Is Church ‘Good For You’? Jury Still Out. 1

Quite the statement by an op-ed contributor to the New York Times:

One of the most striking scientific discoveries about religion in recent years is that going to church weekly is good for you.

That’s a line from a short essay the Times published yesterday, called “The Benefits of Church.”

The term “scientific discovery” conjures up hard science — the ones and zeros of digital data, rock-solid math, the incontrovertible observations of physics — and that’s not at all what we’re looking at here. What author T.M. Luhrmann (photo) claims as the scientific truth is in fact a squishy, shapeshifting approximation of it, that can change completely depending on whom you ask, what religion they adhere to, what type of god they believe in, and even where they live. More on that in a minute.


Religious attendance — at least, religiosity — boosts the immune system and decreases blood pressure. It may add as much as two to three years to your life. The reason for this is not entirely clear.

But Luhrmann gamely gives it a go:

Regular church attendees drink less, smoke less, use fewer recreational drugs and are less sexually promiscuous than others.

Exactly. And those behaviors have nothing to do with church (or religion) per se. Refraining from promiscuity, booze, and drugs bestows likely health benefits that are also enjoyed by people who choose these things without ever setting foot inside a church.

Luhrmann also believes in the life-lengthening religious power of what she calls “absorption,” which she describes as

the capacity to be caught up in your imagination, in a way you enjoy. What I saw in church as an anthropological observer was that people were encouraged to listen to God in their minds, but only to pay attention to mental experiences that were in accord with what they took to be God’s character, which they took to be good. I saw that people were able to learn to experience God in this way, and that those who were able to experience a loving God vividly were healthier — at least, as judged by a standardized psychiatric scale.

Fine, but I’d wager that non-believers who meditate, or who frequently immerse themselves in the comfort of a quiet forest spot or a beautiful night sky, will experience the same effect. Absorption can even come from losing yourself in poetry, art, or music.

As for that psychiatric scale to which Luhrmann refers, maybe we can spare a thought for the fact that a belief in the classical, wrathful Christian god is substantially correlated with different types of mental illness, as a team of psychologists at Marymount Manhattan College found recently. I wrote about it here. Are those believers healthier, and will they live longer? I doubt it.

Further putting the kibosh on Luhrmann’s theory is that church, and religious faith in general, is often highly stressful for believers. For instance, the less flexible of religious faiths (such as Wahhabi Islam, hard-line Christian evangelism, and conservative Catholicism) tend to do a number on young people, gay or straight, who are intelligent and courageous enough to ask question. Those with probing attitudes are typically frowned upon by their elders and by many of their less-critical peers, which often leaves them socially unmoored and ‘lost’ for a number of years, while they work through religious issues. Surely such a state of mind is not a contributor to great health.

Neither, by the way, is living in any society, from the West Bank to Myanmar to Northern Ireland, where there is a lot of religious hatred, and where people must frequently fear for their safety. (In that same vein: If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably sense, as do I, that the rapists, thieves, and murderers who populate it neither spread nor enjoy inner peace and calm.)

Even in the relatively strife-free parts of the West, it’s clear that outsized guilt over sexual and other matters is part and parcel of much of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Guilt cannot be conducive to overall health, I should think.

Finally, there’s the quality-of-life issue. I’d rather enjoy myself thoroughly, and live two or three or even ten years shorter, than spend my life on my knees praying to a figment of the collective imagination, and carefully hewing to the fingerwagging tenets of a buzzkill faith.

One comment on “Is Church ‘Good For You’? Jury Still Out.

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