Question: Does Faith or Religious Activity Improve Health?

Kaffinator gave us two questions in the comments section, which I am dealing with separately. One deals with health and religion, while the other deals with charity and religion.

Question 1:
Mr. Atheist, if you had your wish and all of the Christians in the United States suddenly joined you, the result would be that ... Many more people would experience depression and high blood pressure, placing a greater drain on the health-care system. Americans in general would suffer a massive loss in life expectancy. I'm sure I could go on.

So here is my question. What kind of warped morality would wish this upon a nation?


If Kaff was correct in his fundamental premise, it may indeed be more ethical to promote churchgoing, regardless of its core truth value, simply to decrease pain and suffering. Unfortunately for all of us, no evidence of such magic exists.

"A large US study found that religious folk had lower blood pressure, less depression and anxiety, stronger immune systems and generally cost the health-care system less than people who were less involved in religion." [link]
This has to be one of the most bankrupt studies I've ever read. Can anyone say, cum hoc, ergo propter hoc? you know, they say that those people who carry matches in their pocket tend to get lung cancer more, so we ought to speak out about carrying matches as a risk for cancer, right? [roll eyes]

Let's look at the abstract:
METHODS: A probability sample of 3,968 community-dwelling adults aged 64-101 years residing in the Piedmont of North Carolina was surveyed in 1986 as part of the Established Populations for the Epidemiologic Studies of the Elderly (EPESE) program of the National Institutes of Health. Attendance at religious services and a wide variety of sociodemographic and health variables were assessed at baseline. Vital status of members was then determined prospectively over the next 6 years (1986 1992). Time (days) to death or censoring in days was analyzed using a Cox proportional hazards regression model. RESULTS: During a median 6.3-year follow-up period, 1,777 subjects (29.7%) died. Of the subjects who attended religious services once a week or more in 1986 (frequent attenders), 22.9% died compared to 37.4% of those attending services less than once a week (infrequent attenders). The relative hazard (RH) of dying for frequent attenders was 46% less than for infrequent attenders (RH: 0.54, 95% CI 0.48-.0.61), an effect that was strongest in women (RH 0.51, CI 0.434).59) but also present in men (RH 0.63, 95% CI 0.52-0.75). When demographics, health conditions, social connections, and health practices were controlled, this effect remained significant for the entire sample (RH 0.72, 95% CI 0.64-.81), and for both women (RH 0.65, 95% CI 0.554-.76, p<.0001) and men (RH 0.83, 95% CI 0.69-1.00, p=.05). CONCLUSIONS: Older adults, particularly women, who attend religious services at least once a week appear to have a survival advantage over those attending services less frequently.
First, note the p-value = 5 for men, and less than 0.0001 for women, which immediately raises an intelligent person's eyebrows. The authors comment that males are much less likely to attend religious services, yet, this effect is least pronounced in males??

The p-value is a measure of statistical reliability of any correlative study. There should be no significant difference between the sexes if the variable studied is the causative factor. Second, note that they made no concession for AGE!. Think about this for a minute, if you are still attending church, whether 50 or 100, do you kind of think...you're in better health than the BEDRIDDEN friend of yours? Christian or not? 50 or 101? Well, it sounds good at first, and then, the more you think about it, people with arthritis of the hip won't die tomorrow, but can't attend services, while those with fine walkin' skills and Jeebus-lovin' skills still go to church, but have a bad heart, which pops on em at 50...hmmmm...

This is a terrible study, and the follow-up researchers who cited this study agreed:
see Risk Factors, Confounding, and the Illusion of a Statistical Control, Psychosomatic Medicine, v66 i6 p868 (2001)

You apparently didn't read the follow-up study by the same authors, did you? See, this prelim was published in 1999, and when their methodology flaws were pointed out to them, they decided to go back and try again. Funnier still, the follow-up by the same authors admitted:
During a median 6.3-year follow-up period, 1,137 subjects (29.5%) died. Those reporting rarely to never participating in private religious activity had an increased relative hazard of dying over more frequent participants, but this hazard did not remain significant for the sample as a whole after adjustment for demographic and health variables. When the sample was divided into activity of daily living (ADL) impaired and unimpaired, the effect did not remain significant for the ADL impaired group after controlling for demographic variables (hazard ratio [RH] 1.11, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.91–1.35). However, the increased hazard remained significant for the ADL unimpaired group even after controlling for demographic and health variables (RH 1.63, 95% CI 1.20–2.21), and this effect persisted despite controlling for numerous explanatory variables including health practices, social support, and other religious practices (RH 1.47, 95% CI 1.07–2.03).

In plain English, once these educated idiots realized their study was flawed, and went back and fixed the uncontrolled variables (comparing bedridden people who may or may not wish to go to church, and/or who may or may not have gone until becoming bedridden, at the age of 101, with a healthy 60 year old, is about the dumbest study I've ever seen), they found, guess what? That the activity of daily living was more important than anything else. Surprise surprise. So, whether grandma is out gardening or praising Jeebus in church, she, SHOCKER, is statistically more likely to be healthier than someone who does neither (often, because they can't). Man, whatta GD study, a real charlie foxtrot. In their own words, admitting this:
A study by Koenig and coworkers demonstrated that an ill, elderly population may not be able to overcome the force of impending mortality even when employing various behaviors that have been shown in healthy populations to correlate with extended survival (42 [this is the study that the BBC article you linked to cited]). It is possible that the relatively subtle effects of private religious activity are not sufficient to overcome the overwhelming force exerted on mortality by health decline to the point of ADL impairment. Thus, the milder effects of private religious activities on mortality are more detectable among those persons who are relatively healthy. Future studies may want to ask how long a person has been engaged in private religious activity, to determine if habits begun after the onset of ADL impairment are begun too late to show a survival benefit.

Beautiful, eh? If they're really bad off, Kaff, don't try to look for Jeebus' help. Also, never mind the social support and friendships and human networking that come with churchgoing, which often explains away the "milder effects", without invoking your Magic Man.

Swedish scientists studying an overview of these kinds of studies conclude:
Our analyses reveal that most domains of activities are associated with reduced mortality risk; however, in most instances the likelihood that healthier individuals tend to be more involved in activities serves as an effective explanation for these associations. [ie, if you're in good health, you're more active, be it religiously or otherwise, and that's why the ADL effect noted in your paper made the religious "protection" disappear...duh]

...Older men appear to benefit from participating in solitary but active pursuits, measured with an index that includes hobbies such as carpentry and gardening. This finding deserves a word of caution. Because respondents selected activities on the basis of their capacity to engage in them, we cannot be certain that existing differences in health between active and less active men are responsible for this finding....[note that these researchers are more thoughtful and clever than to commit the cum hoc, ergo propter hoc of your paper]...

Formal group involvement—organizational and religious activities—produces no longevity benefits, because their association with mortality is fully explained by the tendency of healthier respondents to be engaged in those activities. This "selection" hypothesis goes against the findings of other studies, particularly those that find religious attendance to be a robust predictor of mortality among elderly persons (Idler and Kasl 1992Citation; Koenig et al. 1999Citation; Oman and Reed 1998Citation). Interestingly, family contact does not predict mortality risk and is consequently omitted from our analysis. This finding is in line with earlier studies of oldest old persons in Sweden showing that family integration tends to have virtually no effect on various kinds of health outcomes of elderly persons. It is also consistent with the current Swedish welfare model that mandates the state, through public services, to assume the main responsibility for providing care needed by elderly persons (Parker 2000Citation; Szebehely 2000Citation)....

see The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 56:S335-S342 (2001).

