Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Is Religion Good for You?

My late friend Richard Strickland used to tell me that he wanted us to write a book called When Church Hurts. It probably would have been a best seller. After all, lots of folks have had negative experiences with the church or with the synagogue or with the mosque. One negative experience with which I am familiar is the quashing of legitimate, thoughtful faith by usually well-meaning but nonetheless shallow purveyors of slogan or cliché-driven teachings. Another is the substitution of legalistic moralism for an authentic and growing personal relationship with the resurrected Christ. Other folks could name other negative experiences that they have had or have witnessed.

Sometimes religion contributes to more broadly based and larger scale problems. Charles Kimball has written well of that phenomenon in his book When Religion Becomes Evil. Like Kimball, many of us associate such problems with a kind of radical fundamentalism that can be found across many religious traditions, although we are most familiar with the Christian and Islamic varieties.

Given all the talk about the harm that religion can do, two recent headlines caught my eye.

One, from livescience.com, said, “Study: Religion is Good for Kids.” John Bartkowski, a sociologist at Mississippi State University, and other researchers asked the parents and teachers of over 16,000 children, primarily first-graders, “to rate how much self control they believed the kids had, how often they exhibited poor or unhappy behavior and how well they respected and worked with their peers.” The scores based on the answers to those questions were then correlated with how often the parents said they attended worship and discussed or argued about religion at home. The result? “The kids whose parents regularly attended religious services—especially when both parents did so frequently—and talked with their kids about religion were rated by both parents and teachers as having better self-control, social skills and approaches to learning than kids with non-religious parents.”

Bartkowski speculates that certain factors might help to explain those results. For one thing, the social support provided in a religious group might help parents develop better parenting skills. For another thing, the values that are put forward in religious contexts tend to be “self-sacrificing” and “pro-family.” Furthermore, “Religious organizations imbue parenting with sacred meaning and significance.”

So, this study indicates that the regular practicing of religion might make for better parents and for better adjusted children.

The second headline that caught my eye was from the New York Times: “Most Doctors See Religion as Beneficial, Study Says.” That article, written by Nicholas Bakalar and reporting on a paper that appeared in the April 9 issue of The Archives of Internal Medicine, said that of 1,144 doctors asked about how religion influences health care, “54 percent said God sometimes affects a patient’s health, and 33 percent said religion and spirituality help prevent specific medical events like heart attacks, infections, and death.” Dr. Farr A. Curlin, who is the lead author of the paper, said, “The most telling part of this outcome is that it shows that what doctors bring to the data, whether religious or secular, seems to have as much to do with their interpretations of the data as the data itself.”

What interests me is the possibility that is raised by both articles that religion just might in fact have a positive influence. I don’t mean to sound surprised by that; I have had many personal experiences and could offer much anecdotal evidence to make such a case. I also don’t mean to give more credence to scientific research that I would give to the testimonials that I have heard from people that I know to have a genuine faith. All I am saying is that it is interesting to see such discussions taking place in scientific journals and reported on in the “secular” press.

As for me, I’ll just keep thanking the good Lord for all the help that I know he gives to parents and to sick folks and to anybody else who seeks his help and who thanks him for it and, I suspect, to many who never bother to ask for or to acknowledge it.

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