Effects of Religious Practice on Health

Religious practice substantially contributes to physical and mental health. Regular religious practice lessens depression, promotes self-esteem, and builds familial and marital happiness. Religious worship also increases longevity, improves an individual's chances of recovering from illness, and lessens the incidence of many diseases.

1. Mental Health

Good mental health is highly correlated to religious participation.1) An increase in religious practice is associated with having greater hope and a greater sense of purpose in life.2) A literature review of 99 studies found “some positive association…between religious involvement and greater happiness, life satisfaction, morale, positive affect, or some other measure of well-being” 81 percent of the time. This analysis included a wide diversity among ages, races, and denominations.3)

1.1 Happiness and Well-Being

Religious affiliation and regular church attendance are among the most common reasons people give to explain their own happiness.4) Happiness is greater and psychological health is better among those who attend religious services regularly.5) A majority of the literature in an extensive review concluded that religious commitment and practice lead to increased self-esteem and that religious practice correlates with increased social support.6)

According to the General Social Survey (GSS), 34.1 percent of adults who attended religious services at least monthly as adolescents considered themselves very happy, compared to 28.9 percent of adults who attended worship less than monthly as adolescents.7) (See Chart)

Percent Who are Very Happy by Frequency of Religious Attendance during Adolescence

Those who worship frequently and were raised in an intact family tend to be the most happy. The General Social Survey (GSS) also showed that 35 percent of adults who attended religious services at least monthly and lived in an intact family through adolescence considered themselves very happy, compared to 23 percent of adults who attended religious services less than monthly and lived in a non-intact family as adolescents.8) (See Chart Below)

Percent Who Are Very Happy by Frequency of their Religious Attendance and Family Structure during Adolescence

1.2 Stress, Self-Esteem, and Coping Skills

More frequent attendance at religious services predicts less distress among adults9) and high school students,10) even when controlling for its normal sociodemographic predictors.11) For adults, a strong belief in eternal life also predicts less harmful stress from work-related problems.12) African-Americans who were more religious reported a greater sense of control than less religious respondents; this greater sense of control was, in turn, correlated with decreased distress.13) People who are frequently involved in religious activities and highly value their religious faith are at reduced risk of depression, according to a review of more than 100 studies.14) Those who participate in community religious services have lower levels of depression than those who do not fellowship in a religious community but pray alone.15) First-graders and kindergartners whose parents attend religious services are less likely to experience anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, and sadness.16) Adolescents at one public school in Texas who frequently attended religious services and derived great meaning and purpose from religion in their lives had lower levels of depression than their less religious peers.17)

Membership in a religious community can enhance coping skills. One study found that people were much more inclined to use positive coping responses when they received spiritual support from fellow church members.18) When like-minded individuals and families joined together in prayer, mutual support, or religious practice, they viewed their circumstances with spiritual significance: not only mundane daily affairs, but also major life traumas.19) In a study of high-school students from West Virginia, the “ego strengths of hope, will, purpose, fidelity, love, and care” increased as the students lived out their religious beliefs more intently.20)

Thus, involvement in religious practice, religious organizations, and religious communities tends to lead to favorable self-image and to foster the development of faith, hope, benevolence, and a belief in divine grace as personal spiritual resources.21)

According to the National Survey of Children's Health, parents whose children attended worship at least weekly report slightly less parenting stress than those parents whose children attended worship less frequently.22) (See Chart Below)

Parenting Stress by Children's Religious Attendance

1.3 Depression and Suicide

Both public and private religious practice protect against depression. People who are frequently involved in religious activities and highly value their religious faith are at a reduced risk for depression, according to a review of more than 100 studies. This review also found that 87 percent of the studies surveyed concluded that religious practice correlates with reduced incidence of suicide.23) Levels of depression were also lower for those who participated in religious services than they were for those who only prayed on their own.24)

Studies have found that adolescents who frequently attend religious services and have a high level of spiritual support from others in their community have the lowest levels of depression.25) Conversely, a lack of religious affiliation correlates with an increased risk of suicide.26) Immigrant youth likewise enjoy the benefits of a higher level of general well-being when they attend religious services frequently.27)