Let's end with the discussion by your papers' authors:
In this study we found that private religious activities provided a protective effect against mortality for an elderly population free of functional impairment, even after controlling for numerous covariates; no such effect persisted in the ADL impaired group. To our knowledge, this is the first study to document a possible protective effect for private religious activity on mortality in a large community-dwelling population. Whereas studies of organizational religious activity (ORA) and mortality have shown a positive correlation (4)(5)(6)(7)(8)(9), this study demonstrates protection via nonorganizational religious activity (NORA), at least for those who practice NORA before the onset of impairment in ADLs.
BUA-HA-HA-HA...good stuff! I think I'll thus avoid church and stay busy in the garden, and then when I get impaired, I'll send my wife to church to ensure her survival, but flip a coin to determine whether or not it will confer benefit for me to go, ah hell, who am I kidding? I'll keep working in the garden, it's good for us that God cursed the ground, eh?

see
Does Private Religious Activity Prolong Survival? A Six-Year Follow-up Study of 3,851 Older Adults, The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, v55, m400 (2000) [follow-up by your authors]

See also:
Physicians and Patient Spirituality: Professional Boundaries, Competency, and Ethics
Roles of Religious Involvement and Social Support in the Risk of Colon Cancer among Blacks and Whites
Religion, spirituality, and medicine [Sloan, 1999 Lancet]
Religion, Spirituality & Medicine [Richard Sloan's follow-up, the lead author of a recent article in the prestigious medical journal Lancet cautioning physicians not to prescribe religion as medicine. This study was published prior to the Duke study in 1999]
"Linking religious activities and better health outcomes can be harmful to patients, who already must confront age-old folk wisdom that illness is due to their own moral failure. Within any individual religion, are the more devout adherents 'better' people, more deserving of health than others? If evidence showed health advantages of some religious denominations over others, should physicians be guided by this evidence to counsel conversion? Attempts to link religious and spiritual activities to health are reminiscent of the now discredited research suggesting that different ethnic groups show differing levels of moral probity, intelligence, or other measures of social worth. Since all human beings, devout or profane, ultimately will succumb to illness, we wish to avoid the additional burden of guilt for moral failure to those whose physical health fails before our own."
The relationship between religion/spirituality and physical health, mental health, and pain in a chronic pain population. [Pain patients' religious and spiritual beliefs appear different than the general population (e.g. pain patients feel less desire to reduce pain in the world and feel more abandoned by God). Hierarchical multiple regression analyses revealed significant associations between components of religion/spirituality and physical and mental health. Private religious practice (e.g. prayer, meditation, consumption of religious media) was inversely related to physical health outcomes, indicating that those who were experiencing worse physical health were more likely to engage in private religious activities, perhaps as a way to cope with their poor health. Forgiveness, negative religious coping, daily spiritual experiences, religious support, and self-rankings of religious/spiritual intensity significantly predicted mental health status. Religion/spirituality was unrelated to pain intensity and life interference due to pain]
Spirituality in health: the role of spirituality in critical care
Analysis of Lancet article, by FFRF
Reality check

Huh, whattya know? Maybe your "facts" are a little off? Maybe the fact that longevitiy studies and infant mortality studies and teen pregnancy and abortion rates and murder rates were ALL directly correlated to increased religiosity in western democracies never caught your attention? Well, let me help you out:
Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies
Whattya know? The countries with the highest number of atheists just so happen to have lower murder rates, teen pregnancies, abortions, infant mortality, and longer longevity. Maybe you should do some reading ;)

Some "pro-religious" sources [older]:
Science & Theology News
Religion, Spirituality, and Medicine: How Are They Related and What Does it Mean? [by Koenig, author of flawed study, 2001]
Religious Involvement, Spirituality, and Medicine: Implications for Clinical Practice [Mueller, 2001]
Note that Mueller was the lead author of the recent study confirming that intercessory prayer does nothing:
Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: A multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer [April 2006]

What kind of sick morality would put false hope in the heads of many? Worse still, confirmed by Mueller's recent study, those people who knew they were being prayed for did worse than those who weren't prayed for at all. Perhaps it's the problem of linking morality with health? Perhaps you don't know any better. Perhaps those who derived their sick morality from a God who kills babies [cf 1 Sam 15:3, Num 31] can't see the problem in foisting false hopes and lies on others for the sake of propping up this god's popularity?

32 comments:

Bruce said...

Brother Danny: game, set and match! Ouch.

Daniel Morgan said...

I just read Bruce's post exposing faith healers, and highly recommend it. Be forewarned: you ought to take your blood pressure meds first, and avoid it entirely if you have a tender heart.

Kaffinator said...

Hi Danny,

I am not a social science researcher, nor a statistician, but I hope you didn’t expect to shock me with the idea that studies sometimes have flaws. It can be difficult to disentangle all of the factors. But that’s why people publish their studies in peer-reviewed journals, exposing their work to criticism and correction both before and after publication.

In an effort to debunk the study referenced by the article in my original post, you chose to quote a follow-up study which states, “the increased hazard remained significant for the ADL unimpaired group even after controlling for demographic and health variables.” Meaning, for active, unimpaired elderly people, religious activity was indeed shown to extend life. The conclusion of that very paper states,

“Older adults who participate in private religious activity before the onset of ADL impairment appear to have a survival advantage over those who do not.”

In other words, you have merely supplied more proof of my original point. Since you claim to have better judgment than the original authors and publishers of the study, I would expect you to show (quite easily) why this conclusion was wrong. But the only criticism you offered was, “never mind the social support and friendships and human networking that come with churchgoing, which often explains away the ‘milder effects’, without invoking your Magic Man.” But in fact the paper claims to have controlled for this (“social support”). Perhaps in your haste to rebut the notion that faith has a positive impact on life, you seem to have failed to read the paper carefully?

What remains of your criticism seems to boil down to something about gardening and someone you sophomorically insist on calling “Jeebus”. Consider me underwhelmed.

The raft of other articles you present concerning the question of how a physician ought to deal with religious issues, or the effect of double-blind intercessory prayer, or the supposedly beneficent effect of atheists in a society, may be interesting but are frankly irrelevant to the point. I never suggested that religion is some kind of magic health tonic. Rather I would say that God designed humans for worship (in atheist-speak, evolution selects for it, or it would have been bred out already), so it really should not surprise us to find reasonable correlations between religious health and physical health. And we do.

But you, as an atheist, hold the unenviable position that religious faith is bad for people because … well, just because you say so? Got it.

Bruce said...

It would be really interesting to break the people in these studies down by religious affiliation. Then we could see just exactly which religion is the best for you (or at least your health). I also wonder if some religious affiliations might have lower life expectancies and more health problems than atheists? I have a hunch that some of the fringe or unpopular religions in this country might be lower than expected.

On the other hand, with all these rich movie stars converting to Scientology, and since they have the financial means to take care of themselves better than the average person, it would be a hoot if Scientology were to climb above all the others.

But you, as an atheist, hold the unenviable position that religious faith is bad for people because … well, just because you say so?

Nope. We've got a history of religiously inspired persecution, war and hatred to support our position (heck, God was even so kind as to document it in his book). And unfortunately, we've still got plenty of examples today as well.

Kaffinator said...

Bruce, Bruce, Bruce. We were talking about health, volunteerism, and charity. I suppose by trying to switch the discussion to "war and hatred" you are admitting you have no legs to stand on concerning the topic of interest. Would anyone else like to join Bruce in his defeat?

Daniel said...

But you, as an atheist, hold the unenviable position that religious faith is bad for people because … well, just because you say so? Got it.

To save face, please point me to the chapter and verse location where I said this. Otherwise, I would have to accuse you of putting words in my mouth. What I asked you is what kind of sick morality would lead you to putting false hopes on people (that religion is a magic tonic, or that people are "designed" for worship) regarding your assertion that if everyone became atheists, depression and ill health would increase [the converse contradicts your attempt at retraction: you are saying religion is a magic tonic, as those who practice it, supposedly, have better health]

Kaff, really think about this part:
Older adults who participate in private religious activity before the onset of ADL impairment appear to have a survival advantage over those who do not.

Let's REALLY think about this for a moment. Are the authors saying that religious activity prevents people from becoming ADL-impaired? No. In fact, no such magic tonic exists, as you already said. And, looking at the ADL-impaired group, no benefit exists as to whether or not they attend religious services or engage in NORA. The authors assert that for the group who is not presently ADL-impaired, there is a correlation between their NORA, or "private religious activity" [eg prayer, Bible study, etc.], and longer life. Now, one has to look even at this criteria and think of what stratified the earlier flawed study -- people who can still be active [such as attending church services] are healthier. Why is this any different? In fact, as the authors assent, the major difference in the ADL/ADL-impaired, and the root cause of them looking at this distinction, is that some people only become privately religious upon losing their capacity for healthy/normal ADL.

A similar case is a study looking at nuns whose predeliction of Alzheimer's is correlated to handwriting analysis in their younger years -- they showed that those with stronger writing skills as a younger woman were less likely to develop Alzheimer's later. Are writing skills a "protective effect"? Were we "designed" to write well, and when we don't, we suffer? [as you say with worship of God] Or, is this another case where we are observing an effect [already have organic brain processing issues, whatever] in their poor writing, which manifests later as Alzheimer's?

In the same sense, are the people who pray and read their Bible not mentally [and possibly otherwise] healthier just because they are capable of maintaining a disciplined routine, and/or reading regimen, and have the emotional health to keep plugging at developing "spirituality" and their religion? Do you see?

