Religion and Health
Depressive Symptoms and Mortality as Case Studies
Michael E. McCullough and Timothy B. Smith
Most scholars who study the links between religion and health – whether they specialize in sociology, psychology, gerontology, epidemiology, or some other field – rely heavily on sociological foundations. As Idler and Kasl (1997) succinctly explained, Durkheim's (1897/1951) sociological study of suicide and Weber's (1922/1993) sociology of religion have described three pathways by which religion might affect human health and wellbeing. First, Durkheim noted that religion tends to provide, in Idler and Kasl's (1997) words, a “regulative function” (p. S294). Many religions provide rules that are considered by adherents to be binding not only in religious, spiritual, and ethical matters, but in the most basic human concerns, including eating, drinking, and sexual intimacy. Indeed, it seems uncanny how discoveries in biomedical science concerning the major vectors for the greatest health problems of the modern world (e.g., cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, HIV/AIDS) have shown the great practicality of the prescriptions and proscriptions of many religions regarding alcohol, tobacco, food, and sex.
Idler and Kasl (1997)) additionally pointed out that Durkheim supposed that religion also can have an “integrative function” (p. S294), providing people with meaningful and tangible connections to other people, fostering the transfer of social capital. Not only can these social connections provide people with a subjective sense of belonging to a group and the perception that they are loved and cared for by other people, they also can put people who lack specific tangible resources (e.g., food, housing, clothing, safety, money, transportation, job prospects) into contact with people who are willing and able to help them acquire these tangible resources. A more indirect but no less tangible way that religion might serve an integrative function is by promoting the creation of new institutions (e.g., hospitals, clinics, hospices, shelters, after-school programs for children) or the rehabilitation of existing ones (e.g., safer and cleaner neighborhoods and housing options) so that the environments in which people live are less dangerous and more conducive to health and well-being. It is interesting to note that insofar as religion is successful in promoting such broad improvements to people's living and working environments, and insofar as these improvements are equally available to people of all religious persuasions, these improvements should actually minimize
Preparation of this chapter was generously supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to the first author and a grant from the Religious Research Association to the second author.