2. Physical Health

2.1 Longevity

Men and women who attend church weekly have the lowest mortality rates.28) Religious practice delivers longevity benefits, most significantly by encouraging a support network among family and friends that helps to maintain a pattern of regimented care, reducing one’s mortality risk from infectious diseases and diabetes.29) Greater longevity is consistently and significantly correlated with higher levels of religious practice and involvement, regardless of the sex, race, education, or health history of those studied.30) A review of medical, public health, and social science literature that empirically addressed the link between religion and mortality found that religious practice decreases mortality rates.31) Those who are religiously involved live an average of seven years longer than those who are not. This gap is as great as that between non-smokers and those who smoke a pack of cigarettes a day.32) Among African–Americans, the benefit of religion to longevity is particularly large. The average life span of religious blacks is 14 years longer than that of their nonreligious peers.33) Among African Americans (aged 18 to 54), those who attend church more than weekly have an even lower mortality risk than those who attend just once a week or not at all.34)

2.2 Diseases

An earlier review of 250 epidemiological health research studies found a reduced risk of colitis, different types of cancer, and untimely death among people with higher levels of religious commitment.35) Conversely, at any age, those who did not attend religious services had higher risks of dying from cirrhosis of the liver, emphysema, arteriosclerosis, and other cardiovascular diseases and were more likely to commit suicide, according to an even earlier review by faculty of the John Hopkins University School of Public Health.36) The most significant pathway by which religious practice delivers these longevity benefits is a lifestyle that reduces the risk of mortality from infectious diseases and diabetes by encouraging a support network among family and friends that helps to maintain a pattern of regimented care.37)

3. Adolescents

Adolescents whose mothers attend religious services at least weekly display better health, greater problem-solving skills, and higher overall satisfaction with their lives, regardless of race, gender, income, or family structure.38)

Youths who both attend religious services weekly and rate religion as important in their lives are more likely to eat healthfully, sleep sufficiently, and exercise regularly.39) Young people who both attend religious services weekly and rate religion as important in their lives are less likely to engage in risky behavior, such as drunk driving, riding with drunk drivers, driving without a seatbelt, or engaging in interpersonal violence. They are also less likely to smoke (tobacco or marijuana) or drink heavily.40)

The 2001 cycle of the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) showed that fewer children from families who worshiped had been diagnosed with ADHD (5.2%) than children whose families did not worship (7.1%).41) (See Chart )

Children with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

NHIS also showed that families that worshipped every other week (or more) were less likely to have been told that their child had a learning disability (6.7 percent) than were families that did not worship (10.2 percent).42) (See Chart Below)

