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Jesus Is Just Alright with Me: Religion’s place in our physical health

©Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash

Is there any relationship between a religious belief, aka a belief in a god, a sense of spirituality, mindfulness and our physical/emotional health? Admittedly, atheists may poo-poo the question, but there is value in it and researchers delved into the question.

Should we scoff at those with religious beliefs? Obviously not. To do so would deny them the benefits they derive from their beliefs, but beliefs alone are not enough to provide us with relief from physical or emotional ills. Undeniably, medical science plays a role.

A friend who went to Israel offered to put a prayer slip into the Wailing Wall for another friend who had a serious health problem. The friend with the health problem was skeptical. The woman maintains no active affiliation with any organized religion and, although she’s not an atheist, she prefers to be on the safe side and admit she’s an agnostic. However, as her Wailing-Wall-bound friend said, “It can’t hurt.” Research would agree. They have shown religious belief to have a beneficial effect on health issues.

One study explored religiosity/spirituality on stress and health issues, such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, and atherosclerotic bio-clinical markers. The results seem to provide sufficient evidence for its efficacy in promoting health. The researchers suggested a “possible favorable effect (which deserved) further attention by healthcare practitioners.” For the non-believers, that proviso of “further attention” may be of some interest.

What’s one of the main questions you have to ask when you see results that may be counter to your beliefs or raise some questions for you? Always look at the sample. A sample solely composed of persons who had religious beliefs would that mean the results apply to them. How about sampling persons without a religious belief? Can we study people who profess an atheistic view of the absence of God or a higher power? That would require further attention, too.

Religion, Spirituality, and Mindfulness

Psychologists have provided some evidence of a religiosity/biological relationship between belief and cardiovascular, neuroendocrine, and immune function. However, there is a question here regarding whether we should separate out spirituality, religion, and forms of mindfulness.

No, it can’t hurt and if religion provides one moment of relief from pain or worry, isn’t it worth it? Would you deny someone that because you don’t believe? In this, we have no rights. It entitles everyone to pray to whatever they deem is a higher power and no one has yet to prove there isn’t one.

Burning bushes or partings of the Red Sea do not support evidence of the presence of God. In fact, countless books on religious history provide a rationale for alternative beliefs here. Religious writing may, in fact, be fiction written in the service of political or religious ambitions.

Do we need proof of everything? Muddling along in ignorance and arrogance associated in believing we “know” there is no higher power, serves what? What engenders that sentiment? I do not understand. Perhaps some need to believe there is nothing outside of what we see in our present condition. Okay, if that’s what they need, so be it. But if others wish to pray and accumulate prayer lists to pray for those in some need, so be that, too.

Research has proven that helping others is good for us. As long as no one forces their beliefs on you, shouldn’t that be okay?

We have seen religious beliefs providing a sense of empowerment besides the connection to the community. Empowerment, especially in medical settings, according to a review of the research into religion and health, shows that it is of a great benefit whether the association to religion is Judeo, Christian, or Islamic. We have found these beliefs to lower blood pressure, provide protection against cardiovascular disease, increase our immune function and may have a protective effect on mortality.

The loneliness epidemic and religious beliefs

A 2016 study that appeared in the Archive for the Psychology of Religion found that there was a benefit for religious belief; it can address loneliness. Much of the study’s results are similar to what social psychologists have found regarding social support over the decades.

The study also showed the following:

1. Attending worship services provided informal support from church members besides the spiritual support the person believed they were receiving

2. Support from persons who were co-religionists provided a sense of humility

3. Persons who are humbler are likely to accept emotional support from significant others and this defends against feelings of loneliness

4. Emotional support is beneficial no matter where the support may come from, whether in a religious or secular setting

5. Not feeling lonely enhances health and recovery from illness.

The research shows, as you might have noticed, that whether the support comes from belonging to a religious group and attending services, being a member of the group is where support is found. Atheists could attend similar groups and receive the same benefits to ward off feelings of isolation and loneliness if we abstract the findings further away from a religious base.

So, back to the initial question of religious belief and physical/emotional illness or health. If it helps you, don’t deny yourself. If you don’t want to believe and you don’t want to use prayer, that’s fine, too. This is an equal opportunity moment.

You needn’t belong to an organized religion to pray, either. Prayers are whatever you want them to be. I don’t believe that, if there is a God or a higher power, there’s only one way to make that power respond to your prayers. Neither is there only one way to pray, or a book and which must be followed. Of course, that’s my opinion. As one man said, who I quoted previously, “It can’t hurt.” Following the regime of a religion doesn’t make it any better than just believing and praying as you wish, again my opinion.

All of religion is full of politics, personal mischief, and power motivation. Should you care to know more about it, I would direct you to the writings of Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman. You can find them on Amazon.

The world is turning toward and not away from faith and that provides us with food for thought. Why is it? Consider the connection among these three subjects (religion, mindfulness, spirituality) and you are faced with the similarity they have to each other; all provide a sense of calmness and distraction from a hectic world. Is there a sense of spirituality in mindfulness exercises? I would argue there is no question about it.

The interconnectedness possibility is undeniable when you consider how the routines provide what you seek; peace via biological pathways. The mind and how we use it is a powerful tool to control not only our emotions but our health.

Learn how to use it with the tools you prefer whether they are related to religious practices or something more mundane such as mindfulness. In the end, you are the beneficiary.

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