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Can God damage your health?


On Sept. 15, the Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins published a piece in The Guardian called “Religion’s misguided missiles.” With customary antireligious zeal, the Charles Simonyi professor for the Public Understanding of Science gave his explanation for the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. — one that placed the blame squarely on religion.

“Religion teaches the dangerous nonsense that death is not the end,” Dawkins wrote. “To fill the world with religion, or religions, of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used.”

The Guardian was inundated with letters in response, and printed a selection, mainly critical, from readers offended by his sweeping indictment of religion. A common complaint was that Dawkins was heartlessly denying the consolatory power of religion at a time when it was most needed. After all, even atheists will admit that religion is a daily balm to millions around the world. Whatever you might think of religion, what it stands for and what it purports to explain, you can’t deny that it has immense healing power . . . or can you?

Last month, in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, Kenneth Pargament and researchers at Bowling Green State University’s department of psychology in Ohio published a paper suggesting that, far from comforting the sick, religious beliefs can actually increase your risk of dying.

The general view, supported by scientific studies, is that religious feelings can increase self-esteem and even prolong life. A study last year in the journal Health Psychology found that regular attendance at a church, synagogue, mosque or Buddhist monastery was related to longer life. The researchers concluded that social support from the religious community was an important factor in increasing life span. Collaborating with God in problem-solving is a positive religious act, thought to have a beneficial effect on health. So what’s with the new study?

The reason for the difference is that this time, researchers looked at the negative feelings produced by religious belief. A survey of 596 religious patients at Duke University Medical Center aged 55 or older found that the experience of religious struggle during illness sometimes predicted mortality. The study also took into account baseline health, mental-health status, quality-of-life and demographic factors such as age, sex, race and education. None were associated with increased mortality.

“The study reminds us that religion . . . can, at times, be a source of problems in itself,” said Pargament.

During a two-year follow-up study, patients who had reported negative feelings provoked by religion were 19-28 percent more likely to have died. Specifically, those who reported feeling alienated or punished by God, or the feeling that the illness was the work of the devil, were most at risk.

The researchers identified three potential causes of the decreased life span. Those who experienced religious struggle suffered decreased independence in their daily lives; other studies have found that negative religious feelings reduce the effectiveness of the immune system. Patients experiencing religious strife might also become socially alienated.

More than 95 percent of the patients were Christian, mainly Baptist or Methodist protestants. In these versions of Christianity, teachings are liberally spiced with depictions of Satan and the fires of hell, to which sinners will be sent for eternal torture if they don’t embrace the Lord. It’s no wonder that those who question their faith suffer mental anguish with images like that. Of course, those horrific images are put there in the first place to keep the flock in line, to stop people questioning their faith and to attract nonbelievers.

In an e-mail interview, Pargament criticized Dawkins’ article, saying, “The answer lies not in overgeneralizations and stereotypes, but in greater understanding of the reasons why and how religion is occasionally linked to violence.”

Pargament emphasized the positive effects on health that religion can have. “Similar research is needed regarding the relationships between various forms of religiousness, violence and the pursuit of peace,” he said. “To conclude that religion in general is destructive because of the acts of these terrorists is like concluding that medicine is destructive because some health professionals engage in malpractice.”

To this, Dawkins responded: “I was aware that religion has been said to have some beneficial effects on health, and I would be surprised if it didn’t. My article was not about health or medical matters, one way or the other. I am much more interested in nonmedical effects of religion, and the particular one I was mentioning in my article was the effect of belief in an afterlife on courage.”

Two-thirds of medical schools in the United States advise students to take a patient’s “spiritual history” and to take this into account during health care. Pargament’s study needs to be backed up by more work, but on this evidence, it wouldn’t be surprising if religion one day came with a health warning from the surgeon general.