The real issues are that you cannot tell whether or not these people are benefitting from what they do, or that they do what they do because they are already healthier. Thus...

cum hoc, ergo propter hoc

This fallacy is common in correlative studies of many kinds. I can pull lots of them out to try to "prove" that global warming is the result of the wrath of the FSM, who punishes us because the number of pirates is in decline, and that global warming correlates inversely to the number of pirates.

OK, I gotta run, I write more about this later. For now, I posted the full PDF to my website. Look it over. Copyright laws apply.

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I apologize for the Jeebus remark. That was immature of me.

Kaffinator said...

Hi Danny,

I don’t mean to put words in your mouth. So, let me ask you point blank, do you mean to say that religious faith has a generally good, bad, or neutral effect on physical health?

Your critique emphasizes the fact that ADL-impaired elderly may not yet have bought the farm but they have certainly made a hefty down-payment. But nobody really expects a bedridden 80 year old to start doing backflips simply because she started reading Isaiah. In the words of they study, religious activity in this case may come “too late to show a protective effect against mortality”.

What you really must explain is the strong correlation between pre-impairment religious activity and the significant reduction in mortality rate. It is true that it can be difficult to determine which factor caused which, and whether a third factor might be involved. Of course, social researchers not unaware of the cum hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, which is why they “control” out as many known factors as possible in order to test a new hypothesis.

In this case, you suggest that both Bible reading and longevity might be caused by a third factor, the ability to maintain a disciplined routine. How would you measure that exactly? You might measure it by examining discipline in health practices. But, whoops for you, the authors already controlled for that, and the effect remained.

If you really want to criticize the research on this sort of ground, you will have to find a way to measure “ability to maintain a disciplined routine” and produce a study that illustrates the linkages. Otherwise you’re just throwing out wild suggestions that may or may not be valid. On the other hand, I must admit that a bumper sticker reading “save the earth, hug a pirate” has a certain twisted appeal.

I accept your apology concerning Jeebus remarks in the spirit it was intended. May I also ask for your watchfulness? If you catch me descending into any undue disrespect, will you call me to account for it? Thank you.

Bruce said...

Kaff, I didn't think that your remark about atheists believing that religion is bad for people was specifically directed toward personal health. In other words, I didn't think that "bad for people" implied "bad for a person's health" but rather "bad for society as a whole". Thus, I replied in kind with a general critique of religion's effects on society. And I think Brother Danny has made it clear that he didn't intend for that meaning either. Actually, I thought that you were the one switching the discussion and I was just playing along.

Another thing I just noticed about this study is that they used frequency of attendance of religious services as the baseline for their study. This study does not make a comparison between religious faith and non-faith, but rather between people who attend church at least once a week versus people who attend church less than once a week or not at all.

do you mean to say that religious faith has a generally good, bad, or neutral effect on physical health?

From the study you cited, we cannot answer this question because the study doesn't measure faith but rather frequency of church attendance. Personally, I think that if people are generally happy then they will take better care of themselves and thus they will be healthier. If believing in God makes you happy, great. But there are plenty of other things that can make people happy and I think those have just as big an impact on health as religion. So I'll answer that religion can have the same positive effect on health that other activities can have, but it is not a prerequisite for good health.

Let's go back to your original question for a moment:

Mr. Atheist, if you had your wish and all of the Christians in the United States suddenly joined you, the result would be that ...

Well, according to this web site, the percentage of adults in the US that go to church at least once a week is 44% (and even this number is suspect because people tend to inflate their numbers when self reporting their church attendance frequency). But let's assume it is 44%. That's still an awful lot of religious people who have apparently already joined us, at least as far as this study is concerned.

And your question is a straw man. Our wish isn't that suddenly all Christians become atheists. Besides, this scenario is not going to happen in the first place. We want people to come to that decision based on their own logic and reasoning. And as people become less religious, my guess is that social institutions will develop to replace the remaining needs that religion fullfills today (just look at some of those countries which are much less religious than the US but have better quality of life indicators). You can't force these things, it is a natural progression.

Kaffinator said...

OK it's getting late in my time zone so forgive me for a little goofiness...

>Actually, I thought that you were the one switching the discussion and I was just playing along.

Actually this whole conversation has a context which Danny, myself, and other posters have been engaging upon. You, however, chose to bring up the religious war canard. But I'm glad you chose to leave it behind for now.

>From the study you cited, we cannot answer this question because the study doesn't measure faith but rather frequency of church attendance.

I regret phrasing the question in that way. It should have read "religious activity". I should also reiterate that it was not directed at the study but at Danny. The two studies we have been looking at are merely representative of a large number of other studies that say the same sorts of things.

>If believing in God makes you happy, great.

If you really believed this then you would not be going out of your way to "Debunk Christianity", now would you?

>But there are plenty of other things that can make people happy and I think those have just as big an impact on health as religion.

What are those things specifically, and can you demonstrate that they have as big an impact as religious adherence? Or is this just a totally unsupported guess?

>We want people to come to that decision based on their own logic and reasoning.

Nor should Christians want to force our beliefs on others. But I am presenting evidence that if everybody in America magically became Christian, it would be a better place, and if they all magically became secularists, it would be a worse place.

>And as people become less religious, my guess is that social institutions will develop to replace the remaining needs that religion fullfills today.

Ah, your solution to the failure of secularism to produce altrustic behavior is...government programs. Very good! For example, when people in America abandon the convenantal religious components of marriage, your solution is to raise more taxes to pay for those wonderful state-sponsored "health and family services" agencies that awkwardly trip in to clean up the psychological messes we evacuate all over ourselves. Where do I sign up?

It seems like you want to debate whether we try to get out of a very deep hole with a ladder or a rope, while I suggest, how about we please just stop digging?

Daniel said...

let me ask you point blank, do you mean to say that religious faith has a generally good, bad, or neutral effect on physical health?
Neutral. Physical health is not affected by belief systems, but by genetics, diet, and exercise.

Your critique emphasizes the fact that ADL-impaired elderly may not yet have bought the farm but they have certainly made a hefty down-payment. But nobody really expects a bedridden 80 year old to start doing backflips simply because she started reading Isaiah. In the words of they study, religious activity in this case may come “too late to show a protective effect against mortality”.
But I think you miss the point. Why shouldn't these people's lives be extended by the activity, regardless of their current health status, if the activity confers longevity?

The crux of the issue is that the authors found a subset of the population for whom they found a statistically significant (I haven't been able yet to analyze their stats, but these are MDs, not sociologists or statistiticans) correlation. It should be explicitly pointed out that anything can be correlated to some subset of a population. That's the real problem here -- you can always find correlations, but do they mean anything?

My point about the ADL - unimpaired group is that there has to be some underlying cause for the observed effect (longevity), but there is no logical reason to conclude that reading their Bibles makes them live longer. I find it much more likely that they read their Bibles because they are already mentally, emotionally, or socially healthier, in the ability to maintain this habit and discipline and the mental prowess it requires.

No, they didn't control for these latter things. They can't. The social factors they refer to are demographic and based on race and poverty, etc.

The fact that the authors have to stratify their sample into subsets in order to find a meaningful correlation undermines any general claim that if people deconverted, we'd witness some decline in longevity. It is obvious that no such simple correlation exists. Therefore, your premise is falsified.

I find myself strongly agreeing with Bruce's sentiment. If it makes people happy, whatever. I am not going to convert anyone, nor are John et al, by this website. We pretty much figure on mostly engaging with thoughtful theists to examine their arguments. Very few "shaky Christians" go around reading websites like this to "help them" to deconvert. I sure didn't. John has a link in the sidebar [two, actually] that examine why some of us are here, and what our motives and backgrounds are. For me, I actually want to learn more about the arguments for and against Xianity, theism, and atheism. It's that simple. I am, believe it or not, interested in the truth value of every position, and I do my best to keep my a priori commitments from preventing me from evaluating the truth value of other positions...of course, I can't say I, nor anyone else, can perfectly do this.

Kaffinator said...

Well Danny, I think it’s time for concluding remarks on this thread. Let me say, this has been a satisfying discussion for me on many levels.

At one level, we have remained relatively civilized with one another despite our contrasting positions, which in the blogosphere these days is something of a feat in and of itself.

At another level, you have granted me the premise of my argument, that if religious (in this country, primarily Christian) activity indeed leads to the numerous positive effects I claimed, then it might indeed be “more ethical” to promote it rather than detract from it. Remember, detracting from religion in general and Christianity in particular is the stated mission of this site (from the Policy page, “We believe Christianity is wrong, false, and incorrect as a system of belief and as a basis for behavior.”)

At the most deeply satisfying level, our discussion focused on the research. You pointed out some flaws in a study I referenced, and graciously provided more sound footing for me with another study that takes those flaws into account.

