Religion is good for you—or is it really that simple?

Yet another round of research shows that religion is good for you. Or so it seems. But is that quite what’s being proven?

In a study published by the American Journal of Epidemiology, Ying Chen and her team at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health demonstrate yet another positive correlation, if not causation, between religion and well-being. What’s particularly interesting about this study is that it measures the effects of both church attendance (a social activity) and prayer or contemplation (a private activity)—and both correlate highly with “a wide array of psychological well-being, mental health, health behavior, physical health, and character strength outcomes in young adulthood.”

More particularly, both forms of religious observance correlated with positive outcomes regarding “volunteering, forgiveness, marijuana use, early sexual initiation, and the number of lifetime sexual partners.” They were also at least “possibly associated” with “fewer depressive symptoms and lower probabilities of probable posttraumatic stress disorder, cigarette smoking, prescription drug misuse, history of STIs, and abnormal Pap test results.”

Several asterisks—or maybe just one big one—need to be attached to this study. First, the sample group was not a truly representative cross-section of the American population but was skewed toward white women of middle and upper incomes. Second, the criteria for wellbeing clearly were loaded in a Western Christian direction. Not all cultures and religions would think it a categorical good for women to avoid teen sex and childbearing and not all individuals would think ill of early use of marijuana and other drugs. Third, given that the sample came mostly from people one could presume to be at least somewhat affiliated with, and shaped by, the Christian religion (people mostly from the midwestern and New England states, white, and well-off) and wellbeing was measured by generally Christian mores, it is not astonishing that practicing this religion yields outcomes judged positive by this religion.

One can conclude, therefore, that Christianity tends to produce the effects it advertises. That’s not an insignificant finding, especially in view of the tiresomely repeated complaints of New Atheists that Christianity and the religions that resemble it are horrible viruses (Daniel Dennett) and are responsible for most of what’s gone wrong in the world (Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, et al.).

One must be careful to note, however, that “religion” is never clearly defined in the report. But the considerable demographic limitations in the sample mean that we don’t know what behaviours would be produced from regularly attending, say, a Sikh gurdwara, or Hindu temple, or Wiccan coven, nor do we know the effects of religious practices quite different from those analyzed in this study. Since “religion” is a very big conceptual basket that historically has included such ceremonies as sati (the ritual execution of widows), temple prostitution, infant sacrifice, self-flagellation, and other horrors, it would be well not to extend the implications of these findings to just any and all religion.

Religion, that is, hasn’t been found to produce these social and psychological goods. A particular religion in a particular cultural context has been found to produce them.

The authors do interestingly note along the way that those who attend religious services from time to time are indistinguishable from those who never attend. The same pattern holds for those who pray or meditate from time to time versus those who never do. Only steady practice produces positive results.

As Canadian sociologist Kurt Bowen reported almost two decades ago and as Joel Thiessen has more recently confirmed, the lives of those who prefer to call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” or those of nominal adherents of this or that religion, do not demonstrate any difference that social scientists can detect from those who claim no such identity and never practice these religious actions. The divide is stark between “seriously religious” and…everyone else.

Recently, Context has focused on the power of faith in battling Canada’s opioid crisis. But the studies conducted so far show only that the regular practice of certain religions produce salutary effects.

And that’s what the Bible leads us to think as well. The Bible, after all, is not interested in promoting all religions or “spirituality-in-general.” Quite the contrary. It focuses on the God of Israel and the Lord Jesus Christ who is called the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

The benefits of “religion” come, Christianity claims, only from good religion. And, whatever goodness might be respectfully affirmed of certain other faiths, those benefits come most particularly from Christian teaching and Christian community and Christian practice, and above all from the personal help of the Spirit of God in each believer’s life.

Social scientists, of course, can’t measure such spiritual claims. But what they can measure, and have measured, should intrigue us. Something powerful is going on in the Christian religion to change lives in particular directions.

And if you like those changes, and want them for yourself and your children, it only makes scientific sense to investigate the religion that prompts them.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).