggests that a support system based on shared religious values can support engaging in healthful behaviors, and can also reduce some of the negative effects of stress on health.

Some religious practices and rituals can also have health-enhancing benefits. For example, spiritual reflection, meditation, and other relaxation techniques have been effective in lowering blood-pressure levels. A recent study of more than 5,000 Seventh-day Adventist adults in North America found that Sabbathkeeping (defined as not engaging in secular activities such as shopping, reading secular magazines, attending secular concerts or theatrical events, and watching or listening to news programs) was associated with better mental health.

Other research indicates that even the anticipation of engaging in important religious activities can have health-enhancing benefits. A large U.S. study of elderly persons found that fewer deaths occurred immediately before or during religious holidays than in the month after religious holidays. This effect was evident for both Christians and Jews, and was stronger among the more observant members of religious congregations. Interestingly, the effects for Christians were seen only for Christian holidays, and the effects for Jews were present only for Jewish holidays. Similarly, among Jews living in Israel, deaths decline as the weekend approaches, with the fewest deaths on Sabbath (Saturday). A similar pattern is not evident in the Arab population living in Israel.

Religious belief systems can also promote health by providing a sense of meaning and purpose and feelings of strength to cope with stress and adversity that enable many individuals to get through some of the tough times in life. One research study found, for example, that individuals with higher levels of religious coping (e.g., looking to God for guidance and strength) had lower levels of blood pressure even while they were sleeping. A growing body of research documents the health benefits of values such as forgiveness, love, generosity, and optimism, which are central to many religious traditions.

Negative Effects of Religion

Research on religious involvement is also clear that religious involvement can have decidedly negative effects on health.

Some researchers categorize religious people as either intrinsic (internalized) or extrinsic (utilitarian) in religious orientation. Intrinsic religion reflects religious involvement that is personally meaningful, integrated into an individual’s worldview, and serves as a central motivating force that affects all aspects of the person’s life. In contrast, extrinsic religious involvement is participation that is driven by a desire to obtain external benefits, such as security, status, and self-justification.

For example, persons could attend religious services to establish or maintain social relationships or to project an image of respectability. Individuals high on extrinsic religiousness may show higher levels of conformity to social norms and rules than to the actual teachings of their religious tradition. Instructively, intrinsic religion is associated with better mental health while extrinsic religion is predictive of worse mental health.

Research on religious coping finds that while employing positive religious beliefs (e.g., relying on God for strength and guidance) is related to better health and adaptation, negative forms of religious coping (wondering if one has been abandoned by God; believing that one’s illness is punishment for sins or lack of spirituality) are associated with poorer psychological adjustment and physical health. A study of medically ill patients found that individuals with religious doubts and struggles had an elevated risk of death.

Negative social interactions among religious congregants can be a source of stress that adversely affects health. Social ties in religious communities can provide not only emotional support but also time demands, role conflicts, and criticism. Research finds that negative interpersonal religious encounters and congregational and clergy criticism can trigger feelings of guilt, fear, and exclusion that can contribute to illness.

Several studies find that frequency of religious attendance is positively associated with weight. In many churches, food is central to fellowship and celebrations. These findings highlight that church potlucks can be healthful, or can contribute to the growing global epidemic of obesity.

The negative effects of religion can also extend to a broad range of outcomes. Research indicates that theological beliefs about the headship of men and the submission of women have been used by some men to justify domestic violence and as a rationalization for some women to accept such abuse. A study in the United States found disturbingly high levels of intimate partner violence among Adventists, with two of three respondents reporting that they had experienced controlling and demeaning behavior at least once in their lifetime.2

Research has long documented that many religious individuals are more intolerant and prejudiced than the nonreligious. Subsequent research revealed that an extrinsic religious orientation was associated with higher levels of racial prejudice, while an intrinsic religious orientation predicted lower levels. Some recent research also documents that a fundamentalist orientation, defined as a rigid, close-minded worldview in which the individual believes that his or her religious beliefs are absolutely correct, is predictive of higher levels of prejudice, especially for groups that are viewed negatively by one’s religious tradition. What seems to be important is not the content of the religious beliefs but the inflexibility with which one’s beliefs are held.

More to Learn

This research should remind Adventists that while it is important for Christians to study to show ourselves approved unto God and to have a resolute commitment to the truths of God’s Word, it is also important to remember that truth is progressive and that revival and reformation will bring a revolutionary break with tradition. Because, as Ellen White wrote, “God and heaven alone are infallible,” we will all have “many lessons to learn and many, many to unlearn.”3

Religious involvement is a complex, multidimensional phenomenon. The large and growing body of research on the health consequences of religious participation provides many positive affirmations, but also reveals many findings that require sober reflection, introspection, and repentance. There is much that we can do as individuals and religious organizations to maximize the positive potential of religious engagement, and also work with renewed vigor to eliminate the health-damaging negative effects.


  1. Daniel E. Hall, “Religious Attendance: More Cost-effective Than Lipitor?” Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine 19 (2006): 103-109.
  2. R. Drumm, D. McBride, G. Hopkins, J. Thayer, M. Popescu, J. Wrenn, “Intimate Partner Violence in a Conservative Christian Denomination: Prevalence and Types,” Social Work and Christianity 33, no. 4 (2006): 233-251.
  3. Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald, July 26, 1892.
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