Saturday, April 21, 2007

Practical Advantages - Health and Well Being

One subject regarding the question of how belief effects daily living has received a fair amount of scientific scrutiny, health and well being. The LA Times has an article in the religion section of today's paper that discusses a newly published study. Here is an excerpt:

A nationwide study released earlier this month found that 85% of 1,144 physicians surveyed believe that religion and spirituality have a positive influence on a patient's health.

"They believe they will do better if God is on their side," said Robertson, chief heart surgeon at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica.

The study, published in Archives of Internal Medicine, found that only 1% of the respondents said religion can have a negative effect on health. Two percent said that religion had no effect, and 12% said positive and negative effects were equal.

The study, which touched on a variety of subjects, also asked whether doctors believed that God or another supernatural being "ever intervenes in patients' health." Fifty-four percent said yes. Twenty-eight percent said no, and 18% were undecided.
Once again, I don't propose that this proves there is a God, and the study appears to be pretty much type-of-god-neutral. And I wouldn't suggest to a non-believer: "Wanna be healthier and have more people show up when your in the hospital? Well, choose Jesus!" It is just one more thing. Maybe 1% of how the decision process might work, keeping believers in the fold. In most cases, it might not even be a conscious idea, merely an underlying understanding.

9 comments:

Tom Foss said...

Okay, here's the money quote:

A nationwide study released earlier this month found that 85% of 1,144 physicians surveyed believe that religion and spirituality have a positive influence on a patient's health.

What physicians "believe" has little to do with what is real. I'd be more interested in a study which examines people's religiosity and their overall health, not what physicians believe without any actual proof.

It's interesting to note that 85% is right in the ballpark of "people who subscribe to a Judeo-Christian belief system in America." It's entirely possible that the other 15% of physicians just don't subscribe to a supernatural belief and don't attribute any recovery to belief.

All this leaves aside the matter that there have been numerous studies of prayer, and none have shown it to be effective. If God's intervening in people's health, it's not at anyone's request and it's through purely natural mechanisms.

In either case, "what people believe" is not a good vector of "what is real," even in a fairly scientific field like medicine. And I know there have been studies as to the reality of this claim, which are not nearly so conclusive. Last I recall, religiosity has a positive effect on people's health, but the same effect is achieved through any association with a positive group or activity. The effects of religiosity on health are the same effects as dancing or playing tennis or doing other things which may be social and may be exhilarating, but are enjoyable to the people participating in them.

And of course there are quite a lot of religions and spiritualities that negatively influence a theist's health, whether it's Christian Science which eschews all medical treatment, or Jehovah's Witnesses who deny blood transfusions, or snake-handler Pentecostals or anti-psychiatry Scientologists or anti-abortion anti-contraceptive anti-stem cell research conservative Christians, all these doctrines have a negative effect on people's health.

So, when you weigh out the options, it's "hey, believe in God and it may have a positive effect on your health, provided you don't buy into any of our nasty backwards anti-science doctrines, you don't get involved with a sect who thinks diseases are caused by demonic possession, and you don't worry too much about the prospect of Hell or being ostracized! Or, you could stop believing and just get together with friends for racquetball on Sunday, maybe read some Shakespeare, and have the same effect without all the catches."

Randy Kirk said...

I don't give this study huge weight in the evidence column. It is just another piece of the pie. I would be inclined to give physicians very high reliability on their analysis skills, however, since that is their core area of competancy.

I agree that some religions can be detrimental to health, but I thought your examples for mainstream Christianity were political, not scientific.

Finally, I don't think being part of a supportive group is the largest thing at work. Lifestyle choices is probably #1. Peace about potential negative outcomes may be number two, but is at least real important. Then support.

I agree with you that testing prayer is never going to work. It is almost antithetical to the concept.

Bernardo said...

Unlike many atheists, I do think that Christianity - or any other kind of "caring universe" spirituality - does help people be happier, by helping them figure out what they can change about their problems and what they cannot, by allowing them to trust that it's all part of a plan. Of course, I think they are deluding themselves about these things, but I do see why it would make for a life that is less stressful, and also conceivably more disciplined, and thus healthier.

But yes, some actual statistics (not just "5 out of 6 doctors") would be nice.

Tom Foss said...

I would be inclined to give physicians very high reliability on their analysis skills, however, since that is their core area of competancy.

