"There is no control group, Dorthy"
Shortly after Michael Shermer wrote
Why People Believe Weird Things
he was challenged to write a second edition with an addendum, Why Smart People Believe Weird Things.

It appears none us are immune, no, not even smart people with impressive credentials. None of us are immune to the insidious power of false claims that support our preconceived notions and direct our behaviors.

For example, Dorothy, if you're looking for studies that support your notion that "people of faith" are healthier and live longer than atheists, agnostics, Brights, secular humanists, free thinkers, and people who couldn't care less about religion for no reason they could name, you can find them, that's for sure. I must admit I've not read all of the studies. There are so many of them, and, well, I’m not a scientist.

However, even those of us who are not scientists can apply the principles of critical thinking at some level. Don’t you think so, Dorothy? The Land of Oz is okay for children, but we have to grow up and go back to Kansas some day, don’t you think?

First we need to figure out, what is the claim? In this case the claim is that religious people are healthier and enjoy longer lives than non-religious people.

Harold Koenig, M.D. of Duke University Medical Center who is a leading advocate promoting religion for health benefits, states that in the last fifteen years there have been more than 1,200 studies that have examined the link between religion and health. He maintains that the majority of these studies found that religious people are mentally and physically healthier.

Well there you have it. You got it from a trusted authority so it must be true.

Hmm. But let's take a closer look. The next thing to do is to determine who’s making the claim and what is their investment in the outcome. A mentor from my past used to repeat the mantra; "He who pays the piper calls the tune".

So, the first thing to ask is; who pays for these studies? And along with that, does the funder have an investment in a particular outcome? We all know what happens when drug companies fund the research that clearly supports the effectiveness and the safety of their drugs. That's about selling drugs for profit. But, come on, who’s selling religion? And, where is the profit?

It seems there are some very rich and powerful people who do want to sell religion to the American Public. A primary source of funding for the studies that link religion with good health is The Templeton Foundation. Its’ stated goal is to reintegrate faith into modern life by promoting clinical research into the relationship between spirituality and health and documenting the positive medical aspects of spiritual practice. (italics mine) Read;They promote and fund research that shows a positive link between religion and health. By the way, Dr. Koenig is on the faculty of Templeton's Board of Advisors.

Another source of funding is our government. Benedict Carey, New York Times, October 10, 2004 states, “Critics express outrage that the federal government, which has contributed $2.3 million in financing over the last four years for prayer research, would spend taxpayer money to study something they say has nothing to do with science.”

So, who stands to gain if Americans buy into the notion that religion is good for us? I guess that’s a loaded question. The answers are beyond the scope of this essay.

Next question, what do other respected experts have to say about studies supporting the notion that religion is good for us?

George Lundberg, M.D. former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, stated in the Washington Post, "In the past 15 years, not one of the articles submitted to the journal describing the direct effects of spirituality, prayer, or church attendance on staying well or getting well has survived the journal's peer review process".

And what about the studies themselves? Do they meet the muster of the scientific method? According to R. P. Sloan, (Sloan, R.P., Bagiella, E. and Powell, T. (1999) Religion, Spirituality, and Medicine. Lancet 353:664-667), "Studies in which the subjects were not chosen randomly violated a fundamental tenet of scientific analysis." Sloan, et.al. reported that many studies do not adequately control for additional variables that may affect the outcome, and that when this control is carried out the results become not significant. They concluded their analyses with a very sober warning: “Suggestions that religious activity will promote health, that illness is the result of insufficient faith, are unwarranted”. It appears the onus of guilt for being ill in the first place falls on the afflicted person.

So, what do you think? Does church attendance and praying make us healthier. Do these behaviors make us live longer? Should our doctors and our psychotherapists prescribe church attendance? Is religion good for us?

Sam Harris writes in "The Virus of Religious Moderation", "Moderates ask that we merely relax our standards of adherence to ancient superstitions and taboos. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don't like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us.” He goes on to state, “It is time we recognized that religious moderation is the product of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance.”

On a personal level, I don't think mainstream religion is harmful. It does fill a human need for community and support. Many good charitable works are sponsored by religious organizations.

And, what about prayer? A person of faith can certainly take comfort in prayer, and if praying helps to create a positive and hopeful attitude, that attitude can have a positive effect on health. That's what I think.

On the other hand, when prayer doesn't produce the desired effect, there might be a negative backlash, the temptation to blame oneself for one's illness. For example, "I guess my faith isn't strong enough, or I'm not good enough for God to cure me."

Religion does harm when children who need medical help, are denied that help because their parents subscribe to faith healing. Religion does harm when it discourages critical thinking by teaching people, especially kids to take what they're told on faith. Look at it this way. If we took it on faith that religion is positively linked to good health, our medical doctors would be taking classes in how best to prescribe church attendance for their patients. (Well, some are, but nevermind that's an issue for another time.)

Religious riots and "holy wars" have been with us since the beginning of recorded history, and they do not seem to go away in our enlightened century. People of faith are standing in line to blow themselves up with bombs on a daily basis. However, to my knowledge there are no atheist suicide bombers.

One last thought. Perhaps someone ought to do a study to measure the physical and mental health of people who have made a rational choice to discount religion, stay away from churches, raise their children in an atmosphere of truth telling, don't pray, and don't worship the image of the virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich. Now there’s a control group for you, Dorothy.

 —M. LaCourt

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Marilyn LaCourt

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