Science finds faith is good for you - but there's a catch

A ream of recent scientific research has given the faithful reason to rejoice: Belief is good for you. Yet believers should be wary of celebrating these findings too much. The faithful may be winning at the game of life, but they’re playing by rules that social scientists have written in essentially post-religious terms.

- Ari Shulman, Ethics and Public Policy Centre

Consider a study of nearly two million Twitter messages sent by prominent Christians and atheists, published in June in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science. It found that Christians were more content, if not happier. The authors came to this conclusion by analyzing the language tweeters used: Christian tweeters used positive words more often than atheists, and negative words less often.

In 2012, researchers led by a group at Yeshiva University analyzed the health outcomes of more than 90,000 women over an eight-year period and found that those who frequently attended religious services were 56% more likely than non-attending women to report high rates of optimism, and 27% less likely to report depression. Other studies of the same group found a 20% lower mortality rate.

Researchers at University College London found similar results in analyzing dozens of studies that examined the impact of religiosity among men and women. Numerous other studies by researchers at Harvard, Duke and other universities have found that religious identification and church attendance are associated with less social isolation, lower risk of substance abuse, lower rates of suicide, greater happiness and life satisfaction.

Yet believers should be wary of celebrating these findings too much. The faithful may be winning at the game of life, but they’re playing by rules that social scientists have written in essentially post-religious terms. While churches define the highest aims of life as salvation or enlightenment, social science research replaces these with health and wealth, well-being and satisfaction.

Some social scientists say they have no stake in the truth of religion, but are simply interested in studying how to bring about universally valued outcomes. But others, like sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, see this work as part of a larger project to make religion obsolete, by shifting the study of human flourishing from 'idioms of theology and philosophy' to 'science-based material analysis.'

There is some measure of irony, then, when social science finds so much evidence that religion is good for us.

Of course, many nonreligious researchers don’t see a problem with these results. They may not be believers themselves, but they have no problem embracing belief as a useful therapeutic tool.

FULL STORY Does faith make you healthier? (EPPC)

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