Does religion make you live longer?

I’ve always found it amusing when studies are performed on religion. Most of these consist of finding if religious people are happier, and now, there’s a new one that came out saying if you subscribe to religion, you’ll live up to 20% longer.

Before I tear down how specious this line of reasoning is, I’d like to point out the sentence “can cut your chances of dying by 20%” sounds impressive, but like all good sales pitches, there is a catch: this is the maximum you can hope for, and it certainly isn’t the norm. The study was also conducted by the graduate school of Yeshiva University, which makes me question the study. The conclusion they reached was that life expectancy was caused by social support, but there was little in the way of convincing correlation, let alone causation to suppose belief in religion played any part whatsoever. There could be a multitude of reasons why the women interviewed who went to church lived longer. Social support isn’t unique to religion. Did they commission similar studies of women who volunteered, or had other hobbies? There’s a telling statistic in China which sheds light into this whole question of prolonging life: two weeks before the Chinese New Year, death rates for women lowers dramatically, often as high as 30%. However, two weeks after the holiday, the death rate temporarily rises by that very percentage. The conclusion here is when people have a reason to live, they find a way of ensuring they do so. Sure, you could argue religion makes you live longer, but I’m guessing having a purpose to your life is just as good, and you don’t have to waste your entire life sitting in a pew repeating the same prayers ad nauseum.

Imagine I told you you could live 20% longer if you ate nothing but spinach for your whole life. The idea of living longer might sound appealing, but it doesn’t take into account the long term cost involved in such a gamble. What quality of life can you expect if you make the sacrifice of eating the same meal for the rest of your life? Is some temptation allowed? How will a diet of this kind make you feel on a daily basis? If it turns out the side effects of an all spinach diet were insufferable, even the enticement of a longer life would not be enough to convince someone to try it. In other words, even if going to church meant you could live longer, would it really be worth the trouble that goes with it?

The whole thing sounds a bit too much like Pascal’s wager. Pascal tried to argue that any betting man would chose God, since the price of not believing in him if he does exist are way too high compared to the benefits of being a non believer. At its core, Pascal’s Wager is nothing more than shady gambling, with the supposed payoff being eternal life. Surely, though, something as powerful as a God could see through our petty and calculated wager. His arguments have never convinced anyone to suddenly become religious, and in that sense, his Wager is a total waste of time. If I don’t believe in God, playing lip service at a church hardly sounds like a productive use of my time. Even if I did live 20% fewer years than my church going counterpart, the reward hardly sounds worth the gargantuan effort to attend services twice a week for the rest of my life. I’d rather be reading a book, making love with a special someone, playing video games, or anything else I consider fun or rewarding. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want anyways?

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Comments (4)

  • avatar

    Steve In Denver

    This is great! More people need to see this.

  • avatar

    garth

    did they include devoutly religious women in afghanistan, pakistan, and iraq in this study? what about the devout catholics in sao paolo, port-au-prince, and caracas?

  • avatar

    vjack

    You know, even if someone could conclusively prove that religious belief had positive health benefits, I still couldn’t make myself believe something so absurd as all this Jesus stuff.

  • avatar

    Richard

    Here are some reasons offered from an article from August 2000 about a study with similar results, :
    ‘”Some people believe that religious involvement instills healthy beliefs and behaviors,” Michael E. McCullough, PhD, who did the research while at the National Institute for Healthcare Research in Rockville, Md., tells WebMD. For example, religious people tend to smoke and drink less, and may be slightly less obese than nonreligious people.

    . . . . [social support]. . . .

    Finally, “religion helps people to develop a coherent set of beliefs about the world that help them to make sense of their stress and suffering,” he says. “All of these factors are probably at least partially responsible for the links between religious involvement and health.”‘

    http://www.webmd.com/news/20000809/religious-people-live-longer-than-nonbelievers

    Also keep in mind that what was alluded by Michael E. McCullough to above has been further verified by a report (by him) being published in the Psychological Bulletin. See http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/30/science/30tier.html Religious people are better at controlling their impulses which as mentioned in the article would obviously generally have a positive effect in many aspects of people’s lives, including, I would assume, health.

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