Studies: Religion kills, heals, and gets you pregnant

The ongoing debate over how religion influences medical patients continues with a slew of recent studies. First, the bad news. "Certain forms of religiousness may increase the risk of death," says a study published in Archives of Internal Medicine. "Elderly ill men and women who experience a religious struggle with their illness appear to be at increased risk of death, even after controlling for baseline health, mental health status, and demographic factors." Bowling Green State University Psychology professor Kenneth I. Pargament and others found that if sick people thought they were being abandoned or punished by God, that Satan caused their illness, or that they were being abandoned by their church, they were more likely to die. (Pargament had presented much of the findings at the American Psychological Association convention in August 2000.)

The Japan Times uses the study as an excuse to beat up on Christianity: "More than 95 percent of the patients were Christian, mainly Baptist or Methodist Protestants," writes Rowan Hooper. "In these versions of Christianity, teachings are liberally spiced with depictions of Satan and the fires of hell, to which sinners will be sent for eternal torture if they don't embrace the Lord. It's no wonder that those who question their faith suffer mental anguish with images like that. Of course, those horrific images are put there in the first place to keep the flock in line, to stop people questioning their faith and to attract nonbelievers."

(An abstract of the study is free, but the actual article will cost you $9.)

Now the good news: Pargament's study is only one of many. Dr. Mark Su, a second-year resident from Tufts University, presented an overview of 212 religion-and-health studies at the American Academy of Family Physicians yesterday. Only 7 percent of the studies reported religious commitment had a negative effect on patients' health. Three quarters of the studies, conducted over the past two decades, reported a positive influence. The remaining 17 percent found little or no effect. "I can't speculate whether health is promoted by the religion itself or the healthy behaviors that religious people are often encouraged to practice," Su told Reuters. He encourages doctors to talk about religion with their patients "in the same way as discussing their use of alcohol or tobacco."

One of the stranger recent studies on health and religion finds that prayer dramatically affects the success rate of in vitro pregnancies. Under the leadership of Rogerio Lobo, chairman of the obstetrics and gynecology department at Columbia University, 200 women undergoing in vitro fertilization in South Korea were unknowingly separated into two groups. One group was prayed for by American, Canadian, and Australian Christians from several denominations. The other group was not (as far as we know). The prayed-for group had a 50 percent pregnancy rate; the group not prayed for had only a 26 percent success rate

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"It is very unlikely that this is simply chance," Lobo says. "It is more likely that there was something that we were unable to control for in the two groups and so they were not completely randomized. We would like to understand the biological or other phenomena that led to this almost doubling of the pregnancy rate."

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