Child with Learning Disability

1) Diane R. Brown and Lawrence E. Gary, “Religious Involvement and Health Status Among African-American Males,” Journal of the National Medical Association 86, no. 11 (1994): 828.
2) Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society, Byron R. Johnson, Ralph Brett Tompkins, and Derek Webb Objective Hope—Assessing the Effectiveness of Faith-Based Organizations: A Systematic Review of the Literature (2002). Available at http://www.manhattaninstitute.org/pdf/crrucs_objective_hope.pdf. Accessed September 6, 2012.
3) Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society, Byron R. Johnson, Ralph Brett Tompkins, and Derek WebbObjective Hope—Assessing the Effectiveness of Faith-Based Organizations: A Systematic Review of the Literature, (2002). Available at http://www.manhattaninstitute.org/pdf/crrucs_objective_hope.pdf Accessed September 6, 2012.
4) B. Beit-Hallami, “Psychology of Religion 1880-1939: The Rise and Fall of a Psychological Movement,” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 10, (1974): 84-90.
5) Byron R. Johnson, Ralph Brett Tompkins, and Derek Webb, Objective Hope—Assessing the Effectiveness of Faith-Based Organizations: A Systematic Review of the Literature Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society, (2002). Available at http://www.manhattaninstitute.org/pdf/crrucs_objective_hope.pdf Accessed September 6, 2012.
6) , 14) , 23) Byron R. Johnson, Ralph Brett Tompkins, and Derek Webb Objective Hope—Assessing the Effectiveness of Faith-Based Organizations: A Systematic Review of the Literature, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society, (2002). Available at http://www.manhattaninstitute.org/pdf/crrucs_objective_hope.pdf Accessed September 6, 2012.
7) This chart draws on data collected by the General Social Survey, 1972-2006. From 1972 to 1993, the sample size averaged 1,500 each year. No GSS was conducted in 1979, 1981, or 1992. From 1994 to 2005, two samples of approximately 1,500 per sample have been conducted. In 2006, a third sample was added for a total sample size of 4,510.
Patrick F. Fagan and Althea Nagai, “Intergenerational Links to Happiness: Religious Attendance,” Mapping America Project. Available at http://marri.us/wp-content/uploads/MA-49-51-165.pdf
8) This chart draws on data collected by the General Social Survey, 1972-2006. From 1972 to 1993, the sample size averaged 1,500 each year. No GSS was conducted in 1979, 1981, or 1992. Since 1994, the GSS has been conducted only in even-numbered years and uses two samples per GSS that total approximately 3,000. In 2006, a third sample was added for a total sample size of 4,510.
Patrick F. Fagan and Althea Nagai, “Intergenerational Links to Happiness: Religious Attendance and Family Structure,” Mapping America Project. Available at http://marri.us/wp-content/uploads/MA-49-51-165.pdf
9) , 30) by Byron R. Johnson, Ralph Brett Tompkins, and Derek Webb Objective Hope—Assessing the Effectiveness of Faith-Based Organizations: A Systematic Review of the Literature, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society, (2002). Available at http://www.manhattaninstitute.org/pdf/crrucs_objective_hope.pdf Accessed September 6, 2012.
10) Christopher G. Ellison, John P. Bartkowski, and Kristin L. Anderson, “Are There Religious Variations in Domestic Violence?” Journal of Family Issues 20, no. 1 (January 1999): 87-113.
J.M. Mosher and P.J. Handal, “The Relationship Between Religion and Psychological Distress in Adolescents,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 25, no. 4 (Winter 1997): 449-457.
11) Ellison et al., “Are There Religious Variations in Domestic Violence?” and J. M. Mosher and P. J. Handal, “The Relationship Between Religion and Psychological Distress in Adolescents,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 25, no. 4 (Winter 1997): 449–457
12) , 19) Christopher G. Ellison, Jason D. Boardman, David R. Williams, and James S. Jackson, “Religious Involvement, Stress, and Mental Health: Findings from the 1995 Detroit Area Study,” Social Forces 80, no. 1 (September 2001): 215–249.
13) Sung Joon Jang and Byron R. Johnson, “Explaining Religious Effects on Distress Among African Americans,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 43, no. 2 (June 2004): 239-260.
15) Christopher G. Ellison, “Race, Religious Involvement, and Depressive Symptomatology in a Southeastern U.S. Community,” Social Science and Medicine 40, no. 11 (June 1995): 1561-1572.
16) John P. Bartkowski, Xiaohe Xu, and Martin L. Levin, “Religion and Child Development: Evidence from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study,” Social Science Research 37, no. 1 (March 2007): 18-36.
17) Loyd S. Wright, Christopher J. Frost, and Stephen J. Wisecarver, “Church Attendance, Meaningfulness of Religion, and Depressive Symptomatology Among Adolescents,” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 22, no. 5 (October 1993): 559-568.
