A Study Says Religious People Live Longer (But There’s a Lot of Fine Print)

A new study suggests that religious people live, on average, four years longer than atheists. But you’d be foolish to think that means you should stop thinking logically and “discover” God.

The study, published today in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, was done by Laura Wallace (a doctoral student in psychology) and Baldwin Way (associate professor of psychology) of The Ohio State University.

They conducted two experiments to reach this conclusion. In one, they went through all the obituaries published in the Des Moines Register in a two-month span in 2012. They found that people whose obituaries mentioned “affiliation with a religious organization” lived nearly a decade longer than those that did not. After accounting for gender and marital status, there was still a 6.48-year difference.

In another experiment, they used obituary data that was already available — a couple dozen write-ups from each of 42 different cities — and found that religious affiliation still correlated with an increased lifespan. This time, the people whose obituaries mentioned a religious affiliation lived about 5.64 years longer than those without it, and 3.82 years longer after other variables were controlled.

The headlines generated from this study are obvious. But they’re not telling the full story.

What is it about religion that contributes to increased longevity? The researchers pointed to a few things:

For example, many religions restrict behaviors related to health, such as drinking, doing drugs, and having sex with many partners… Further, many religions promote stress reducing practices that may improve health such as gratitude, prayer, or meditation… Religious belief may also provide people with a sense that the world is predictable, which should make them feel more in control of their outcomes and thus reduce anxiety associated with believing the world is unpredictable… Improving understanding of these other mechanisms is an important future research endeavor.

(Since we’re all thinking it, let’s say it together: If you can’t drink, do drugs, or have sex with multiple people, what’s the point of living?)

All of that makes sense. But notice that God has nothing to do with it. Religion may prevent you from making bad life decisions, but that’s not to say God exists. It’s just that fear of God can influence your decisions.

There’s also the social aspect of religion. When you’re part of a church community, you have a support network. You have people who will help you in the event of a death, or a job loss, or a sickness. It’s not that you need religion to find those things, but it’s not always easy to find them outside of religion.

Churches are like fraternities for adults; members are supposed to be there for each other even if the reason you’re all bonded creates a whole different set of problems.

What about people living in less religious cities, though? In a place like, say, Portland, Oregon, people have other outlets to meet like-minded people and find social support networks. They don’t need church for that. And wouldn’t you know it, the researchers found something very interesting in those situations:

in less religious cities, nonreligiously affiliated people lived just as long as the religiously affiliated.

Well, look at that. Where’s that headline?

I would also point out, as the researchers do, that obituaries aren’t necessarily a good way to suss out someone’s religious views. While membership in a church is something a lot of families might include in a loved one’s obituary, membership in other social clubs (including atheist groups) may not make the cut, which skews these results. Plus, your family may really want to bring up your religious affiliation even if you weren’t entirely devout.

We also don’t know from obituaries a lot of other characteristics that may play a role in when you die (like your race, or your mental health, or whether you smoked).

The point is: Making good, healthy life choices may lead to a longer life. Obviously. But that doesn’t mean you should start believing in God. It just means you should surround yourself with people you love, find meaningful activities, volunteer, make smart decisions, and be part of a strong community.

Churches can certainly provide that, but they’re hardly the only game in town.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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