Religion, a Wonder Drug?

pink flower bud in tilt shift lens

A recent article in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal highlights the work of epidemiologist Tyler VanderWeele, who serves as Director of the Human Flourishing Program and Co-Director of the Initiative on Health, Spirituality, and Religion at Harvard University. He’s published over 400 peer-reviewed articles and multiple books.

Though the evidence for the upside of religious belief and practice is difficult to ignore — and impossible to deny — the relationship between religion and health has been a debated one in contemporary history. Perhaps that’s because proving causation, that religion causes positive health benefits, is nigh impossible. Yet there’s a whole lot of data pointing to a strong correlation between one’s health and belief system.

For example, in of Dr. VanderWeele’s academic articles, Religious Communities and Human Flourishing, published on Harvard’s website, he gives this summary of his research findings:

Participation in religious services is associated with numerous aspects of human flourishing including happiness and life satisfaction, mental and physical health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, and close social relationships. Evidence for these effects of religious communities on flourishing now comes from rigorous longitudinal study designs with extensive confounding control. The associations with flourishing are much stronger for communal religious participation than for spiritual-religious identity or for private practices.

Even if exclusively considered for its correlation with health benefits, no one should merely disregard spirituality. I’m reminded of the work of another academic, Andrew Sims, former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists from 1990 to 1993, and Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Leeds. In his article “Is Faith Delusion?” (and book by the same title) he makes points similar to VanderWeele, arguing not only that faith is indeed not delusional, a form of mental illness, but instead, quite positive for one’s mental health, contributing to flourishing.

That makes me think of how Jesus called his disciples to die to themselves in order to follow him. He promised them that in losing their lives, they would find true life, what he described as abundant life. Jesus promised them joy. A quick survey of the research on faith and flourishing makes you wonder if there’s not something lasting to Jesus’s promise, something staring back at us from the psychiatric journals, resonating in the news headlines, even reverberating in the cadence of our beating hearts . . . there’s a path to joy and Jesus paved the way.