Individual physicians don't generally conduct wide studies of people's religiosity and correlate that with their overall health. What this poll measures is a physician's opinion about his patients. Depending on how the question was phrased, it might measure even less than that. It might be, as Robertson's quote suggests, a measurement of what physicians think their patients' opinions are. That's several steps removed from actual effects.

And, of course, I doubt most of these doctors are asking patients up front what their religious affiliation and level of commitment are, as that's irrelevant to their care. On what information are the physicians basing this opinion? How many patients wear crosses? How many pray?

A physician's core area of competency is not statistical survey, it's diagnosing and treating illness and injury.

Even if this is an argument for something, it isn't an argument for any specific religion. The question wasn't "do you think Christianity has a positive influence on a patient's health," but it was about "religion and spirituality." Now, spirituality's a fuzzy little word that can mean just about anything; I've seen folks claim that playing a piano or listening to good music or meditating on the beach can be a "spiritual" experience. It's ill-defined. And "religion" is a very broad term, which basically encompasses nearly every philosophy. If this can be used as an argument for religion, it can be used as easily to support belief in Jehovah or Thor or Baal or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, whatever makes you happy and gives you a positive outlook on life.

And it has been shown that optimism in general has an effect on patient health. Heck, that's a major part of the placebo effect: if you think a treatment's going to work, then you're going to feel better.

I agree that some religions can be detrimental to health, but I thought your examples for mainstream Christianity were political, not scientific.

Really? Because I look at STDs, unwanted pregnancies, pregnancy complications, and potentially curable diseases as medical issues, not political ones. When you have mainstream Christians actively spreading disinformation about sex and endangering the lives of both children and adults (and increasing the number of unwanted pregnancies, thus increasing the number of abortions), when you have mainstream Christians pushing legislation that would make abortion illegal even in cases where the mother's life is threatened, those are medical issues. They may be tied up in politics, but that's only because Christian moralists have decided to politicize them. If so many Christians weren't so worried about what other people do with their bodies and their lives and their genitals, there wouldn't be a political issue.

And that's ignoring the matter I forgot to bring up in my last post of a purely medical issue which is part of mainstream Christianity: circumcision. Christians (and Jews and other denominations) inflict an unnecessary surgical procedure on their infant sons, without permission or anesthetic, in huge numbers every year, because of an ancient superstition that God cares whether or not your penis wears a hood. There have been no substantially-demonstrated benefits to circumcision, while it is known to diminish penile sensation, ejaculatory control, and lubrication later in life. And there's a small-but-substantial risk of complications during the surgery, which would require major reconstruction and often in the past led to unintended and traumatic sex change operations. It's an unnecessary risk with no real benefit, unless you think that God's number one priority is your foreskin.

How's that for apolitical?

Finally, I don't think being part of a supportive group is the largest thing at work. Lifestyle choices is probably #1. Peace about potential negative outcomes may be number two, but is at least real important. Then support.

What lifestyle choices? Are you bringing up the old "Christians are more moral" canard? There was a neat study in the Journal of Religion and Society a few years back which discussed the relationship between religiosity and social health. They found that for industrialized nations, as the rate of religiosity rose, so did the rates of homicides, school shootings, juvenile mortality rates, STD rates, adolescent syphilis rates, and adolescent abortion rates. Secular Scandinavia has all but eliminated the two main curable STDs, and highly secular nations have very low rates of early teen pregnancy and abortion.

Seems that the numbers tend to conflict with that bit. There are other studies to point to on that front as well, such as the disproportionately high numbers of theists in prison, or the statistics of drug use and alcohol abuse in the country, which show that nontheists are no more likely to engage in such practices than theists.

I agree with you that testing prayer is never going to work. It is almost antithetical to the concept.

Prayer is just shy of antithetical to itself, so that's no surprise.

Bernardo: by allowing them to trust that it's all part of a plan.

See, I'm not sure how much consolation that is. Knowing that God took your loved one for a reason doesn't really make the pain go away. For some, it might be comforting, for others, theist or not, it only complicates things. Atheists aren't the only ones asking why God lets bad things happen to good people, and atheists aren't the only ones unsatisfied with the answer.

Randy Kirk said...

No time for long answers, Tom. Here's a few short ones.

Abortion. How can being pro life possibly be harmful to anyone. Are you referring to the irresponsibility of those who might get hurt doing back alley abortions? Please! Those stats were shown to be total lies 30 years ago. We can be certain however, that 100% of the babies who are aborted get harmed.