18) Neal Krause, Christopher G. Ellison, Benjamin A. Shaw, John P. Marcum, and Jason D. Boardman, “Church-Based Social Support and Religious Coping,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 40, no. 4 (December 2001): 637–656.
20) C. A. Markstrom, “Religious Involvement and Adolescent Psychosocial Development,” Journal of Adolescence 22, no. 2 (April 1999): 205–221.
21) Christopher G. Ellison, John P. Bartkowski, and Kristin L. Anderson, “Are There Religious Variations in Domestic Violence?” Journal of Family Issues 20, no. 1 (January 1999): 87–113.
22) This chart draws on data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics in the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) in 2003. The data sample consisted of parents of 102,353 children and teens in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. 68,996 of these children and teens were between six and 17 years old, the age group that was the focus of the study. The survey sample in this age range represented a population of nearly 49 million young people nationwide.
Nicholas Zill, “Parenting Stress and Children's Religious Attendance,” Mapping America Project. Available at http://marri.us/wp-content/uploads/MA-34-36-160.pdf
24) Christopher G. Ellison, “Race, Religious Involvement, and Depressive Symptomatology in a Southeastern U.S. Community,” Social Science and Medicine 40, no. 11 (June 1995): 1561–1572.
25) Loyd S. Wright, Christopher J. Frost, and Stephen J. Wisecarver, “Church Attendance, Meaningfulness of Religion, and Depressive Symptomatology Among Adolescents,” Journal of Youth and Adolesence 22, no. 5 (October 1993): 559–568.
26) Frank Tovato, “Domestic/Religious Individualism and Youth Suicide in Canada,” Family Perspective 24, no. 1 (1990): 69–81.
27) K. Harker, “Immigration Generation, Assimilation, and Adolescent Psychological Well-Being,” Social Forces 79, no. 3 (March 2001): 969–1004.
28) Douglas Oman and Dwayne Reed, “Religion and Mortality Among the Community-Dwelling Elderly,” American Journal of Public Health 88, no. 10 (1998): 1471-1472.
29) , 33) , 37) Robert A. Hummer, Richard G. Rogers, Charles B. Nam, and Christopher G. Ellison, “Religious Involvement and U.S. Adult Mortality,” Demography 36, no. 2 (May 1999): 273-285.
31) Robert A. Hummer, Christopher G. Ellison, Richard G. Rogers, Benjamin E. Moulton, and Ron R. Romero, “Religious Involvement and Adult Mortality in the United States: Review and Perspective,” Southern Medical Journal 97, no. 12 (December 2004): 1223-1230.
32) Mark D. Regnerus, “Religion and Positive Adolescent Outcomes: A Review of Research and Theory,” Review of Religious Research 44, no. 4 (June 2003): 394-413.
34) Christopher G. Ellison, Robert A. Hummer, Shannon Cormier, and Richard G. Rogers, “Religious Involvement and Mortality Risk among African American Adults,” Research on Aging 22, (2000): 651-652.
35) Jeffrey S. Levin and Preston L. Schiller, “Is There a Religious Factor in Health?” Journal of Religion and Health 26, no. 1 (March 1987): 9–35.
36) George W. Comstock and Kay B. Patridge, “Church Attendance and Health,” Journal of Chronic Diseases 25, no. 12 (December 1972): 665–672.
38) Christopher G. Ellison, John P. Bartkowski, and Kristin L. Anderson, “Are There Religious Variations in Domestic Violence?” Journal of Family Issues 20, no. 1 (January 1999): 87-113.
39) John M. Wallace, Jr. and Tyrone A. Forman, “Religion's Role in Promoting Health and Reducing Risk Among American Youth,” Health Education and Behavior 25, no. 6 (December 1998): 730, 733.
40) John M. Wallace, Jr. and Tyrone A. Forman, “Religion's Role in Promoting Health and Reducing Risk Among American Youth,” Health Education and Behavior 25, no. 6 (December 1998): 730-733.
41) A worshipping family has attended at least one worship service in the past two weeks.
Patrick F. Fagan and Paul Sullins, “Children with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) by Family Structure and Religious Worship,” Mapping America Project. Available at http://marri.us/wp-content/uploads/MA-140.pdf
42) The 2001 cycle of the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) was chosen because that year had a measure of religious attendance, permitting our regular Mapping America analysis. A worshipping family has attended at least one worship service in the past two weeks. According to the 2000 NHIS Field Representative’s Manual, “learning disability” for this question was defined as: “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written. It may be evident by an inability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.
Patrick F. Fagan and Paul Sullins, “Percentage of Children with a Learning Disability by Family Structure and Religious Worship,” Mapping America Project. Available at http://marri.us/wp-content/uploads/MA-141.pdf


This entry draws heavily from 95 Social Science Reasons for Religious Worship and Practice and Why Religion Matters Even More: The Impact of Religious Practice on Social Stability