Many scientific studies in recent years have sought to prove a link between religion and health, and they usually ended up contending that faith may be very good medicine. But new research attempts to look at the opposite side of that coin: What happens when a person loses faith, or even switches from one religious group to another?
Health declines, in some cases dramatically, especially among those who switch from a church with high, rigid moral standards to one with a more relaxed view of morality, according to the latest study.
"Previous research has devoted significant attention to understanding the link between health and personal religious beliefs and practices, typically finding that more religious people tend to have better health," the researchers assert in the opening sentence of their study. "However, almost no attention has been given to how switching religious groups or leaving religion altogether is related to self-reported health."
Christopher P. Scheitle, a senior research assistant in sociology at Pennsylvania State University, and Amy Adamczyk, an assistant professor of sociology at the City University of New York, examined a huge database and found that switching churches may be bad for your health, especially if you are a Mormon or a Jehovah's Witness.
The study is published in the current issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
The study analyzed 30,523 cases that are part of the General Social Survey from 1972 through 2006, conducted annually or biennially by the National Opinion Research Center. Participants were asked the same questions year after year, in addition to new questions reflecting current events. Religious affiliation and health were among the questions.
The researchers singled out the Mormon Church and Jehovah's Witnesses as the leading "high-cost sectarian groups" because of the high standards that members are held to, and the "high cost" of dropping out. Other categories include "mainline Protestants," Catholics, Jews and no religion at all. All of the conclusions are based on the participants own perception of his or her health over the 34 years covered by the survey.
"Mainline Protestants" and others who belonged to less-rigid religious groups suffered little by dropping out, according to the data. Sectarians belonging to "high-cost" groups (Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses) did well if they remained active in their group, but paid dearly if they switched.
"We see that those who stayed in their sectarian group have the highest predicted probability of reporting excellent health, at about 40 percent," the researchers conclude. "However, this percentage drops to just over 25 percent for those who are raised in a sectarian group and switch to a different group, and it drops to under 20 percent for those sectarians who switch to an unaffiliated status."
Several factors undoubtedly contribute to that, the researchers note. Dropouts may turn to a less healthy lifestyle, drinking, smoking and so forth. And they've lost a support group that helped them toe the line, and even provided much of their personal identity.
Beyond that, as other research has found, leaving a church, especially one with high standards, may alienate family members and friends, leaving the person isolated and without the social support enjoyed for all those years.
"You could lose your friends or your family becomes upset when you leave, leading to psychological stress and negative health outcomes," says Scheitle, lead author of the study.
Other researchers have found physiological links between religion and health. For example, Duke University scientists found that regular church attendance and religious studies can actually lower blood pressure, especially among the elderly.
Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center found that attending church regularly is likely to extend a person's lifespan as much as engaging in regular physical exercise and taking a statin to lower cholesterol.
Furthermore, just simply living in a community with a religious environment improves mortality rates, according to research by scientists at Louisiana State University, the University of Texas and others.
They suggest it's because the community is more likely to take care of its members and provide a social structure that is supportive, thus encouraging healthy behavior. In this scenario, one benefits by the proximity of a church, even if one never attends.
So there's no shortage of data indicating that religion may be beneficial to a person's health. But many questions remain that are much harder to answer. Does it matter how sincerely the person believes in the church's teachings?
Religion may be therapeutic, but so can a placebo. So what's really at work here, a person's true beliefs, the validity of those beliefs or simply belonging to a group that is supportive of a healthy lifestyle and provides a social network that can ease a frequently difficult journey through life?
Those questions may be beyond the reach of science, and some scientists have found the links between religion and health troubling. Researchers at Columbia University looked at hundreds of studies a few years ago linking religion to good health and found them wanting.
Too many were based on too small of a sample, although that's not the case in this latest study, and many studies ignored the fact that it may simply be a healthier lifestyle, not religious faith, that leads to longer and healthier lives.
The Columbia scientists offered this advice to the medical profession: stick to medicine, not religion.
Scheitle and Adamczyk don't attempt to answer all those questions, of course. At this point they are content with findings that indicate dropping out of a church may indeed have "high costs," including the loss of friends, alienation of family, and poorer health.
It would be interesting to know the price that non-believers pay if they stay in a church and no longer believe its teachings.