Does religious activity associate with increased longevity? The study we examined looked at the data and concluded, yes. You say, no.

You objected that religious activity should have helped ADL-impaired elderly, but the study accounted for this by suggesting that it is long-term religious involvement that leads to measurable health benefits. In a similar way, we would not expect the cessation of smoking to help someone in the throes of terminal lung cancer.

You also objected that “you can always find correlations, but do they mean anything?” Well, when a correlation is significant and survives control for known causative factors, yes it does mean something. That why studies are done in the first place! It means one causes the other or a third thing causes both. Neither you nor the study identified a conclusive, measurable third factor, so the research stands in support of my position.

Of course this study was just one of many we might have examined that confirm strong correlations between religiosity and health. Your position, on the other hand, must be maintained against the factual data, by … faith? That would make your posts … a religious activity? Perhaps by engaging in religious activity you are secretly hoping to confer upon yourself the same health benefits that openly religious people receive? If so, I invite you back into the Church where you can share in a healthful view of God without all the messy self contradiction :-)

Joking aside, we see that the secularist apologetic openly pursues the stripping of religion from human life, believing religions to be false and damaging (from the Policy page, “any system of belief that is wrong will produce ill effects for the believer, his or her family, their country, and the world as a whole”). This is not a kindly “live and let live”, “hey whatever works for you” position. The secularist advocates change. So he must explain, in the irreligious utopia he advocates, how the needs of the human spirit will be met without religion. Or, he must face the fact that he is, in his own view, replacing something bad with something worse, an immoral course of action by any standard.

Bruce said...

>If believing in God makes you happy, great.

If you really believed this then you would not be going out of your way to "Debunk Christianity", now would you?

Just because it makes you happy doesn't mean that there aren't better alternatives. And I don't think religion automatically makes everyone happy. I think it has the potential to make people miserable as well. So it is a win-win situation. Happy Christians will be even happier once they let go of God and unhappy Christians will finally know happiness.

But my main concern with Christianity and other religions isn't necessarily their effects on their believers but rather their effects on others. This would include all those other factors you got so bent out of shape about earlier. So while religious belief might have some positive health effect for some people, I think it has a broader negative effect on society as a whole.

>But there are plenty of other things that can make people happy and I think those have just as big an impact on health as religion.

What are those things specifically, and can you demonstrate that they have as big an impact as religious adherence? Or is this just a totally unsupported guess?


Just as big a guess as you are making about religious activity because you have presented no credible evidence to support your claims as Brother Danny has already pointed out.

What is one of those things? Well, I would say that exercise is a big one. And guess what, exercise makes me happy. I feel better about myself, I like what I see in the mirror, I am able to do fun things that people who are out of shape cannot do and I won't be burdened (cross my fingers) with significant health problems as I grow older. I exercise "religiously" and I love it.

Yes, I think a person's overall level of happiness can contribute to their well being, but I also think that happiness for each person is different and can also change over time. The main point is that happiness itself be maximized. It doesn't matter how you get your happiness but rather that you get it. If you really think that religion is the most importand form of happiness, you've got to have much better evidence than you have presented so far.

Ah, your solution to the failure of secularism to produce altrustic behavior is...government programs.

I've looked over my post several times now and I cannot find anywhere where I said that government programs would replace the roles of churches? FYI, social institutions do not necessarily equal government programs.

Personally, I think that one of the main reasons people go to church is to be with other people who share similar interests. I can definitely relate to this, it is a very nice feeling to be around others who think the way you do (hence the popularity of sites like this). So, if some sort of Secular Humanist institution were to form here (with no government support) in my city and offer weekend "services", I would most likely go for the same reasons as people go to church.
And guess what? I even donate money to secular institutions right now, even though I don't get the benefits of physically being there. Just think how much more money I would give if I could show up every weekend!

Another example. One of the things I really enjoy doing is playing basketball. There is a local gym which has a few "over 30" nights where we older guys can get together and play. We have all become friends and it is a lot of fun. So instead of going to church every Sunday morning (or whenever you go), why not participate in an athletic activity where you can develop friendships with others who share your interest? Not only do you get the camaraderie provided by church but you also get the health benefits of exercise.

Kaffinator said...

> Just as big a guess as you are making about religious activity because you have presented no credible evidence to support your claims as Brother Danny has already pointed out.

My “guess” comes in the form of a study which was published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. I addressed Danny’s objections above and none of them seem to hold any water.

I’m honestly glad you are having a good time playing basketball with friends. Let me make it clear, I am not saying that you or anyone else should go to church simply because it confers a health benefit. If you’re looking for physical health, certainly, eat less and exercise more.

I am simply pointing out that religiosity is associated with what I would define as good all-around health (financial, social, moral, physical, etc.), whereas a lack of religiosity seems to be associated with worse statistics in the same areas. Hence the atheist’s dilemma; he advocates a lack of religiosity even though it is demonstrably bad for people, yet he irreconcilably wishes to continue to think of himself as “moral”.

In posing the question I wondered how atheists grapple with this dilemma. Now I know. They pretend the data isn’t there.

Daniel said...

Kaff,

I'll respond at length tomorrow, as I have a big meeting tonight. Suffice it to say in the meanwhile that I am going to find a few more recent critiques, including the Swedish team's, which make more clear [and authoritative] the point that no magic tonic exists, and the studies which implicate it are flawed, or fall prey to cum hoc thinking, as there is always a primary cause other than the "variable" studied.

At another level, you have granted me the premise of my argument, that if religious (in this country, primarily Christian) activity indeed leads to the numerous positive effects I claimed, then it might indeed be “more ethical” to promote it rather than detract from it.
I said if your premise holds water, it MAY be more ethical to promote it...

A big IF and MAY, which you needn't twist into the context you did above by saying I "granted your premise"

As I said, I'm going to use research, not faith [smartass] to prove your premise is flawed. I'll be back ;)

Bruce said...

In posing the question I wondered how atheists grapple with this dilemma. Now I know. They pretend the data isn’t there.

No pretending, it just isn't there, at least not from this study. The study was flawed and we are not convinced that you can even draw the positive correlations between religious activity and health in the specific instances it claims to find. There are too many other variables (which they have not controlled for) that could influence their results. And Brother Danny gave various references that either disputed the study or gave alternative explanations for the findings. No sir, this study is not the smoking gun you are looking for.

By the way, I missed something from your earlier post, where you said

I am presenting evidence that if everybody in America magically became Christian, it would be a better place, and if they all magically became secularists, it would be a worse place.

I think you are taking your argument too far based on the study you linked to. You are only presenting evidence that if people go to church at least once a week then they will have better health. So it is not that they magically become Christians, but rather that they magically feel compelled to attend church at least once a week (and I didn't see where Christianity was specified as the religion in this study). Besides, the overwhelming majority of people in this country already consider themselves Christian. They just don't like to go to church.

Does the study differentiate between Christianty (and all its various sects), Mormons, Muslims, or Scientologists? That was one of my first critiques of this study, that they didn't break it down to find out which religion offers the best health and if any offer worse health. As far as you know, Protestants could have a lower average than atheists but Catholics could have such a higher rate of good health that it makes the average for all people who attend once a week higher than for non-frequent attenders. If this were the case, then you would have to conclude that Protestantism is bad for your health and Catholocism is good. So how you can imply that "Christianity" is the gateway to good health based on this study is beyond me?

Maybe your assuming that since the study is based on a segment of the US population that the majority will be Christian? Are there any places in the US where the majority is not Christian or where there is a significant minority religion? Let's do the same study in those places and see what we get for results (again, broken down by religious affiliation). Or why limit it to the US, when we have the whole world as our test tube? My guess is that in many parts of the world, Christianity is going to do a lot worse.

But to be fair, you did qualify your statement with "if everybody in America magically became Christian". But I'm curious as to why the qualifier? If Christianity would be better for everyone's health here in America, then why wouldn't it be better for everyone's health everywhere else? Or would different religions be better for different people depending on where you are? Should Christians convert to Islam in Muslim countries just for their health (actually, since most Muslims pray several times a day and are pretty serious about attending services on a regular basis, according to this study, it might be better if Americans converted to Islam as well, since a lot of Christians don't feel compelled to go to church that often).

I am simply pointing out that religiosity is associated with what I would define as good all-around health (financial, social, moral, physical, etc.), whereas a lack of religiosity seems to be associated with worse statistics in the same areas.

