Sunday, June 12, 2016

Do Churchgoers Live Longer?

The atheist world has lately been abuzz at the possibility that the late, great Christopher Hitchens had a deathbed conversion and became a Christian before he died.

Since Hitchens is no longer around to affirm or deny the point, I will limit myself to noting that, for many religions, abandoning your faith, whether on your deathbed or otherwise, makes you an apostate.

Could it be that atheism is yet another polytheistic cult hiding behind the mask of science?

Anyway, Hitchens comes to mind because he famously declared, in the subtitle of one of his bestselling books, that “religion poisons everything.”

Since the new atheists proclaim themselves to be lovers of reason and science, shouldn’t we submit the statement to empirical verification. Isn’t that the basis of rational thought?

True-believing atheists would never accept such a verdict, because they are playing with loaded dice—heads they win; tails you lose. This tells us that they are ideologues running a polemic, not pragmatic thinkers willing to subject their hypotheses to testing.

One recalls that research has shown that when cancer patients believe in God their chemotherapy works better. One understands that the Hitchens-lovers out there will find this statement to be seriously offensive.

Today, we turn to the New York Times. It’s Sunday morning so the paper reports on a study about the health benefits of religious observance. The source is the Journal of the American Medical Association— a very high authority, indeed. The conclusion: if you want to live longer, you ought to attend church services.

The Times explains:

Going to church may lower the risk for premature death, a new study suggests.

Researchers used data from a long-term study of 75,534 women that tracked their health and lifestyle, including their attendance at religious services, over 16 years through 2012. The report is in JAMA Internal Medicine.

After controlling for more than two dozen factors, they found that compared with those who never went to church, going more than once a week was associated with a 33 percent lower risk for death from any cause, attending once a week with a 26 percent lower risk, and going less than once a week a 13 percent lowered risk. Risks for mortality from cardiovascular disease and cancer followed a similar pattern.

The researchers statistically eliminated the possibility of reverse causation — that is, that healthy people go to church more than unhealthy ones. And they found that some variables, such as social support and a tendency not to smoke, contributed to the effect. But no matter how they analyzed the data, the effect of church attendance alone seemed to have benefits.

“This suggests that there is something powerful about the communal religious experience,” said the senior author, Tyler J. VanderWeele, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard. “These are systems of thought and practice shaped over millennia, and they are powerful.”

No one will ignore the fact that modern science and the Industrial Revolution have extended lifespan far more than praying has. The point of the article is that, all other things being equal, science can supplement faith but cannot be a substitute for it.

An extensive study has taught scientists that religion deserves respect, and even that it has benefit human beings.

How long before the new atheists get the message?


Recruiting Animal said...

You can believe that the moon is made of green cheese and feel very good about it but that doesn't mean it's true. The same rule applies to attendance at religious services. They can be very enjoyable and rewarding even if the members of other religions know that the god you believe in is not real.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: The point of the article is that, all other things being equal, science can supplement faith but cannot be a substitute for it.

The article connects church attendance for women not men with lower death risk, while "faith" is something different.

So to do a "faith" test we have to also look at women might stay home and watch televangists on TV, versus women who are agnostic nonbelievers but value the social connections of a church community.

We can consider correlation rather than causation - women who value social connections more might also have better habits, even if they didn't attend church.

A scarier analysis might look at different denominations of religions and churches and they could complete for who has the best correlation. Fortunately we could hope the benefit crosses all religions and denominations.

The abstract ends with: Conclusions and Relevance: Frequent attendance at religious services was associated with significantly lower risk of all-cause, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality among women. Religion and spirituality may be an underappreciated resource that physicians could explore with their patients, as appropriate.

I can imagine it might be difficult for a physician to talk about attending a church, whether on an annual physical or after a major illness. I agree the topic of church attendance is generally appropriate, while evangelizing their specific faith would be more problematic.