[evol-psych] When Mixing Science with Faith is Bad for Both
- NEWS WATCH MEDIA CRITIC
When Mixing Science with Faith is Bad for Both
The front-page news in Thursday's Washington Times was positively miraculous:
"Health enthusiasts may be tempted to put away their running shoes and granola
and search for the family bible," wrote Larry Witham. Why? "A new study in
Demography magazine suggests that if you go to church, you may live up to 14
The study of 21,000 adult Americans was conducted by Robert Hummer of the
Population Research Center at the University of Texas and found that "those who
never attend [church] exhibit 50 percent higher risks of mortality over the
follow-up period than those who attend most frequently," and "those who attend
weekly or less than once a week display about a 20 percent higher risk of
mortality than those who attend more than once a week."
The presentation of these findings is problematic. Consider the following fact.
People who hold jobs are healthier than people who don't. Does this mean that
work makes you healthy? No, it doesn't if you have to be healthy in the first
place to hold down a job. The statistics only show a correlation between health
and work, but the underlying cause and context are totally different issues.
Something similar faces this new study. There appears to be a correlation
between attending church and having a healthier lifestyle, but what exactly is
First of all, the reader needs to know more about the control group: did the
people who avoided church lead similar lifestyles to the group that attended?
In other words, what lifestyle factors may be more common among the
non-churchgoers than the churchgoers? These could be anything from chronic ill
health, which would prevent attendance to begin with, to smoking and
alcoholism. (It's important to note that many religions place a premium on
maintaining a healthy lifestyle.)
And then there is the question of prayer versus church. Would a person who
devoutly prayed at home every day be less healthy than an identical person who
did the same in a church, or mosque or synagogue? If the answer is yes, then
the benefits of churchgoing may be entirely social, such as friendship and the
bonding with a community. If that is the case, then any club or group activity
that promotes spiritual well-being and relieves stress could be said to have
However, even if the study did account for all of these potentially hidden
factors, the results are noteworthy but not really that compelling. In fact,
the differences are so small that they could be statistical "noise." For
epidemiologists, those who study the incidence and distribution of diseases and
other health-related factors, the risk needs to be, at the very least, between
200 and 300 percent before there is a clear signal of cause and effect.
And so, contrary to The Washington Times' Larry Witham, the time is not yet
upon "health enthusiasts" to abandon running shoes and granola. Religion is,
after all, about worship, and not about keeping fit. To defend the first in
terms of the second may make for great marketing, but it also may lead to a
great deal of disappointment.