So where is your supporting evidence for financial, social and moral issues? I agree that "good all-around health" includes all of these factors and more, but the study you linked to does not address good all-around health but rather personal health indicators which lead to some survival advantage in certain cases. Remember how you admonished me earlier:

"Bruce, Bruce, Bruce. We were talking about health"

So did you mean health as in "personal health factors such as blood pressure, depression, anxiety, life expectancy and such" or did you mean health as in "good all-around health (financial, social, moral, physical, etc.)"? These are two different things and as far as I can see, the study only deals with one of them.

Hence the atheist’s dilemma; he advocates a lack of religiosity even though it is demonstrably bad for people, yet he irreconcilably wishes to continue to think of himself as “moral”.

I'm going to take the liberty of assuming that you mean bad as in bad for our "all-around health (financial, social, moral, physical, etc.)". If you want to make that argument, fine, but you have in no way given any evidence to support that claim (as I just showed above) and it seems to be nothing more than a "totally unsupported guess". Sorry, but you can't take one study with claims about the personal health benefits of frequent religious attendance on a very specific portion of the population and extrapolate that religion will cure all of society's ills.

Kaffinator said...

Bruce, thanks for the comments but due to time committments I'm going to have to let my case rest for now. Besides, like I said, I've asked my question and I have my answer. Thanks for participating.

Bruce said...

Agreed, it's got to end sometime.

Like I said, I've asked my question and I have my answer.

The question was a loaded straw man based on the faulty research of one study. But if you're satisfied?

Thanks for participating.

No problem.

Bruce said...

Wait, I just reanalyzed the data and I have some exciting news!

As we know, the study consisted of two groups: those who attend church at least once a week and those who don't. I have no problem assuming that almost everyone in the first group is religious. But seeing as how atheists make up about 10% of the US population, yet 56% of adults don't go to church at least once a week, the large majority of the second group is comprised of religious people as well.

So I went back and re-evaluated the data, this time taking religious affiliation into account. Kaff was right, it turns out that those who attend church at least once a week did have a higher life expectancy than those who don't. But most atheists don't appreciate being clumped into the same group with people who claim to be religious but don't like to go to church, so I separated the atheists from the religious in the second group.

Turns out that the atheists in the second group had an even higher life expectancy than the religious people in the high frequency group (good news for us)! So why did the study show that the second group had an overall lower life expectancy? Well you see, God is so angry at the majority of Christians in this country that pay lip service to His greatness but yet can't find the time to go to church once a week that He is punishing them with really bad health. In fact, their health is so bad that when you lump their averages in with the superior health of the atheists, they bring the total average health numbers of the second group down below the first.

It's amazing what you can find when you control for all the variables.

Kaffinator said...

LOL

Daniel said...

Bruce,

May I ask where you got your data from? I'd be interested in using it, if it is reliable.

Regards,
D

Bruce said...

Danny, I can't tell if you are being serious or not, but I was merely having some fun with the study to make a point. From what I can tell, they didn't control for religious affiliation (or lack thereof) but rather just if people went to services at least once a week. If they did, then I would be very interested to see which religions are better for your health and which if any might be detrimental. But if they didn't, then there is no way to support the assertion that Christianity, or any religion in particular, would be better for everyone's health from this study (as my made up example demonstrates).

But seriously, if you are going to go to all the trouble of doing a study about religious influence on health, wouldn't you want to know which religion offers the best protection?

I just thought of something else. The study makes the case that attending religious services at least once a week benefits your health. How many times have we been told that atheism is a religion? Thus, everytime I attend some secular event, I am basically getting the same benefits as a religious person who attends church!

Kaffinator said...

By the way, Danny, here is a summary article you might find interesting.

Bruce said...

Kaff, that summary article is indeed more interesting. And I'm not disagreeing that religion can bring happiness/hope to some people which can indeed positively influence their health. What I disagree with is the assumption that religion is the only/best way to positively influence health. And I definitely don't think that you can make any specific claim about Christianity in particular because the research just hasn't been done (as I will explain below).

After a quick look through the new article, it seems to me that most of the studies they refer to still use a baseline of frequency instead of merely faith, similar to the other study you gave us. I do find it very interesting why they continue to clump atheists and religious people who don't go to church together into one group. Honestly, if you want to prove that religion has a positive effect on health, then you have to look at atheists as a separate group, it just makes logical sense. The religious non-church goers could indeed be dragging us down and we wouldn't even know it :-) But seriously, I really wonder why they keep clumping us together? It almost makes me suspicious that the results might not be what they are looking for.

And it also makes sense to break the data down by religious affiliation as well, which I didn't see in this new article either. It may be that some affiliations are worse than others or even atheism but the overall average of all religions is higher. This would definitely be an important thing to know. If that were the case, then you definitely couldn't say that religion in general is better for you. You would be forced to make judgements about various religions, which I am guessing might be a reason they don't break these studies down by religious affiliation, it would be politically and religiously incorrect to pit religion vs religion.

If you want to clump atheists and religious people who don't go to church into one group and compare them with people who do go to church, then you are introducing confounding variables. In other words, we don't know if it is religious faith or merely the act of going to church regularly that is the influencing factor. Can an atheist go to church every week and get the same benefits?

Similarly, how do you define "attending religious services"? Is it merely sitting in a church and going through the motions or do you have to actively participate in some way, and if so, how much? Do the services have to last for a certain amount of time? Can you even measure such a thing in the first place? Unless this is well defined, it is impossible to say that "attending religious services" once a week is good for you because it is possible that some types of religious services are actually bad for you, but the average comes out ahead.

Danny already linked to this, but I will link to it again because Richard Sloan does a much better job of explaining the various problems with these types of studies then I can.

Let me just reiterate, I do think that religion can have a positive influence on some people's health. Again, I just don't think that it is the only/best way for a healthier life and I don't think that a transition to atheism will have the adverse health effects you claim we will suffer. And until we get better studies that can eliminate all of those confounding variables (if ever we really can), I'm going to have to remain skeptical of anyone claiming that religion itself is the biggest factor in our personal health.

Kaffinator said...

> And I'm not disagreeing that religion can bring happiness/hope to some people which can indeed positively influence their health.

So, would you then commend religious practice to people in general? Or advise against it like the hosts of this website?

> What I disagree with is the assumption that religion is the only/best way to positively influence health.

If, in the heat of battle, I claimed that religion was "the biggest factor" influencing physical health then I need to retract. That's not really what I'm trying to say. A good analogy might be that with regards to physical health, religious activity is like a sort of non-essential nutrient. Strictly speaking, you can get along without it but life is so much better with it.

You also expressed some puzzlement over the fact that no breakdown by actual religious beliefs was made. Maybe I can help you out there. Researchers are not attempting to prove God exists, or weigh the relative truth values of one faith over another’s. No scientific study can even attempt to address such questions because the rules of scientific engagement do not permit metaphysical claims to be evaluated. All that researchers can evaluate is the measurable health effects of measurable religious behaviors. You can’t directly measure someone’s faith in Jesus. But you can easily measure how often they go to church.

> Can an atheist go to church every week and get the same benefits?

Try it out and see :-)

> Is it merely sitting in a church and going through the motions or do you have to actively participate in some way, and if so, how much? Do the services have to last for a certain amount of time?

We call these “opportunities for future research”. But for now, weekly church attendance is a fair measure of actual religious adherence. I don’t believe that sitting in a pew for an hour is “the thing”, rather that religious adherence itself (and all of its side effects) is what enhances health and wholeness.

Bruce said...

I don’t believe that sitting in a pew for an hour is “the thing”, rather that religious adherence itself (and all of its side effects) is what enhances health and wholeness.

Yes, I completely agree, "attending religious services" is not just the act of going to church but rather the whole religious experience, which includes faith. That is the problem with studies such as these. You can't separate faith from religious services, it is an integral part of the whole experience. Thus, to answer my own question, an atheist probably won't get the benefits of regular church attendance because he is missing the vital faith part of the experience. But I have a feeling we both already knew that answer. What we don't know from these studies is whether atheists get even better health benefits from not attending services at all.

Let me try to give one more example. The overwhelming majority of atheists are not going to sit through a church service once a week. Thus, the overwhelming majority of atheists are going to be very close to 0 times per week, if not exactly 0 times per week for frequency of attending religious services. The deck is already stacked against atheists in this study because there is little to no chance that they will go to church at least once a week but yet that is the baseline in the study. It's like measuring the health effects associated with going to a country club once a week, but all the country clubs in the study are "whites only" and yet you still include minorities in the dataset.


But for now, weekly church attendance is a fair measure of actual religious adherence.


No, it's not. Religious adherence means more than just "sitting in a pew" once a week. It's not like measuring whether someone exercises for 30 minutes a day. There are components to religious adherence that can't be measured. If you want to argue that they are only measuring "frequency of church attendance" and have completely separated the faith aspect from that measurement, then indeed sitting in a pew is the thing and we can all safely be atheists just as long as we go through the motions.

