Why Religion Is Healthy

While the vast majority of the United Statesnearly 80 percentsubscribe to a religion, in certain circles, religion has a bad rep.

Recently, I had one of these conversations with a friend I dearly respect. In a single conversation, he espoused the primary arguments against religion I’ve heard over the years—calling it “the opiate of the masses” (a rough translation of a Karl Marx quote, which really ought to be studied in context) and “the cause of all war.” (Really? All war? The American Revolution? The Civil War? World War I and II?)

But history lessons and in-depth Marxism conversations aside, religion offers its practicers many benefits. For my purposes here, I’ll stick to the health benefits (ones that have been studied and proven).

So to the 21 percent of the nonreligious (16 percent globally), or in support of conversations about the tangible, material benefits of a faith-based life, I offer this list of the health benefits of religious practice, for your consideration.

Live Long… and Prosper

Religious people live longer.

There’s plenty of scientific evidence to support that statement, and if you click on the link you can read about several.

But one obvious reason has to do with health: many religions encourage the practice of a code of health, which may improve quality of life and longevity.

Here’s an example: fasting.

The Bahá'í and Buddhist, the Muslim and the Mormon, all fast for spiritual reasons, such as to strengthen prayer, or gain closeness to a higher power.

While the practice goes back thousands of years, more recent medical science supports the health benefits of fasting.

Recent research even found that a type of fasting may help regenerate a diabetic pancreas! Since diabetes may shorten life expectancy, that’s good news indeed.

Another key spiritual practice may improve happiness: living in the moment.

Another example: alcohol.

Some religions abstain from alcohol altogether (such as Islam), and others just for periods of fasting or as a popular item to give up for Lent.

While moderate alcohol consumption (particularly red wine) may have certain health benefits, there’s no denying the documented perks of alcohol abstention:

  • A healthier liver
  • A healthier heart
  • Less risk of certain cancers (like breast cancer)
  • Potential weight loss (all those “empty calories”)
  • Better sleep

And while alcoholism and alcohol dependence numbers are on the rise, it follows, logically, that one cannot develop a dependency on alcohol if one does not ever consume alcohol... so better safe than sorry?

It’s an individual choice, but potentially a healthier one.

One more example: not eating pork (or any meat).

A sacred cow, dressed up
In majority-Hindu India, the cow is a sacred animal and there are an estimated 400 million vegetarians. (Photo by Max Pixel)

Pork consumption has been linked to a wide variety of illnesses—from liver cancer to multiple sclerosis (MS)—so those religions which ban its consumption (many Seventh-day Adventists, Muslims and Jews, to name a few) have lower instances of those diseases.

Other faiths practice vegetarianism or veganism, including many Hindus. A vegetarian diet has many health benefits. (The now-famous China Study connected a plant-based diet to numerous healthy outcomes, including a longer life.)

So abstaining from pork, at least, or all meat, as practiced by many faiths, may be contributing to a longer lifespan for religious folks.

But here’s another point of longevity to consider: prosperity.

Financial stress can create health stress… a lack of access to resources when disasters strike and failure to practice preventative medicine, instead seeking only emergency care. Even just the emotional toll of financial stress can have an impact on health.

Well, members of some religious groups tend to have a higher income level than others. That may be because many religions offer resources, such as social services, to parishioners, providing or supplementing in times of need and assisting practitioners to achieve higher levels of success. Religion may even offer a sense of stability or a purpose for the pursuit of success.

Rest Easy

I read some recent research that shows religion may help people sleep better at night.

“Researchers found that those who believe in salvation and feel they have an unshakable relationship with God tend to sleep longer, fall asleep faster and feel more rested in the morning, according to Terrence D. Hill, associate professor at the University of Arizona School of Sociology.”

Call it perspective.

When I would get upset over some little thing, my grandmother used to say, “What doesn’t matter five years from now doesn’t matter today.” One could extend that to say, “What doesn’t matter in eternity doesn’t matter today.” Religion gives you that kind of perspective.

You could also call it gratitude, which is practiced in many faiths as a habit, in others, in the form of prayer. Gratitude is more directly related to happiness than wealth. Think about it: there are very poor people who are truly happy and very wealthy people who are yet miserable.

Enjoy the Moment

Another key spiritual practice may improve happiness: living in the moment.

Some faiths practice meditation, others contain precepts or practices to help one be more present.

In Scientology, it’s called “being in present time”—being here, right now—and it’s something that researchers have found to be crucial to happiness: the more distracted one is from a current activity, the less happy; the more present, the more happy.

Combining all of these traits—a code of health, improved financial success, better sleep, perspective, gratitude and being present—then it’s truly no surprise that practicing your faith can lead to a longer, healthier life.

In other words: religion is good for you.

But if you are one of the nearly 80 percent of people who practice a faith, you probably already knew that.

May Livingston
May Livingston is a visual artist, writer, and mom, who would love to see her children living in a world free from bigotry.