Contraception. How come we had the most teenage abortions in the 80's and early 90's when birth control was at its peak, and abstinance education was unheard of? Teen pregnancies have been declining since the early 90's with the dramatic increase in abstinance education.

Ditto STD's. Huge increase between 1966 when the 5 known STD's were almost irradicated until epidemic levels in the 80's of 26 different types.

Morality statistics. You seem to be someone who has a very wise approach to stats. Surely the differnces between the homogenious population in countries cited compared to the US would be important. Also, the tipping point concept has shown us that these cultural trends can be very "localized."

Curious to know information on the percentage of theist in prison. My reading and personal experience would seem to indicate that very few in the prisons are religious.

Tom Foss said...

I'm also in a bit of a time crunch, so I haven't provided the links here that I'd like.

Abortion. How can being pro life possibly be harmful to anyone. Are you referring to the irresponsibility of those who might get hurt doing back alley abortions? Please! Those stats were shown to be total lies 30 years ago. We can be certain however, that 100% of the babies who are aborted get harmed.

1. I've seen the pro-life pamphlets that claim that back-alley abortions were never a problem. They suffer from logical fallacies and inconsistent attention to the facts. Take a quick look at foreign countries where abortion is illegal, for instance, Turkey. You'll find not only very high rates of pregnancy-related deaths, but also very high rates of people crossing borders into countries where the procedure is legal in order to get it performed. Hell, I was just reading a story two days ago about a woman (in Mexico, I think) who came into a hospital with complications from a botched back-alley abortion. You're quite simply wrong on that account.

But I was thinking more about the mothers whose lives are endangered through pregnancy complications related to ectopic pregnancy, hemophilia, and any number of other fairly common complications. The mothers whose lives are threatened when you don't allow exceptions for the mother's health.

And that's to say nothing of children who are born anencephalic or with major complications, who will never live anything resembling a life, or the women and young girls who are raped, who pro-life nuts want to force to carry the products of violent, non-consensual sex to term.

The "babies" are harmed by abortion? Are they harmed by failure to implant (as with most fertilized eggs)? Are they harmed by miscarriage? Exactly how can you "harm" something that has neither heart nor brain nor central nervous system? Something like 95% of abortions are performed before there is a heart to beat and a brain to feel pain, the two organs we use to determine death in adults. How can you call such a thing a "human life"? How can you compare that to the life of a full-grown woman?

Contraception. How come we had the most teenage abortions in the 80's and early 90's when birth control was at its peak, and abstinance education was unheard of?

Give me the statistics that say birth control was "at its peak." Since the early '90s, there have been huge advances in birth control, including the development of the female condom, the standardization of spermicide, and the development of alternatives to the birth control pill like the NuvaRing, the patch, and the morning-after pill. Maybe use of the pill was at an all-time high, but that's not a vector for use among teenagers; most people who are on the pill are adults.

Furthermore, in the '90s, sex education which instructed in the use of contraceptives was what was unheard of. I should know, that's when I had sex ed.

Teen pregnancies have been declining since the early 90's with the dramatic increase in abstinance education.

And yet every study of abstinence-based and abstinence-only programs shows that they are no more effective at preventing teens from having sex than comprehensive sex education. The same ratio of teenagers in comprehensive programs engage in sex as teenagers in abstinence-only programs. The difference, as has been shown in every study, is that students in abstinence-based or abstinence-only education courses are far more likely to engage in irresponsible sex, without thought to contraceptives, pregnancy, or STDs.

Abstinence programs have been increasing, but so have comprehensive programs. And the comprehensive programs have been getting substantially better. You're only paying attention to one set of data.

It's one thing to tell students that abstinence is the only sure option, but to give them all the information necessary to be safe if they don't choose that option. It's quite another to say that abstinence is the only option, which is not only false, but endangers the lives and health of the people who hear it. You're setting those students up to fail, and then you're going to punish them when they do.

People who are more informed about the facts make better decisions. It's as true in sex education as in everything else. And people who are informed about how to properly use contraception are going to have far fewer unwanted pregnancies than people who aren't. You have to make the choice: do you want to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancy, thus reducing the number of abortions, or do you want to control people's sex lives? You don't get to have it both ways.

Ditto STD's. Huge increase between 1966 when the 5 known STD's were almost irradicated until epidemic levels in the 80's of 26 different types.

Have you been reading David Barton? The reason there was such a huge increase in STDs is because that's the time when Herpes and HPV were classified as STDs. There was a huge jump because there was a new classification of STDs, not because more people were having sex.

