Religion and Health

Concepts of health and illness in human society originated   from  traditional   religious views about life and death. One of the first sociologists to study religion was Emile Durkheim, who found that distinctions between ideas about the sacred and profane were connected to notions of health and illness. Religious views of the sacred body, for example, were equated with health. When someone became ill, it was not because of hygiene, but because of a breach of social norms separating the sacred from the profane. Within this type of belief system, notions of sickness and misfortune generated attempts to justify and explain morally why a particular person was suffering from disease: ”Why me?” (Turner 2004).

Fundamental notions of religion and health are apparent in modern everyday life, but as scientific concepts of disease develop, traditional notions of the religious character of illness and disease continue to be challenged. Over time, the social status of biomedicine has increased and the status of traditional healers diminished. During this transformation, we see the introduction of the mind body dualism. This dualistic focus is responsible for the emergence of mental as well as physical health concerns (Turner 2004).

Contemporary studies show that religion is positively associated with physical and mental health, as well as longevity and mortality (Hummer et al. 1999; Sherkat & Ellison 1999). Religious involvement, measured by attendance at services and feelings of religiosity, is positively associated with physical health, general happiness, and satisfaction, as well as being inversely related to undesirable social psychological states, such as depression. Ellison and Sherkat (1995: 1256) suggest that religious involvement pro motes physical and mental health in four ways:

  1. shaping health behaviors and lifestyles in ways that reduce unhealthy and risky behavior;
  2. by contributing to the individual’s social psychological resource support network;
  3. by enhancing self esteem; and
  4. by helping produce cognitive coping mechanisms.

Religious institutions and beliefs have long been recognized as control agents that can regulate individual behavior. We see this influence when we talk of religious groups promoting the body as a temple and discouraging negative practices like smoking, alcohol and drug use, and unhealthy diets (Cockerham 2004). Being involved in religious communities also tends to reduce deviant behavior, making an individual accountable for his or her health lifestyles. Some religious values encourage strong marital relationships, discouraging sexual experimentation. And religious beliefs often promote inter generational relationships that promote shared meanings about life events and biographical histories (Ellison & Sherkat 1995).

Being involved in religious groups can also be seen as helping integrate individuals into caring social circles (Idler 1995) and therefore add to a person’s psychosocial resources that mediate and/or moderate the health consequences associated with social stressors. Here, religious involvement can be seen as not only increasing the size of a person’s support net work, but also providing regular opportunities to cultivate support (Sherkat & Ellison 1999). Many congregations also provide formal programs for those in need, which enhances opportunities to receive needed information and social support. One result of such opportunities is that they increase an individual’s confidence that friends and associates can be counted on to help in time of illness or injury. In general, being involved in such a community can promote aspects of self esteem and efficacy (Ellison & Sherkat 1995). Religion provides not only support, but also structure, stability, and intimacy in dealing with health concerns.

Religious   understandings   have become ”common and effective coping strategies for many individuals dealing with an array of chronic   and   acute   stressors, particularly bereavement and health problems, including physical disability” (Sherkat & Ellison 1999: 374). This is in contrast to the ”muscular Christianity” that links good health with the vitality of a nation (Cockerham 2004). Those with disabilities can find religious participation helps them to refocus on aspects of the self ”to which a painful, or nonfunctioning, or unattractive physical body is irrelevant” (Idler 1995: 700). Such a refocus allows the individual to find a healthy inner self and emphasize positive emotions such as contentment, love, hope, and optimism as they develop, integrate, and perpetuate their faith into everyday life. In this regard, even private religious activities (e.g., prayer, Bible reading and study) can produce an effect on health by providing meaning, which in turn reduces helplessness and increases optimism (Musick 1996). If religion is viewed as a source of comfort, the increase in individual hope pro vides a sense of control in a disadvantaged world, whether that disadvantage is physical health, social, or economic (Ellison et al. 2001).

Many people from a broad spectrum of religious backgrounds hold health and well being as central spiritual concerns. Although there is evidence that spiritual, social psychological, and physical aspects of health are fundamentally interconnected, more research is needed. Post modern developments will continue to challenge the synthesis of health and spirituality. Not only has human action become functionally separated into specialized institutions, but also biomedicine has displayed a predisposition toward differentiation from other institutional spheres, such as religion and the family. And while the general population does not generally disregard the power of medicine’s explanations of disease causation, many consider medical explanations to be insufficient, and find themselves embracing complementary and alternative medicine and spiritual healing movements (McGuire 1993).

Future research will need to emphasize religious factors. We know that there is at least some evidence of the physical and mental health benefits of religion among men and women, different age groups, various racial and ethnic groups, and different socioeconomic classes, as well as geographical locations (Ellison et al. 2001). However, there often exist crude measures of religious identification, involvement, and participation. Not only do we find too many single item indicators, but also mostly cross sectional data. For instance, difficult measurement issues include being able to decipher when religious value is collectively produced versus it being a private good with intrinsic value (Ellison et al. 2001). Other suggestions for future work include an analysis of ”insider documents” (Ellison & Sherkat 1995: 1265) in order to determine how institutions produce, distribute, and prepare material for religious communities. Because of its multidimensionality, religious involvement displays multiple causal pathways for its effects on physical and mental health. Attention to multidimensional measurement and a commitment to longitudinal data collection are needed. Epidemiological studies of large populations with extensive baseline health assessments and longitudinal follow ups with measures of religious involvement are also required.


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