“Religious Practice and Health: What the Research Says,” sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, was held December 3, 2008 in Washington, D.C. Leading researchers in the field presented their findings about the role of religious practice in health outcomes.
There certainly is a body of knowledge that suggests a positive influence of religion or spiritual practices on health outcomes, and one of Sally Beare’s 50 Secrets Of The World’s Longest Living People is to “have faith.” She cites a meta-study entitled “Religious Involvement And Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review,” published in 2000, with 125,826 subjects. The study found that attendance at a place of worship can add eight years to the average lifespan and significantly improve health.
Beare also noted that prayer can lower breathing and heart rate, along with blood pressure, according to NIH studies. In fact, some double-blind studies even showed that cardiac patients who prayed needed less medicine. The results cut across numerous religious denominations.
As to the recent meeting in DC, media coverage predictably included the voice of Columbia University behavioral psychologist Richard Sloan, an atheist activist, who likes to hide behind “thoughtful” and condescending posturing. Typical is Sloan’s take that while faith/prayer may bring comfort to many people, there are no scientific methods to accurately measure the value of faith/prayer.
Of course, Sloan could also have said that while love may bring comfort to many people, there are no scientific methods to measure that either. So what? Does that diminish the value of love? One would be hard-pressed to find a better example of foolish scientism.
Sloan’s 2006 book Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine argues that zealotry for research on the health benefits of religion is a big mistake that poses substantial dangers to a health-conscious, but scientifically illiterate, public and to vulnerable patients seeking care from proselytising physicians. In Sloan’s fantasy world, there are legions of physicians spending more time evangelizing patients than treating them with conventional means.
Sloan was also the guy who attacked the meta-study referenced above, with a rather novel tack that controlled for so-called relevant covariates. His conclusion was that the data suggested a statistically nonsignificant relationship between religious involvement and mortality.
The authors of the meta-study replied that the covariates invoked by Sloan were meaningless. They focused on the positive outcomes of religiosity on mortality, which survive all attempts to debunk with covariates.
Generally speaking, trying to debunk a study with covariates only works when it is painfully obvious that the researchers have overlooked major correlating factors, while overplaying their pet cause and effect.
A notable example was the ludicrous work done some years ago that tried to pin living near power lines with higher cancer rates. Subsequent studies revealed that cancer incidence actually correlated far better with whether the household had whole or skim milk. Sadly and significantly, many residential areas near power lines house poor people, and poverty does correlate well with incidence of cancer.
Ironically, Sloan’s research at Columbia focuses on the mechanics by which psychological risk factors such as hostility, depression, and anxiety contribute to the risk of heart disease. The good doctor apparently has no problems whatever with the voodoo methods involved in “measuring” hostility, depression, and anxiety.
I guess it depends on whose ox is being gored—or perhaps in preserving his place as the media-recognized premier “debunker” of health/religious interaction. Do you think Sloan will instruct his friends not to pray for him when he gets deathly ill?