Daniel said...

Kaff,

Again, thanks for the thoughtful discourse. Enough has been said so that I have little left to say. In closing, I want to cite from the abstract of the paper I cited earlier critizing all studies with poor statistical methodology:
The first is inferring a factor is causal because it predicts an outcome even after "statistical control" for other factors. This inference is fallacious when (as usual) such control involves removing the linear contribution of imperfectly measured variables, or when some confounders remain unmeasured. The converse fallacy is inferring a factor is not causally important because its association with the outcome is attenuated or eliminated by the inclusion of covariates in the adjustment process. This attenuation may only reflect that the covariates treated as confounders are actually mediators (intermediates) and critical to the causal chain from the study factor to the study outcome. Other problems arise due to mismeasurement of the study factor or outcome, or because these study variables are only proxies for underlying constructs. Statistical adjustment serves a useful function, but it cannot transform observational studies into natural experiments, and involves far more subjective judgment than many users realize.

As you previously admitted, reading the Bible, attending services, prayer, and the like are not magic tonics. I don't know exactly what you will admit, but numerous studies have failed to document any kind of meaningful correlation between any particular faith and health. Demographic considerations have shown that by country, the US is the most highly Christian of every Western democracy. Furthermore, the South is the most highly Christian part of the US. However, murder rates and longevity are worst in the US, and specifically in the South. Now, before we get into it, I am not advancing an argument that religion is bad for you. I am pointing out, however, that studies such as yours, limited in scope, without controlling for a specific religion or "faith statement", tell us very little about the persons involved which would support your contention about "worshipping God = good for you". For instance, lets pull a chunk from the results section of the paper:
In physical and mental health measures, only those reporting negative life events occurring in the year prior to survey were less likely to be rare to never participants in prayer, meditation, or Bible studies. Odds of impaired function, history of chronic health conditions, and depression were not significantly different between higher and lower frequency participants. Interestingly, those who were married were much more likely to be in the rarely to never category. Other than marital status, those with a higher score on social contact measures were more often in the higher frequency category. As expected, alcohol and smoking were much higher in the rarely to never group. Although no significant correlation was found with the lowest quintile in body mass index, the highest quintile showed a higher frequency of participation. Overall, correlations were in the expected direction and consistent with previous research.
1) this contradicts your assertion about depression being higher in the "good Christian" group
2) this makes clear that OTHER risky behaviors (alcohol and smoking) are associated with the group that has [surprise surprise] a lower longevity score
3) this study assures us that these are consistent with other studies

Because declining health has been associated with increased private religiousness (14,15), our analysis was stratified by ADL impairment. The purpose was to distinguish between those praying in a foxhole (i.e., offering prayer in times of need at the end of life) and those who may have had a long-term habit of private devotionals more likely to positively affect physical health.
This is the very sort of piss-poor methodology that receives criticism. By excluding ADL-impaired persons, those persons may or may not have been praying, reading, etc., for YEARS prior to, and up through their impairment. The authors present no data to the otherwise, because they did not survey previous activity! So, if there is some "protective effect", these people would never have become ADL-impaired, get it?

The authors admit this:
Thus, the milder effects of private religious activities on mortality are more detectable among those persons who are relatively healthy. Future studies may want to ask how long a person has been engaged in private religious activity, to determine if habits begun after the onset of ADL impairment are begun too late to show a survival benefit.
How ridiculous is this, Kaff? Religion only helps you if you're already healthy??? As I said, show me a study which takes the long-term habits into account and shows us that the ADL-impaired group maybe weren't all lifelong, devout, NORA-habitual Xians. You can't raise clenched fists in victory with such a group of people excluded from the survey, who make up over half of the sample size!. It's throwing out data that don't fit your preconceived notion, and it doesn't work, Kaff.

Possibly most important of all of this is the number crunch:
Those who reported rare participation in private religious activities were more likely to die during the follow-up period than those who did not, but this association disappeared for the group as a whole once known risks for mortality were included (RH 1.08, 95% CI 0.90–1.30).
Note that a value of 1 = identical "relative hazard" (or risk) to the other group studied. They found in analyzing the data set as a whole, that there was a possible 8% difference in relative hazard, but given a 95% confidence interval, the range covers a large portion of the "risk group" which actually had a lower likelihood of dying (0.9 to 1). In statistics, looking at the entire sample is the most reliable and intellectually honest [eg meaningful] analysis. Authors often introduce, at this point, "models" which may be worthless or grand, depending. They introduce these "models" to see if the effects they are looking for emerge, if they change the controls.

This is just what the authors did, by excluding persons whose ADL (activity rate) was already "impaired":
In the stratified models, similar results were obtained for the ADL impaired group (n 5 2,058; Table 1). However, a significant survival advantage was seen for those reporting private religious activity among the ADL unimpaired group (n5 1,793; Table 1). The increased hazard remained statistically significant for this group after controlling for demographic and health variables (RH 1.63, 95% CI 1.20–2.21), and this effect persisted after further controlling for explanatory variables, including health practices, social support, and other religious practices (RH 1.47, 95% CI 1.07–2.03).

Note the authors' admission of weakness in the study:
One significant limitation of this study was the lack of specificity for the private religious activity variable, which asks about “prayer, meditation, or Bible study.” Although meditation is not typical of Southern Protestant religious observance, sample members were likely reporting both on prayer and Bible study, and may have been including in the category of prayer even brief ritualistic prayer before meals. Future studies should both separate prayer from other types of private devotionals and distinguish between different types or dimensions of prayer. Other limitations included the lack of data on both the nutrition and exercise levels of sample members. Additionally, the predominantly Protestant nature of this population precludes generalizability to non-Protestant populations.
97.3% of the participants were Protestant, Kaff, and 1.4% "atheist or had no religious association". Did the authors show us the data on the atheists separated from the 97%? Nope. How many of the atheists got lumped in with "halfhearted Xians"? [as Bruce already pointed out] all of them. Thus, there is no control here for religious beliefs, faith, etc. A poor study to try to make a point from regarding atheism, Kaff.

Furthermore, a study which cited this one made the point that:
Purpose: This study investigated the use of private prayer among middle-aged and older patients as a way of coping with cardiac surgery and prayer's relationship to optimism. Design and Methods: The measure of prayer included three aspects: (a) belief in the importance of private prayer, (b) faith in the efficacy of prayer on the basis of previous experiences, and (c) intention to use prayer to cope with the distress associated with surgery. The sample was 246 patients awaiting cardiac surgery. The first in-person interview was administered 2 weeks before surgery and optimism was measured the day before surgery by telephone. Results: Private prayer predicted optimism, along with older age, better socioeconomic resources, and healthier affect. Neither measures of general religiosity nor any type of prayers used by patients were associated with optimism. Implications: Suggestions were made for clinicians to improve spiritual assessment and care, and for researchers to address spiritual coping in clinical situations.

Whatta ya know? When people are optimistic, they are healthier. And, general religiosity and type of prayer do not correlate to optimism! A study giving ground to my accusation of cum hoc, ergo propter hoc, where here, we see an unsurprising primary cause -- optimism. Sorry, Kaff, but there are simply no reliable studies which show atheists as any less healthy than christians. And, knowing science as I do, you better not hold your breath hoping that genetics, diet, exercise, and mental health [positive outlook falls here] aren't the forces keeping one healthy, rather than your God. Your God doesn't respond so well to prayer, and magic tonics aren't His bag. You should stick with the reliable suppliers of health -- scientific healers, not religious ones.

The best you can do is to say from this flawed study that some who habitually [infer "disciplined"] read, pray, attend church, etc., who are not impaired at the time of the study, tend to live longer. Given that 97.3% of ALL respondents were Protestant, this tells us very little about the atheist community (1.4% of 3976 is 56 people, hardly a sample size that can tell us anything). So, let's look at a study which does separate large groups of atheists from Christians. I haven't been able to find one in my prelim searches. Anyone?

I'm very interested in following the evidence, wherever it leads. Are you?

Kaffinator said...

Hi Danny,

> However, murder rates and longevity are worst in the US, and specifically in the South.

In this thread we are speaking about the effect of religious activity on physical health. Murder is hardly relevant. In addition a number of other factors will affect mortality rates for people in a given region (such as a propensity toward fried foods?). The goal of a scientific study should be to isolate and control for those factors. Without accounting for those factors, your correlation between Southern religion and Southern mortality means nothing.

> Now, before we get into it, I am not advancing an argument that religion is bad for you. I am pointing out, however, that studies such as yours, limited in scope, without controlling for a specific religion or "faith statement", tell us very little about the persons involved which would support your contention about "worshipping God = good for you".

