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Losing Religion May Lead to Declining Health


In a popular 1994 essay “Why Strict Churches are Strong”, economist Laurence Iannaccone asserted that people choose strict religions because of the quantifiable benefits that occur both in this life and the afterlife. Because more conservative religious groups tend to have more formal restrictions on the pursuit of “unhealthy behaviors”, those who leave strict religious groups are more likely to say their health is worse than those who remain faithful.

Strict Religions Often Have Stringent Social, Moral and Physical Guidelines

Christopher Scheitle, a senior research assistant in sociology at Penn State University, examined a total of 30,523 cases collected from 1972 through 2006 in the General Social Surveys conducted by the Opinion National Research Center. The study data pool was then narrowed to 423 strict religious group members, 96 members who switched to other religions, and 54 people who were no longer affiliated with any religion.

Of those who stayed with the stricter religions, about 40% of members reported themselves to be in excellent health. Those who choose to join a more liberal religious group reported being in excellent health about 25% of the time. People who dropped out of religion completely were only 20% as likely to report excellent health.

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Religions defined as “strict” include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses. These exclusive groups have strict social, moral, and physical guidelines for members, including abstaining from alcohol and tobacco use. They are also more likely to create both formal and informal support structures to promote positive health.

Religious groups also promote better health by providing hope and encouraging positive thinking.

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“Previous research showed some association between belonging to a religious group and positive health outcomes,” Scheitle said. To more completely study the association, more studies need to be performed because the current research is not intended to suggest that leaving a group causes poor health.

The researchers reported their findings in the current issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.