That spiritual and religious factors significantly influence health outcomes is now indisputable, and healthcare professionals—from M.D.s and nurses to social workers to chaplains—have taken notice. According to the journal Research News, "Since 1990, almost 1,500 research studies, research reviews, articles and clinical trials have been published on the connection of spirituality or religion to medicine and health—a figure equal to the total of all such pieced published prior to 1990." Now the next phase begins: figuring out the best ways to integrate the spiritual dimension of human life into the secular, scientific world of medicine; and refining the research so that we may accurately determine what works under what conditions to produce what benefits.
The research that's been done so far falls into three basic categories: religious involvement; spiritual practices; the participation of others. Here are some observations about each area that might help guide your personal decisions.
Religious participation. A major portion of the studies have focused on the extent to which people are involved in organized religion. Most measure variables such as church attendance, although some have surveyed beliefs and attitudes on matters of faith. Overall, the findings indicate that people who frequently attend religious services heal from illness faster, have fewer risk factors for major diseases and live longer than those who do not participate in religious life.
Now, researchers are starting to fine-tune those broad findings. Religious involvement is one thing, but what about the quality of that involvement? Two people sitting next to each other in a pew week after week might seem on the surface to be having the same experience, but are they? One might be overwhelmed by feelings of love and devotion; the other might be consumed by guilt, fear or anger. One might be comforted and cheered by the words of the preacher; the other might be annoyed or confused. One might be fully present and glad to be there; the other might be distracted by worries and anxieties and wish that he or she was someplace else. Clearly, such differences will influence their respective experiences. Over time, they would no doubt also influence their health.
In other words, it's not terribly scientific to lump all churchgoers together. Some forms of religious participation are no doubt healthier than others. Why wouldn't they be? Some forms of exercise are healthier than others. Some diets are healthier than others. Some relationships are healthier than others. Why not religion? Indeed, scientists are now using terms such as "positive religious coping" and "negative religious coping." One experiment, for example, found that “people who experienced disappointment, frustration or unforgiveness in their relationships with God reported more emotional distress than other people." Another found that hospital patients with "religious anxiety"—thinking their illness was a form of punishment or that God had abandoned them—are likely to die sooner than their more tranquil counterparts.
Bottom line: showing up is good, but what you bring to the experience matters. As one wit put it, sitting in a house of worship doesn't make you spiritual any more than sitting in a garage makes you a car. Is your heart in it? Is your mind comfortable with what’s being said? Are you struggling with dogma? Do you feel guilty for having doubts? Are you angry with religious authorities or with God? Do you feel religiously inadequate? Are you afraid of what might happen if you fall short of your religion’s expectations? Such factors might have a far bigger influence on your health than what you profess to believe in or whether you perform the prescribed rituals.