Independent Student Newspaper for the University of Texas at San Antonio

The Paisano

Independent Student Newspaper for the University of Texas at San Antonio

The Paisano

Independent Student Newspaper for the University of Texas at San Antonio

The Paisano

How healthy is religion?


The persistent message to live a healthy lifestyle is inescapable. The health-craze market is saturated with dietary options that guarantee promising results.

However, attempts to obtain a healthier regimen often result in failure and continued poor health. So why not try a new approach — religion.

UTSA Sociology Professor Christopher Ellison has studied the correlation between religion and health. He says recent studies suggest that continued religious practice may contribute to good health. In particular, religious attendance appears to be a dominant factor associated with lower mortality risks and better health conditions.

When addressing any causal link between religious attendance and health, Ellison cautions that research must “factor associations that may confound the association between religion and health, and religion and mortality…that is, things that might be seen as driving or causing the association.”

Ellison notes that individuals with high religious attendance tend to have more friends and are less likely to be social isolates. The question is whether these factors or others such as pre-existing health conditions, gender, race or regular exercise, are causing better health conditions rather than religious attendance itself.

Regardless, some results have shown delayed onset of cognitive decline among elderly patients, and, in some isolated cases, lowered rates of various cancers.

Ellison supports the findings but remains objective, asking, “Is it really attendance or is it people who attend more often have other things going on (such as) a closer relation to God; maybe they have a more active prayer life. Religious people on average are more likely to embrace forgiveness… so positive orientations may be partly responsible for (attendance and health).” Indeed, core religious components may contribute to better health, but do different ideological practices have better health outcomes than others?

One member of the UTSA Applied Spiritual Technology, who goes by Advaita, emphasizes the group’s foundation of a vegan and vegetarian diet. Their organization often sells vegan food next to the Sombrilla. The dietary standards the club practices do contribute to health and Advaita recognizes that “religion is there, but not without understanding this principle of kindness and compassion.”

Abstaining from certain foods can contribute to improved health, but eating healthful foods does not guarantee better health benefits. Mohammed Ahmad, president of the Muslim Student Association (MSA), explained that “One of the principles of Islam is moderation, everything in moderation, (and) if you’re stressing yourself through your religion, you’re practicing it wrongly. (Religion) is something you incorporate as a part of your way of life, not take you away from happiness.”

These practices are intended to promote humility when approaching food or any aspect of daily living. These practices in turn encourage the omission of alcohol, pork or any intoxicant that might harm the body physically and mentally.

Strict adherence to a religion can sometimes create internal conflict and anxiety. Therefore, religion does not necessarily guarantee a healthier outcome but social factors may play a role.

Charles Duncan, president of the Secular Student Alliance, acknowledged that even without religion “having a good social network, having plenty of friends, having a good relationship with family (and) being in a good place where you are viewed in a positive light is a major component to living a good life, which would correlate with a more positive health outcome.”

This idea of a social support system benefiting health is common among all religions, which may relate to religious attendance.

Ellison said, “How much of it is attendance, how much of it is involvement, is it other things about religious and spiritual life? Those are things we are still trying to untangle,” when analyzing the correlation between religion and health.

“What’s interesting is that there isn’t much evidence that the association between religion and mortality risks varies a lot across religious tradition,” says Ellison. “(There is not) much of a difference between Presbyterian and Baptists or Catholics and Protestants.”

So what specific religious component contributes to overall health? Attendance seems to a dominant factor in the research, but diet, social ties and overall religious demeanor may be linked to attendance itself.

As MSA member Ahmed mentioned, “Treat yourself better so you can treat other people better” — a common underlying message that resonates throughout mainstream religions.

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