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News from Harvard: Church-Going Saves Lives

In October 2019, I emailed Harvard School of Public Health professor Tyler VanderWeele to check that what I'd read was correct. Tyler is a world-expert on the physical and mental health benefits of religious participation. I quote him heavily in the first chapter of Confronting Christianity and he was kind enough to endorse the book, so I was familiar with the contours of his research - in particular, the research showing that participating in religious services once a week or more is correlated with greater longevity, lower levels of depression, more optimism, and lower suicide rates (see here). It was on this last point that I was prompted to check in.

I'd just read this paper on the association between religious service attendance and lower suicide rates among US women. It claimed that women who went to church once a week or more were five times less likely to kill themselves than those who never went. Five times! Was that really right? Was this paper an outlier, or was religious participation really that effective? If so, why - with all our public efforts toward suicide prevention - did no one seem to be trumpeting this? Indeed, why was the popular narrative much more likely to proclaim the negative impact of religious practice on mental health, and the psychological positives of being free from religion-driven constraints?

Tyler confirmed that, Yes, that was right. In fact, he added, religious service attendance, "may be the most protective factor known for suicide!" What's more, he mentioned that he had another paper under review, looking at religious service attendance and "deaths from despair" - deaths caused by suicide, drug abuse, or alcohol poisoning. That paper has just come out.

The results are similarly remarkable. The study tracked 66,492 women and 43,141 men and found, after adjusting for numerous variables, that women who attended services at least once per week had a 68 percent lower risk of death from despair compared to those never attending services. Men who attended services at least once per week had a 33 percent lower risk.

Of course, this does not mean that highly religious people are not also vulnerable to suicide, drug addiction, and alcohol abuse. For too long, there has been a culture of shame around mental health challenges in Christian circles, which has stopped people getting the professional and personal help they need. Some of the most fruitful Christians in history have suffered from severe depression and findings like this must not be used to make struggling believers feel like outliers.

It's also important to note that, while the vast majority of participants in the latest study would have attended church rather than other religious services, results like this are not unique to Christianity. For example, attending Jewish religious services once a week or more is correlated with similarly beneficial outcomes. But the effects do seem to be particular to religious participation and aren't explained away simply by social support. As Tyler noted in a 2016 USA Today article on the mental and physical health benefits of church attendance, social support accounts for only about a quarter of the positive effects.

But the oft-trumpeted idea that religious belief and practice is psychologically damaging simply does not align with the data. In fact, secularization in America is nothing short of a public health crisis. For the millions struggling with depression, addiction, alcoholism, despair, or just the low, persistent hum of hopelessness, trying out church might literally save their lives.

For more on Tyler VanderWeele's research and on his own faith in Jesus, see here. For a weekly email featuring a different professor from a leading secular university, subscribe here.

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