Dr. David R. Williams, Professor of Public Health and Sociology at Harvard, used this anecdote/data point to demonstrate exactly how religious the American public actually is.

Data in the 2007 Gallup polls further supports this point: 93% of Americans believe in God, or a higher power. 61% say they are members of a church or synagogue and 82% said their faith was very or fairly important to them.

With an American public that’s this religious, it’s important to know how religion affects our social welfare. Here in Washington, policy folks spend a lot of time thinking about demographic characteristics like socio-economic status and gender and we care how those shape individual character and communities. We assume that we should understand how these factors relate to social welfare outcomes and that a better understanding will improve our public policy and quality of life.

But not as much time and attention has gone to considering religion as a factor influencing social welfare.

And that’s why our recent conference about religious practice and health was so groundbreaking. The Heritage Foundation partnered with Child Trends and the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion for a day-long event featuring research from over a dozen of the nation’s top researchers on religion and health.

Dr. Harold Koenig of Duke University’s Center for the Study of Religion, Spirituality and Health kicked off the conference by summarizing findings from a growing body of research on religion and health. As many as 3,000 quantitative studies have now examined relationships between religion/spirituality and health (mental and physical), the majority reporting positive findings.

What do they find?

  • Religious involvement predicts lower rates of alcohol and drug use, particularly in high school students, college students, and young adults.
  • Religious activity predicts slower progression of cognitive impairment with aging.
  • Religious involvement is associated with lower rates of medical service use, including both acute hospitalization and long-term care.

Why does this matter for public policy? “There are numerous direct public health and clinical applications for [this research] that have nothing to do with prescribing religion…or over-stepping the bounds of church-state separation that the 1st Amendment guarantees,” Dr. Koenig suggested. His presentation outlined a few of the implications for improving public health, promoting community resiliency, and lightening the ever-increasing economic burden of providing health care and protecting our population. Other interesting paper topics included:

  • Neal Krause, University of Michigan, on gratitude as a buffer against stress from financial difficulties
  • Gail Ironson, University of Miami, on religious practices, beliefs, and health among people with HIV

The conference Webcast can be viewed and papers can be downloaded for free.