As I explained above, researchers there are not interested in proving or disproving a religion. They are simply looking for practices which have a correlation to health.

> 1) this contradicts your assertion about depression being higher in the "good Christian" group

Remember, this study looks only at “private religious participation”. This is a subset of religious activities, and depression wasn’t the key focus of the study. I would look to studies that specifically seek data on depression before forming any conclusions.

> 2) this makes clear that OTHER risky behaviors (alcohol and smoking) are associated with the group that has [surprise surprise] a lower longevity score

This doesn’t surprise anyone, including the study authors, who controlled for health practices before forming their conclusion.

> 3) this study assures us that these are consistent with other studies

I’m not sure which correlations they are referring to in that statement, there are no references provided, and the statement is qualified with “overall”. You’re grasping at straws here, my friend.

> By excluding ADL-impaired persons, those persons may or may not have been praying, reading, etc., for YEARS prior to, and up through their impairment. The authors present no data to the otherwise, because they did not survey previous activity! So, if there is some "protective effect", these people would never have become ADL-impaired, get it?

No, they did not collect historical data on religious activities. This was a longitudinal study and so the protective effect would actually be observed as it was happening, which is more reliable than trying to reconstruct history. The "protective effect" is not hypothesized to guarantee immortality, only to reduce mortality. This effect was observed.

> As I said, show me a study which takes the long-term habits into account and shows us that the ADL-impaired group maybe weren't all lifelong, devout, NORA-habitual Xians.

Um, that is actually what the study authors asked too. No study can cover everything. That’s why the authors themselves suggested more study in that area.

> You can't raise clenched fists in victory with such a group of people excluded from the survey, who make up over half of the sample size!. It's throwing out data that don't fit your preconceived notion, and it doesn't work, Kaff.

They didn’t “throw out” the data on ADL-impaired. They reported it, noted it in their concluding paragraph, supplied reasons that would explain the data, and suggested follow-up studies.

> They introduce these "models" to see if the effects they are looking for emerge, if they change the controls.

In other words, you think they are cherry-picking. Well, the obvious solution to that is to replicate the study elsewhere. If similar effects are found then one’s confidence in the conclusion goes way up. So you might want to look up other similar studies before making this accusation.

> 97.3% of the participants were Protestant, Kaff, and 1.4% "atheist or had no religious association". Did the authors show us the data on the atheists separated from the 97%? Nope. How many of the atheists got lumped in with "halfhearted Xians"? [as Bruce already pointed out] all of them. Thus, there is no control here for religious beliefs, faith, etc. A poor study to try to make a point from regarding atheism, Kaff.

As you yourself noted later in your post, the atheist sample would have been too small to draw any conclusions, and this study was not designed to compare different faiths. How often are you going to criticize this study for not being something that its authors never intended it to be?

Next you are going to complain that you are hungry and that the study failed to be a banana.

> Whatta ya know? When people are optimistic, they are healthier.

Indeed. And when people have the kind of meaning and purpose in their lives that only God can provide, they tend to be optimistic! And when people are wandering around with no actual purpose and no future but a few fleeting pleasures and an eternity in the grave, they tend to be less optimistic. Now, which position is it that you are arguing for?

> And, general religiosity and type of prayer do not correlate to optimism! A study giving ground to my accusation of cum hoc, ergo propter hoc, where here, we see an unsurprising primary cause -- optimism.

Please support your contention that prayer and religiosity do not correlate to optimism. Most of the studies I can find on the topic indicate otherwise.

Daniel said...

In this thread we are speaking about the effect of religious activity on physical health. Murder is hardly relevant.
The study looked at longevity as well [not to mention the fact that murder rates and longevity are proportional]. I linked to it in the major post -- where I pointed out that a broader picture of the world shows that this longevity effect is obviously not replicated in other countries, which are all consistently less religious. Japan and the Scandinavian countries, with the highest percentage of atheists, just so happen to have the highest life expectancies. As you pointed out, we can't compare apples to oranges...

The problem you don't see is that your God is supposed to be universal. Unlike health care, diet, genetics, etc., if prayer "keeps people from dying younger" [longevity effect], it shouldn't just affect Americans, and especially not just those in good health, as the authors here admit their "observation" only applied to.

This is a subset of religious activities, and depression wasn’t the key focus of the study. I would look to studies that specifically seek data on depression before forming any conclusions.
You made the assertion in your original posting of this question that depression was involved, presumably, backed by this study. Here it is shown false.

This doesn’t surprise anyone, including the study authors, who controlled for health practices before forming their conclusion.
No, they threw out the set of people who were ADL-impaired, which may or may not include a huge chunk of the drinkers/smokers.

Manipulation of the data renders the interpretation highly suspect. Correlative studies that base their "corrections" for the covariates on "models" are always weak, whatever they conclude.

I’m not sure which correlations they are referring to in that statement, there are no references provided, and the statement is qualified with “overall”. You’re grasping at straws here, my friend.
No, I quoted the authors. They said that the above paragraph, including the incidence of depression, smoking, drinking, etc., were consistent in this study with other studies. Those who participate in NORA less are consistent with those who participate in ORA less -- they tend to drink/smoke more. There is also no correlation for depression, contrary to your assertion.

No, they did not collect historical data on religious activities. This was a longitudinal study and so the protective effect would actually be observed as it was happening, which is more reliable than trying to reconstruct history. The "protective effect" is not hypothesized to guarantee immortality, only to reduce mortality. This effect was observed.
No, it isn't. The authors wouldn't call it a weakness if it was so simple. part of mortality is in avoiding ADL-impairment, which is a strong predictor for mortality, as the authors admit here. If we can't correlate ORA/NORA to ADL-impairment, then we can't correlate mortality to ORA/NORA. They are obviously a causal chain.

They didn’t “throw out” the data on ADL-impaired. They reported it, noted it in their concluding paragraph, supplied reasons that would explain the data, and suggested follow-up studies.
Right. And over half of the sample size doesn't correlate to their conclusion.

In other words, you think they are cherry-picking.
I don't just "think it". It is as clear as the nose on your face.

So you might want to look up other similar studies before making this accusation.
Hardly an accusation -- it's an observation. And I wasn't the one bringing the hype about the study, so I don't need to "support it".

How often are you going to criticize this study for not being something that its authors never intended it to be?
Ah, but see, you said in the original question that I wanted Christians to convert to atheism, and you presupposed that the effect on longevity would follow. This is all about your own mischaracterization, not mine. Until you can support that atheists specifically have a lower longevity/higher mortality, your original question needs to be rephrased.

Indeed. And when people have the kind of meaning and purpose in their lives that only God can provide, they tend to be optimistic!
Or if they quit putting their hopes in empty boxes!

And when people are wandering around with no actual purpose and no future but a few fleeting pleasures and an eternity in the grave, they tend to be less optimistic. Now, which position is it that you are arguing for?
Neither of those. People choose their own purposes, obviously. You choose to believe that God somehow "gives" you yours, it appears. So much for freedom and individuality and the joy that come from that...

Please support your contention that prayer and religiosity do not correlate to optimism. Most of the studies I can find on the topic indicate otherwise.
Well, you'll have to argue with the authors of the paper I cited, not me:
Private Prayer and Optimism in Middle-Aged and Older Patients Awaiting Cardiac Surgery, The Gerontologist, 42:70-81 (2002)

Kaffinator said...

I mentioned a relationship with depression but it's true I cannot make the case for that with the study we've been discussing. I would have to turn to others and I have not done this.

Do you have a link to fulltext on the Gerontologist study? Quote:

Results: Private prayer predicted optimism, along with older age, better socioeconomic resources, and healthier affect. Neither measures of general religiosity nor any type of prayers used by patients were associated with optimism.

I cannot tell from the summary which measures of "general religiosity" were used.

Also I'm not sure what they mean by saying that "type of prayers" were not "associated with optimism" just after saying "private prayer predicted optimism".

Bruce said...

> And I'm not disagreeing that religion can bring happiness/hope to some people which can indeed positively influence their health.

So, would you then commend religious practice to people in general? Or advise against it like the hosts of this website?


Sorry Kaff, I should have answered this question since you asked it. I wasn't trying to avoid it, just overlooked it.

As I argued previously, you can't separate faith from religious practice. So when you recommend "religious practice" then you are in effect recommending religious faith, or what we can refer to as just plain old religion. So no, I wouldn't recommend religion to people in general.

