Religion & Health
Although religion and health are historically intertwined, secular society has involved a decrease in the formal influence of religion over everyday lives. At least two of sociology's founding fathers studied the role of religion in social life and predicted that its significance would decline. However, sociological and public interest in the link between religion and health has grown since the 1990s, and research has found that in matters of health, religion largely exerts a positive influence. In general, people who participate in religious activities and events live longer, experience less poor health, and are found to cope better with stress. Although the mechanisms associated with this relationship are unclear, researchers argue that religious beliefs and practices likely protect people from disease and ill health. For instance, membership in certain religious groups encourages moderation in diet and exercise and actively discourages behaviors that are known to be potentially harmful to health, such as excessive alcohol consumption, drug and tobacco use, and premarital sex.
Keywords: Integrative Function; Phenomenology; Regulative Function; Religion; Religiosity; Sacred Canopy; Social Solidarity; Spirituality
Although religion and health are historically intertwined, secular society has involved a decrease in the formal influence of religion over everyday lives. At least two of sociology's founding fathers studied the role of religion in social life and predicted that its significance would decline. However, sociological and public interest in the link between religion and health has grown since the 1990s, and research has found that in matters of health, religion largely exerts a positive influence. In general, people who participate in religious activities and events live longer, experience less poor health and are found to cope better with stress. Although the mechanisms associated with this relationship are unclear, researchers argue that religious beliefs and practices likely protect people from disease and ill health. For instance, membership of certain religious groups encourages moderation in diet and exercise and actively discourages behaviors that are known to be potentially harmful to health, such as excessive alcohol consumption, drug and tobacco use, and premarital sex (e.g., see Musick, Traphagan, Koenig & Larson, 2000). Before exploring this link, however, it is necessary to identify what researchers are referring to when they discuss "religion."
Historical Perspectives on Religion
Historically, religion and health have been closely intertwined, and as the historian Andrew Wear has noted, the words "salvation" and "health" were interchangeable (1985, p. 67). On the one hand, drawing on biblical perspectives, seventeenth-century English writers and artists depicted the human body as a temple to be glorified and cared for through appropriate and careful dietary and physical practices. On the other, medical metaphors were used to describe the sinner as a sick man (Lupton, 1994, p. 57). In the Middle Ages, people with chronic ailments and illness often turned to religious healing systems via pilgrimages and direct contact with the relics of saints (Lupton, 1994). Religion played a crucial role in offering reasons for illness and disease, with explanations ranging from poor health and disease as the result of demonic possession to disease as punishment from God. Indeed, like the Puritans, who saw illness or disease as correctives or punishments from God, many twentieth-century conservative politicians in the USA and the UK viewed the emergence of HIV as evidence of God's wrath on a wicked and sinful world. In 1986, John McKay, at that time Secretary of State for Health in the UK, asserted that AIDS was a "punishment from God" (Howson, 2004, p. 83).
Despite increasing secularization, religion continues to provide a framework for understanding health and disease. Since the 1990s, researchers have become increasingly interested in how adherence to religious beliefs and practices are linked to the experience of health and to health outcomes. This emerging interest in the relationship between religion and health explores both physical and mental health. At least two of sociology's founding fathers, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, identified religion as a factor contributing to general health and well-being because of its overarching role in influencing how members of a particular society think and act. They viewed religion as a human endeavor that helped people make sense of their lives, by giving them explanations for social life that help them cope or by providing ways of behaving that enable people to express the desire for meaning in everyday life (Bilton et al., 1996). However, their approaches to the significance of religion differ.
Durkheim's Functionalist View of Religion
In the functionalist view, religion is an institutionalized form of thinking and acting that functions to regulate and integrate members of society for the purpose of securing social solidarity and order. Durkheim argued that, first, religion has a regulative function that helps to create and sustain social order through rules and regulations that prohibit (proscribe) or permit (prescribe) certain behaviors and practices. These rules typically govern practices and behaviors around sexual intimacy, eating, and drinking. They help integrate people by providing meaningful and tangible connections to others. Moreover, as Ellison and Levin (1998) point out, by internalizing religioethical norms, people are likely motivated to conform to rules and regulations and avoid breaking them through fear of embarrassment and social sanctions (such as formal rebukes from their church or informal sanctions such as gossip or ostracism by others in their religious network).
Second, religion has an integrative function that binds people to the societies of which they are members. By publicly attending and participating in religious ceremonies, people affirm the beliefs they hold in common with others. This shared value and belief framework may, in turn, create the potential for sharing tangible and intangible resources (housing, food, transport, and clothing on the one hand, and intangibles like intimacy, affection, and touch on the other). Some researchers argue that these regulative and integrative functions may have a direct bearing on people's health and well-being.
Drawing on the tradition of phenomenology, some sociologists in the 1960s (e.g., Berger, 1967) argued that humanity is characterized by an inherent religiosity that drives people to interpret the world by allocating meaning to events and experiences through symbolic means, such as language and rituals. Religiosity involves the creation of a symbolic world, or a "sacred canopy" under which people live their lives. In the modern, secularized world, people continue to search for meaning, whether through collective membership of formal religious organizations or through looser, more informal practices (e.g., meditation). Within the phenomenological view, religion provides a means of creating individual meaning in a world where people feel dislocated from others; it helps to bring coherence to an otherwise chaotic world, especially in times of stress or sickness; and relieves emotional suffering by providing a worldview (Marsh et al., 1996).
In modern research on religion and health, the concept of religion (from the Latin root religi) can mean different things. Religion is generally considered to include both individual and institutional aspects of the search for the sacred and refers to beliefs, attitudes, and practices that are a part of or constitute membership in an organization or religious institution (Ziegler, 1998).
The concept of religiosity is important in exploring the relationship between religion and health, since researchers use it to capture both attendance at and participation in public ceremonies (such as going to church) and the holding of religious beliefs and values. As Hardy and Carlo (2005) note, there are three types of religiosity:
- Extrinsic and
- Quest religiosity.
Intrinsic religiosity refers to people who see religion as the answer to life's questions. Extrinsic religiosity refers to people who use religion as a means to an end (e.g., to develop social contacts). Quest religiosity refers to the religious seeker who constantly asks questions and may not believe there are any clear answers. Broadly, the dimensions of religiosity used by researchers include:
- Practice (acts of worship conducted publicly, such as communion, or privately, such as meditation or prayer),
- Experience (a personal of connection and communication with a transcendent or divine being),
- Knowledge (understanding basic teachings of the religion of which one is a member), and
- Consequences (visible indicators of religious membership, such as a particular way of dressing or diet) (Marsh, et al., 1996).
Typically, researchers use the frequency of religious attendance as the main measure of religiosity or religiousness.
Finally, spirituality refers to the individual search for the sacred (Emmons & Paloutzian, 2003) and denotes views and behaviors that express relatedness to something greater than the self (Ziegler, 1998). Therefore, a person can be described as spiritual without participating in formal religious...
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