Field of Science

Test your knowledge on religion and health

Doctors these days are expected to keep up to date by taking regular courses. Read the materials, answer the questions, and viola! You get some credits towards your 'continuing medical education' (or CME).

Just recently, one provider offered a bit-sized piece of CME asking Is Religiosity or Spirituality Protective For Heart Disease? Well, of course I had to check it out. You can too - anyone can take it and it's only short (you have to register, but that's free).

First, they hit you with a conundrum. Basically, it's the story of one Jorge Delgado, who is middle aged and healthy, but with high cholesterol and overweight. But Mr Delgado doesn't want to take any medications, and here's why:

Mr. Delgado responds that he is unwilling to take medications because he feels healthy and that he believes that reducing his weight is not a realistic goal, given his family’s cultural values and use of food as an integral part of all social activities. He is proud that his wife and children actively participate in all family events and attend church with him weekly. He has read that being religious and attending church regularly prolongs life and reduces the risk for dying of heart disease. He is willing to increase his church attendance to improve his health. How should his physician respond?

So, what should a responsible physician do? Well, anyone who actually wants to take the quiz should turn away now. Because the correct answer, based on the latest scientific evidence, is...

That turning to religion does not in itself protect you from heart attacks and stroke, although religious people do tend to have healthier behaviours. They list all the evidence to back that up.

But then they make a mistake. They say that "Religiosity/spirituality has been demonstrated to increase the incidence of ... obesity". The evidence for this is a study published earlier this year.

But that study is purely correlational, like pretty much all the evidence linking religion to health (both good and bad). It shows you that the link is there (at least in the US), but doesn't tell you why. It certainly doesn't prove that religion is the cause!

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. Causation vs. Correlation
    Yes, got it.
    It will not prove, but could add weight to a intelligent model, no? Implying "Proof" is wrong, of course, but denying weight without saying why is defensive, no?

    Are there any studies trying to tease out if mustering up the emotions of healing can improve healing?

  2. If you've got a theoretical model, and find a correlation where you expected it, then that adds weight it's true. But the problem with most of this stuff is that there are good theoretical reasons to expect causation in either way.

    For example, obese people may face a lot of rejection, and so they go to church to find a non-judgemental group of friends.

    I don't know of any studies that tried to increase positive emotions and see the health effect. But there is a lot of evidence that stress can make things worse. Just this week there was new analysis showing that high anxiety in early years increases your risk of heart disease in later life.

  3. This is a comment so I can follow comments !

  4. Thanx Tom
    Yes, I was away of the good theoretical model issue -- I guess it is hard to write caveats when writing this stuff. Maybe you should have a "Caveat Abbreviation Page" so you can short-hand with Abbreviations. Kind of like I was pushing for in my Salawat post.

    Thank you for the thoughts.

  5. In fact, I've got a "theoretical model" that supports correlation (in the US) between religiosity and obesity but denies causality: The "Middle America" theory.

    If you live in middle America and don't think too hard about things, you are going to be extremely religious (because everybody else is, not to mention the natural appeal of teleological explanations) and you are going to make very poor food choices (because that's what all the advertising tells you to do).

    Those who don't live here may not be fully aware of the culture of anti-intellectualism and willful ignorance that pervades great swaths of American culture. (I mean, remember, people are seriously talking about Sarah Palin as a possible presidential candidate in 2012. Think about that for a minute.) "I don't know much, but I do know my uncle ain't no monkey, and I sure do know them White Castle burgers taste mighty good."

    Hey, it's a stereotype, but it's one we encounter every day in the US. So there's my theoretical model.


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