I said that it can "bring happiness/hope to some people", not everyone. Happiness is more than your physical health and life expectancy. I would gladly sacrifice a few years to be free from all the guilt, oppression and mind control of religion. Would you join a cult that was fanatical about nutrition and exercise and thus was guaranteed to give you an extra 5 years of life but at the same time convinced you that you needed to give them all of your money and dedicate your life to spreading their word, even if this made you happy. Is the happiness of a complicit slave really happiness worth striving for? Granted, mainstream religions are not this extreme, but I think they still turn people into "happy slaves" to some extent.

Also, I think that the happiness that some people gain from relgion has a detrimental effect on others. In other words, one man's gain is another man's pain. So is it ethical to gain happiness at the expense of someone else? If religion could truly be a separate private sphere from the rest of society, then we probably wouldn't be having this conversation right now because religious belief would have absolutetly no affect on anything else. But of course, we both know that this is impossible. Faith definitely intrudes into almost every other realm of society.

Sure, if we all magically became Christians and we all believed exactly the same thing, then there would be no "victims" of religion because everyone would be happy with the rules as written by God. But is this really your ideal of a perfect society. I thought we valued diversity? I thought we valued our ability to reason and question those things we take as givens? Don't we have the ability and responsibility to consider all of the evidence and think for ourselves? Well, then even if there were a God, he should be perfectly fine with everyone coming to the conclusion that he doesn't exist if that is where the evidence leads us.

But again, if you think that you can separate faith from practice and it can be shown that practice will definitely give you better results, then yes, I would recommend practice. But since practice can be separated from faith, I would still recommend atheism. So I guess we both win :-)

Daniel said...

Kaff,

You need to get library access. Anyway, HERE is the full-text .pdf

The relevant excerpts:
Predictors of OptimismAs shown in Table 4 , the result of the one-way ANOVA did not support the long-held assumption of the direct effect of faith on optimism (Dull and Skokan 1995; James, 1901–1902/1978). No significant differences were indicated in optimism between patients with no religious preference and their religious counterparts.

Point one: optimism correlates to mental health, which correlates to physical health [this isn't implying any primacy in causation]. Optimism is not differentiated between religious and nonreligious persons. I am not surprised.

This study examined a measure of private prayer as a coping response and its ability to predict optimism prior to cardiac surgery. The results showed that the vast majority of middle-aged and older patients intended to use prayer and that this means of coping indeed predicted a positive attitude immediately before a major medical event. Because the past research linked both prayer and optimism to quality of life and cardiac health, the present study may suggest a pathway of healing through the link of active spiritual coping with a positive attitude. Although the use of private prayer predicted optimism prior to a medical crisis, optimism was not directly linked with any single specific type of prayer used by these patients. This finding implies that spiritually rooted active coping along with a patient's intention to survive may be more important than any content or type of prayer in sustaining their positive attitudes under the circumstance of a life crisis.

If the association between optimism and prayer is not surprising, then the absence of the traditionally assumed links between optimism and all religious measures may be a surprise. Although 90% of our sample was religious, this high prevalence did not predict optimism as shown in Model 3, Table 5 , after controlling for the effects of other demographic, socioeconomic, and health/mental health measures. By the same logic, the association of the prayer measure with optimism found in our study could not have occurred solely by chance. It should be noted that both organizational and nonorganizational religiosity was measured by frequency of religious activities. As mentioned earlier, Poloma and Pendleton 1991Citation speculated that the frequency of religious activities was not related to comfort. Our study provides a clinical case that these frequency measures, including that for prayer, were not associated with optimism. Thus, a general religiosity scale used in population studies may not be sensitive enough to identify the relationship between belief systems and successful coping outcomes in facing a medical crisis. Alternatively, the amount of time invested in religious activity may not guarantee one's positive attitudes in the face of life-altering events. These findings indicate the need for a better measure of religious practice that has sensitive predictive value to optimism and other outcome measures.


Point two: there was a correlation between prayer and optimism. However, the i) types of prayer didn't matter, ii) nor the type of religiosity.
i) There were two measures of prayer. First, three items from the new scale, Using Private Prayer as a Means for Coping, asked about the extent to which patients agreed with each of the following statements: (a) "Prayer is important in my life," (b) "Prayer does not help me to cope with difficulties and stress in my life" (reverse scored), and (c) "I will use private prayer to cope with difficulties and stress associated with my cardiac surgery." All three questions were asked on a 4-point Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree). Cronbach's alpha coefficient for the internal consistency of these three items was .85 in our sample. The score of this scale was the sum of the rating from the three items.

Second, a question addressed the content of private prayer ("What did you do when praying during the past month?") This question offered a yes/no response for four major types of prayer: (a) "reading a relevant book or reciting memorized prayers," (b) "making an informal conversation with God," (c) "addressing the accomplishment of spiritual or material needs," and (d) "meditating or thinking about or experiencing the divine, including hearing God's voice," as in Poloma and Gallup 1991Citation survey, as well as (e) other types of private prayer. Finally, we used one variable to sum up the types of prayer used by these patients to examine the extent of the variability in prayer.


ii) Patients were questioned about whether they were Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, other religion, or had no preference. The answer to this question was then dichotomized into another variable, religious identification (religion vs. nonreligion). General religiosity was measured with a three-factor religiosity scale that assessed organizational, nonorganizational, and subjective religious involvement (Chatters et al. 1992Citation; Levin et al. 1994Citation). Likert-type questions assessed frequencies or levels (ranging from 1 to 5 or to 6) of religious activities and the importance of religion to the patients. With the permission of one of the scale's authors, we made a few changes suited to the culture of this population. Subjective religiosity included two items (importance of religion and the degree of religiousness) and was considered to be the patient's self-appraisal of their religiousness. Nonorganizational religiosity included private religious activities (using private prayer, watching religious programs, reading religious books, and asking others to pray for oneself). Organizational religiosity included public religious activities (attendance at church services, importance of going to church, the extent to which people in the religious agency helped the patient, and attendance at other religious activities). For the internal consistency of these three subscales, Cronbach's alpha coefficients were .85, .75, and .87, respectively.

Point three: more interesting, age correlated to optimism, independently from socioeconomic and spiritual markers
It is noteworthy that senior patients in this sample appeared more likely to hold a positive attitude in the face of a medical crisis than did their younger counterparts. This effect was independent of other sources of optimism: socioeconomic, psychological, and spiritual. Within a culture that believes negative stereotypes of old age, this strength deserves the attention of health and mental health providers as well as gerontological researchers. The older patients' positive attitude may be related to their better preparation for life-threatening events, to their spiritual maturity with life-or-death issues, to some reasons for appreciating a longer life course, or to their retired status, which is less affected by job-related medical conditions than is that of their younger, employed counterparts. Is there a possibility that older age is related to positive attitudes in the general population regardless of the distress level people face? This appealing hypothesis can only be evident through well-designed, large, randomized sample studies

Nearly all of these studies leave us with the uneasy feeling of ambiguity, or even a "so what" attitude. General prayer predicts optimism? Perhaps atheists are more pessimistic, although, "general religiosity" never correlated [not inversely or directly] to optimism. They had non-religious persons, and that didn't correlate. Since the non-religious persons are lumped in with the religious persons, those who don't pray, in this study, we still have a lot of ambiguity. Further, they showed that older people were more optimistic, irrespective of religiosity.

Lots of question marks in this study, plus it is a relatively small sample (246). It doesn't matter whether you are religious, or what type of prayers you use, it seems general praying predicts optimism in this study. But, since religious and nonreligious are lumped (by their lack of prayer), it tells us little about the "wish fulfillment" question you posed in the beginning.

So, unless you have something substantial to say after this, I'm done in this thread.

You've yet to show us a health effect that clearly correlates to atheism versus christianity. We can go on and on all day about the ADL-unimpaired study, and the lower likelihood of mortality, but we've beaten the study to death. Let the readers make up their own minds as to the weaknesses and unanswered questions of these studies.

Suffice it to say, the study you originally cited was flawed. I found the follow-up, and in that study, 97.3% of their sample were Christian [Protestant, if I recall]. 1.4% reported no religion, and they were not separated from the group which was religious but didn't engage in NORA. Huge non sequitur in drawing conclusions about general health of theists/nontheists from such studies.

It seems that no study has been done which gives us clear data on the longevity/health of atheists, as a group, versus christians and other theists. If I'm wrong, I'd love to be corrected and pointed to the source. Therefore, your premise is unsupported. Good question, I learned a lot from it.

Daniel said...

update

CNN article about the relative sickness of the American population, specifically the middle-aged white ones, versus the same in England.

One funny thing to note is that the prevalence of religiously-devout, Christian, white middle-aged males in America is probably at a minimum 2:1 to England. No surprise to me.