Religious people do not live longer

Happy old womanRegular people and scholars alike have commonly believed that participation in religious services grants certain health benefits absent in all other social events. Religion, so the belief goes, includes all of the benefits of regular socialization plus the added spiritual benefits that only religion can provide. However, against previous research, sociologists Eran Shor (McGill University) and David Roelfs (University of Louisville) argue that the health benefits of religion completely reduce to its social nature and have nothing to do with its spiritual or religious aspect.

Specifically, the researchers looked at mortality rates to measure health, and then compared mortality rates between religious participation and regular social participation. Put another way, the researchers wanted to know whether religious people live longer compared to non-religious but equally social people – to which they answer, "no."

In their article, Shor and Roelfs list four ways in which social participation of any kind (religious or otherwise) can lead to a decrease in mortality rates. First, it develops relationships. Social engagement theory indicates that social relationships increase people’s well-being not only mentally but also physically. Second, social participation can increase one’s self-control. Social groups provide a set of normative behaviors that all of its members should conform to. While some may see this as oppressive and unhealthy, many social groups discourage drug use, abusing alcohol, and driving under the influence. Furthermore, a strong social network provides a ready-made support group in case one of its members falls into unhealthy and destructive habits. Third, a social group provides an increased sense of purpose and self-worth, which in turn (according to role theory and social activity theory) decrease the risk of mortality. Fourth and finally, participation in social activities give people a feeling of control over life, equipping them to deal better with stressors and thus decreasing depression.

Although they conclude that religion does not provide added health benefits outside of social engagement, the researchers still list four common theories as to why religion would provide such benefits. After all, educated people don’t believe that religion grants additional longevity for no good reason. First, religious groups, more so than other types of groups, have social norms against a variety of unhealthy and risky behaviors. Previous studies have shown that religious people are more likely to quit smoking, visit their doctor, eat healthily, take vitamins, and exercise, and are less likely to use drugs or alcohol. Obviously, not all of these tie directly to a particular religious belief, but the aggregate social environment created by a religion explains these correlations. Second, spirituality provides a tool to deal with depression, anxiety, and life stressors. Unlike other social groups, a coping mechanism (spirituality) rests at the very heart of a religious group. Third, religious rituals may increase a sense of well-being, belonging, and security. Finally, the researchers include a believer’s explanation: attending religious services pleases a higher power, who in turn may grant a healthier and longer life.

To test the above theoretical reasons for why religious groups would experience greater longevity rates than non-religious groups, the researchers conducted a meta-analysis on 74 studies about the topic. From 2005-2009, they went through every relevant publication and even considered unpublished works, finding a total of 334 works. From these, they selected only those that measured mortality and included at least one measure of religious participation or non-religious participation.

Upon crunching the numbers, the sociologists found that while participating in religion did correlate with a lower mortality rate, it did not do so to a statistically significant degree. What did correlate with statistical significance was the relationship between mortality rates and social activity. In short, whether religious or not, participation in social activities correlated with lower mortality rates (and hence greater longevity).

The researchers conclude: “The most revealing finding of our study is that participation is helpful regardless of the type of social activity in which a person takes part.” That said, they also warn that most of their data comes from the Western world, meaning that their findings have limited application to the West only. While it’s wise to know the limits of a study, it’s also probably wise to go out and socialize.

For more, see “The Longevity Effects of Religious and Nonreligious Participation: A Meta-Analysis and Meta-Regression” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.