Health Benefits of Christian Faith

By Alex Bunn and David Randall

Religion is for ‘the hesitant, the guilt-ridden, the excessively timid, those lacking clear convictions with which to face life’,1 said a standard British textbook of psychiatry until 1969. The implication is clear: faith selects the weak and is probably bad for your health. Sigmund Freud went so far as to call it a neurosis.2 Some have argued that religious faith has no role in modern medical care and that doctors should be forbidden from discussing spiritual issues with their patients.

Conversely, some claim that religion promises miraculous healing and long life, a prosperity gospel of ‘health and wealth’. Indeed,
modern ‘healing crusades’ or shrines such as that at Lourdes offer healing from physical disease as a key benefit of Christian faith.

This File examines the published evidence on faith and health outcomes, considers which potential mechanisms might underlie any association, and considers what the implications of the positive health benefits of faith are for Christian believers.

Is there a link between faith and health?

Evidence from over 1.200 studies and 400 reviews has shown an association between faith and a number of positive health benefits,
including protection from illness, coping with illness, and faster recovery from it. Of the studies reviewed in the definitive analysis,3 81% showed benefit and only 4% harm.

The raw data from some large studies show a significant benefit in mortality for those involved in organised religion. For instance,
one study followed 21.204 representative American adults over nine years, and correlated death rates with religious activity and a large range of other data. Income and education had surprisingly little impact, but those who attended church regularly had a life expectancy seven years longer than those who did not. For black people the benefit was 14 years. The researchers attributed the benefit to more protective relationships, including marriage, and to healthier behaviors.4 Only recently has faith been taken seriously as a factor in health, and further research is needed to clarify its significance and relation to other factors.5

Benefit for mental health

In the popular imagination, religion commonly underlies florid mental illness such as psychosis. In reality though, religiosity has been shown to protect against psychosis, and patients who used religion to cope had better insight and were more compliant with medication.6

‘In the majority of studies religious involvement is correlated with well-being, happiness and life satisfaction; hope and optimism;
purpose and meaning in life; higher self-esteem; better adaptation to bereavement; greater social support and less loneliness; lower rates of depression and faster recovery from depression; lower rates of suicide and fewer positive attitudes towards suicide; less anxiety; less psychosis and fewer psychotic tendencies; lower rates of alcohol and drug abuse; less delinquency and criminal activity;
greater marital stability and satisfaction.’7

This is the conclusion of the largest literature review, and is endorsed by a former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. He laments the lack of attention given to the strong evidence: ‘for anything other than religion and spirituality, governments and health providers would be doing their utmost to promote it’.8

Benefit in coping with severe or terminal disease

Palliative care takes spiritually very seriously, and has expanded the concept of pain to include ‘total pain’ in the terminally ill: physical pain, mental anguish, social alienation and spiritual distress.9 Spiritual wellbeing has been shown to reduce hopelessness and suicidal ideation at the end of life,10 whereas spiritual distress (for instance, fear of death or lack of purpose in life) is linked to sleeplessnees, anxiety and despair.11

Are there negative effects?

In four out of 86 studies mental health was worse among the religious, typically where there was harsh, judgmental and authoritarian leadership.12 But compared to the wealth of evidence above, proven harm has been reported rarely, generally in isolated case reports and studies of atypical religious communities. For instance, there have been outbreaks of rubella among the Amish who refused vaccination, and the refusal of Jehovah’s Witnesses to receive blood transfusions is well documented. The very unorthodox Christian Scientist may seek medical help late, due to their belief that sickness is illusory, and this can endanger life.13

Why is it difficult to study the link between religion and health?

Two main problems appear when trying to interpret these studies: the problem of definitions and the question of causality.

1. The problem of definitions

In order to measure how religious faith affects health, we need to define and quantify both faith and health. ‘Health’ is easier –
we can measure things like life expectancy, or the prevalence of different disease. Defining ‘faith’ is much harder – what exactly should be measured?

One option would be to look at self-defined religious affiliation: what religious category would you put yourself into? Unfortunately, this can be very undiscriminating. About 70% of British people describe themselves as Christian, but only a minority have an active faith. Most research has been done comparing active Christians with their neighbours in Western countries.

the evidence suggests greatest benefit for those who are genuinely devoted to God… whose faith alters their thinking, behaviour and relationships

A second option would be to look at the content and character of the faith. After all, religions make contradictory truth claims,
and religious people are very diverse. Overall, the evidence suggests greatest benefit for those who are genuinely devoted to God, who are ‘intrinsically religious’, whose faith alters their thinking, behaviour and relationships (see below). In contrast, the ‘extrinsically religious’ are motivated by personal gains such as social status and respectability. However, qualitative data is time consuming and expensive to collect.

A third option is to ask what religious people do as a result of their faith that can be measured objectively; for example, using church attendance as a proxy for religious belief. Although easy to measure, it is extremely crude. Imagine trying to score the quality of a romantic relationship by measuring how often one partner buys the other chocolates or flowers, when what matters in a relationship is not the externals but the internal quality, which is hard to measure. It’s an example of the limitations of quantitative science,
where ‘if you can’t score it, ignore it!’

2. The problem of proving causality

We have already seen that a number of studies show that religious belief is associated with better health. However, does religious faith cause better health, or is the relationship brought about by other factors? Take this absurd example: over 90% of deaths occur in bed. Does this mean that going to bed causes death? Of course not – in this case, another factor, such as a severe illness, causes the patients both to be bedridden and subsequently to die. Some of the association between faith and health may be related to other underlying risk factors, so called ‘confounding variables’, such as social class. Solutions to the problem of causality include carrying out observational trials prospectively to prevent false retrospective judgments being applied to data, and by adjusting for known risk factors. But even after these correctives, the benefit of faith remains.

Read more: Health Benefits of Christian Faith (part 2)


  1. Meyer-Gross W, Slater E, Roth M. Clinical Psychiatry. Bailliere, Tindall & Cassell 1954-1969
  2. Freud S. The Future of an Illusion, 1927
  3. Koenig HG, McCullough ME, Larson DB. Handbook of Religion and Health. Oxford University Press, 2001.
  4. Hummer RA et al. Religious involvement and U.S. adult mortality. Demography. 1999 May; 36(2): 273-85
  5. Bagiella E et al. Religious attendance as a predictor of survival in the EPESE cohorts. Int J Epidemiol. 2005 Apr; 34(2): 443-51
  6. Kirov G et al. Religious faith after psychotic illness. Psychopathology 1998; 31: 234-245
  7. Koenig HG et al. Op cit p228
  8. Sims A. Is Faith Delusion? Why religion is good for your health. Continuum, 2009
  9. World Health Organization. WHO definition of palliative care.
  10. McClain C et al. Effect of spiritual well-being on end-of-life despair in terminally-ill cancer patients. Lancet 2003 May 10: 361(9369):1603-7
  11. Grant E et al. Spiritual issues and needs: perspective from patients with advanced cancer and nonmalignant disease. A qualitative study. Palliat Support Care. 2004 Dec; 2(4): 371-8
  12. Sims A. Op Cit Chapter 5
  13. Centers for Disease Control 1991. Comparative mortality of two college groups. CDC Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report 40, 579-582

Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) Files No. 44, 2011