Tuesday Longread: Does Religion Play A (Positive) Role in Mental Health?

The New Year is a time for change. It’s a time when all feel free, at least for a moment, of routine. We feel as though we can do anything – go to the gym every day, stop eating fast food, spend less money. We feel as though we can cast off our flawed habits, and we resolve to do so.

Of course, these resolutions fail as much – perhaps more – than they succeed. This is for a basic, human reason – it’s easier to say you’re going to do something than actually do it.

But Norris J. Chumley, Ph.D (and author), has a solution for overcoming your failed resolutions, “Get With God.” Or so speaks the title of his article, which graced the pages of the HuffPo religion blog this week,

My New Year’s gift to you is the following list of 30 ideas and suggestions for very simple changes that can give you a Satisfied Life. I encourage you to take a few minutes each day to try one of my suggestions. You can lose weight, gain confidence, de-stress and easily enjoy a happier, healthier life. It’s simple and based on the truth that little changes add up.

Now, today and every day, first thank God most gratefully for all that you have and are.

I think you should trust him. After all, he’s a Ph.D. Although I’m not sure in what.

Norris J. Chumley, Ph.D’s article is interesting because it combines new-agey tips and tricks for living a healthy life with a sort of liberal Christian ethos. Curiously, only three of these tips are about God – the rest are fairly basic pieces of advice that seem made up almost on the spot. Here are a few of my favorites:

2. Practice silence before eating.
17. Try Stevia extract instead of sugar.
21. Purchase or borrow a really fun dance or yoga video, and do it.
22. Go on a “date” with your spouse, partner or new online friend.
23. Snack on hummus with carrots, cherry tomatoes, peppers or green beans.
30. Keep God at the center of your life through constant prayer and daily worship.

Norris J. Chumley, Ph.D’s list is almost like an incredibly strange piece of performance art. And, like all performance art, it puts a perverse mirror up to our society – although perhaps not intentionally in this case. It shows us how tied religion is into the discourse of “health” – and how successfully mainstream Christianity has appropriated New Age Spirituality’s emphasis on health. Yes, do Yoga, yes, eat healthy, yes go on a jog, just make sure you save some time for God, too. If possible, jog to church while doing yoga and eating peppers or green beans.

Spiritually Unhealthy?

Which brings me to my question – does religion lead to a healthier lifestyle? It’s a big question, and it’s something of a strange one. Yet an enthusiastic, unequivocal “yes” was recently given by The British Journal of Psychiatry, which wrote, “People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder.” They are significantly more likely to be dependent on drugs, and suffer phobias or anxieties.

That should clear things up once and for all, right?

Not exactly. Elizabeth Drescher did an excellent article for Religion Dispatches about the topic. In it, she questions the underpinnings of the study, wondering whether correlation, in fact, equals causation,

A review of studies of the relationship between religion and heath by Marc Musick (University of Texas, Austin) and Meredith Worthen (University of Oklahoma) suggests a number of cautions that might well be applied to studies like that offered by King and colleagues. In their review, Musick and Worthen found no direct causal relationship between religion and health, with service attendance alone showing a meaningful correlation that extends to measured benefits in mortality. Going to church seems to be a good thing healthwise, but it’s not clear whether it’s the going or the church that produces positive effects.

Drescher goes on to highlight the fact that churches can often have negative effects on mental health:

Musick and Worthen likewise question glowing findings on religion and well-being by highlighting often ignored negative effects of religion on health. Conservative Protestant beliefs in “the basic sinfulness of the world,” for instance, have been tied to lower levels of well-being. So, too, religious constructions of gender that map to issues of reproductive health, educational equality, body image, domestic violence, poverty, and so on clearly undermine multiple dimensions of wellness in ways that are masked by studies that over-generalize diverse, often contradictory notions and practices of religion.

Something about Drescher’s view here bothers me, however. I think that the reason that belief in “the basic sinfulness in the world” is tied to “lower levels of well-being” probably has more to do with the particular religious ideology that a certain segment of America’s economically disadvantaged has taken on, rather than an inherently unhealthiness of a worldview. Drescher risks replacing one simplistic view of religion’s impact on health with another.

Three Types of Health

In order to understand what, exactly, is going on with religion and health, we have to better understand what “health” is. We can say that health contains, at the same time, physical health, mental health, and perhaps an “healthful ideology” – that is, a perception of the world that is either conducive to healthy behavior or is not.

Physical health is not often influenced by religious belief and practice, but when it is often on the negative side. For example, if a religious group condones a practice such as genital mutilation, we can say that this religious group has a negative impact on physical health. (This is even a little simplistic – since factors other than religion doubtlessly influence such practices) Religious practice may offer mild benefits in physical health by requiring us to leave our homes and walk around a bit, but ultimately the same could be said of any community activity.

Mental health is also a multifaceted story. Religions provide structures by which we can seek the support of others in trying times. For example, Christian churches offer discussion groups, and pastors and staff who are open for consultation. These certainly are intended to help maintain mental health, particularly in modern America. At the same time, churches are not professional psychiatrists – and they don’t know how to treat depression and the like. When handed with a serious case of mental illness, a church may provide little more than a placebo – and at worst, discourage a person from receiving real help.

We now touch upon the most complicated part – a healthful ideology. Some atheists might say that religion is belief in a fantasy, and that belief in a fantasy is always unhealthy. Both these notions are easily contested – the first, by no shortage of theologians, the latter, by Santa Claus. The actual ideology that religion gives us, to the extent that it can be separated from the ideology that broader society imprints upon us, gives us both good and bad ideas. I don’t think that thinking homosexuality is sinful is very helpful for a latent homosexual, but at the same time, I think that learning the teachings of Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, et. al. are pretty helpful.

Ultimately, we must still end with ambiguity, and the realization that we as a society still have a lot to learn about mental health, about what makes a person healthy or not healthy. Until we know more about the mind, the only means we have to understand the role religion plays in health are people’s own experiences. And the occasional bogus study.

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