Religious Commitment is Good for the Body and the Soul
  Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

 An ambulance tears through the traffic to reach the nearby hospital.  Due to a mishap, an electrician while working at the top of an electric pole was shocked.  As the 12000-watt electric current jolted his body, he was thrown off unconscious on the ground like a branch plucked off the tree by a tornado.  He woke up in the hospital only to find that he was totally paralyzed with no sensation or movement in any part of his body.  As he learned details of the accident, he could not believe that he was still alive.  Tears welled up in his eyes, not of sorrow, but of gratitude to the Almighty.  

The more he thought about it, the more he came to believe that God loved him and had a special purpose to save him.  The awe and wonder of it all overwhelmed him.  Wave after wave of joy, gratitude, and devotion began to surge inside him.  He constantly thought and talked about the miracle that saved him, and prayed repeatedly.  During one such moment, he felt a faint sensation in his thigh.  This sensation began to grow and spread to other areas of his body.  You see, he was truly "sensationalized" by the miracle.  Perhaps, those "waves" of joy and gratitude that rose in the depth of his heart somehow found a way to reach his body.  The gist of the story is that the man eventually recovered the total use of his limbs.  

We all have heard similarly miraculous stories, but stories don't satisfy science.   Science requires studies or experiments to be considered as evidence.  Fortunately, now there is some evidence available based on scientific studies.  Matthews and others reviewed sixty-eight studies regarding religious commitment and health and found that sixty studies (roughly 88%) showed that religion had a positive influence on overall health and recovery. 

The positive effects consisted of a healthier life-style, better coping abilities and better emotional adjustment.  People with stronger religious beliefs drank and smoked less, needed less medication when sick, and suffered less from depression, anxiety, and other emotional afflictions.  They were also less hostile to others.  Furthermore, in the throes of a serious illness, they suffered less death anxiety.  These findings confirm the general impression that religion, in general, promotes healthier life-style and behaviors.         

In yet another study, Dr. Pressman of Northwestern University Medical School observed thirty elderly women who had a surgical correction of their broken hips.  Pressman wanted to see if there was a connection between a person's religious commitment and their post-operation recovery.  He found that the elderly women who had strong religious beliefs were able to walk significantly farther and suffered less depression.  
 When compared with people without a religious conviction or commitment, members of various religions and races, young and old, regardless of the disease or the medical condition, showed better health outcomes.  Their overall health was better.  Their blood pressure was less elevated.  When they had a severe disorder such as cancer or heart disease, they managed to enjoy a superior quality of life.  Also, there were fewer deaths in the high religious-commitment groups.  

So far we have discussed religious practitioners.  What about the religious leaders?  Do they also show a similar health advantage point?  Yes.  Clergy members of all faiths were mentally and physically healthier than average Americans.  However, we don't know if their health was better than that of their parishoners.   

Religious people when compared with non-religious people consistently reported greater life satisfaction, marital satisfaction, personal well being, altruism, and self-esteem.  Some social scientists believe that happiness and personal satisfaction, which partly may be generated by faith, has a positive effect on health.  

In twenty-two out of twenty-seven studies, attendance at religious services was associated with better health.  Is that a voodoo science?  No.  Look at what happens when we attend a religious service.  We participate in prayers, contemplation, and education.  Religious attendance provides us with distraction from every day life and its problems, and an opportunity for socialization and fellowship.  There are a number of psychological studies that show that every one of these elements individually has a positive effect on our emotional and physical health. 
 In summary, adherence to religious beliefs and practices is positively associated with healthier lifestyles, better emotional and mental health, longevity, more effective coping and better adjustment when faced with a challenging illness.  The conclusion that we can draw from these studies is a fascinating one:  "What is good for the soul, is good for the mind, is good for the body."   

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