Magazine article The Spectator

Faith Healing

Magazine article The Spectator

Faith Healing

Article excerpt

I HAVE met several bishops in my time. The most charming and effulgent of them was the Rt Revd Hugh Montefiore, formerly Bishop of Birmingham. I sat beside him at a pre-debate dinner at the Oxford Union, where we enjoyed an effortless conversation about the pleasures of Jesmond, in Newcastle upon Tyne, where I had attended school and he had been the parish priest. During the debate, however, he stared almost uncomprehendingly at me across the despatch boxes as I expressed my view that the Church should stick to teaching people about the Word of God and such minor details as right and wrong, rather than getting involved in politics.

I admit that I had, mischievously, chosen to base the biblical content of my speech on passages which had been used to defend the divine right of kings, and that the bishop's speech was powerful in its defence of churchmen's proddings of the Thatcher government. But I remained steadfast in my belief that the teaching of morality was far more important for the Church's flock than the bearding of ministers on their employment policies.

It now seems that there may be some statistical backing for my belief, emanating from the country where I now live, America. Here, despite what you might think from the products of its most successful exporter, the entertainment industry, religion is alive, well and much stronger than in the UK Increasingly frequent claims have been made that religion is good for your health, enough to test the faith of the most devout secularist. But sorting out the causes from the correlations is devilishly difficult.

One story was certainly open to criticism. The Washington Times examined a survey of 21,000 adult Americans and concluded that 'those who never attend [church] exhibit 50 per cent higher risks of mortality than those who attend most frequently'. Unfortunately all that is presented here is a correlation.

People who work are healthier than those who don't, but that does not mean that work makes you healthier. It may be, for example, that those who work are healthier to begin with. The seemingly large difference of 50 per cent is not a figure that would cause most epidemiologists to bite; they normally require a difference of 200-300 per cent before concluding that they have evidence of cause and effect. If the researchers had found that increasing the dose increased the effect (the longer you go to church, the longer you'll live) or a biological pathway of some sort, then the correlation could be classified as causation. But they didn't.

An examination offered in the New Republic in July was more careful. It looked at surveys conducted by Duke University and one published in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH). These surveys attempted to control for exogenous factors, but still concluded that worshippers were healthier than non-worshippers. In fact, the AJPH study concluded that believers 'tended to start off in worse-than-average health and then gradually improve to superior outcomes.' The Duke studies found equally good results for most forms of Christianity and for Judaism (too few followers of Islam were surveyed to provide enough information about that faith) but some sects prove to have worse health than the general population. This tends to work against a general notion that a religious attitude by itself promotes good health. …

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