And you know what else was uncommon in the '60s? Education about contraceptives.

Morality statistics. You seem to be someone who has a very wise approach to stats. Surely the differnces between the homogenious population in countries cited compared to the US would be important.

Are you saying that diversity breeds violence? I think you'd have to back that up with some statistics; I see no evidence that European nations are necessarily more homogeneous than ours. Hell, France is significantly lower on the homicide chart, despite having a huge, active, conflicted Muslim population.

And what would homogeneity have to do with infant mortality rate? With teenage STD rates? Why are Sweden and Holland, countries with the most sexually open societies and the most comprehensive sex education programs, so low on the STD charts? How does homogeneity fit into that?

Also, the tipping point concept has shown us that these cultural trends can be very "localized."

Please elaborate. I'm seeing charts that are whole-country statistics, averaged per 100,000 people. Not sure how "localized" that could be.

Curious to know information on the percentage of theist in prison. My reading and personal experience would seem to indicate that very few in the prisons are religious.

I guess you've never seen the Nation of Islam. The Aryan Brotherhood tends toward religiosity as well. I've found the article which shows that atheists make up less than 1% of the overall prison population, which is significantly less than in the general population. It breaks things down by religion, as I recall, but it's not loading up. I'll see if I can get the link later. Or you could search yourself.

After all, I shouldn't have to tell you that anecdotal evidence doesn't count for much.

Tom Foss said...

Here are the 1997 figures on inmate religion, from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, from a report by Rod Swift, obtained from the BoP's research analyst.
---
The Federal Bureau of Prisons does have statistics on religious affiliations of inmates. The following are total number of inmates per religion category:
Response Number % ----------------------------
Catholic 29267 39.164%
Protestant 26162 35.008%
Muslim 5435 7.273%
American Indian 2408 3.222%
Nation 1734 2.320%
Rasta 1485 1.987%
Jewish 1325 1.773%
Church of Christ 1303 1.744%
Pentecostal 1093 1.463%
Moorish 1066 1.426%
Buddhist 882 1.180%
Jehovah Witness 665 0.890%
Adventist 621 0.831%
Orthodox 375 0.502%
Mormon 298 0.399%
Scientology 190 0.254%
Atheist 156 0.209%
Hindu 119 0.159%
Santeria 117 0.157%
Sikh 14 0.019%
Bahai 9 0.012%
Krishna 7 0.009%

Total Known Responses 74731 100.001% (rounding to 3 digits does this)

----

That's almost 84% Judeo-Christian and .21% Atheist. Atheists make up about 8-10% of the general national population.

Tom Foss said...

Forgot to mention; I wrote an e-mail to the BOP requesting more up-to-date figures. I'll let you know when they get back to me.

Randy Kirk said...

1. Back alley abortions. Do the research. The number of women being hurt or dying from back alley abortions was on the order of 100's per year nationally.

2. Almost all Christians make exceptions for risk of death to the mother.

3. Yes, there are risks to pregnancy. There are also risks to crossing the street.

4. If you are ok with killing babies who may have a difficult life, where do you stop? Are you ok with killing folks who are born who have those same issues. In other words, if a mom chooses to go full term with such a child, should we kill it after birth?

5. So, since you claim no harm to babies of a certain age, I assume you would be ok with drastically limiting abortions once the baby meets a certain developmental stage?

Sex education in the 90's generally did include lots of info on contraception. I'm not sure where you went to school, but it was the reaction to this that resulted in the abstinence only revolt in the early 90's (I should know, I wrote the book.)

Regarding Diversity: We have distinct population groups who have sex outside of marriage more often and more casually than other groups. These groups end up having much higher rates of both abortions and children out of wedlock. The two groups with the highest percentages of STD's, abortions, and out of wedlock births are Blacks and Mexicans. Neither of these groups are present in large numbers in Europe, last I checked.

Regarding STD's. You are just flat wrong on the number of types and incidence of STD's. A quick trip to the CDC will help you on that. Besides, it just makes sense. Promiscuous sex leads to STD's. Are you claiming that there is not more promiscuous sex now than in the 50's?

Tipping point. Yes, I'm saying a local population, a sub-culture (hippies), or an entire nation could hit a tipping point regarding a social taboo.

Prisons. That is really interesting, and once again I learn from you. I wonder if there is anything regarding "practicing" as opposed to self-identifying?